This much I know about…helping Year 11 feel like Champions!

I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about helping Year 11 feel like Champions!

This takes some explaining, but stay with it – it’s good stuff…

I’m never sure about the efficacy of assemblies. I enjoy assemblies – your two audiences, the sheer fun of the moment, the in-take of breath when you do something your audiences don’t anticipate – but I’m not sure whether anyone remembers what you say. The only one I remember as a student was when the Bishop of Lewes delivered an assembly to us in Year 11 with the message, Be careful what you wish for because you’ll more than likely get it; if he had just heeded his own advice

There’s always something good to glean from any experience. Those gratis Leading Edge conferences a few years ago which must have been hugely expensive and had very little impact upon our students’ education afforded me the opportunity to hear Sir Clive Woodward deliver his 2003 Rugby World Cup Champions talk. I returned to York and immediately created a Champions assembly; at the bottom of the page you’ll find all the things you need to make your own version.

Champions are made, not born. In his talk Woodward explains the process of making a champion. He talks about the England rugby team of 2003 and how his process of developing champions meant that we won the World Cup. According to Woodward there are four criteria which define champions: Ability; Teachability; Handling Pressure; Will to Succeed.

Woodward claims that we all have ability or talent, but talent is not enough. No matter how talented you might be, you have to put that aside and be completely open to being taught – if you do not have Teachability, then you’re stuck with talent, which is not enough. With Ability and Teachability, you then need to know how to think clearly under pressure, or T-CUP. He talks about his War-Room, which contained tables and chairs, a huge stop-clock on the wall, a scoreboard and a white board. When he was giving a tactics talk he would suddenly stop, set a time in an imaginary match on the stop-clock, identify opponents and a score on the scoreboard, describe a situation in the imaginary match – say, our scrum on our own twenty-two, with our number 8 in the sin-bin – and then ask any of the players to explain, using the whiteboard, exactly what they think we should do as a team in that precise situation. He calls it T-CUP: imagine the pressure on front row Phil Vickery in front of his unforgiving team mates if it’s him Woodward summons to the whiteboard. In his talk Woodward then shows the following basketball clip. It’s 88 points all, 0.6 seconds to go, the Yellow team have two free shots, the first shot goes in to put them 89-88 up: what should the player taking the second free shot do with the ball? The only other bit of information you need to know is that if the buzzer for the end of the game sounds and a shot is in mid-air, the game is not over until the ball has hit the ground and the shot is technically dead. In my assembly I show the clip twice because it is such a breath-taking moment.


Woodward’s point is that the player taking the second free shot did not think correctly under pressure. He should have thrown the ball hard at the backboard and got into a melee wrestling for the ball for 0.6 seconds until the buzzer sounded. He’s not the only one at fault; watch how his team mates stop thinking and don’t challenge for the ball once the second shot misses. Woodward then explains how not one of the England team had played extra time in a match – the World Cup Final went to extra time – but that you could be sure that they all knew what to do in extra time thanks to their scenario-setting routine in the War-Room. The rest, as they say, is history…


One great point Woodward makes about that moment is how all the players stopped thinking correctly under pressure once the winning drop goal sailed over the posts. There were still 20 seconds to go and whilst all around him celebrated wildly you catch a glimpse of Woodward looking awfully concerned. The Australians kicked off immediately and aimed it at Lewis Moody who, as Woodward said, hadn’t caught a ball cleanly in his life; yet for once, luckily, he clung on to the ball and avoided a knock-on which would have given the Australians the chance to equalise.

So, after Ability, Teachability and T-CUP, the final criterion for champions is to have the Will. He quotes Muhammad Ali:


We can all be champions. What’s great about Woodward’s talk is that he finishes with the tale of Jason McElwain as told in this news clip:


Did Jason have Ability? Well, he scored 20 points in 4 minutes. Was he teachable? Attending countless coaching sessions he soaked up all that instruction to great effect. Could he think correctly under pressure? His only ever game, yet he had the mental control not to let the occasion get to him. And did Jason McElwain have the Will? It’s not even worth answering that question. Jason McElwain is a Woodwardian champion.

Can England win the football World Cup this summer? Woodward’s movement up the ladder from Talented individual to Champion involves those two other stages which I call Student and then Leader. Woodward calls the Leader stage, Warrior. He felt that his rugby World Cup winning team had nine Warriors and six Champions. He claimed that the English football team which competed so poorly in the 2002 World Cup comprised eleven talented individuals…

It’s pointless berating Year 11 at this stage, just love them instead. The die is largely cast by now and what they attain in their GCSEs this summer will not be improved by relentlessly getting on their case. Make them feel special and trusted and they might just find a little more enthusiasm for their revision over the next couple of weeks. I end my assembly asking them whether they have what it takes to be champions and then play Black Balloon by the Goo Goo Dolls as their Year 10 school photographs come up one by one on the screen. They love it! Some look exactly the same, some have changed unrecognisably, and, oh, those haircuts! When the last slide pops up I wait for silence and tell them no matter what their results this summer they’ll always be champions to me…


Along with the videos, here’s all you need to make your own Champions assembly, apart from the photographs of your own Year 11.

Champion assembly 2014 wordpress










Posted in School Leadership | 4 Comments

This much I know about…feeling like a dinosaur

I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about feeling like a dinosaur.

‘Tis now Spring, and all the pleasures of it displease me; every other tree blossoms, and I wither: I grow older, and not better; my strength diminisheth, and my load grows heavier; and yet, I would fain be or do something; but that I cannot tell what, is no wonder in this time of my sadness. – John Donne

The older I get the less certain I am about anything. I write this neither for sympathy nor reassurance, but because I feel a genuine sense of doubt; whilst I like peaches and I’ll never wear my trousers rolled, I do keep asking myself, am I stalwart or dinosaur?


I’ve never been good about getting older! I spent a great evening recently with David Conn, an old mate from university and recent winner of the Sports News Writer of the Year award. David was speaking at the York University Union, exploring his latest book about Manchester City FC, Richer Than God, and he explained to the youthful audience how he and I had met at York exactly 30 years ago. He pointed out that coming to speak to them was the equivalent of someone coming to speak to our undergraduate selves in 1984 about football in 1954.

There is a whole generation of youthful educators on the move. I spoke recently at City Hall about research in education. We were on the top floor overlooking the Thames, with a veritable fest of world famous landmarks in view, and in front of me were dozens of young educators like Julia Citron who are  unencumbered by the last three decades of state education. They know nothing but Academies, Free Schools, Teach First and Michael Gove and their sense of the possible was tangible. I left Boris Johnson’s HQ feeling uplifted; later on the train back north I began to wonder whether it was time, to use a golfing term, to step aside and wave the new breed through.

Oh, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in ’t!

Am I part of Michael Gove’s blob? If I am, is that actually a good thing? Has the educational world changed so radically that there is no place now for my concept of Headship which I articulated 18 months ago, the nub of which is to be the Headteacher of the school, the lead practitioner, the person who spends most of his or her time improving the quality of teaching across the institution? In the past I have ranted thus: There is a huge fork in the road for Headteachers: one route leads to executive headship and the other back into the classroom, teaching, coaching, mentoring, supporting, being the Headteacher. If the Headteacher’s day-to-day work is not engaged in improving practice in his or her school then s/he is missing the point. I still believe this is true, it’s just that growing numbers of people seem to disagree with me.


If the Conservatives win the next election I would say that forced Academisation is inevitable. And I don’t know what I think about that any more. All my great colleagues on the Headteachers’ Roundtable Think Tank lead academies; I’m the exception. Should we allow state schools to be run for profit? I’m pretty sure that they shouldn’t but many think schools-for-profit is an acceptable concept.

Funding cuts make my working life increasingly hard; I have had to oversee some very painful redundancy processes this year. Yet the cost of setting up the Harris Westminster Sixth Form for high-achieving students is purportedly £45m, or £90,000 per student. Is that right? I don’t know, but some people seem sure it is.

Can some horror stories emerging from Academy chains really be true? Is the world so changed? I heard recently that the advice from the CEO of an Academy chain advertising for a new principal for the chain’s flagship Academy to an experienced aspirant candidate was, It’s an outstanding Academy, part of an outstanding Academy chain, the OFSTED report is available online, apply if you want to. Is there such a thing any more as a Headteacher who is able to lead a school according to his or her values-set or are Headteachers/Principals merely implementers of the corporate processes? Does it matter, as long as students’ outcomes are improving? Really, does it? I don’t know…

One personal Springtime cheer has been an invite to speak at the Oxford Union in June; the letter is very very amusing for someone like me who has taken Shelley’s Ozymandias to heart…

oxford union

This House Believes That Private Schools Do More Harm Than Good is the debate; well, the trouble is, as a member of the Steering Group of York’s Independent-State School Partnership I will probably be speaking against the motion!

Margaret Thatcher inspired me to become a teacher. And the Coalition is dismantling state education as we have known it in front of our eyes. Are we really returning to a world of unbridled competition? Is the market the answer to our educational woes? It seems that the level of turbulence caused by deliberately huge policy change means that what is left surviving when the dust settles on Michael Gove’s tenure will be the new educational world. I’m afraid I am beginning to feel my erstwhile certainties, the very bedrock of my core beliefs, begin to crumble.

Few candidates I interview now remember Banda machines. What I hold onto, however, is the fact that many interviewees have explained to me recently that they want to work at our school because they want to work somewhere which has soul.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.


Posted in School Leadership | 26 Comments

This much I know about…why educational research matters more than ever

I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about why educational research matters more than ever.

Why How

It’s OK to be unsure about what you think. In a recent post I outlined the trouble with educational research; here I argue that, in the era of ever-shrinking school budgets, it’s more important than ever to be a research-centred school…

Could you tell us about a CPD experience which has fundamentally changed the way you teach? I asked this question of a truly great teacher at interview recently and after 30 or more seconds of furrowed-foreheaded silence a bluffer’s reply mumbled across the interview table. The truth was that in over 2,000 days of teaching and 50 plus INSET days this teacher of more than a decade could not remember a single moment of meaningful advice about pedagogy.

Never blame the students if they are not learning in your lesson; instead ask yourself, What is it about my teaching that means they are not learning? I was taught this 25 years ago by Dave Bradley, an inspirational History teacher at Dorothy Stringer School and my wife’s PGCE mentor. It is a truism which all teachers should heed and the CPD experience which still prompts me to change the way I teach.

The vast amount of high quality research into pedagogy means we know what works. The trouble is, too few teachers read the research; even fewer act upon it.

The features of a good teacher are obvious to any student. Extensive student voice research by John Corrigan of Group 8 Education identified the top six characteristics of a great teacher from a student’s point of view:
My teacher respects me;
My teacher is knowledgeable in their subject;
My teacher is friendly, approachable and willing to listen;
My teacher is positive, enthusiastic and has a sense of humour;
My teacher encourages and helps me to succeed;
In class I do work that is interesting and challenging for me.

It sounds easy to be a good teacher, doesn’t it? Ask your students and I bet you a year’s salary they will give you the same answer. Group 8′s most recent research publication is well worth reading

We know what it takes to be a good school. Two of my favourite educational thinkers are Sir Tim Brighouse and Chris Husbands and between them they articulate how to set up a good school and how to improve our school system respectively.

We have to stop guessing about what works. Our budget is getting tighter and tighter; the forthcoming rise in National Insurance contributions will help matters not a jot. It is even more important, then, that every penny we have left to spend impacts positively upon improving the quality of teaching and student outcomes.

We need to know ensure that knowledge about what exactly helps children learn impacts upon our classroom practice. We haven’t got the money to experiment wildly to find out what works, and we don’t need to. Improving teaching is about working deliberately at the margins of our practice. At Huntington we use our educated intuition about what works, alongside the relevant educational research, to shape our school improvement strategies. We focus heavily upon implementation of strategies and we evaluate, evaluate, evaluate. It is a model we are refining with the help of Dr Jonathan Sharples, who is currently working with the Education Endowment Foundation. If you want to find out more about how we are becoming a (cost-efficient) research-centred school – and hear some brilliant speakers to boot – then please come to the NTEN/ResearchEd conference we are hosting on 3 May. A Bank Holiday weekend away in the UK’s most romantic city with Tom Bennett and Helene Galdin-O’Shea thrown in – you know it makes sense!


Posted in School Leadership, Teaching and Learning | 7 Comments

This much I know about…trying to improve my teaching deliberately

I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about trying to improve my teaching deliberately.

I think you have to teach, no matter how demanding the role of Headteacher has become. And I don’t mean cherry-picking the small Year 13 class, I mean teach the tough classes, team teach, teach out of your subject if necessary. Whilst I am gut-wrenchingly worried about the school’s headline figures on results days, I always sneak a look at my own students’ results first!

Teaching out of your subject is difficult for several reasons. I’m a numerate English teacher. In fact I’m a mathematician at heart, but I have spent twenty-five years teaching English. I find teaching Economics A level demanding because I don’t have the extra depth of knowledge to draw upon that teaching English for decades has given me in an English classroom. Furthermore, I can absolutely understand how students find English difficult and can use my imagination to tweak my teaching accordingly to meet the needs of the least literate student; with Economics, however, because it seems so simply obvious to me I cannot always comprehend why anyone would find it so hard to fathom. It’s important, then, that I work even harder at improving my teaching when I’m out of my comfort zone teaching Economics…

Improving your teaching requires deliberate practice. In a couple of my posts I have reflected upon my own teaching: one where I was graded Good when I thought the lesson was Outstanding and the other which illustrated my sometimes disastrous, sometimes comical, body language.  I know that my enthusiasm, my body language and my designation can make me a bit intimidating at times so I have been working consciously for the past year upon improving my body language and softening my tone of voice. Yesterday I taped myself teaching three hours of Economics A level and watching the footage has been a bittersweet experience.

The secret to improving at a skill is to retain some degree of conscious control over it while practising…to force oneself to stay out of autopilot. Joshua Foer’s reflections are worth holding in your head whilst watching me try very consciously to control my body language – especially my hands – and soften my speech during this short Q&A session with my Year 13s yesterday morning. We were reflecting upon the fifth anniversary of the decision to lower the base rate of interest to 0.5%. I had split the class into four groups – mortgage payers, savers, businesses and bankers – and asked them to reflect upon what five years of all-time low interest rates had been like for them.


I have consciously taken to sitting on a desk edge rather than towering over students. I have also deliberately clasped my hands on my knee so that I do not point at students too often – although Jake gets a quick flash of index finger early on! My tone of voice is softened and gentle, with a less querulous tone than usual. All of this is challenging to do because my modus operandi when questioning students is naturally high-energy and pacy, keeping students on their toes. Whilst I am questioning the students I am simultaneously thinking hard about controlling hands, body and voice box. It’s hard work!

Progress is spiky for all learners. In the same way that we understand that students do not make linear progress, so it is for me and my teaching. In the afternoon I was explaining from the board the Interest Rate Transmission Mechanism to my Year 12s.

ir 1


This is still Q&A but combined with explanation. Things are pacier and more urgent and my body language sometimes lets me down, but it is still gentler than a few weeks ago.


There is a funny moment at c.1.30 where I look like a heron jabbing away at a minnow; somehow I have this slightly jutty head movement which I just have to eradicate!

 Great Blue Heron

The pace is deliberately quicker than the Y13 lesson and I’m happy with way that Stevo and Andy reinforce the learning after my expositions of the two versions of the interest rate mechanism. The urgency works here without intimidating the students. Where I do use body language it is aimed deliberately to be more encouraging. Ryan, who defined Property Equity at c.3.13 in response to my hip-sway cajoling, is the same Ryan who was completely struck dumb by me holding the silence in my last post.

There’s always something to learn when you watch yourself teach. When it comes to improving our teaching, our IRIS camera is becoming one of the most important bits of kit in school. Watching this second clip there are three moments when I get to the end of an exposition and my concluding comment, which should summarise the learning with some memorable sharpness, is completely lame. It’s clear I just haven’t thought it through beforehand. Something like “And so this shows us how the Monetary Policy Committee’s decision to change the interest rate can have an effect upon the main elements of Aggregate Demand, giving them a way to control demand in the economy – if demand is too high they can raise interest rates to dampen demand and if demand is too low they can lower interest rates to stimulate demand” is what’s required. Instead I say something like, “It’s just super isn’t it?” (c.1.45) or “Good, so you can see how that works” (c.2.25) or “Can we see now the links?” (c.4.26). No prizes for guessing what I am going to be working on next…

Posted in School Leadership, Teaching and Learning | 5 Comments

This much I know about…the trouble with educational research

I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about the trouble with educational research.

Why How

Like my imaginary teacher, Masie Tubbs, the vast majority of teachers do a good job, but it is their job not an obsession. They work really hard, they juggle work and home, they get everything done as well as they can considering the demands upon them. They have years of experience, they have pretty well mastered the pedagogic basics, it’s a job they do with assured competence. They help develop responsible citizens, the examination results are good, the students’ destinations are promising. They like the students, the students like them, the parents are happy.  So why would someone like Masie Tubbs feel particularly compelled to take the time to read educational research to improve her teaching at the margins of pedagogy? It’s what I call the Masie Tubbs problem and we have to solve it if we are going to increase the influence of educational research on students’ outcomes in our schools.


The educational Twitter world is very small. Those of us who blog and exchange ideas about education through Twitter are part of a small close-knit community; even a big hitter like @learningspy only has 15,000 followers, not all of whom will be teachers. Tom Bennett and Helene Galding-O’Shea’s ResearchEd 2013 conference saw a relatively small number of research-inspired teachers gather together and form what could develop into a foundation upon which to build a research-informed profession. Ben Goldacre, in his key-note speech that day, talked about what can be achieved in a decade or two, a generation or three: how teachers and researchers can network to find out what works and to do it. It will take time and spods. People like me are, according to Goldacre, spods and if we are going to see evidence-based practice widespread in teaching we’ll need few more spods yet…

(with thanks to @eyebeams)

From the Urban Dictionary, SPOD: n. Chiefly British Slang
One who spends an inordinate amount of time exchanging remarks in computer chatrooms or participating in discussions in newsgroups or on bulletin boards. Words related to spod: Geek; Nerd; boredom.

Remember the bleedin’ obvious. Teacher research has to address questions to which teachers really need an answer. It’s pointless doing research which ticks the research box but which doesn’t improve the impact of teaching upon students’ learning.

Isolating a variable is a tricky business. Undertaking research in a way that is methodologically sound is very difficult. Partnerships with professional researchers are critical if teachers are going to complete research which has any value…

Understanding the validity and import of research findings is another thing altogether. Even if we read the research, how do we know if it can help us, or whether it’s worth anything anyway? Alex Quigley’s excellent posts here and here on just this conundrum are a must read if you are interested in using research to inform your practice.

Some of the most influential research is influential because it is well-packaged. Inside the Black Box had a snappy title and it was a wonderfully thin, easily-read pamphlet. Carol Dweck has repackaged her Mindset work in a best-selling book. Marketing research effectively is a crucial part of winning over the hearts and minds of teachers.

dweck book

One side of A4 maximum. If we are going to encourage Masie Tubbs to read research then we have to make the research easily accessible…

Tick boxes are really helpful. If we have established that a certain practice has a positive impact on student outcomes and if we all adopted it students would benefit significantly, then create a simple way for teachers to check they have adopted it until it becomes hard-wired into their brains. Fullan is a big checklist fan and so am I…

It’s that Bentley mantra again! If we want to increase the influence of research and develop evidence-based policy making then we need to change our structures. We are mid-way through a SLT restructure and at the heart of the new Director of Teaching and Learning’s brief is developing research-informed practice, working vertically within Huntington (green) and horizontally across collaborations regionally and nationally (yellow).


Research-led schools are hard to find. Tom Sherrington’s school seems to have systematically embedded research within the school’s DNA; their Learning Lessons website is well worth a look.

How do we learn how to teach? I’m lamenting the orchestrated dismantling of the university PGCE. The ITT courses at the University of York, for instance, are extraordinarily good compared to my training on the PGCE English course at the University of Sussex in the late ’80s. The PGCE at York has a research project as an integral element of the course. The course designers deliberately highlight the importance of being able to interpret and undertake educational research: teachers as learners from the outset – it’s the only way and whatever is replacing the modern university-based PGCE must have a distinct research element if we are going to have a research-informed profession in a decade or two, a generation or three.

Masie Tubbs or Jen Ludgate? Maybe we shouldn’t worry too much about Masie Tubbs. Maybe it’s young teachers like Jen Ludgate, in her second year of teaching, already Assistant Leader of the English Faculty, co-director of #TLT2013 who we should be inspiring to engage in a meaningful and sustained way with educational research. Inspire her now and she might be inspired to be research-savvy for a whole career; she’s more important than me as well, me with only ten career-years left. Don’t inspire her and, as Rivkin, Hanushek and Kain established through their own research, she’s unlikely to consciously improve her practice significantly for the rest of her career: There appear to be important gains in teaching quality in the first year of experience and smaller gains over the next few career years. However, there is little evidence that improvements continue after the first three years.

Posted in General educational issues, School Leadership, Teaching and Learning | 18 Comments

This much I know about…daffodils

I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about daffodils.

The only way to make your cut flowers last is to keep them out of the sun, away from radiators and change their water on a daily basis. You wouldn’t stand on the mantelpiece sipping yesterday’s bath water, would you?

Dennis Madden, flower seller, 54, London


Daffodils are important. They are beautiful because they are here with us fleetingly. They symbolise for me both the beginning of spring time and the impermanence of things. Rather than Wordsworth, if you have never met with Gillian Clarke’s poem, here it is. It forms part of one of my most remarked upon assemblies…

Miracle on St David’s Day

“They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude”
The Daffodils by W. Wordsworth

An afternoon yellow and open-mouthed
with daffodils. The sun treads the path
among cedars and enormous oaks.
It might be a country house, guests strolling,
the rumps of gardeners between nursery shrubs.

I am reading poetry to the insane.
An old woman, interrupting, offers
as many buckets of coal as I need.
A beautiful chestnut-haired boy listens
entirely absorbed. A schizophrenic

on a good day, they tell me later.
In a cage of first March sun, a woman
sits not listening, not seeing, not feeling.
In her neat clothes the woman is absent.
A big, mild man is tenderly led

to his chair. He has never spoken.
His labourer’s hands on his knees, he rocks
gently to the rhythms of the poems.
I read to their presences, absences,
to the big, dumb labouring man as he rocks.

He is suddenly standing, silently,
huge and mild, but I feel afraid. Like slow
movement of spring water or the first bird
of the year in the breaking darkness
the labourer’s voice recites “The Daffodils”.

The nurses are frozen, alert; the patients
seem to listen. He is hoarse but word-perfect.
Outside the daffodils are still as wax,
a thousand, ten thousand their syllables
unspoken, their creams and yellows still.

Forty years ago, in a Valleys school,
the class recited poetry by rote.
Since the dumbness of misery fell
he has remembered there was a music
of speech and that once he had something to say.

When he’s done, before the applause, we observe
the flower’s silence. A thrush sings
and the daffodils are flame.

Posted in Other stuff | 1 Comment

This much I know about…why we should stop intervening and focus upon improving the quality of teaching

I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about why we should stop intervening and focus upon improving the quality of teaching.


This is my first ever request post. I loved reading a post by @DHTJohn on the corrosive nature of examination run-in interventions. I wish I had written it. When I complimented him @LeeDonaghy and @ieshasmall asked me to write about why I have all but stopped Year 11 interventions…

First clarify your terms. When I was Headteacher at Lady Lumley’s School we invented the concept of PIRA: Prevention, Intervention and Raising Achievement. The definitions of these three different things are important:

  • Prevention: all the great teaching that we do in class to make sure that all our students stay on track, preventing anyone falling behind;
  • Intervention: direct interventions for those individual students who, despite all our great classroom teaching, have fallen behind due, quite often, to circumstances largely beyond our control;
  • Raising Achievement: our generic programme of preparation for examinations that raises achievement more generally.

It follows that if you get your teaching right you won’t need to intervene very much.

As Alex Ferguson would say, It’s squeaky bum time! My half-term present from my excellent student progress-tracking colleague Mike was the news that our headline 2014 GCSE figures might not be quite as good as last year. Unless you are a Headteacher you’ll never quite feel the full impact of that news: the stiffening tension in the forearms; the waking up at 3 am without knowing why; and for me specifically – and bizarrely – rather than squeaks, it’s always been pins and needles in my backside.

In the run up to the summer examinations too many Headteachers think more is more. And I understand why they think that. I used to think it. I have written at length about what I did when our GCSE results were in decline. It’s a wretched feeling and the instinct is to pile on the Year 11 interventions relentlessly; all that does, however, is make everyone miserable and allow you, as Headteacher, to say to Governors in September, I know the results are mediocre, but look at all the work we put in – we couldn’t have done any more! Extending the rear-metaphor, this is also known as covering our backsides.


As Headteacher you need to listen. After our poor examination results in 2010 @HuntingEnglish vented his frustrations at having worked so hard for so little in a document which was a precursor to his now renowned blog. Alex called it The Conundrum of CK and in it he focused upon a student who should have gained a grade B in English Language but he attained a grade D in the end of it all. It is a seminal document in the history of our school in many ways and is reproduced verbatim below.

It takes courage to swim against the tide. In September 2010 I wrote a response to our examination results and Alex’s outpouring. These are the most important lines:

Last year we wore ourselves thin preparing Year 11 for their GCSEs. We must not do the same this year because if we continue to do what we have always done, we will get the same results: our approach this year must be different. Last year we started our interventions too early, such as extra English and Mathematics lessons after school in January and by the time of the examinations in June both staff and students were exhausted by the attritional nature of engagement over the previous six months. We must also ask ourselves the question, Why do some students think, when they have seven hours of English lessons in Years 10 and 11 a fortnight, that ten one hour lessons, one a week leading up to the examinations, held after school when they and their teachers are tired, will suddenly transform them from D grade students to C grade students and make up for their lack of effort in their seven hours of lessons a fortnight over the past 18 months? We have to stop encouraging students to be helpless; it does us no good and, most importantly, it does the students no good in the long-term either. We have to make this change systematically; over the next three years we need to get away from the Year 11 examination run-in frenzy. We have to look at current Year 7s and Year 8s and imagine them being more independent and engaged with learning because they see the relevance of it and can envision their futures. We want to inspire confident learners who will thrive in a changing world.

Those Year 8s I write of are the Year 11s who attained 75% 5 A*-C GCSE grades in 2013…

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Interventions breed learned helplessness. The paragraph in my piece about one of our G50 mentors, Chris Gadsby, is priceless:

[Chris] commented that all three of his students were looking forward to the extra revision sessions the departments were putting on and were looking forward to being made to attend the sessions by staff.  What these comments confirm is that students need to realise that their ordinary week by week timetabled lessons are the most important thing in preparing for their examinations; extra revision sessions are not the great panacea!

Less is more. I still get pins and needles in my backside and so we will always have a finger upon our Year 11 pulse! The key is, however, that we do not have any compulsory after school sessions; what we do provide for students is well-targeted at a small number of specific individuals. I do not want to add to teachers’ workloads. The programme is led by SLT and no-one outside SLT is expected to do any more than teach great lessons during lesson time.

It’s the day-to-day teaching that matters. If you are still not convinced, here are my reflections on my 2010 lunchtime mathematics mentoring sessions:

In the short term, we have to put the emphasis back on what goes on in the classroom in timetabled lessons. The vast majority of our extraordinary efforts in preparing our students for their examinations must be focused upon the classroom. Instead of me acting as a pseudo-mathematics teacher during lunchtimes for JG et al (during one of our algebraic lunchtimes one of the group I was mentoring last year said, Sir, this is really draining me…), the support from SLT should be directed to JG’s mathematics teacher in the classroom.

Frenetic interventions are wearing teachers and students out: just make the lessons count!

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