This much I know about…writing, the limits of language and catching a sea trout

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about writing, the limits of language and catching a sea trout.

Any representation of an experience is never going to rival the immediacy and the sensations of the real-life event itself. Faithfully recreating the intensity of an experience in words is, arguably, an impossible challenge. So many times words fail us. How often do you hear people say, There are no words to describe what happened?

Despite the impossibility of the challenge, this summer I set myself the task of writing a description of catching my first ever sea trout. Now, on reading this, the majority of readers will be reaching for the mouse to close this tab. But, essentially, this post is about the process of writing and the limits of language, not fishing.

To help me write about catching my sea trout I read for the umpteenth time George Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant, in particular for the detailed description of the elephant as it is dying. Even when I had done that and set out to write the piece, I could not find the form I needed. And then I began reading Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones, a novel written in a single sentence and surely a favourite for making the Mann-Booker Prize shortlist. Both texts were key in shaping what I have written…all art is theft.

So, here is my description of catching my first ever sea trout. I have held every single word and every piece of punctuation up to the light for scrutiny before confirming its inclusion. And when it comes to representing the thrill of catching a sea trout, these 450 words fall short, as they were always destined to do…

Catching a Sea Trout

One fruitless cast, slightly short of perfect, is followed by another where the lure flirts with the overhanging branches at the pool end and then sinks out of sight before the slow, deliberate retrieve begins, and then a knock and then, a nanosecond later, a whacking thump and the spectacle begins as my brain computes what is happening, as the moment I have anticipated since dawn, a dozen hours earlier, arrives, but still, when it happens, my senses are scrambled by the shock of it and my arms and hands fumble to establish control of the rod and reel which are near ripped from my grasp as the fish understands, more acutely than me, that the fight is on and summons all the energy it possesses as it makes for the depths, lunging downwards to the river bed as I resist its frantic dash, striking hard, setting the treble hooks, rod arcing towards the river, the reel’s drag screeching, but no sooner I think I know where it’s gone than it changes tack and surfaces, skittering across the pool and I marvel for an instant at its wild, thrashing, tail-walking, gymnastic frenzy, then, before I realise it, the fish plummets down and down only to turn tail and hurtle skywards at a rattling rate, emerging from the water in a fleeting leap for freedom, an awesome, ephemeral display of powerful, piscine aerobatics which ends abruptly when it dives again, lurching one way then the other and I’m scanning this way and that for where it will appear next and suddenly it’s just a few yards away, surging into the river’s edge, seeking sanctuary amongst the tree roots, and my pumping heart tells me this is the decisive moment, this is when I can lose it all, where the fish swaps itself for something gnarled and immovable, and the gamble begins because not enough force and it’s lost in the roots, too much and the hooks rip from its jaw, so I hold my nerve, pressing my elbow that little bit harder on the rod butt, tightening the line, increasing the strain, ramping up the pressure and for those crucial seconds the dipping, plunging rod tip telegraphs down the line the news that we’re still connected, the hooks are secure and now the balance of power shifts as I ease the fish, slowly, back into the current and the struggle resumes but this time I’m in control when, without warning, the rod bend eases, it surrenders and suddenly I see the silver broadside ripple across the water, it’s under my boots and in the net, hoisted high above the river’s flow, trophy-like, a three pound sea trout –


Click on the image below to hear an audio representation of me catching my first sea trout…



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This much I know about…how our colleagues are first and foremost people

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of (nearly) 53, this much I know about how our colleagues are first and foremost people.

If I have learnt anything in my time as a head teacher, it has been the value of chatting with my colleagues about things other than work. We all have a life going on beyond school, a life which is more important and which is often emotionally demanding. I am amazed, on a regular basis, at how colleagues keep doing a great job when they are living through difficult times outside of school.

My first duty as a head teacher was to attend a funeral of a new colleague whose husband had died in his mid-forties during the last week of August. She had gone to bed and left him watching the telly. When she woke up the next morning she went downstairs to find him dead on the sofa.

Everyone has a backstory. Our colleagues are first and foremost people, something school leaders like me do well to remember.

My big sister, Bev, was six years old when I was born. Imagine! Mother brought home to Bev her very own baby dolly, but it was for real, with real tears, real nappies and a real feeding bottle. I doubt she ever left me alone. No wonder the first word I ever said was, ‘Bev’. Here she is with my elder brother David, just about managing to keep my top heavy self on her knee.

Over the last two months I have journeyed to Weymouth and back every other weekend to see Bev. She has been slowly dying of cancer. A couple of weekends ago she gave me one of her most prized possessions, a mini-trophy for taking six catches at a Stoolball tournament when she was in her teens. On the train home I wrote this unrhymed sonnet; the rhymes are there but not at the ends of the lines, reflecting the sense of dislocation I felt as she went into decline.

Early yesterday evening Bev died. She was just 59 years old.

In his final interview before he died at the age of 61, Philip Gould, Tony Blair’s close adviser, said this to Andrew Marr and I have had it pinned on my office wall ever since: ‘What would have been better for me would have been to have said, “I’ll do what I can do, which I do quite well” and then just push it back a little bit’.

Gould’s insight came too late for him, but it isn’t too late for me or you.

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This much I know about…how curriculum, assessment and teaching & learning are so inextricably linked

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of (nearly) 53, this much I know about how curriculum, assessment and teaching & learning are so inextricably linked.

If one of the purposes of education is to introduce our children to the best that has been thought and said, then I believe that all students should know and understand the dynamics of the sonnet as a poetic form and how the form has evolved over the centuries.

If I were to design a scheme for teaching the sonnet…

  • I would want students to know and understand the main sonnet forms – Petrarchan, Spenserian and Shakespearean – and how the sonnet has been developed beyond those definitive forms.
  • I would want the students to know the historical contexts within which the sonnet form developed.
  • I would want students to know and understand the following in order to appreciate the dynamics of the sonnet’s poetic form:
    • key vocabulary central to the sonnet form: octave, sestet, quatrain, rhyming couplet;
    • iambic pentameter;
    • the role of the volta;
    • the different rhyme schemes and how to notate rhyme;
    • why poets use rhyme and the impact of rhyme and its relationship to a poem’s meaning.
  • I would want students to be able to write a critical analysis of a sonnet, using a good range of literary criticism terms.
  • I would want the students to learn a sonnet by heart.
  • I would want students to write their own sonnets.

I would introduce a number of sonnets to the students:

  • Visions (Being at my window all alone) – Petrarch
  • Whoso list to hunt – Wyatt
  • On his blindness – Milton
  • What guile is this – Spenser
  • Sonnet 18 and Sonnet 130 – Shakespeare
  • Ozymandias – Shelley
  • How do I love thee – Browning
  • Anthem for Doomed Youth – Owen
  • Clearances III – Heaney
  • Tony Harrison – Long Distance II
  • Anne Hathaway – Duffy
  • Simon Armitage – I am very bothered

So, how are curriculum, assessment and teaching & learning so inextricably linked? Well, students need to be taught some core knowledge before they can understand the concept of a sonnet (curriculum content). I could, for instance, give students a deliberately chosen range of sonnets which exemplify the different forms within the form, and let students work in pairs to identify similarities and differences. They could classify the different sonnets and find there are three main forms with some oddities. I could then tell them directly what the three main forms are called, illustrate the forms with new examples and label for the students the elements of each form that make them distinctive. Or I could teach all that directly from the front (two different approaches to teaching). I could then check to see if the students had learnt how to identify the different forms by a whiteboard quiz – I show a sonnet on the board and they write down Petrarchan, Shakespearean or Spenserian or other –  an exercise which also reinforces corrrect spellings (checking learning through formative assessment). The mode of formative assessment depends upon the taught curriculum content I want to check has been learnt. What I teach next depends upon the outcome of my formative assessment; if the students have not learnt what I have taught them, I will have to go back and teach the content in a different way. In order to embed the learning, I could begin each lesson with a new sonnet, read the sonnet and challenge the students to identify to which of the main sonnet forms it belongs. And I will revisit this content anyway because, as Nuttall claims, 80% of students will have moved new knowledge and understanding from their short to long term memories if they have encountered that knowledge at least three times (my A level students know the Nuttall 3 times claim better than they know the economics theory I am supposed to have taught them…).

Weeks later, after I had taught and formatively assessed all the knowledge and understanding I have detailed above (as well as teaching the students the rigours of how to write a literary criticism essay), the summative assessment – the destination towards which we were always heading – would be something challenging like this:

“Read the following sonnets: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130; Spenser’s What guile is this…; Petrarch’s Visions; Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth and Heaney’s Clearances III. Choose two of the sonnets and compare and contrast how the poets use the sonnet form to communicate their ideas and feelings.”

This essay would summatively assess the extent to which the students know and understand the dynamics of the sonnet as a poetic form and how the form has evolved over the centuries. Over time, as different cohorts of students have been assessed, I would be able to modify the assessment according to its validity and reliability.

Without knowledge you cannot develop students’ analytical skills. How can they analyse sonnets, and write their own, without knowing about Petrarch, Spenser, Shakespeare, et al? Once you have all chosen the content of the curriculum, chunked that content up into learnable chunks so that students can cope with manageable cognitive loads, taught that content, assessed whether they have learnt that content, then they can analyse and evaluate, for instance, Tony Harrison’s Long Distance II, and debate whether it is a sonnet. Can it possibly be a sonnet with 16 lines?


Long Distance II

Though my mother was already two years dead
Dad kept her slippers warming by the gas,
put hot water bottles her side of the bed
and still went to renew her transport pass.

You couldn’t just drop in. You had to phone.
He’d put you off an hour to give him time
to clear away her things and look alone
as though his still raw love were such a crime.

He couldn’t risk my blight of disbelief
though sure that very soon he’d hear her key
scrape in the rusted lock and end his grief.
He knew she’d just popped out to get the tea.

I believe life ends with death, and that is all.
You haven’t both gone shopping; just the same,
in my new black leather phone book there’s your name
and the disconnected number I still call.

So, you cannot decide how to teach until you know the curriculum content you are teaching and you cannot know whether your students have learnt the curriculum content you have taught them until you have assessed their learning…simply inextricable!

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This much I know about…how for the first 25 years of my teaching career I didn’t really understand what I was doing

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of (nearly) 53, this much I know about how for the first 25 years of my teaching career I didn’t really understand what I was doing.

Enthusiasm and force of personality got me through, pretty successfully, the first quarter of a century of my teaching career. Over that time my students attained good enough examination results. I forged great relationships in the classroom (when it comes to teaching, that’s half the battle, for sure), but I didn’t really understand how my teaching impacted upon students’ learning, because I didn’t really know how children learn. I aped the best pedagogic practices of the teachers who had taught me and, devoid of good CPD, for 25 years I used trial and error to improve my teaching.

My teacher training course was gently ineffectual. I have written about how I learnt to teach here and none of my criticism of those who taught me how to teach is remotely personal. Ultimately, however, the training was irrelevant to my core work as a teacher.

Evidence supplements experience, it doesn’t supplant it. Since the summer of 2013, when I began working with educational researcher Dr Jonathan Sharples from the IEE and the EEF, I have been learning how to teach more effectively. I have been combining the evidence available about how children learn with my years of experience as a teacher and I am, today, as good a teacher as I have ever been. And I now work in a school where every teacher is learning how to teach better, in a deliberate, conscious way.

At Huntington we have stopped guessing about what works. Our budget is getting tighter and tighter; the 8% cut in school budgets through to 2022 has already begun to bite hard. Despite the politicians’ post-election protestations, I doubt the finances will improve. It is even more important, then, that every penny we have left to spend at our school impacts positively upon improving the quality of teaching and our student outcomes. As a Research School we focus relentlessly upon improving our teaching without having to guess if what we are doing works.

A school which has mature systems where evidence supplements experience. At the forthcoming researchED York conference I will be talking about how you can use research evidence to enhance teaching and learning through a systematic approach to support your teachers’ disciplined enquiry. And for any school leader, the added attraction is that what I propose costs absolutely NOTHING!

There are some great speakers at researchED York on 8 July – Professor Becky Francis and Professor Rob Coe to name but two. You can book a ticket by clicking on the icon below and scrolling to the bottom of the linked page:

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This much I know about…the speech Theresa May should have made yesterday

When Theresa May stood in front of 10 Downing Street yesterday, it was as if she had played no part whatsoever in calling the General Election.

This is the speech she should have made:

I have just been to see Her Majesty the Queen. We discussed the state of our country in the wake of the outcome of the General Election. We agreed that today the country appears more divided than ever – between young and old, between north and south, between rich and poor. I admitted that the General Election had only widened those divisions.

Calling the General Election was, in hindsight, a mistake. Eight weeks ago it felt the right thing to do. I had hoped it would strengthen my hand in Brussels as we try to establish the best Brexit deal for Britain. Having weighed up all the facts, on 18 April I made what I thought was the best decision possible. That is all a human being can do.

The last eight weeks have been, ultimately, an unnecessary distraction from preparing for the challenge of Brexit and for that I take full responsibility. I apologise to you, the British people.

And now I want to look forward, to re-establish some certainty in our country.

As a nation we face significant challenges. We have to do all we can to improve our economic prospects. We have to ensure that our public services, such as health and education, are properly resourced. We have to combat the growing terrorist threat. Most pressingly and most importantly, we have to negotiate Brexit.

We have a moral obligation to our future generations to do all we can to secure for them a safe and prosperous nation.

We need to re-unite our United Kingdom.

Through the democratic process, the British people have signalled, quite clearly, that they do not trust any single political party to lead our country in these uncertain times.

The will of the people must be observed. It is time for us to stop political gameplaying. In fact, it is time for all the political parties – Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, and our compatriots in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – to come together to work for the common good.

Over the next few days I will be meeting with the leaders of the main political parties to establish a cross-party commission to prepare for the Brexit negotiations. We will go beyond Westminster and ask our country’s best minds to help us.

I welcome Michel Barnier’s reassurance that ‘Brexit negotiations should start when the UK is ready’. We will accept the offer implicit in his words and postpone negotiations for a month so that our cross-party commission is thoroughly prepared to begin talks.

This will allow us to come together as a country and channel our energies towards a successful Brexit deal that works for everyone in this country – securing a new partnership with the EU which guarantees our long-term prosperity.

That’s what people voted for last June.

That’s what we will deliver.

Now let’s get to work. Together. A United Kingdom.

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This much I know about resources for teaching how to write a short story for the writing question on the AQA English Language GCSE Paper 1

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about resources for teaching how to write a short story for the writing question on the AQA English Language GCSE Paper 1.

These are very simple presentations; together they provide students with the basics for structuring their own short story if they get a short story only option on the AQA English Language GCSE Paper 1, like this from the AQA guide to the specimen assessments:

The first is about the basic formal features of a short story:

The second uses the original Toy Story film as a model for the basic narrative structure of a short story:


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This much I know about…a step-by-step guide to the writing question on the AQA English Language GCSE Paper 2

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about a step-by-step guide to the writing question on the AQA English Language GCSE Paper 2.

In my previous post, I outlined a step-by-step guide to crafting answers to the AQA English GCSE Paper 1 writing task, question 5. In this post I outline a similar guide to writing an answer to the question 5 writing task in the AQA English GCSE Paper 2. It is designed for our students in the academic tier above our SEND students – the ones who have never quite engaged with their studies, the ones who rarely do any school work beyond the school day, the ones who find GCSEs a genuine struggle.

The step-by-step guide to question 5, the writing question, is an example of embedding in the students’ brains a metacognitive process for tackling the 40 mark writing tasks. It will not, necessarily, make them better writers; however, it does help them demonstrate their writing at its best when under pressure in the examination hall.

The one specimen English Language Paper 2 we have from AQA has the following exemplar question 5:

What I have emphasised relentlessly to my students is to guard against spouting wildly upon the subject they have been asked to write about. Homework, the subject of the exemplar question, is a provocative topic which students can easily ramble on about, with little structure to their response.

I stress repeatedly that this task is a test of their ability to write deliberately in a certain form, for a specific audience, for a defined purpose. They have to identify the Form, Audience and Purpose (FAP) of the piece of writing before they do anything else.

I explain that the FAP will alter the style of their writing. I demonstrate this using the proforma below:

They then practise writing their own sentences using this similar blank proforma:

The other thing I teach explicitly is Janus-faced sentences. One of the two original thoughts I’ve ever had is the concept of Janus-faced sentences. In order to signpost the thread of the argument which should run through the answer to Paper 2, question 5, I teach students to begin each paragraph with a sentence which looks back to the previous paragraph’s point and forward to the next point in the new paragraph.

Once I have taught these two deliberate features of writing to persuade, I model the step-by-step process to writing an answer to the Paper 2, question 5 task:

The mind mapping step is key. I spend a long time helping the students think beyond the first obvious thoughts through mind mapping topic after topic. As you can see from the following example questions, we have been doing a lot of thinking…

Even if the ideas the students have are a little thin, if they can express them deliberately in a style which suits their FAP, they can score highly.

I have seen good signs of deliberate writing. The following example demonstrates how one of our students has worked deliberately on beginning his paragraphs with Janus-faced sentences:

…and they will provide all the fun you will ever need.

All the fun will ensure that your memories will be looked back on and treasured. On average 95% of teenagers have loved their new experiences and at least 80% of them want to try multiple new ones! The memories are forever and if you have no good ones, then what is there worth remembering?

So, if you aren’t convinced by the lure of great memories, then consider going somewhere with your friends. No one can deny it – going on holiday with your friends is the best type of holiday. Imagine the possibilities, the locations you can visit with your best friends; how you will be able to do what you want and how exciting it will be. Please don’t waste your childhood, explore!

Although these holidays with friends can be great, they also have their setbacks…

The students now have a firmly embedded tool with which they can approach the 40 mark question with confidence. They can write deliberately, having understood how the Form, Audience and Purpose of a piece of writing dictate their style of writing.

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