Sunday, 29 December 2013


So here is my contribution to #Nuture1314 where teacher bloggers give their 13 highlights of 2013 and 14 hopes for 2014:

13 from 2013 (in no particular order):

TeachMeets - I have presented at TMLondon, TMEssex, TMEast, TeachTweet and TeachMeetRE over the last year. Attending these events has put me in touch with some wonderful people who have been an ongoing source of inspiration and friendship. I also hope I was able to give something back... See some of my presentations <here>. - Putting together a permanent home and base for my ever growing collection of online activities - including those of my students. My TalkingDonkeyRE blog has had nearly 100,000 visits in the last two years and I have since started blogging as a teacher too. I've also got my students blogging and using wikis... It's been a big digital year!

Edmodo - This website has revolutionised my teaching and marking, as well as my students learning. My GCSE and AS/A2 students are now fully engaging and submitting work rather than it just being a glorified Dropbox as it was last year.

Culham St Gabriel's RE Leaders Weekend - I got to meet lots of people I've spoken to online and have since got involved in lots of other things. It's an amazing weekend where passionate RE teachers give up a weekend to share, listen, learn and network. 

Being Invited to the DfE - I got an email inviting me to a small workshop looking at EBT (Evidence Based Teaching) as a result of the fact I had completed MA-level research. This actually excited me rather than frustrated me, however I await to see 'what happens next'. I got to chat to David Laws MP, rather than being letting loose on Gove! Read the link at the start of this post to find a brief summary.

Family Learning Project (Part 2)- I single handedly ran this new project in my school, inspired by Tom's project at KEGS. It was an amazing amount of hard work but the results were fantastic. Everyone (staff, students, older students) were so positive about it and it's outcomes. Hopefully next year a few colleagues will help me out...

CCRS - I completed my Catholic Certificate in Religious Studies. This was a qualification that I knew that I needed, and it was a case of jumping through a few hoops. I knew my stuff (I do have an MA in Catholic School Leadership, a theology degree and 8 years of Catholic RE teaching... ), but needed 5 essays to prove it. Job done.

#RCDropBox - After a few frustrating conversations with the CES (Catholic Education Service), I launched this. It's had a bit of interest so far and I hope it will continue to grow over the next year.

Survivng OFSTED - I got Outstanding for my Citzenship/PHSE lesson, but 'only' Good for my RE lesson... Thankfully our school got graded Outstanding for the 3rd time running.

A-Level - Completing my first cohort of A-Level teaching with some excellent results; none more so than 4 of the 13 going on to study Philosophy at degree level. Hopefully they'll forgive me.

Colleagues - Just generally! But particularly those who have got on board with my ideas, read my blog, followed me on Twitter and listened to what I have to say. That 'close to home' audience is sometimes the hardest to win over.

Work-Life Balance - I managed to undertake the role of captain for my hockey team, our club's youth development team. This requires a good few hours work during the week as well as giving up most of my Saturday. I also managed to visit friends and family and rarely said 'no' due to work, at weekends. Those weekday nights will never be free!

Getting engaged and planning a wedding - Say no more!

14 for 2014 (in no particular order):

Getting married in February half term! - The social event of the year in my school, given it's the first staff wedding; the girls are very excited too. We need to maintain our ability to 'switch off' from school life and ensure we actually stop working some evenings. However, equally, it's fantastic to have someone who fully 'get's it' after a tough day (although OFSTED wasn't fun!). Thankfully we share a love of travelling which makes every holiday something to look forward to; a big plus for marrying a fellow teacher. I can't wait for the big day!

TMHavering - Being organised by @aknill and I, with the help of @ICTMagic - please please please come!

TMEssexRE - Being organised by a group of RE teachers based in Havering including me - if you are an RE teacher please please please come to this too!

NPQML - I am undertaking this qualification 'in a Catholic context' and have already begun my project which will be based on Independent Learning. We're one of the first cohorts and I've struggled with The National College, but it will be passed.

Section 5 Inspection - This will arrive early in 2014 and with my school being rated by OFSTED as Outstanding, I hope that our RE department will be able to match. I am fairly confident that we will be okay, but not through complacency, more through our long-standing hard work in the department and wider school.

Career Progression - Or promotion, to recognise what I do inside and out of classroom. I'm in my third year as Assistant Subject Leader, which has been great, and I've learnt so much from my inspirational Subject Leader. I hope it doesn't involve moving schools, but I must be open to the reality that it might. I always remember my former colleague saying to me: "Have the faith of a child, what will be will be."

EBT - Since my visit to the DfE, I've become more interested and committed to 'Evidence Based Teaching'. This involves questioning, experimenting, documenting and exploring new ideas. We can't say 'yes' to everything, but nor can we say 'no' - how do we select? I'm trying to get staff to do some small scale research based on the Marginal Gains philosophy. Even blogging about it raises, and potentially answers, questions.

Writing - To reflect, to inspire, to cope! Since starting to blog, I've found a real release, a channel to express myself. Until I blogged about my frustrating OFSTED experience, I didn't feel it was over. Now I hope the quality, and possibly quantity, of my writing will improve so I contribute further to educational discussion. The first book is a way off yet...

Reading - I have a pile of books I want to read, teaching and non-teaching. It's growing, not depleting. Trouble is, I struggle to read in the evening due to a minor eye condition. I need to make better use of my time at weekends and holidays to make some progress on this stack. There is so much I could be reading to help me be a better teacher, as well keeping up my John Steinbeck and Bruce Springsteen obsessions.

Networking - If I can maintain the online and real life relationships made in 2013, plus continue to make new ones, my PLN will become even more effective. The very best CPD comes from colleagues sharing what they do and what they think, it's free, it's high quality and it's plentiful. Thank you!

Get Fitter - Unfortunately running and gym time during the week often get sacrificed. I have PT sessions and I want to further build on this to get fitter... and maybe even slimmer! A healthy body helps maintain an active brain and sustain the physically demanding work of teaching.

Home - Since buying a house, I've realised I've got lots of new things to learn: DIY and gardening to name two. These are whole new skills sets which I need to work out how best to teach myself. I don't want to be rubbish at either, but don't always know where to start.

Big 3-0 - In March, I leave my twenties behind for good. This has always filled me with fear, but I'm trying to find ways that will put my new found maturity and wisdom to use. Or maybe it won't feel too different from 29!?

Keep Smiling - I have the best job in the world... Tom's recent blog post summed it up well <here>.

Drawn for me by a homeless guest at Crisis who actually had a broken arm! My inspiration for this year.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

A Visit From OFSTED

This is a personal experience of a recent OFSTED visit; these are my personal reflections on what I experienced. They are not the schools' view, I'm simply 2nd in the RE department, not SLT or anyone who had more than 'front line teacher' experience of the inspection.

The call came on Wednesday afternoon and an 'emergency' staff meeting was called. Usual stuff, OFSTED will be in at 8.30am tomorrow, assembly to inform students at 3.20pm. I'll be honest, I think this timescale is probably the best. Enough to print off data sheets, polish the lesson and wear your best tie. I can't understand staff who need to not sleep in such situations... it begs the question, what were you originally planning to do that was SO bad? Any longer and they won't see the school 'at normal'. Turning up unannounced, 'dawn raid' style risks a lot of time wasting as SLT try to find documents and data, classes doing tests, controlled assessments et cetera.

I teach in a Catholic school, and so the Section 5 triggers a Diocese-lead Section 48. As such, everyone kept saying, "I don't know what you are worrying about, they won't see you.". There is a legendary story from  many years ago of an RE teacher not allowing an inspector in to her room on the grounds that she was teaching RE. I kept trying to reassure them that of course they could, and that I had exactly the same mentality as them - to be Outstanding in everything I was doing.

I did have one major problem. In the RE Department, we dedicate one lesson with each class to making a shoebox for Samaritan's Purse (see more <here>). It is our 'faith in action'; what's the point in being a Catholic school unless we 'walk the walk' too? The very last class in the school to do this were on the Thursday afternoon, in my lesson. The boxes were being collected on the Friday morning... I had a few choices with this Y9 class, who can be a challenge at times with low-level disruption, chat and focus:
  • Abandon the shoe box lesson, tell the students we had no choice as OFSTED were in, risk my relationship with them (as the inspectors would no doubt not visit and the students would not fully understand why it was cancelled) plus allow Samaritan's Purse, and ultimately children in developing countries, miss out on a further 32 boxes.
  • Do the shoebox lesson, risk the wrath of SLT, plus be ready to get a '4' from an inspector.
I spoke to my line manager and said I still wanted to do it; it was a decision of conscience, and she supported me. We agreed that we can't say our school is Outstanding partly due to our charity work and spirit of community, and then drop such an important part of our charitable giving for Wilshaw's buddies coming in. Having also visited Ethiopia a few years back, I know the real difference things like the Shoebox Appeal make to each individual child. Yes we had 500 boxes, but to discard a further 30 seemed wrong, that would be 30 children missing out.

In the assembly to students, I told my Y9s that the shoebox lesson would still go ahead. I got a few raised eyebrows from staff, and was told that I was either brave or foolish. I told the head, who was naturally a little worried, that I was happy for it to be totally on my head and that I would form a lesson on discipleship around it.

By the next day it had got on the list of things going on around school that were 'off timetable' alongside a Prize Giving rehearsal for a large number of students involving the SLT over two lessons. This gave me a little breathing space, and I appreciated that the head had allowed me to go ahead; I know there would be lots who would have not done so. Our head also decided to go ahead with Friday's non-uniform for CAFOD's Philippines emergency appeal, with staff actively encroached to join in.

There was the usual OFSTED 'buzz' around school... "Have you been seen?", "What did you get?", "How did it go?". Staff rallied around the chocolates provided by SLT in the staffroom and people were genuinely supportive and encouraging to one another.

I got my first visit during CP (Citizenship and PHSE). I have a Year 13 form who have spent every previous CP lesson this year completing UCAS forms and writing personal statements. We were doing a lesson on the changing jobs market and started with the Shift Happens video before starting some really good discussion. A number of the students were in the Prize Giving rehearsal so we had an optimum number of students for our small room and for some quality discussion.

I did get a little shock as the inspector was one of my former teachers, but she didn't recognise me! It did take me aback somewhat, but we had some good discussion and I pinged questions around the room using the PPPB technique. The inspector laughed at my jokes and the girls were amazing. The feedback I got was as positive as could be possible, highlighting my relationship with the students and the skilled questioning I demonstrated. It was also great to catch up with my old teacher who said she recognised me but couldn't place me!

I was told an inspector would be visiting my Shoebox lesson and so unlike the usual chaos that ensues with glue, wrapping paper, scissors flying about, it was done with military precision. I kept telling them that no-one could ever be stood still doing nothing! Despite being told by 3 different people I would definitely get a visit, I didn't.

There was lots of rumours running around the staff room about the possibilities that could let us down... and late that evening we got an email from the head saying they would be visiting lessons on Friday morning looking specifically for Outstanding. Interestingly, they didn't go to see teachers that the school rated as Outstanding - instead for looking for Good teachers who could produce Outstanding lessons for their observation.

As I had my Friday morning assembly with my form, I saw the Deputy Head outside. I feared another visit, so 'upped' my assembly and kept it going longer... it turned out he was waiting to tell me I was getting a visit Period 2!

I'm not still not sure I liked this, I'd much rather have an unannounced visit, rather than know and spend my PPA in Period 1 fretting, especially as I knew what they were looking for... I can't remember a time when I felt so much pressure. In the meantime, I was asked for a Literacy Policy for the Department which got produced in 10 minutes flat.

The Year 7s who I was teaching would be delightful, that much I was confident of. The lesson went well; I pointed things out, involved the inspector in the lesson and carried on largely as normal. Disappointingly, I was only awarded Good. I could just about accept this, 32 mixed ability Y7s who like to ask questions and wait for my help despite my insistence of 3B4MR. However I then got the feedback and was told it was nearly Requires Improvement, this I was shocked about. As she explained why, I got increasingly annoyed:
  • I had not let Y7 work out in pairs what "a Messiah" was. I gave them a definition instead (a translation from Hebrew, and its equivalent in Greek, as well as a very brief explanation of what anointed meant). I pointed out that this was their first lesson on the concept of the Messiah and I considered this a theological term that was necessary to define; I added that as Catholics we believe in Jesus as 'The Messiah' rather than a vague notion of 'a Messiah'.
  • I used my G&T students as 'experts' who when they had finished one of the tasks, and I had marked it, went around helping, explaining, reinforcing and correcting other students. Apparently this is a poor use of their time and they needed to be doing something else to maintain progress. This is was what nearly took it down from grading 2 to 3. The most annoying thing about this was two other inspectors had cited this very technique as being the reason lessons they had watched moved from Good to Outstanding; massive inconsistency even within one inspection team. I do this very successfully on a regular basis, and will continue to do so; everyone is desperate to be an 'expert' - if this isn't a good thing, I don't know what is?
  • Thirdly, the task of matching Isaiah's prophecy of the Messiah to Mathew's perceived fulfilment was not challenging enough. This is something I have had GCSE students struggle with and we only used to do with Y9 previously. Our new syllabus puts it in Y7 and in one lesson all students went from not even knowing what 'THE Messiah' was to writing a letter explaining why some people believed Jesus was the Messiah and were called Christians and explaining why some people didn't believe that he was the Messiah and were called Jews - I see this as rapid progress with difficult concepts. Could you match: “He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:4) to "Many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick." (Matthew 8:17)? This was one of the easier ones...
I walked away completely disillusioned and despondent that actually I didn't have a chance to help my school achieve an overall Outstanding. I also would question whether the criticism was of the activies or of the lesson content? The latter is something for Section 48 inspectors to judge and highlighted non-specialists problems with judging lessons. I actually taught a very similar lesson to Y9 on a previous Section 48 inspection (co-incidence rather than me simply delivering 'my OFSTED lesson') which was graded as Outstanding and was considered 'very challenging' by the former Head of RE inspector.

During Period 3, the van arrived to collect the shoeboxes and a team of 6th Formers spent best part of an hour in a human chain loading the van. The sight of over 500 presents in our entrance hall must have impressed the inspectors!

Overall it seemed there was a lot of inconsistency with teachers' feedback. I see this as a major failing of OFSTED. My colleagues and I want to be Outstanding, and want to know if our lesson aren't, how we could have made it so. As per usual, there was a real lack of this guidance available. Even teachers graded Outstanding wanted to know what it was that they did, so could build upon this for the future. In my model of OFSTED, inspectors would allow staff to watch them teach (probably on video), to show their credentials. Feedback and guidance would also be absolutely central.

Somehow we then pulled off Prize Giving (not our slickest) before heading down to the pub en mass. A text message confirmed the good news that we had retained Outstanding for the 3rd time... despite my personal experience, we can have little complaint. I wrote an email to my head to explain my 'Good' to get it off my chest, I guess I am doing the same here.

Roll on January and the Section 48 Inspection!

See us in the news <here>

As an aside, I have requested my lesson observation notes. I used the advice <here> to do so... maybe I'll share when they arrive!

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

#BlogSync: What is the role of the family in young people’s education? (RC Focus)

It's always best to state you are going off on a tangent before you do.

For this month's #blogsync, I've decided to write a short reflection on the distinct and slightly different relationship that faith schools have with the family. I have worked in Catholic schools for eight years, but also have experience in community schools and CoE public schools. Perhaps despite the journey, the conclusions are nevertheless similar.

The traditional relationship for students in a Catholic school is often summarised as being this:

There is an important distinction that must be made at this point, 'the education' and 'the education in the faith'. By parents selecting a Catholic school, they are subscribing to the decision that these will generally take place simultaneously. This is not necessarily the case in all lessons, at all times - you'd be surprised how much that goes on in a Catholic school is very similar to what goes on in other schools. 

Now the Church see parents as the primary educators: 

"The first educators in the faith are parents... By their example in the home and in their participation in the Mass and other sacraments, the foundations of life-long faith and discipleship in their children are laid down." (Statement on Religious Education in Catholic Schools - issued by the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, n.2)

How about if this was tweaked, and by that I mean secularised: "The first educators are parents... by their example in the home and in their participation in educational activities, the foundations of life-long development and citizenship in their children are laid down."

Are you buying it?

So what happens, when the family are not the primary educators? In faith? In education? In reading? In basic manners? In being a decent citizen?

"The Option For the Poor"

Concern for the poor, outcasts and the disadvantaged has always been a priority for Christians, and as a result Catholic schools. The bible contains many references to individuals, and on social justice, and God’s deep concern for both. There are clear biblical foundations for service to the poor and how such a service should be an important part in the lives of all Christians:

“When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.” (Luke 14:12-14)

Indeed, Jesus makes it very clear that he is present in the poor and disadvantaged of this world. Any Catholic school must always remember this core idea when dealing with the outcast, disadvantaged, troublesome or poor: it is here that Christ is truly present:

“I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40)

Gravissimum Educationis, the Vatican’s first key document on Christian education, made it clear that indeed the Church should be offering its educational service, and offering it to: “…the poor or those who are deprived of family help and affection or those who are far from the faith” (Pope Paul VI, 1965).

The 1970's saw Catholic school enter an era of a 'new poor'. It was not necessarily a provision for migrant families in northern cities, but a widespread need to intervene throughout England and Wales to help a wide range of families.

In  the 21st Century world that many students of Catholic schools are existing in, perhaps ‘the poor’ are those who come from one-parent families, those born to unmarried couples, those struggling with their parents divorce or even coming from violent homes. By no means exclusively, nor necessarily, these children may well come to school being ‘emotionally poor’ suffering a lack of love, hope, trust and stability in their young lives. A final consideration of ‘the poor and disadvantaged’ could also be the ever increasing number of SEN students; individuals with a wide spectrum of needs that succeed with varying degrees within the education system.

So what?

Increasingly the school is becoming the primary educator, not only for the faith, but potentially for a whole range of different things.

Where parents are supportive and encouraging to the vision of the school, we are all working together and great things are being achieved. Where parents and families will not, or cannot, work with our vision, there is tension. Despite the frustrations of the teacher, ultimately it is the child who suffers the most. 

I believe all teachers need to consider 'the poor' in their school, whoever they are, and do all they can to help combat the potential damage caused by home situations. These situations will hopefully pass, and improve, but the moment of education, the potential to achieve GCSE passes aged 16 (the BEST time), the time to master basic numeracy and literacy, will all unfortunately pass.

I think it's also important to remember that most parents do love their child and do want their child to succeed, even if they have very odd ways of showing it. 

Never give up, the troublesome student in front of us, who has come to school for a break, loves being in our company despite being an absolute nightmare. Maybe we just have to go the extra mile to combat the other damaging influences in their life. 

However it always make me feel like a failure when we have to say enough is enough, goodbye. The children I have seen excluded from Catholic schools have always had the most horrific home lives, and we failed. We couldn't manage to keep them with us long enough.

Read more of the BlogSync here:

Dream Baby Dream

Come on dream on, dream on baby
Come on dream on, dream on baby
Come on dream on, dream on baby
Come on dream on, dream baby dream

Come on and open up your heart
Come on and open up your heart
Come on and open up your heart
Come on dream on, dream baby dream

Yeah I just wanna see you smile
And I just wanna see you smile
Yeah I just wanna see you smile
Come on dream on, dream baby dream

It's important to clarify that I never have called any of my students 'baby'. Secondly, I am very sure Suicide (the original writers, a 70's electronic protopunk band), nor Bruce Springsteen, had school students in mind when they wrote and performed this. Despite all this, I kind of feel that this can be all about our lives as teachers, right?

The core message of this song is three-fold:
  • Dream (aim high and never give up)
  • Open Up (and give us a chance; trust us; let us in)
  • Smile (because you fulfilled your potential and got the right result!)
The first of these two present some deep and complex problems in schools:

How do we encourage students to aim high and never give up?
How do we encourage students to open up and allow us to help?

Let's look at each:

How do we encourage students to aim high and never give up?

2.49 million of people are out of work (BBC - Aug 2013), including a huge number of recent university graduates. Speaking to current sixth formers, they are excited and looking forward to university, but don't want to talk about 'what happens next'. Such an economic situation can breed a situation where there is seemingly no point in aiming high... yet alternatively should it not be providing a drive to be the very very best?

However, are my Y9s really thinking about the economic state of the UK jobs market? Probably no.

I've heard people talk about the fact we live in a world where there are few consequences. Look at banks... Bailed out despite their financial mismanagement. Out of work? Enjoy benefits! Again, I don't agree. Speak to an ordinary person struggling on state handouts, not the Daily Mail version. Are there consequences to my students if they don't get the grades? Yes, they have less choice of A Levels; they may also be asked to leave. Some want to leave anyway?

Now I am incredibly fortunate to work in a good school where for much of the time behaviour is not a big issue. Most students do want to do well. However too many (and one is too many!) dream of being a WAG or just finding a rich husband. They do not always have the high aspirations I try to inspire. This is not always easy being a relatively young (29) year old male teacher in an all girls environment - what do I know?

I try my best; I try to instil belief in my students, always. I also to build resilience. I'm trying to get my students to adopt the notion of FAIL (First Attempt In Learning), trying to help them learn to pick themselves up, get better and not be phased by the process. I want them to recognise their weaknesses and combat them rather than shy away from them; it ain't easy!

I think we need to keep reminding students to dream, and dream big. We must fill their lives with hope and ambition because unfortunately the world won't always necessarily do that. It's also not just about dreaming, it's making those dreams become a reality through hardwork and perseverance.

Dream Baby Dream

How do we encourage students to open up and allow us to help?

Teaching all girls requires a huge investment in time. Relationships can be slow to build; loyalty is given to those who students have known the longest.

In my previous job, and I know it is a massive generalisation, I found many boys would open up quite quickly. This was especially the case as soon as you had watched the footy the previous night and knew last Saturdays' scores. Again, not all, and there were always the tough nuts to crack.

I am encouraging FAIL as I mentioned before, an openness where we all recognise our failings. I admit my weaknesses too; I tell students what I struggle with. I offer my time, without constraint... it always shocks them when I say I am in school from 7am until 6pm everyday - appointments always available.

It's important when you say this, you do it. Hattie is right when he says feedback is the most important driving force in raising progress, a 1:1 with a student gives drastic results in the following essay at A-Level.

But too often, I offer this service, and students do not take it up. Why? Does it make the mistakes impossible to hide from? Does it expose their failings in an unmanageable way? If I force it, does it remain a useful experience? Is the only end result of that meeting one of... phew?

Is there a better way? A quicker, easier way? Perhaps not. These are young people finding their feet in the world and working out who to trust and who not too. The main aim can be to prove you are that person to turn to. Are you reliable? Do you keep promises? Do you drop that marking to solve a crisis? If so, then maybe, just maybe, your students will open up.

Come on and open up your heart

Finally, "I just wanna see you smile"... Yes I do. And it makes me think all the pressures, stresses, impossible deadlines, piles of marking, 14 hour days, relentless reminders and chasing, frustrations, tears, headaches and social events cancelled completely worth it. Most of the time.

Yeah I just wanna see you smile

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Exam Questions: "Do as I... Do!"

So today I decided to try a new idea with my Y10/4 RE class. I said I wouldn't help them with this quite challenging Part C question: "Explain why abortion is controversial." (8 marks).

I just started writing, unannounced on the board. The chat started. I stopped. They were quiet, I kept writing. They were fascinated... I was doing exactly the task that I'd asked them to do.

We are still at the stage of lots of questions: Can you check this? Is this right? Can I write this? They want to do well, but need to now grow in confidence.

Once finished I went and sat down at the back, still offering no help. Students started reading and then writing. At this point, I was a little worried that I'd get 25 similar answers.

At the end, we looked at our answers. They said I had 8 out of 8, which was reassuring. We looked at why: 4 developed points, scripture, connective words etc.

I asked how theirs compared? Not sure, not willing to say. I asked who had copied anything directly, no one owned up. I got them to check one another's knowing they would easily dob on one another... No one! They said they had used the material but that it had been more useful to see HOW to develop rather than what.

So interestingly, despite me giving them a model answer, it was used for technique rather than content.

I wonder if I will have the same results with Y10/2. I fear some of them will take the easy option and just copy... I found it quite therapeutic, yet also proved to them "I still got it!", while not allowing them to ask for help, retaining independence.

Not sure I am ready to try this with an AS/A2 essay just yet...

Monday, 18 November 2013

Organising My First TeachMeet

And so #TMHavering is taking bookings! Fancy joining us? All the info is here:

But how did we get here?

As long ago as last summer, Andy Knill (@aknill) and I said to ourselves, there is NOTHING going on in Havering. Well there is, as there is lots of great schools with amazing teachers achieving fantastic things... but since most schools became academies as soon as they could, escaping Havering Borough control, very little has been going on centrally.

We looked at the success of #TMEssex and #TMLondon and agreed to put Havering firmly on the TeachMeet map with a well-planned, straightforward, high quality event. There are many teachers in the area who have not even heard of a TM and so we wanted to keep it simple, but make it good. Careful planning and consideration were important from the start.

We met twice at Bower Park to sort out the basics: date, time, location, format. We then set about getting the electronic infrastructure in place: email, Twitter, Facebook, website, buying URLs, logo, PBworks ad, presenter wiki, Eventbrite listing... There is far more to think about than just saying "Let's do a TeachMeet!". Also key to get Martin (@ICTMagic) onboard to be both technical wizard and chief camel thrower!

Having experienced excellent sessions at #TMLondon, #TMEssex and #TMEast, it was clear this careful planning was needed to ensure interest and create a legacy. Some suggested we should use one of the established names due to what Ross (@teachertoolkit) and Tom (@headguruteacher) had built. However both Andy and I want to do the same in Havering, hopefully by this time next year, #TMHavering will be equally recognised and established.

Luckily I'd read Ross' various posts and collected a few others, collating on my site: (worth careful reading if you are thinking about organising). It's fun and exciting, but also hard work and needs an allocation of what is already precious time. We are only part way there and no doubt I'll be blogging again about this experience. If you have any tips or ideas, please do get in touch!

If you are anywhere close to Romford, we'd love to have you come along in February. We promise, we'll be trying out best to make it a really great evening: relevant, useful, varied - and fun!

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Publishing Grades

I still remember when I was at school, in the Maths department, after each test, a new list was produced. This list placed each student from 1 to 125, in order of test average. There were the 4 cut off lines indicating the 5 sets.

I don't recall ever having a problem with this, and to my memory, nor did anyone. That's just the way it was. Maybe we were just grammar school boys who in all honesty were more worried about who had a football for the game at lunch?

However recently a class asked me (usually my front row do such tasks) to give out their tests, face down so no one could see. I do teach all girls, and this was their first unit test, but this was even another step away from my own school experience. A big part of me said, 'what's the big deal here?'; another part said 'they took my test seriously!'.

In some respects, it's a little odd as I have this year set all homework via Edmodo and graded it on there. I agreed a simple system of 20/20 - excellent, 15/20 - good, 10/20 - minimum and 5/20 - unacceptable. Why 20? Unit tests are also out of 20. Students can only see their own scores, but I wondered in the value of them seeing the whole classes, like I can?

I decided to do homework this way for the first time this year with my two GCSE sets and feedback has been very positive. Students can keep track of what is owing and can redo to improve mark. I have given greater feedback and have frequently entered into dialogue with students about their work.

But test grades... Is this a step too far?


It's possible I will alienate and disengage with some students by adding grades to Edmodo. They may feel embarrassed as either strugglers or high flyers. These are the ones that matter, that parents know about, that are recorded in SIMS. Maybe they had off day? Maybe they are finding it harder than their peers? Maybe they're not actually in the right set? Maybe I'm just highlighting and reinforcing every single fear, worry and feeling of inadequacy?


However, could it raise attainment and introduce competition with a race to the top? Could it see students determined to improve? Could students look at their peers and say, 'I can do that!'. A positive focus on my Springsteen-borrowed line, "no one wins unless we all win"?

What to do?

Unfortunately it seems to be a risky topic. To lose my students at this time would be a disaster, or would they quickly get over it?

What do you do? What would you do?


Chris Waugh introduced me to student blogging a while back at #TMEssex. His passion for the authentic nature of blogging and the audience that it can create stayed with me.

It's taken a while but I have now managed to get my A2 students regularly blogging at:

However, what next?

I too want this to be authentic writing. I want my students to have an audience, and to interact with other students, teachers - and the world! I want their writing to be of a good standard. I want them to be asked questions. I want them to rework their argument if needed. I want them to change their mind if they are corrected. 

The idea of a blogsync is that we will promote one another's blogs, read one another's blogs, comment on one another's blogs and ask questions about one another's blogs!

So how to do this?

Using the successful BlogSync and QuadBlogging models, I wanted to put together a more specialised RE blogsync. AS/A2 students, as well as potentially able GCSE students would commit to sharing, reading and commenting on one another's' blogs. This gives a fantastic connection and enables them to develop understanding and really push the boundaries of their understanding.

My students can blog about anything they like:
  • A topic from philosophy or ethics
  • A topic they found challenging (as revision)
  • RE in the news
  • A link between philosophy and ethics
  • Something from their wider reading
  • A question that has been left unanswered...
We just need an audience. Do you fancy joining us? 

Please complete the short form at: and I'll be in touch very soon!

See the #REblogsync permanent home here: 

Monday, 4 November 2013

A2 Independent Learning - Part 3 (What The Students Said)

A little while ago, I blogged about some Independent Learning I did with my A2 students. To read what it's all about, see here:

Part 1 - What I Did
Part 2 - What I Found

At end of each unit, students complete a progress tracking sheet. They reflect upon their grades for their home and timed essays, their progress and set two targets. While completing this, I asked them to turn over and answer the following too:

  1. How did you feel about this topic? (More confident/less confident/same)
  2. Did you feel you had sufficient resources?
  3. Did you have enough time?
  4. Do you feel you have sufficient notes in your folder for revision?
  5. Did you enjoy working in this way?
  6. Would you be happy to do it again?
  7. How did you feel about your timed essay grade for this topic?
  8. Any other comments?
The feedback varied but a few headlines from the answers they provided:
  1. 4 felt less confident, 5 felt the same, 3 felt more confident and one said "less confident until we started sharing when I realised I knew it all!" - of the students who said less confident, three were students who struggle with confidence in the subject on many occasions.
  2. They all felt they had enough resources - these were a mixture of printed material, documents uploaded to Edmodo and student-created resources from the previous Y13 students (the last of which some noted they were sceptical about!)
  3. They all felt they had more than enough time. One student pointed out it was hard working on an essay together over the summer... the deadline was the end of term!
  4. All bar two students said they had sufficient notes for revision. Both of these two students said they would have preferred more teacher notes.
  5. 5 students didn't like it at all - they stated that they much prefer it when teachers give them the information (4 of these were the students mentioned in headline 1). 5 students enjoyed it, even if at first one of them was a little daunted. 2 didn't know! One of the most able students said, "I enjoyed having the responsibility of controlling my learning and time.", another said, "I enjoyed working independently as it really motivates me."
  6. 4 said they would be happy to do it again, 3 said they wouldn't choose to do it, but would, 5 said 'no' to doing it again.
  7. Only one student said they were more satisfied that usual! 2 said the same, and the rest said less happy. This was their first A2 essay so a step up, but as seen in my previous blog post, their results were approximately in keeping with their usual grades. This is an interesting perception on their part. 
  8. There were few other comments aside from "I enjoyed spreading the workload."
What do I take from this?

Firstly, my consolidation in September including activities such as Speed Dating and Silent Debating were really important to most of the students; both the more and less confident students said this was vital to their understanding. They needed activities, in the classroom, with their peers to ensure that they were secure in their knowledge.

Secondly it was really clear there is still work to be done regarding teacher dependency. Too many of the girls stated that they wanted to essentially sit there and be 'spoon fed' the exact content. The trouble is, there is no 'exact content' in philosophy...

Student satisfaction was really interesting; why were they so unsatisfied with their result when generally speaking it was in keeping? Perhaps this is a good thing? Perhaps as because they had taken ownership over it and not done as well, it was more disappointing than if I lead them and they did not achieve? 

What next?

I am likely to be able to do this again in the summer of 2014. I will do something very similar, but perhaps share some of this information with the students. I want them to believe from the start that they will be able to get the same grades (if not better!) than if I teach them. 

I will also look at some further independent tasks for this class. Particularly for the more able students, it is a good way to stretch them towards the A*. I am trying to source articles that they can work on and incorporate into their essays. I think I now realise, I can give more ownership of the Implications unit to the students later in the year. Last year when I was teaching it, I was afraid to 'let go'.

Finally, it really highlights the work we as a school need to do lower down on raising the independence of our students. Their over reliance on their teachers was clearly evident, however the majority, when thrown in at the deep end, coped! 

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The SHoM Family Learning Project (FLP): Part 3

Part 3 - What Did The Students Say?

This is my #TeachTweet video from 31/10/2013 about the project. It gives a some student opinion and views. I have 122 forms to read which will allow me to further update this post:

The SHoM Family Learning Project (FLP): Parts 1 & 2

Before I launch into this blog post, I want to thank Tom Sherrington aka @headguruteacher for his help, encouragement and support with this. I first heard about the idea at #TMEssex last year and decided it would be a great thing to do at my school. Read Tom's blog post <here>.

Part 1 - What We Did

What is the Family Learning Project?

Quite simply we asked Y6 students and their parents to go to the British Museum over the summer and show us what they learnt. It was completely open and students were encouraged to 'dazzle us'.

I had to play hockey the night of the launch with the parents, so I had to hastily make this:

Parents were given this letter at their information evening: <download>
Students had this in their welcome pack that they filled in during the first few days: <download>

Why did we do it?

I tweaked Tom's rational, as included in our letter to parents:
  • School is all about finding things out and exploring new ideas.
  • Learning is something that happens beyond the school gates.
  • Families have a key role to play and can enjoy sharing in the learning process.
  • Students are expected to take responsibility for their own learning.
  • Learning takes many forms and there is not always a ‘correct method’ or specific goal.
  • Creativity, resourcefulness and independence are all key attributes for learners.
  • It is important to take an active interest in culture; museums are wonderful places to do that.
  • Rigour and scholarship are important to us in our learning.
It was organised by our ACE team, but mainly me! It was a dream to start with, that people were quite sceptical about. I was given the go-ahead by the headteacher; the AHT lead of the ACE group and the Head of Y7 were very supportive too.

Ultimately the aim was to improve the independence of our students, get them to strive for academic excellence early in their school life, plus show staff what they were capable from the word go! 

Part 2 - What We Got

We had projects from 117 out of 122 students... I had quoted 97% return rates from other schools and I raised a few eyebrows. They were kind of right, as we only got 96%. Do not underestimate your own students; they are just as good as anyone else's!

The standard was also very high. We produced a microsite which you can look at here:

I also produced this video (using photos from one of the Y7 form tutors): 

Blogs Coming Soon:
  • The Prizewinner
  • What I learnt
  • What students and staff said

Monday, 28 October 2013

BLOGSYNC: Marking With Impact

I like my Facebook stamp, but it's only real impact is a smile!

It's come to that time of year; the time when I train up my A2 students in peer marking... I do a lot of peer marking with all my classes, but until last year, it was my biggest challenge with 6th formers. How do you do something meaningful with a tough to comprehend mark scheme? How can I ensure marking with impact takes place? What kind of marking has the most impact?

Last year I posted a #TeachTweet video on how I started doing it last year:

This gives an overview of what I started to do. Please excuse the video quality and my slightly dull presentation! I've got better at making videos since then...

I realised that at Key Stage 3, criteria can be simplified to enable structured feedback. This doesn't necessarily give an accurate level, but generally speaking it can be a meaningful exercise and easy to help students go beyond, "I like your work".

At Key Stage 4, I work hard at drilling exam technique. The EdExcel GCSE allows for students who have mastered the formulae of questions to use 'S' and 'D' for simple and developed points, and along with the mark scheme accurately mark questions. Tim Shelton, after seeing my video, tried it out with his GCSE class, see <here>.

However Key Stage 5 was the one that escaped me. I wanted to give students an opportunity to master something of the mark scheme so they didn't go back to Y7s... "I like your work!".

By A2, students are able to write something that constitutes a reasonable essay. However, moving to the next level can often be a challenge. What is the area that lets them down? What precise feedback can be given to enable them to work at improving for next time?

The grid was key to me. To break down the criteria into a table form that students could begin by ticking off. This illustrated what would be a limiting factor on their progression and that, for example, not using enough technical vocabulary, could really limit their final mark. This was hard to do, and I'm not sure it is perfect even now. It did give a clear area to base a target around for next time, i.e. structure, knowledge.

I uploaded copies of the grid so you can see what I am talking about; they are uploaded at TES <here>.

As you can see from the video, last year by March, my A2 class were getting the marks very accurate (I think I said 'spot on' about 48 times in the video). This was through perseverance and getting them to do it for every essay they did. They didn't like it at first, but I noticed over the time they were putting better and better feedback, as well as accurately indicating which level the response fell into.

I still marked the essays and added further comments where necessary. I did ask them one day, which comments did they take the most notice of; they all agreed that it was their friends! Yet they only really looked at my mark and not their peers.

To begin this process with Y13 this year, I have produced some essays from last years' Y13. I told them to get in full mindset of the teacher... some of them were cruel! The essays were literally covered in corrections and improvements.

We then had a frank discussion about whether or not we felt we could do this with one another. There was a slight hesitation; it's far easier to do when they are not your friends in the room. However a few started saying that actually it was all for the best interests of the class and they would try to be as thorough with one another. We shall see.

I am going to try and begin this process with Y12 too. The step from GCSE to AS is huge in RS and a real focus of me this year is working on this transition, especially for the less able. Their first essay is a draft and I will be getting them to redraft before handing in (based on this <this> blog post). I will introduce a grid for their second essay and we will work from there.

So to return to the original question (like any good philosophy essay!), I have found that by using structured collaborative marking I have had a significant impact on the quality of my students essays. They really take on board the comments of their peers, and by using this structured method, the comments can be meaningful and inform targets. I can then add to these if necessary and give a final grade which reflects their progress.

Please make sure you read the rest of the BlogSync-ers here:
Maybe join us?

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Marginal Gains Project: My Introducation to Staff

I had 5 minutes at a staff meeting to launch our small-scale action research project to staff. It's based on the concept of marginal gains. Here it is my script (which I kind of stuck to):

Could you be better? How can you work out what could make you better in these very specific, and special, surroundings ?

Will Gove's latest idea make me a better teacher in Y13 philosophy lessons? Will the latest idea I see on Twitter help me teach 9L better? Will the new initiative from SLT improve the number of A*s I get with 11/1?

What do I know? I know for a fact that my Y13 class, results wise, have performed as well, no better, but no worse, in a unit they self taught in the summer term. I've got some feedback, some really enjoyed it and got a huge amount of satisfaction, others were indifferent and some felt worried but are pleased with the results. Last year, I firmly believe Y12 were not convinced - and nor were we - that this would work and we'd have to reteach, but it did.

What do I also know? I said to the ACE group that at another school, they had a 97% return rate on the Family Learning Project. I raised a few eyebrows, no one thought it would be that high at Sacred Heart. They were right, it was only 96%.

Research is not just about data. It's about predicting, testing, reflecting and changing to see what works.

Ben Goldacre, of TV's 'Bad Science' fame was a key note speaker at the ResearchEd conference. He drew parallels between us and our fellow professionals in medicine. How would you feel if you doctor said, "Try this, I've always suggested it and it's been alright." You then find there have been no trials or tests of any kind of evidence to back it up. Would you take that medicine? Would you go back to that doctor?

Research needs to take place as part of a community. What works for me, may not work for you, but when we share ideas we may find something that works for both of us. How can we teach our students better? How can we react to the very individual environment in which we work? How can we help our departments? Year groups? The wider school community?

If you fancy trying something, there is a mini-project we're launching. We're asking staff including teachers and support staff to consider looking at small parts of their teaching, small things that might give small gains. Then to come back to share with us what they've learnt. What's worth putting time and energy into, and what's not? Over time, we start to build a picture of teaching in Sacred Heart, one that helps both us and the students achieve more. The mantra of marginal learning gains is “Tiny Changes, Big Difference”, let's try and work out what those tiny changes need to be in Sacred Heart of Mary Girls' School.

To download the document given to staff <here>. Big thanks for Kev Bartle for sharing his schools' work on this.

This is a very interesting TED talk about how just 30 days can change habits... can our staff do this?

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

The Teacher Nemesis

I think it's safe to say everyone wants their classroom to be as disruption free as possible. We all want to give our students the best of our teaching rather than the best of our crowd control and discipline techniques. I am very fortunate enough to be working at a school where I can develop my craft of teaching rather than spending all day scraping students off the floor and pushing them back out the door.

A univeristy friend of mine today published a very interesting telegraph column, <here>, on the possible need for students to have their nemesis. It brought back memories of my own school days at Southend High School for Boys. Some teachers inspired me for life, others scared me, others I saw as simply unkind.

My French teacher was an absolute legend. He was an excellent teacher but equally very very scary. His results were exceptional with all students. There was no tolerance for a lack of homework or failure to learn vocab. Equally his punishments were always extra 1:1 lessons. Crucially, it was easier to be a success than a failure; good scary right? I think a fear of failure can be healthy in the right doses, and from the right people. He obviously cared deeply, and people that have seen him since school have said he is really nice chap. Very sadly, he had to retire early on health grounds.

On the other hand, a maths teacher who never liked me (and I genuinely have no idea why) told me in the last lesson before my GCSE exam that I'd "get a C at best" and laughed at me. This moment has never ever left me. 'C' was a failure in my Set 2 Maths at a Grammar school, she told me I was a failure at Maths. Yes be realistic but also fair and constructive. This comment was none of those three things.

I got an A and just a few marks below an A*. One if my main aims on results day was to find her. She wasn't there.

Ever since, I've been determined to do well at Maths. I even took up 1:1 Numeracy lessons with Y9 students to prove "I have got it"; HEAR THAT, I have taught Maths! Even now I try and do maths in my head and 'enjoy' working out department data. I use logic in philosophy and bring Maths into RE where I can, all with confidence.

She was my nemesis. She was unkind to me for no real reason and I've spent the rest of my life trying to prove her wrong.

I hope none of my students will ever feel like that about me.

It has helped me on rather, than held me back. I've been determined.

How do we manage that? I'd quite like my students to be spurned on 10+ years after my lessons... Just for different reasons. We want an encouraging and supportive environment where teachers believe in their students. Yet oddly, this nemesis can actually help us to succeed.

Make sure you do read Mic's column <here>.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Teachers Want (Useful) Feedback Too!

One of the things I do when I am struggling to sleep, is find a TED talk. If you've not heard of TED, you should have done! It stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design and has become a global network of talks under the slogan "ideas worth spreding". It actually began as a one off conference in 1984 (the same year I also began), but has grown hugely with the popularity of YouTube. It's worth Googling things such as 'TED education', or there are iPhone apps etc. I digress as this isn't the main point of my blog post.

I came across the above video by Bill Gates and it highlights one of the key problems I have had on numerous occasions during my teaching career. This is the blurb about the video:

"Until recently, many teachers only got one word of feedback a year: “satisfactory.” And with no feedback, no coaching, there’s just no way to improve. Bill Gates suggests that even great teachers can get better with smart feedback -- and lays out a program from his foundation to bring it to every classroom."

I am always willing for people to come to my lessons. Whatever is going on, there is an open door policy and I welcome any member of staff to 'come along for the ride'. However I have never worked in a place where this has been successfully and constructively done.

Even as far back as my PGCE and NQT, I got odd bits and pieces of advice but I want to improve, always. As such speed up the niceties and get on with giving me advice on how to be better. I have also been told by one Section 48 inspector my lesson was 'perfect and nothing could be done to make it better'. Bulls**t.

I'd like to think I am a Good teacher. Some of my lessons are Outstanding, but equally some would be labelled as Requiring Improvement. If we're honest, that's most of us.

I want observations which I can be critically evaluated and given specific advice about how to get better. This is one of my biggest problems with OFSTED, come to my lessons... come every term if you want! But only come if you are willing to tell me how I could have made my lesson better. Give me advice, help me develop.

This is what I am looking to my colleagues to do, particularly my SLT. Please don't just sit there and tell me my lesson was great, tell me how it could be better. Give me new ideas, inspire, get me to try something new!

A new idea from our ACE group is to have an Open Door week. Staff will be encouraged to go into each others lessons to learn from one another; we need a culture shift in my school as there is a fear about having visitors. We are starting by getting people to give some informal positive feedback to the individual and then write something positive on the whiteboard in the staff room about what they've seen (and take a chocolate as their reward!).

We spend so long talking about feedback for students, but teachers need feedback too; Bill Gates is absolutely spot on. Hattie makes it very clear feedback works very well for our students, how about for our teachers too?

Thursday, 17 October 2013

A Book of FAIL

Ross Morrison McGill’s new book “100 Ideas for Secondary Teachers” contains many brilliant ideas and easy ways to improve lessons. One that has caught on via Twitter and various blogs is F.A.I.L. (First Attempt In Learning). It's not a new idea and I have seen First Attempts Inspire Learning which , sorry Ross, I think I may prefer!  There is also a great TED video on failure, by a teacher, that is also worth watching:

This ties in with some of the ideas we have been working on in my school ACE group; we want our students to become more resilient and in control of their learning.  

I have also been working with Y12 on their first essay plans. There was great fear in the room; fear that I wanted to turn to excitement! Many of the girls I teach are scared to get things wrong, especially the most able. My GCSE Set 1 almost refuse to do activities where there is a risk of getting something wrong... and this is something I want to challenge.

It very much links to the blog post I did on redrafting and improving work recently; it requires a real culture shift in my current school.

So my idea... I have asked various groups of students to back track and find a series of progression, either during Y12 or through the first year of the GCSE course. Some exam questions (GCSE) or essays (AS), that hopefully display that individual child's progression from one place to another.

Ritchie Gale speaks of how we should be displaying the progress in our classrooms in his excellent recent post, yet my challenge is that I teach in 17 different rooms. So I decided to go into print; today I produced my first book of F.A.I.L.! A current Y13 who provided 6 essays which show how she started with a decent C grade but worked her way to very high A grades.

I am now working how best to use my first (hopefully in a series!) F.A.I.L. publication:
  • Lend to certain students to read?
  • Photocopy for the whole class? (and blow the RE budget further!)
  • Make a display in someone else's classroom?
  • How will a student best use it? Just read it?
  • Is it possible to inspire students by reading others progress?
Any ideas gratefully received!