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:

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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

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…


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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!




Posted in General educational issues, Teaching and Learning | 6 Comments

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!


Posted in Teaching and Learning | 3 Comments