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!