This much I know about…teaching students how to write a paragraph with deliberate precision

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about teaching students how to write a paragraph with deliberate precision.

Teaching students how to write with deliberate precision is, arguably, the most important thing I teach. In order to write an effective essay, a student needs to be able to write an effective paragraph. Recently my Year 13 Economics group discussed the essay title: “Evaluate the relationship between economic growth and economic development” and we came up with a reasonable essay plan. As a formative assessment of their writing skills, I asked each one of them to send me his or her own version of the second paragraph. I collated the paragraphs so that they were anonymous and then we chose the longest one to focus upon:

Economic growth increases the labour force which increases the employment in a country, this results in an increase in real disposable income which would then increase consumption as their spending power rises. The increases in real GDP per capita will result in an improvement in a country’s Human Development Index, as real GNI per capita in PPP $ is one of the components of HDI. This would create development as more real disposable income allows people inhabitants to purchase higher quality goods and services which will improve their material standards of living. Furthermore, an increase in consumption would increase tax generated on both, indirect tax e.g. VAT on the increase in goods consumed, and direct tax e.g. income tax as people are now earning more due to economic growth. This increase in taxation would increase the government spending of a country, assuming the increase in taxation is spent wisely and a country has strong political will. However if, like mentioned in the case study, there is current policy failings and lack of political will, this mean not lead to economic growth as the increase in taxation may be spent on war, an example of this is in the case study, Peru. They have a high relative growth rate, 6.7%, yet high homeless rate, 72%, and low HDI value. However if economic growth increases the taxation with good decision, for example China spends theirs on housing, it can improve the living conditions, thus result in economic development, this therefore suggests there is a positive relationship between economic growth and economic development, as long as strong fiscal policies are present. (8 sentences/268 words; average sentence length – 34 words)

On the face of it, a pretty decent paragraph; however, I pointed out to the students that, under timed conditions, it would be impossible to cover all the content required for an A grade answer if every paragraph was over 250 words long. Subsequently, as a group we spent the whole of the hour long lesson painstakingly reducing the paragraph to 125 words or fewer, with me operating the keyboard for them as we worked on a single projector screen copy of the paragraph. The final version omits no important content, is utterly precise and, at 123 words, is less than half the length of the original:

Economic growth increases employment which usually results in an increase in real disposable income which would increase consumption. More real disposable income enables people to purchase higher quality goods and services which improves their living conditions. Furthermore, an increase in employment would increase the direct and indirect tax generated. This increase is likely to increase government spending. If, as mentioned in the case study, there are policy failings and a lack of political will, the increase in tax revenues may be squandered. For instance, Peru has a relatively high growth rate of 6.7%, yet a high homeless rate of 72% and low HDI. In Chile, however, the increased tax revenue is probably spent on housing, which improves living conditions, resulting in economic development. (7 sentences/123 words; average sentence length – 18 words)

It was achingly hard work. Yet, with such a disciplined approach to writing and a great deal of practice, every A level student can become a better writer. Teaching students the thinking processes involved in expert writing helps equip them with some of the skills required to write with deliberate precision. Tomorrow, they will be sitting down in timed conditions to write their full first essay of term…a summative assessment of their learning to date.

Reference: Collins, A., Brown, J.S., & Newman, S.E. (1989). Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the crafts of reading, writing, and mathematics. In L. B. Resnick (Ed.) Knowing, learning, and instruction: Essays in honor of Robert Glaser (pp. 453-494). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Draft version available at:

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This much I know about…what the new GCSEs tell us about our students’ attainment

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about what the new GCSEs tell us about our students’ attainment.

Before you read any further, I would like to make it clear that I welcome the increased academic challenge of the new GCSEs…

I might have missed it, but…why has there not been more discussion about the grade boundaries in this summer’s GCSE mathematics examinations? The examinations were made harder, the students found it more difficult and so the grade boundaries were reduced by about 15%. Here is the EDEXCEL Higher raw grade boundaries for 2017 and 2016:

June 2017 Raw mark (out of 240) June 2016 Raw mark (out of 200)
9 190 (79%)
8 157 (65%) A* 170 (85%)
7 124 (52%) A 140 (70%)
6 96 (40%) B 105 (53%)
5 68 (28%)
4 41 (17%) C 65 (33%)
3 27 (11%) D 35 (17%)

What does securing a grade 4 pass in the new GCSE tell us about a student’s mathematical capabilities? What does a student know, understand and apply in mathematics if he or she has been assigned a grade 4 pass in the EDEXCEL mathematics GCSE in 2017? Well, a grade 4 student will have been awarded an average of 14 marks out of the 80 marks available on each of the three examination papers. He or she will have got 83% of each examination paper wrong. A strong pass student assigned a grade 5 will have been awarded an average of 23 marks out of the 80 marks available on each paper and got 72% of the paper wrong. Standards do not seem to have risen. Can a grade 8 mathematics GCSE student solve simultaneous equations comfortably but find exponential curves difficult? I am not sure we know what the grades mean as labels for attainment quite yet. What does it mean for potential A level students?  Should a grade 6 student, who failed 60% of the questions on the GCSE, follow an A level mathematics course, a course which has also been made academically more challenging?

It’s all down to Michael…The decision by Michael Gove to change everything at once was rooted in the thinking of Schmidt and Prawat, cited by Tim Oates in his paper, Could Do Better. In the seeming incoherence was buried a desire for coherence to be achieved through changing everything at once in some kind of blitzkrieg approach to curriculum reform. What that has meant is that several cohorts of students have been chronically unprepared for the more academically challenging examinations.

Standards have been maintained?! When Tim Leunig casually remarked that only one or two pupils will get straight top grades in the new GCSEs, he was, at that moment in time, telling the truth. In the end it was over 2,000 pupils who gained 999, three of whom were from Huntington alone. To have retained the grade boundaries in mathematics GCSE from 2016 to 2017 would have been disastrous for the 2017ers, one of whom was my son. Imagine the wrath of tens of thousands of parents whose children would have seemed to have failed miserably, parents who are also voters.

Don’t panic. As all GCSE subjects move to the 9-1 scale, all we can do is teach brilliantly and prepare students for the new examinations as well as we possibly can. Forget worrying about things you cannot control and just teach. The statisticians will sort out who gets which grade.

It’s the “Saw Tooth Effect”, stupid! As OFQUAL explore in their Saw Tooth Effect paper, it takes several years for teachers and students to become familiar with post-reform examination specifications before we can judge whether our students are actually being educated more effectively and are, consequently, attaining higher educational standards. In the meantime they will have to continue to massage the grade boundaries.

Let’s base what we do in schools on what we know works. If you would like to know more about Research Schools and want to hear some influential speakers discuss how evidence-informed approaches can aid school improvement, then why not attend the forthcoming Evidence In Education: Northern Networks Making It Work conference at the University of York. You can find more details and book a place here.




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This much I know about…the importance of teaching students the skills to broaden their vocabulary

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about the importance of teaching students the skills to broaden their vocabulary.

Words matter more than ever. How can you meet the academic challenge of the new GCSEs and A levels if you do not have the vocabulary to understand the content? At Huntington we are obsessing with helping students broaden their vocabulary. How to unpick the possible meaning of a word can be taught to students. Yesterday I was teaching the Human Development Index and using this slide from the Tutor2U website:

Model the process. We are much more alert to the gaps in our students’ vocabularies than we have ever been before thanks to the training we are receiving from our in-house expert Marcus Jones. Discussing point 2 on the slide, I asked one of my students what “inequitable” meant and she replied, without thinking, that she did not know. I covered up the “in” and the “itable” and asked her where she usually found “equ” in the language. She was still confused. I asked her to write down “equ” and, as she wrote it down, to see what letters she would naturally write next; she began writing and automatically wrote “equ-a-l”. “Aaah” she exclaimed, “equal”.

“So, if something is inequitable what do you think it means?”

“That it’s not equal, maybe that it’s not fair”, she concluded.

What I had done in that micro-moment of pedagogy is lead the student through the process of unearthing a word’s meaning, a process she will need to become expert at if she is going to broaden her vocabulary and be successful in her A level Economics examinations next summer.

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This much I know about…overcoming my prejudices to the benefit of my students

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about overcoming my prejudices to the benefit of my students

Multiple choice questions have always been abhorrent to me. My prejudice against MCQs is both instinctual and ideological, I think. I have forever associated MCQs with a functional approach to education. What use would a liberal like me ever have for the A, B, C or D approach to teaching and learning?

The root of my prejudice is, like all prejudices, ignorance. The most influential book I have read this year has been Daisy Christodoulou’s Making Good Progress. It clarified the complexities of assessment for me. After reading Daisy’s book I felt slightly ashamed that it had taken nearly three decades of teaching before I understood how assessment undergirds the teaching and learning process. I recommended the book to our curriculum lead and he has been working with subject leaders over the past few months as we implement Daisy’s key recommendations; one of our central development strands this year is to ensure the coherence of assessment, curriculum and pedagogy.

I like listening to experts. Despite the expertise we have on our staff, we decided to invite Daisy in to speak to colleagues at the beginning of term. During her presentation she convinced me of the efficacy of MCQs. Teaching the new Economics A level specification has presented me with the challenge of ensuring students have learnt more complex, deeper content. Daisy illustrated how MCQs can help me formatively assess my students’ knowledge base as we build towards answering a summative end of topic examination question. Three weeks into term I set my first MCQ test:

The results have been hugely useful. I have been able to assess which elements of what I have taught have not been learnt securely by the students. Before half term, we need to return to the market for loanable funds and quantity theory because 80% of the students failed to answer those MCQs correctly. One student said she had “enjoyed” the MCQ test and found it “really useful”. This form of formative assessment is both accurate and time-efficient.

Writing effective MCQs is not easy. Good MCQs will test students’ knowledge and understanding of your subject; bad MCQs will test their powers of elimination. You have to make sure you include a few distractors, which are plausible but quite clearly wrong.

Every school needs someone who can help you access the evidence-base. Alex Quigley, our Director of Research School, sent me an email yesterday with me some extra reading on MCQs; there is some great advice here if you are already an MCQ writer or you fancy having a crack at writing some MCQs in the future:

A great brief guide can be found here.

‘A review of multiple choice item-writing for classroom assessment’ is available here.

A general guide for teachers on test writing, with a great section on MCQs can be accessed here.

Leading an evidence-informed national Research School means defeating your own prejudices. If you would like to know more about Research Schools and want to hear some influential speakers discuss how evidence-informed approaches can aid school improvement, then why not attend the forthcoming Evidence In Education: Northern Networks Making It Work conference at the University of York. You can find more details and book a place here.

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This much I know about…why job satisfaction matters

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about why job satisfaction matters.

We had a visit from the DfE this week. They wanted to discuss workload. It was a challenging and, ultimately, uplifting experience. Richard and Sam from the DfE Delivery Unit were intelligent and reflective. They concluded that there is more than the hours worked metric to consider when thinking about teacher workload; just as important, they concluded, was school culture and, specifically, job satisfaction.

Job satisfaction grows from individuals finding their jobs purposeful and interesting, with those jobs undertaken in a culture of challenge and trust, and resulting in successful outcomes which are recognised. I want to consider one of those six factors in this post – how do you keep the job of teaching interesting?

It’s not just me who thinks keeping the job interesting is important. This week Andreas Schleicher, head of education at the OECD, claimed that we have to make teaching more “interesting” and more “intellectually attractive” if we are going to solve the recruitment crisis. At Huntington, since 2011, we have taught our students for fewer hours than the DfE recommendation of 25 contact hours and, instead, given our staff more time to work together to improve their practice. On occasion we have taken a couple more training days than we should have done. For the past six years our students’ examination results have improved steadily. Fewer contact hours with better trained teachers has resulted in consistently better student outcomes. Who would have thought, eh?

What’s your IQ? A feature of our mature, coherent model of Performance Development (we call it Development, not Management) and our related CPD programme is our Disciplined Inquiry objective. All teachers and Teaching Assistants – some 120+ colleagues – identify a feature of their practice which they would like to develop and then they evaluate that development of their practice against its impact upon their students’ performance. They are expertly trained in the whole process by colleagues from our Research School who introduce colleagues to, amongst other things, Interventions, Treatment Groups, Control Groups and Effect Sizes. They have time to complete their Inquiry – we call it their Inquiry Question, or IQ for short – and at the end of the year they write it up on an A3 proforma. In July we held a bubbly-sponsored twilight session where all 120 IQ A3s were displayed and a half-a-dozen individuals talked to staff about what they had done and what they concluded from their disciplined inquiry.

The IQ Fest ended our academic year on a high. In the last few weeks we have been scrutinising our students’ examination results to try to discern whether our interventions had any impact. I began our first training day of the new year with a presentation to the whole staff on my IQ. It was related to an intervention where I taught a group of 11 students how to approach the writing questions in the new English Language GCSE; I taught them for five hours a fortnight from February instead of them attending MFL lessons. Details of the intervention can be found here, here and here. Ultimately, (and much to my colleagues’ amusement) my intense intervention probably had little impact on the students’ outcomes in the GCSE writing questions. We probably won’t intervene in the same way this year, considering the huge time commitment of the intervention in relation to its minimal impact.

The success is completing the IQ itself not whether the intervention worked. One of the best IQs has been in MFL where the whole department explored, in one form or another, the impact of short, regular translation practice upon students’ writing skills. It prompted the Subject Leader to contact the University of York Languages department who sent a link to a research paper called The Bottleneck of Additional Language Acquisition. The department’s collective IQ has led them to scale-up the successful intervention this forthcoming year.

Teacher learning and job satisfaction. I met with the Subject Leader of MFL this week and, without betraying confidences, she told me that she loves what she is doing at Huntington because it is “intellectually interesting”.  By creating a school which uses an evidence-informed approach – where research findings complement what we already know from experience – we have done two inextricably linked things: improved our students’ outcomes and increased job satisfaction. When Sam and Richard from the DfE left Huntington, they were pondering how they might bottle-up the culture at our school and replicate it across the country. It has taken a decade to grow a school where trust is deep and genuine, where love has overcome fear.

The Research School Network is thriving. If you would like to know more about Research Schools and want to hear some influential speakers discuss how evidence-informed approaches can aid school improvement, then why not attend the forthcoming Evidence In Education: Northern Networks Making It Work conference at the University of York. You can find more details and book a place here.




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This much I know about…why, more surely than ever, I think it is essential for school leaders to teach

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about why, more surely than ever, I think it is essential for school leaders to teach.

What a difference a year makes! I’m back teaching Economics A Level after a year spent teaching General Studies and English instead. I had the whole of this summer to prep for the Economics teaching but I had other stuff to do and I needed a break. I knew it was a reformed A level but I calculated that it couldn’t really be THAT different – Economics is Economics, I reasoned. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Oh my goodness! The increase in both the volume and depth of content is remarkable. This tiny comparison between the old OCR-endorsed Economics A Level text book and the new one exemplifies the ramping up of the academic challenge for our students. In the old text book, the mathematical explanation of the Harrod-Domar model of savings and investment ends with an explicit message to students that they don’t really need to know, use or master the mathematics at all:

In the new OCR A level Economics specification the mathematics matters, a lot. In the new text book there are pages and pages referring to the Harrod-Domar model and a worked mathematical example, because the students may well have to execute these calculations in the final examination:

Different, eh? And every topic I taught on the old specification has been transformed like this on the new one. I have found the shock seismic.

So, whilst as head teacher I had heard colleagues discussing the more challenging GCSEs and A levels and whilst I had taught some (cherry-picked by me) elements of the new English Language GCSE, I had no genuine understanding of the challenge my colleagues have grappled with these past two years or more. We had allocated as much time as we could to planning for the new specifications, but it was, clearly, nowhere near enough. Hours of their own time has been spent in preparation for teaching the new GCSEs and A Levels. And I can only, retrospectively and with a huge dose of humility, tip my hat to my brilliant colleagues for doing such a tremendous job in both prepping so well and helping our students secure some excellent results in this summer’s examinations.

More surely than ever, I think it is essential for school leaders to teach. Teaching school leaders can only, genuinely, understand the challenges of the classroom teacher if they teach themselves.

BTW, instead of attending researchED 2017 today, I am planning my Economics lessons for the rest of this half-term…

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This much I know about…the folly of valuing effort over outcomes

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about the folly of valuing effort over outcomes.

What do we value most in teachers, effort or outcomes? I might be enveloped in a full-blown mid-life crisis, but I cannot see the point any more in doing anything at work which is not having a direct and weighty impact upon students’ learning. Listening to a Huntington School alumni, one Oliver Burkeman, on Radio 4 this week, I was reminded of Jo Facer’s brilliant blog on effective feedback and how, at Michaela School, there is a culture of doing what has most impact, not what the rest of the educational world expects. Consequently, Jo largely gave up marking and gives whole class feedback instead; her students learn more and she has her workload lightened.

In his new series, Burkeman is exploring how we have come to fetishise busyness. It is an enlightening listen. In preparation for our first day of the autumn term, I have prepared this short audio extract to play to my colleagues.

On Monday in my briefing to staff, I will exhort my colleagues to do what works. If they want to adopt whole class marking as policy, then do it – just rewrite the departmental marking policy accordingly. If they find a new way of working which improves outcomes, just crack on! I don’t mind if they go home early if they have the last period of the day free – I just want them to work as effectively as possible. Accountability is about outcomes, not how hard you work.

Don’t feel guilty if your workload eases, just make sure that the evidence says that what you are doing improves students’ learning – then we will all be happy…

Posted in School Leadership, Teaching and Learning | 6 Comments