This much I know about…why I’m excited about the new school year

I have been a teacher for 26 years, a Headteacher for 11 years and, at the age of 50, this much I know about why I’m excited about the new school year.


I’m stuck. I’ve been writing a book called, HEAD Teacher: Why headteachers should be the HEAD teacher in their schools, and I can’t finish it because it all seems so bleedin’ obvious. What else should Headteachers be doing than being actively involved in improving teaching in their schools? By writing this short post, I’m hoping that I’ll unstuck myself!


How do students learn? At the moment I’m struggling with the sense that, until now, I’ve never properly understood the cognitive processes which occur when students learn. And if that is true, how can I have been planning lessons which create the best conditions for learning? I’m excited about returning to school because I think I can become a much better teacher this year.

Real student learning isn’t anything very exciting to watch; so said one of my most experienced colleagues recently during her Performance Management review. And after reading books by Willingham, Nuthall and Berger I reckon she’s about right.

I think it is good to live in a constant state of uncertainty. Chris Husbands warns that whatever one piece of research claims, there will be another piece of research making contradictory claims. There is a lot of discussion at the moment about the role of memory in students’ learning: Willingham claims that, Memory is the residue of thought; according to Eric R. Kandel, M.D. recipient of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on the molecular basis of memory, There is no memory without learning but there is learning without memory; and the School of Public Health & Health Professions, University of Buffalo claims that, Without memory, there can be no learning.  I’ve always subscribed to the view that there is no learning without memory, but, as you can see, it’s all so much more complex than that!

If I do something new this year, then it will be to challenge students to improve their memories. Combining all I’ve read with all I have learnt about learning after 26 years of teaching, I think we can all develop our memories; it just takes some effort. The University of Buffalo link gives some great tips about improving memory and Willingham’s book is good on the implications of all this for pedagogy.

Method of loci works for me. I know the Electro-magnetic spectrum through attaching its elements in the correct sequence to locations on the journey from my bed to my car, beginning with the radio which wakes me up (Radio Waves) the Microwave oven which cooks my porridge (Microwaves) etc. I love this short clip from Sherlock as he secures key information in his memory using his Mind Palace:

My priority for this year is nailing the day job. And that starts with becoming a better teacher myself.

Posted in Teaching and Learning | 6 Comments

This much I know about…the nature of power

I have been a teacher for 26 years, a Headteacher for 11 years and, at the age of 50, this much I know about the nature of power.

Once or twice in life you make a wholly unexpected, yet highly significant, connection with an individual: so it was for me with Eduardo, our tour guide in Havana. An ex-teacher, I gave him my copy of Why Don’t Students Like School.




I always believed the aphorism, Power corrupts (and absolute power corrupts absolutely) to be true. Well, now I’m not so sure. On the way to Havana Eduardo happened to cite Frei Betto, a Catholic Priest and Liberation Theologian, who said this: Power does not corrupt; power reveals you as you are…

Old school is sometimes best. I contemplated purchasing a new SLR camera for the trip to Cuba, especially as I was about to turn fifty. However, the shop assistant made me feel so hopeless in the shadow of his overwhelming expertise that I decided instead to tidy up my twenty-eight year old manual Minolta, buy a couple of reels of black & white film and stick to what I know. Here’s a glimpse of Havana through my SLR’s 50 mm fixed lens.


Havana’s water system


boys footie

The ubiquitous Beckham



Seat covers at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba



Early morning at the HNC


Road up to HNC



 Car enhanced

The (American) symbol of Cuba…


gangsters enhanced




Our cab driver Moises


It’s not all romance, however, as Simon Reeve illustrates quite beautifully…

Posted in Other stuff, School Leadership | 5 Comments

This much I know about…Michael Gove’s departure

I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about Michael Gove’s departure.

Michael Gove could have won me over. Back in early 2013 he was asked at a National College event whether he had won over the hearts and minds of Headteachers and he replied something like, Well, I’ve made some progress, but I don’t think I’ve won over Heads like John Tomsett… He was only partially right.

For all his renowned intellect, Michael Gove didn’t seem to have the nouse to understand that people can hold contradictory views simultaneously: I am co-leading an EEF Randomised Controlled Trial into the efficacy of research in schools, but I have also authorised the teaching of a new Happiness course to Year 10 from this September which has no evidence base supporting it whatsoever. The thing is, there are a number of key educational issues upon which Michael Gove and I agree. His problem was that I didn’t agree with him upon every educational issue. And as I wasn’t entirely with him, I must have been, in his eyes, against him. I was an Enemy of Promise. I was a paid up member of The Blob. I was a bad Headteacher, as he implied in an interview with Allegra Stratton recently…

I have quietly bemoaned the decline in academic rigour of the English Literature A level examination over the last thirty years. In 1982 I studied, amongst others, these challenging texts from the English literary canon: Eliot’s Mill on the Floss, Hardy’s Return of the Native, Chaucer’s The General Prologue and The Wife of Bath’s Tale, Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and Love’s Labour’s Lost, Seamus Heaney’s Selected Poems 1965-1975, all examined in closed book, three hour, terminal examinations, sans coursework. I still recite the opening scene of Antony and Cleopatra to anyone who will listen. Heaney himself loved my annotations when he signed my A level copy of his poems last year.


When I began teaching A level literature my aim was to teach my students to be active readers of literary texts and to understand the delicate but essential relationship between form and content. Somehow, the study of literature at A level has morphed into a formulaic exercise best exemplified by the quite appalling  Aspects of Narrative unit of the current AQA course. It’s not our students’ fault; they can only study what they are presented with. No, the decline in rigour is down to a whole range of factors, including the dire consequences for all of us should our students fail. You see? Michael Gove and I both know things aren’t like they used to be!

Michael Gove and I love international education systems. For the past four years we have offered the International Baccalaureate Diploma whose English syllabus is as close as you’ll find to my A level of three decades ago. Trouble is, as post 16 funding cuts have begun to hurt school sixth forms, we have just seen our last, very successful, cohort of IBD students finish the course; from September, for purely financial reasons, we’re back to A levels only. (Since I published this post ten minutes ago, it has been announced by the DfE that funding for the IBD will be enhanced by £800 per student…too late for the state school students in the north east corner of York. A cynical move with electoral motivations? I could weep.)

I admired Michael Gove’s courage to oversee the first fall in GCSE and A level pass rates for two generations. I remember being in a Local Authority Headteachers’ meeting in 2009, when Ed Balls, then Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, had declared that on the twenty-odd KPIs he had defined for schools to measure our performance, we were not allowed to set targets for next year which were lower than the previous year’s targets. I exploded, to the discomfort of all present, exclaiming, We don’t work with wood and steel, we work with human beings! When did we start living in a Stalinist state?!

Whenever I have met Michael Gove, he has been politeness itself. The thing is, I’ve never been convinced of his sincerity or that he ever really listened to anything I, or my colleagues, have said. And I’m probably in the minority when I say I have never been entirely convinced that his championing of the deprived children of this land is wholly authentic. Remember, for the last four years he has been an influential minister in a government which was criticised recently by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission in a report which concluded that, The statutory goal of ending child poverty by 2020 will in all likelihood be missed by a considerable margin, perhaps by as many as 2 million children. Furthermore, as Vic Goddard wrote, His dismissal of vocational qualifications was also extremely damaging to young people: I absolutely deplore his message that it’s better to be a doctor than a plumber and that you’re only valuable if you go to university. Sometimes he speaks as though he has no real sense of what faces the poorest families in our country today.

Michael Gove is a Shakespearean tragic hero in that his greatest strength was his undoing. His passion for education sometimes manifested itself as ideological arrogance. This one-time B-movie actor, comedian and journalist thought he knew better than thousands of experienced practitioners. In the end it was the ideologue, rather than the committed educationalist, who seems to have got him the sack.

Teaching is a mass employment profession. This is something Michael Gove forgot. There are 451,000 FTE teachers in the UK. You can only improve an education system by improving the quality of teaching, something difficult to do if, as the ultimate leader of those 451,000 teachers, you lose their trust.

If you want to achieve something significant, on a large scale, you have to take people with you, something Michael Gove just did not understand. In one of my earlier posts about preparing for an OFSTED inspection, I make this point about trusting my teacher colleagues: Headteachers need to trust their colleagues more than ever. At our school we deliver over 2,000 lessons each week; I cannot teach them all, so what I have to do is develop my colleagues in a safe school environment which allows them to thrive professionally and personally. It’s the only way to a decent OFSTED inspection. It’s the only way I will keep my job. If he’d followed my advice, Michael Gove might have kept his job too.

Posted in General educational issues | 17 Comments

This much I know about…where my poetry comes from

I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about where my poetry comes from.

If you listen carefully, people’s stories can be the raw material of poetry. This sonnet I wrote twenty-five years ago derived from my friend Kate’s recollection of her father and his ink pen, told to me as we drove to work together.


for Kate


His choice of pen remained the same

From undergraduate Cambridge days

To signing his headmaster’s name -

A Waterman in mottled beige.

The cursive blacksmith’s art had honed

The ink-filled gold into a tool

For use by him and him alone -

His hand made them inseparable.


Gold outlasts all.  The pen was left

A legacy, bequeathed to her

Whose writing pleased the family most:

But straining through the unknown curves

It snapped, to leave the nib’s new host

Mourning afresh, doubly bereft.


Sometimes my poetry radar is activated without any warning whatsoever. Last week, just as I was leaving work, I got chatting to John, one of our Site Supervisors. Fishing is our common bond: he told me about how, when he had crossed the mist-shrouded River Ouse early that morning, he was reminded of his dawn-start fishing trips with his dad fifty years ago. His reminiscences were a sonnet waiting to be written.



for John


His old man crossed the landing to his room

And, careful not to wake the eldest son,

He whispered to the youngest through the gloom

The needless exhortation, “John, come on.

The weather’s good.” And like two guilty thieves

They rode unnoticed through the early dawn;

A getaway on bikes along York’s streets

To Puncture Bridge. The morning mist adorned

The slow, resplendent Ouse – just like this June,

Fifty years on. Those stolen early starts,

Sat with his dad beneath the fading moon,

Were when he learnt the expert angler’s art:

When to strike, how to read the river’s flow –

Such things that only fishermen can know.


I toyed with Lineage as the title, but I think Fishing Lines is subtler. I worked really hard on making the octave and the sestet merge into each other, mirroring the relationship between his memories of the past and the present. Originally the first three lines of the sestet saw June rhyme with summer’s bloom, but that didn’t quite work and clashed with the room/gloom rhyme of the octave. When I worked on the June/moon rhyme suddenly it all came clear; a great example of form establishing meaning. I was reminded of Billy Bragg’s line in Tank Park Salute, his song to his father:

Some photographs of a summer’s day

A little boy’s lifetime away

Is all I’ve left of everything we’ve done

Like a pale moon in a sunny sky

Death gazes down as I pass by

To remind me that I’m but my father’s son


John and I also agreed that the poem reminded us of the Mr Crabtree cartoon strip from 1949. A couple of the images from the strip on Google are remarkably apposite!




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This much I know about…what Year 7 pupils’ parents really worry about (and why your keepy-uppy skills really matter!)

I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about what Year 7 pupils’ parents really worry about (and why your keepy-uppy skills really matter!).

I am convinced that the best pastoral care for students from socio-economically deprived backgrounds is a good set of examination results. I thought I’d state that clearly at the outset just in case I get attacked for being blobby and soft and someone seriously suggests that I should be sacked for writing what follows.

You can only be as happy as your unhappiest child. This ubiquitous mantra may have become a cliché, but if you do have children you will know it possesses more than a grain of truth. We worry about our children’s happiness endlessly.

When my sons went to secondary school above everything else I just wanted them to have a few good friends. I believed that academic success would only follow once they were emotionally secure at school. Don’t get me wrong – my sons’ academic success matters hugely to me, but only in the context that academic success will give them greater choice in life and so, perhaps, greater chance of being happy.

When reshaping the curriculum in these times of tumultuous change, you must begin with the type of education you want for your students. Next year all our Year 10s will be taught our new Happiness course for one hour a week. It has been conceived by our Religion, Philosophy and Ethics teacher Robin Parmiter, one half of @DiscoMisterUK, and was developed last autumn when Robin enjoyed a two-days a week sabbatical at the Farmington Institute. Students will learn about how some of the world’s greatest thinkers – including my favourites, The Stoics – have wrestled with the concept of happiness. They will then reflect upon what they want from life in order to be happy in preparation for the most important examinations of their lives.

Our school’s core purpose is to inspire confident leaners who will thrive in a changing world. I received this email on Friday which confirmed two things for me: firstly, that we are getting ever closer to fulfilling our core purpose and secondly that students feeling safe and happy is the bedrock of an academically successful school.

From: Peter Smith’s mum*

Sent: 18 July 2014 11:20

To: Mail

Subject: END OF YEAR

Dear Mr Tomsett

My son, Peter Smith will today finish his first year at Huntington School.

I am a very anxious mother, Peter being my oldest boy of three.

I imagined he would miss the bus, he would forget his sports kit, he would not know his way round the school.

None of these things happened – quite the opposite.

I am extremely proud of his first year with you, his progression in his education, his aptitude for taking on new subjects and ideas, his enthusiasm in areas I never imagined.

I feel content and enthused every day he comes to school, knowing he is safe, he is happy and he is growing into a (rather hormonal) confident young man.

As parents, we are quick to pick up on faults – I feel it is important to also share thanks.

So thank you Mr Tomsett, thank your staff and how jealous I am that you can do so many keepy uppies in your work shoes…… Peter has a whole new level of respect for you. (I coach football and can only manage 11 keepy uppies)**

Enjoy the summer.

Mrs Smith

*Names have been changed

**When I was on lunch duty the other day, a student’s football broke to me and, unable to resist the ever-present inner-child, I did a few faultless keepy-ups and thumped the ball left-footed forcing a great save from the keeper.


Posted in General educational issues, School Leadership | 10 Comments

This much I know about…what a Growth Mindset culture looks like for real


I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about what a Growth Mindset culture looks like for real.


Growth mindset


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This much I know about…finding out what really works when it comes to educational research in schools

I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about finding out what really works when it comes to educational research in schools.

eef-logo-small  Huntington-School-York  cem_1  IOE-logo-400x168

Do you want to find out what really works?

At a time of shifting tectonic plates in the educational landscape, the evidence provided by high quality research could prove to be a defining factor for school improvement and student success. Our research focus is to train outstanding internally-appointed Research-leads in schools to support the improvement of students’ attainment in English and mathematics GCSE.

Can research provide us with the crucial golden thread that connects school leadership decisions through to successful student outcomes? We think it can and this trial can help prove it.

Do you want to be part of a hugely exciting, and nationally prestigious Randomised Controlled Trial that could shift the landscape of school improvement and benefit the life-chances of students in our schools?

A detailed FAQs document for our project can be found below; further details can be found on the Education Endowment Foundation website:

Expressions of interest should be sent to:


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