This much I know about…accurate terminology to describe students’ effort

I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about accurate terminology to describe students’ effort.

young girl student lying on the table tired sleeping books

Words matter. And in a school, words which describe student performance matter more than most.

Life for students is getting tougher. Success in public examinations over the next few years will require concentrated, dedicated study of a nature unrequired for at least one if not two generations of students. We are living in a non-coursework, terminal examination world but too many students are still learning with modular-assessment brains. Committing huge amounts of learning across ten or more subjects to long term memory requires deliberate, sustained effort.


Effort is the key to success. Anyone who has attempted to become good at anything knows the veracity of this maxim.

How do you break the news to students that they are not making enough effort? We are moving from five effort descriptors to four. Students’ effort will be classified thus: Excellent; Good; Insufficient; Poor. The third classification, Insufficient is causing some turmoil to all of us at Huntington:

Insufficient effort

Insufficient? As far as I am concerned, what the term Insufficient is saying to a Year 8 student in September is, You are making insufficient effort if you are going to be successful in the terminal examinations which, for you, will be more demanding academically than they have been for your older Year 12 sister. Better tell them now, so they have time to make more effort, than let them discover they have made insufficient effort when they are faced with their first GCSE examination paper…

As a Headteacher it’s always good to ask for better ideas. We could say something gentler, perhaps, like Inconsistent, but you could make consistently Insufficient effort or you could make inconsistently Excellent/Good effort, so Inconsistent doesn’t work. Yet I can see why Insufficient might be a dispiriting term for students and parents; in the wake of colleagues’ disquiet at the term, I sent this email to all staff:

Dear All

As I said earlier, I am uncertain about the term Insufficient Effort.

Having discussed the issue at length with Sam and Jack, I want to hear from colleagues which alternatives we might use:

So…please forward me alternative suggestions which meet these criteria:

      • A single word;
      • A word which does not allow a student who falls into this category to feel it’s OK to be in this category;
      • A word which is appropriate for the new, tougher world of terminal academic examinations.

If we can find a word which meets these criteria and which will cause less anxiety amongst parents and students then we’ll change.

Kindest regards


Even our core values don’t help! In a Growth Mindset school which promotes the values of Respect, Honesty and Kindness, Insufficient is honest but perhaps not kind?

I’m genuinely unsure…What do you think?

PS. Many readers of this post have asked for all four effort descriptors, so here they are:


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This much I know about…speaking at the Oxford Union

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


I have written about bridging the gap between independent and state schools before. Consequently, being asked to speak in support of the Oxford Union motion, “This House Believes That Private Schools Do More Harm Than Good” placed me in an awkward position. The trouble is, I am a member of the steering committee for York’s Independent State School Partnership and have worked hard for a number of years now to help the two sectors work together more closely in order to benefit all our students.

Debating is an art form. You debate in teams of three. After the first two speakers from each side have contributed to the debate it is opened up to speakers from the floor. The third debater opposing the motion sums up.

Programme front cover

Programme inside

When I spoke, then, my argument was crafted to support the motion provocativelywhat better place that the Oxford Union to challenge the nation’s ruling classes?

The Oxford Union Debate, 12 June 2014

This House Believes That Private Schools Do More Harm Than Good

Thank you Mr President for inviting me to debate an issue that is very close to my heart.

Private schools produce some wonderful people and truly great leaders. That’s not for debate. And those great figures have contributed a huge amount of good to this country. Of course they have. It would be silly to say anything to the contrary. One of the greatest leaders the world has ever known, Winston Churchill, went to Harrow. Wellington and Gladstone – both Old Etonians.

Even if you just take York, my home city, the roll call is pretty impressive – Christopher Hill, Joseph Rowntree, Judy Dench and Margaret Drabble: all alumni of York’s private schools.

But, the debate tonight is not whether Private schools do good, it’s whether they do more harm than good.

And I would argue that private education has a profoundly harmful effect upon our country. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer and the private school system contributes significantly to our nation’s growing inequality.

At a basic level, parents believe they are buying an advantage for their children in sending them to a private school. They believe that smaller class sizes, more diverse subjects, wider learning experiences: all these factors will help their children get ahead.

And in terms of measures like educational attainment and Oxbridge entrance, the data suggests that they’re getting their money’s-worth.

So, given the critical importance of educational attainment to success in later life, we could have a straightforward debate about whether we want to live in a nation where a small percentage of the very rich can buy a fast track to success that the vast majority of families cannot possibly afford.

The thing is, I believe our system of private education does something more pernicious: it separates a privileged elite from the rest of us, with some devastating consequences.

Of course some state schools are more ‘comprehensive’ than others, but go to any state school and you will find students from a wide-range of socio-economic family backgrounds.

In state schools children grow up alongside fellow pupils who have different social roots. Just by rubbing shoulders with their peers in the lunch queue they learn that our lives vary.

And most importantly, children form friendships across the social divide.

They experience school, in other words, as they will experience life – where our social groups aren’t predetermined by parental income and where society is actively working against segregation rather than instilling it as acceptable.

This experience for children is absolutely critical to developing a society that has the potential to be inclusive, to empathise, to seek fairness.

And the crucial thing is, such a social mix is missing from the leadership elite in our professions. Certainly our judiciary, our legal profession, the media, medicine, the City’s financial institutions, all largely led by people who were privately educated.

Just visit the diversity web site and the very first page reads: A common description of a judicial office-holder is “pale and male” – a white man, probably educated at public school and Oxbridge.

This stranglehold on positions of power has proven extraordinarily hard to break. There is a ‘club’ that exists at the top of many professions, which leads to the continual appointing of “people like us” to senior positions. If you are a state school child, you have to beat extraordinary odds to become, say, a judge.

Exceptional opportunities, unshakeable confidence and the ability to exploit a network, they combine to give the children of the privileged a powerful head start in life. And the children from less fortunate backgrounds are kept outside that ‘club’.

And some positions of leadership have particular influence: those of top politicians. The way a nation is steered is hugely influenced by the backgrounds of those sitting around the Cabinet table.

Go back to what I said about children in state schools forming friendships across social divides. If you went to prep school, and then Eton, and then Oxford, when do you connect with someone from the local council estate?

Here’s Michael Gove’s view of the huge number of Old Etonians in David Cameron’s inner circle, “It’s ridiculous. I don’t know where you can find a similar situation in a developed economy.”

People like George Osborne and David Cameron have missed the opportunity to move in a social circle that could include the son of the local postman, someone like me.

And I ask the question, how can the privately educated elite who run this country have any genuine sense of what it is like to survive on the average UK salary of £26,500 a year, when their annual school fees alone are over £30,000?

How are they able to empathise with the challenges of family life in current Austerity Britain? Can they hug a hoodie? Can they? Really?

No wonder the electorate are losing faith in the political classes.

And is it any wonder, then, that they have chosen to press hard on the poorest by cutting vital services – services they and their families have never needed – whilst offering tax cuts to the wealthiest?

Private schooling adds to the curse of inequality and inequality harms us all. In 2009, in his Hugo Young memorial lecture, even David Cameron admitted that, More unequal countries do worse according to every quality of life indicator.

The thing is, income inequality in this country is at Victorian levels. In the last 100 years, our country was at its most equal in 1975, the very year I began my secondary school education.

State school educated Harold Wilson presided over a Government which enforced an 83% income tax rate on the super-rich. 83%. Think of that. When I began university in 1984 I received a full grant and tuition fees were unimaginable.

And income inequality only grew under Tony Blair, who, according to Neil Kinnock, was always impressed by wealth, aided by Peter Mandelson, the man who famously said that he was intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.

Now, in 2014, I see the harmful impact of the vast divide between rich and poor manifest itself starkly in my job as Headteacher of Huntington, the largest school in York.

It is a truly comprehensive school. We have the full range of students, from Professors’ daughters to students from some of the worst socio-economic backgrounds in the country. Proper poverty.

As the gap between the rich and poor widens I see more students on free school meals, more students whose parents buy second-hand uniform and more parents who need financial support for school trips.

And in the biggest school in York, a wealthy city in the sixth biggest economy in the world, when it rains hard, we put out 17 buckets to catch the water because the roof leaks and I can’t afford to repair it.

When it floods on the Somerset levels, money is no object… when it floods in our school it’s a different story.

In one of the most unequal societies in the developed world, it is tougher than it has ever been for a council house boy like me to make it to the top of the professions.

To conclude, our country doesn’t have to be like this. The world’s top-performing jurisdictions don’t allow those who can afford it to barricade themselves behind educational enclaves.

Private education is virtually unheard of in Finland, in Shanghai, in most of Canada. These are societies striving to establish a meritocracy, to create social cohesion, to provide opportunity for all. And, as our society splinters further, on social and racial and religious grounds, we should be aiming higher too – for all our citizens.

The final words on our country’s harmful educational elitism go to ex-Prime Minister Sir John Major – who went to a grammar school in South London – who said last year:

“In every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle-class.”

He continued, “To me, from my background, I find that truly shocking.” Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, I couldn’t agree more

I beg you to propose the motion.


When the debate is over, if you are in favour of the motion you exit via the Ayes door and if you are against you leave through the Nayes door. The tillers count up the Ayes and the Nayes and the President declares the outcome in the Gladstone Room. We lost the debate 60-78.

I loved every minute of it! Early in the evening I stood in the Members Only William Gladstone Room and said to myself, Take this in, every second, because in a couple of hours it will be a memory only.

I prepared more thoroughly than anyone would imagine. No output without input. We had eight minutes. That focused my mind. I was determined not to run over – the Union Secretary rings a bell if you don’t finish on time. I practised with our Senior Citizens Link Group the afternoon before, which was great – they’re a tough gig for sure! And my wife, boys and PA Kate all had to endure me orating at them. The thing is, on the night, all that preparation meant I was (almost) word perfect and I enjoyed myself beyond measure. And there were no bells.

Precision matters. Working hard on an argument until it is word perfect is one of the more gratifying things to do in life. Ruth Kennedy and Geoff Barton were wonderful editors/co-contributors. I made sure that I addressed the motion, something clear from this top twenty words Wordle of my speech:


We were treated with tremendous courtesy. Philippa, Ben, Sacha, Leo, David and the rest could not have been more welcoming.

The experience was awesome. Thinking of the famous figures from world history who had spoken from the very same spot where I stood made the event awesome in the true sense of the word. The fact that three Huntington students now studying at Oxford, Luke, Lydia and Natalie, were in the audience was a huge inspiration.

Two souvenirs for my mum – I managed to persuade one of the waitresses to pinch me a menu. The newspaper has, as you might imagine, generated much mirth…

menu fc



Posted in General educational issues, Other stuff | 4 Comments

This much I know about…how you can be involved in our EEF Research Project

I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about how you can be involved in our EEF Research Project.

Research-leads Improving Students’ Education – RISE

Research-leads working through a structured school improvement process, involving external research and evaluation.

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

Political consensus is notoriously difficult to achieve. Consensus in the world of education is nigh on impossible. Tentatively, I would say that the use of research evidence in education has united many warring factions in something that resembles agreement. There appears to be a rare sprig of hope emerging, namely that using evidence to improve our students’ education is a priority for the school system, and a priority which could become a reality.

Is research evidence a universal panacea for education? No, of course not. Should we be circumspect about the what, how and who of such research? Yes, we should. But, crucially, our questioning should not stop us seeking to find models of best practice in the classroom. We should not turn away from research due to skepticism; rather, we should set the agenda as a profession. A rich knowledge of good quality research, and an active engagement in that research, empowers teachers and school leaders. It gives us the tools to make better informed decisions about pedagogy and any small gain in decision-making which improves students’ learning experiences should be seized.

Earlier this week the BBC published an article about Wellington School appointing a ‘Head of Research (Carl Hendrick is leading that exciting development). Many other projects that see a fruitful collaboration between schools and Universities are being initiated as a groundswell of action is beginning to make the vision of an evidence-led profession become a reality. There are still questions to be asked and trials to be undertaken, but there is great promise.

This week the Education Endowment Fund announced four new Randomised Controlled Trials to help establish the most effective ways to use evidence in education: see the article here. Happily, our school, Huntington School in York, was named as one of the successful RCT leads. It marks the official start of an exciting project that will see participating schools, working in collaboration with Alex Quigley from Huntington and the Director of Durham University’s Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring Professor Rob Coe, establish highly effective school-based Research-leads in order to improve students’ outcomes. The project is outlined by the Education Endowment Fund below:

The project: This project, led by Huntington School, aims to test whether a research-based school improvement model makes a significant difference to classroom practice and student outcomes. Each school in the programme will appoint a ‘research lead’ who will be responsible for implementing the improvement programme in their school, with a particular focus upon improving student attainment in English and mathematics at GCSE. The research leads will be supported by a thorough programme of workshops delivered by the team from Huntington School, alongside a collaborative network-based approach to support. Professor Rob Coe, Director of the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) at Durham University will support Huntington to develop and deliver the content of these workshops, and the guidance on designing appropriate, robust, school-led evaluations.The diagram below sets out the school improvement model that Huntington would help schools to implement:

EEF presentation and model

Why are we funding it? This project represents an opportunity to investigate the feasibility of a sustainable model of research use, with a strong ‘hub’ school leading other schools through a process of school improvement with research at its core. If this project demonstrates a positive impact on research use and pupil attainment, it could be replicated by teaching schools, leading their alliance schools in appraising, implementing and embedding research. Huntington piloted the school-improvement model in 2013 and demonstrated that school-based research, when properly supported, was feasible and valuable. Its own trial focused on testing different approaches to feedback across Year 9 English classes, to identify the impact on learning between teachers providing oral feedback or written feedback on pupils’ work.

How are we evaluating it? The evaluation will be undertaken by a team from the Institute of Education, led by Meg Wiggins. The trial will be structured as a randomised controlled trial involving 40 secondary schools. 20 treatment schools will appoint a research lead and receive workshops and support from Huntington School. The primary attainment measure will be GCSE results in English and mathematics, collected in summer 2016 and summer 2017. This will provide a measure of the impact of the programme after one year and two years of delivery. Impact on teachers’ awareness, understanding and use of research, will also be collected through teacher surveys.

The evaluation is set up as an efficacy trial. Efficacy trials aim to test whether an intervention can work under ideal conditions (e.g. when being delivered by the intervention’s original developer) in greater than 10 schools.

When will the evaluation report be due? The evaluation report will be published in Autumn 2017.

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

If you would like to receive further information about this exciting project and to declare an interest please email Alex Quigley, Director of Research at Huntington School:


We are keen to foster as much interest in this ground-breaking project as possible. However…

This Research project will need the full and active support of the Headteachers of all participating schools; Randomised Controlled Trials of this quality and import require commitment and staying-power!

In my experience significant initiatives in schools can only go ahead and be fully effective if Headteachers want them to happen.

As this project is fundamentally about the implementation and evaluation of evidence-based school improvement strategies in English and mathematics GCSEs to be taken in 2017, Headteachers need to understand exactly what is required of them & the school and need to be made aware of the application process from the very outset.

This should not put you off pursuing interest in this crucial initiative, but it is important that everyone, from the very start of the recruitment process, is clear about the commitment required from participants.

John Tomsett, 14 June 2014

Posted in Research, School Leadership, Teaching and Learning | 10 Comments

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!

Posted in Teaching and Learning | 6 Comments

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

Posted in General educational issues, Other stuff | 22 Comments

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…


Posted in Other stuff, School Leadership | 1 Comment