This much I know about…Northern Rocks 2014

I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about Northern Rocks 2014.


It takes time to grow into the North. In my first term as a Headteacher, when a highly anticipated blizzard seemed to have arrived on the North Yorkshire Moors midway through period 1, I summoned the buses and sent everyone home by midday; the sun duly beat down upon a spring-like afternoon and a colleague rang me late in the evening, emboldened by a pub lunch, a long country walk and her third glass of wine, to tell me the staff thought that the southern city-boy had gone too early.

You live on the border. That’s a line from Simon Armitage’s book, All Points North. I’ve spent my life living on borders: I stood with the smokers at school but never smoked; I loved the punk mosh-pit but played county golf; I live in the Roman capital of the north, but I’m a southerner…the dangerous edge of things: the honest thief, the tender murderer, the superstitious atheist.

With apologies to Heaney, I feel like, An inner émigré, grown grey-haired/And thoughtful.

The borders between the current educational dichotomies were in clear view today at Northern Rocks 2014. From being welcomed by The Socialist Workers Party newspaper sellers to Dominic Cummings’ unbridled libertarianism, the event oozed tension. I loved the catholic nature of the day, the divergent views, the emerging challenge to the new right of centre orthodoxy.

Coincidence? Both on the same day, one in Leeds, one in London:

logo NR           Policy-Exchange-Logoroad%20to%202015%20static%20showcase-01_b547a5c3fe1ac11820c4dc121678db15

Less is more. I try to take a small number of things from a day like today, when so many ideas are given up to us. So here are the six golden Northern Nuggets of wisdom I took home this evening:

1. Be even bolder about shaping our own destiny because the politicians really have no idea what they are doing – Dominic Cummings;

2. Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching: Evaluation Instrument is a must-find document – Professor Rob Coe;

3. Pair up your A level mathematics teachers and get them to teach each other the elements of the A level specification they find the most difficult – Tom Sherrington;

4. Imagineering is letting your imagination soar, and then engineering it down to earth – Hywel Roberts;

5. When you’re talking at an event like this, there’s no need for nerves because your audience is on your side – my talk;

6. If Rachel Orr picks up a microphone, listen!

Northern Rocks 2014 left me feeling like Harold Whittle in this 1943 photograph from Hywel’s presentation – it’s the precise moment Harold could hear for the first time ever, courtesy of a newly-fitted hearing aid!

The photo, taken by photographer Jack Bradley, shows the moment that Harold Whittles hears for the first time after being fitted with a hearing aid

Emma and Debra made a huge contribution to the teaching profession today and helped five hundred delegates grow more confident in reclaiming autonomy over their own pedagogy; from a southern man to two northern women – thank you, thank you, thank you!

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This much I know about…why I agree absolutely with Michael Gove

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 I agree absolutely with Michael Gove.

I agree absolutely with Michael Gove when he says, There need be no difference in performance – none whatsoever – between pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and those from wealthier homes…a difficult start in life can be overcome, with hard work and good teaching.

I have no truck with the working class hero cliché; however, just for this post, I need to provide some autobiographical detail. My dad left school at 14 to become a messenger boy, the prelude to becoming a life-long postman. He could read but rarely wrote. My mum fell ill when just 13 and never completed her formal education. She resorted to being a cleaner and she did for Mrs Wilkins in the village. I have two brothers and two sisters. A family of seven, living in a two up, two down council house: my sisters shared a bedroom, just as I did with my brothers. Our parents slept on a pull-out bed in the front room. With an outside loo we had a wee-bucket in our boys’ bedroom at night which, all too frequently, got knocked over and stained the polystyrene tiles on the front room ceiling below. Not once, in my journey from council house to the Headteacher’s office, did I ever feel disadvantaged; not once did I perceive a barrier between me and a graduate career. I worked hard and, by any measure, I am the type of social mobility success story Michael Gove would surely admire.


Sunday Times or the Observer? Last weekend I bought the former and was confronted by its eponymous Rich List; today I taught income inequality to my Year 13 Economics group having copied Will Hutton’s recent article on the subject. Reading the latter, I suddenly realised why I find it difficult to imagine our students from the most deprived backgrounds ever making the transition from the council estate to the peak of one of the professions as I have done. And it’s not because I’m of the Blob or an enemy of promise…it’s because of the data provided by this graph which shows the share of the UK’s income going to the top 10% of the country’s earners.


I began my secondary education in 1975, the very year that the UK was at its most equal in the past 100 years. By 1984 five years of Thatcherism had increased income inequality in the UK significantly, but not to such an extent that I was deterred from embarking upon a degree course: I enjoyed a full grant and tuition fees were unimaginable. Looking at the graph, it’s hard to disagree with Neil Kinnock when he said in 2007, “I think that Tony is impressed by wealth.” In 2014 the UK boasts levels of income inequality not seen since Victorian times, whilst income redistribution becomes increasingly ineffective as tax rates are reduced for the richest and the welfare budget is cut. It’s a fact that Britain’s five richest families are worth more than the poorest 20%.


If the UK were more equal, we’d all be better off as a population; that’s the conclusion of Professors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their seminal text on the socially corrosive effects of income inequality, The Spirit Level. If one of our boys I spoke to yesterday, who is talented, good-looking, charming, funny, but with a chaotic home life, is going to thrive in an increasingly socially immobile world we have to give boys like him personalised, aspirationally different experiences. Doing what we have always done is nowhere near enough anymore.

The impact of  income inequality upon people is indelible. York is one of the UK’s richest cities; it is also one of its most unequal cities and the income gap between the richest and the poorest continues to grow. Recently I wrote an article for our local paper on what might help eradicate child poverty from a Headteacher’s perspective; this is the email I received the day after it was published:

email poverty

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This much I know about…what happens when you can’t Think Correctly Under Pressure

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 happens when you can’t Think Correctly Under Pressure.


I recently wrote a post about Sir Clive Woodward and how he drills his teams to Think Correctly Under Pressure. What follows is a classic example of a team which failed to T-CUP just when it really mattered.

Last Tuesday night Liverpool played Crystal Palace and the match ended in a 3-3 draw. Liverpool began the evening joint top of the Premier League with Manchester City, with both teams having just two games left to play, but with City having a far superior goal difference. The priority for Liverpool in the Crystal Palace match was to win the game and, by so doing, set Manchester City the challenge of winning their next match against Aston Villa the following evening. All Liverpool could do was win their final fixtures and see if City slipped up; there was never a chance of wiping out the City’s huge goal difference advantage. Daniel Taylor said in the Guardian that, Realistically, it was always futile to think they could claw back the goal difference that had established Manchester City as favourites for the league.

After 78 minutes Liverpool were leading 3-0. They were attacking non-stop in some deluded blur, as though they were going to score something like six more goals to cancel out Manchester City’s superior goal difference. First Glen Johnson, Liverpool’s full-back, ran into the net after Sturridge’s second goal to grab the ball and sprint back to the centre spot to get the game going again in pursuit of more goals. Suarez did the same thing after his goal which made it 3-0 to Liverpool. By 78 minutes players like Johnson had run themselves to a stand-still in the pursuit of more goals when the only thing that really mattered was securing the win.

What happended in the last 12 minutes of the game defied belief: instead of scoring more goals, the exhausted Liverpool defence conceded three goals and the game ended in a 3-3 draw…

Experienced players like Gerard, Suarez and Johnson should have been beacons of calm and ensured that their team collected three points from a seemingly unassailable position. Moreover, Brendan Rodgers should have given clear instructions to slow the game down and secure the win. Rodgers displayed his inexperience and revealed in one utterly clear moment how he has yet to learn how to Think Correctly Under Pressure. He should give Sir Clive Woodward a ring.

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This much I know about…a brief distraction from OFSTED, marking and 3 levels of progress!

I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about…a brief distraction from OFSTED, marking and 3 levels of progress!

Colleagues Ian Wilson and Robin Parmiter released their England World Cup song and lifted everyone’s spirits at Huntington this week…


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This much I know about…why we must keep asking questions about Research in Education #NTENRED.

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 must keep asking questions about Research in Education #NTENRED.

I have had an idealised vision of a school culture I want to replicate pinned on my office wall since 1992; yesterday, at the NTEN/ResearchED York 2014 conference, I felt we might just be making some progress towards realising that vision…

I would welcome the chance to work in a school characterised by a high level of collegiality, a place teeming with frequent, helpful personal and professional interactions. I would become excited about life in a school where a climate of risk taking is deliberately fostered and where a safety net protects those who may risk and stumble. I would like to go each day to a school to be with other adults who genuinely wanted to be there, who really chose to be there because of the importance of their work to others and to themselves. I would not want to leave a school characterised by a profound respect for, and encouragement of, diversity, where important differences among children and adults were celebrated rather than seen as problems to remedy. For 190 days each year, I would like to attend an institution that accorded a special place to philosophers who constantly examine and question and frequently replace embedded practices by asking ‘why’ questions. And I could even reside for a while in a laundry dryer if accompanied by a great deal of humour that helps bond the community by assisting everyone through tough moments. I’d like to work in a school that constantly takes note of the stress and anxiety level on the one hand and standards on the other, all the while searching for the optimal relationship of low anxiety and high standards.

- Roland S Barth

Nothing is said that has not been said before. So wrote the Roman playwright Terence and Alex Quigley’s post this morning about yesterday’s NTEN/ResearchED conference at Huntington School articulated nearly all I wanted to say about the event. It might have been the sunshine, it might have been the extraordinarily high quality of the presenters, it might have been the wonderful, generous-spirited delegates, it might have the unbridled commitment of the volunteers and the Huntington School staff – whatever it was, there was magic in the air yesterday. And Emma Ann Hardy’s  #NTENRED People will forget what you say but never how you made them feel captures that sense of something special perfectly.

Compromise is the refuge of the unprincipled. Yet despite everything, uncertainty rules. I discussed David Didau’s dictum at the end of my keynote speech yesterday, which is available below from 16.30 along with my Prezi. I sometimes wish I could be so sure about things.

speaking pic


How do we build evidence into education? Ben Goldacre began this whole ResearchED thing 14 months ago with his paper Building Evidence Into Education; soon afterwards Tom Bennett took up the metaphorical baton and yesterday’s conference was the third in a series of ResearchED conferences, this time co-produced with David Weston’s National Teacher Enquiry Network.

At the ResearchED 2013 last September Ben Goldacre proposed this research eco-system whereby research findings find their way into the hands of teachers.

Copy of evidence based teaching root

Ben’s model has huge merits and if, like he says, in two decades’ time, we have such a model at the centre of a research-based teaching profession, I’d be delighted. What we have to do, however, is keep our eyes on the golden thread from what we do in the classroom to student outcomes; students don’t feature in Ben’s eco-system.


Can our education system benefit from research? At yesterday’s conference Tom demonstrated live his contempt of initiatives like VAK (and I’m sure you’d like to know Tom, if you read this, that during this Spring’s interview season I have had many a candidate mention the importance of VAK when planning lessons!). His was some performance…

tom speakign

Furthermore, he suggested that rather than become researchers ourselves, teachers should engage with researchers’ findings, something Ben Goldacre clearly agreed with last September…

Having undertaken a small piece of research at Huntington into the effectiveness of oral feedback for Year 9 English students, I think I agree with Tom and Ben. I have explained some of the difficulties of undertaking such a piece of research here. And yet…Ron Berger says this about his colleagues who have undertaken research into their own pedagogy.

In the past 10 years I’ve had the privilege of spending time with many teachers who are investigating their practice. The excitement and knowledge that they develop is universal. Just like with students, the pressure that comes with making their work public compels them to put unusual effort and thoughtfulness into their practice.

Is it possible to undertake a research project which has no discernable impact upon your students’ performance but still makes you a more deliberate, reflective practitioner? I do think such a thing is possible, but, like the back of Strummer’s guitar suggests, I’m not certain.

strummer qm guitar

Tom proposed that schools should appoint a Director of Research. Is this the right thing to do? Will it ensure that educational research will get in to the hands of teachers and so improve student outcomes? A few weeks ago we appointed Alex Quigley to be our Director of Research in Teaching and Learning after two months of struggling with shaping a new school leadership team. Here’s the model of that team which places the development of teaching and learning at the heart of what we do.


Is Research in Education the new VAK? Even though we live 200 miles apart I can feel Tom Bennett pushing an 8 on his own personal Richter-scale of irritation! Despite that, it is, for me, a serious question. And it’s why, this coming Tuesday morning, at 9.30 am, I will begin a meeting in my office with Alex Quigley and Professor Rob Coe from the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University to start some serious research into the efficacy of research in education. And when I say the efficacy of research in education, what I mean is, does research in education improve student outcomes. It’s all about the golden thread. Watch this space!




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This much I know about…being taught/how I learnt to teach

I have been a teacher for 25 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about being taught/how I learnt to teach.

Any student can learn how to punctuate through creative writing. That’s a parody, to an extent, but it has more than a grain of truth in relation to the core philosophy of Peter Abbs’ book English Within the Arts. Peter is a deep thinking, fiercely intelligent academic who helped inspire me to write poetry. He taught in a school for three years in the mid-60s and took up his first academic position as a research fellow at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth c.1968. We loved the way he talked: once he wanted us to sit in a semi-circle to watch a video and he said, “Come and sit in a crescent shape…you know, I just can’t stop talking symbolically!” Peter was our English PGCE tutor at the University of Sussex, 1987-88.

I was observed once in my first year. I taught an incredibly tedious lesson where I presented an hour-long slide show – pre-Powerpoint proper photographic slides – on Chaucer to a lower sixth A level literature group; the Local Authority English advisor thought it was “fine”. I subsequently passed my probationary year and was next observed six years later.

I learnt a simple teaching/learning process intuitively. My first ever lesson as a qualified teacher was based on Edward Thomas’ poem “As the team’s head-brass”. If you read nothing else today, read this poem…


As the team’s head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed the angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war.
Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,
And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed
Once more.

The blizzard felled the elm whose crest
I sat in, by a woodpecker’s round hole,
The ploughman said. ‘When will they take it away? ‘
‘When the war’s over.’ So the talk began –
One minute and an interval of ten,
A minute more and the same interval.
‘Have you been out? ‘ ‘No.’ ‘And don’t want to, perhaps? ‘
‘If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm, I shouldn’t want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more…Have many gone
From here? ‘ ‘Yes.’ ‘Many lost? ‘ ‘Yes, a good few.
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.’
‘And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.’ ‘Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.’ Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.

(If we could see all all might seem good – what a wonderfully challenging line for a 16 year old to grapple with! And read Seamus Heaney’s response to Thomas’ poem here.)

I explained the context of the poem. I read it aloud to the students. I explained a small number of crucial aspects of the poem. I asked them to work in threes to identify the three voices in the poem and to prepare a reading for the rest of the class. I then asked them to identify ten questions about the poem they wanted answering, pared the suggestions from the class down to a single set of ten questions and asked them to attempt to answer those questions for homework. Next lesson I went on to support them in writing their first A level literary criticism essay. The sequence of that first lesson isn’t a mile away from David Didau’s teaching sequence for developing independence.


In the past two years all my certainties about the teaching process have begun to crumble. I thought I knew how to teach. I thought I knew how children learn. Now I’m not so sure. And I’m not so sure because I’m thinking much harder about the whole learning process through meeting the likes of Tom Bennett and David Weston. These incredible educational thinkers have challenged not just me, but the whole profession, to reflect upon what we are doing in the classroom and how, to use Dylan Wiliam’s now famous phrase, every teacher needs to get better.

Do you trust your own experience or look to educational research to establish what works best in the classroom? That’s one of the questions we’ll be exploring at next weekend’s NTEN/ResearchED conference in York. The line-up’s pretty damned good – get your ticket here before it’s too late!


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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










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