This much I know about…why subject specific key words are not enough for academic success

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about why subject specific key words are not enough for academic success.


The following are all based upon genuine post-exam conversations with Year 11 students at Huntington:

You might know what the word “theme” means in relation to English Literature, but you cannot answer the question, “Was Lennie and George’s dream always futile?” if you do not know what the word “futile” means.

You might know what the word “provenance” means in relation to the reliability of evidence in history, but you cannot answer the question, “Was the second World War inevitable?” if you do not know what the word “inevitable” means.

You might know what the phrase “high tensile steel” means in relation to Construction, but you cannot answer the question, “How do contractors liaise with the customer?” if you do not know what the word “liaise” means.


Build from the ground up. We are working with our partner primaries on small scale enquiries about the best ways to teach hand writing, spelling and vocabulary. If you struggle with hand writing, you will find spelling a challenge and so you will settle for short, simple words. Consequently, your vocabulary – your word-hoard – will always be limited. Here are three research papers, sourced by our Research Lead, Alex Quigley, aka @HuntingEnglish, which explore that relationship between hand writing, spelling and vocabulary. They are well worth reading:

Posted in Research, Teaching and Learning | 1 Comment

This much I know about…the School Funding Crisis and the National Funding Formula.

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about the School Funding Crisis and the National Funding Formula.

It is time to put my head above the parapet regarding school budgets. We have had a real terms cut in our school budget of 10% since 2010, and don’t let a politician tell you any different. Using the Bank of England Inflation calculator shows that we should have £800,000 p.a. more  in our budget, if we had just kept up with inflation since George Osborne delivered his Comprehensive Spending Review in October 2010!

The view from here. BBC Radio York’s Sarah Unwin and the BBC cameraman Peter spent an hour with us on Friday to produce this report for the Yorkshire & Lincolnshire edition of Andrew Neil’s Sunday Politics Show on BBC1. I promise it’s worth 3:55 minutes of your time to watch:


Investing in our schools is obvious common sense. What wasn’t included in the report but which is the ultimate consequence of not funding our schools properly is a deepening of the recruitment crisis. If working conditions and teachers’ pay worsen because of the cuts to school budgets, then we will struggle to entice our brightest and best into the classroom. We are already at a point where the highest-achieving A-level students are least likely to apply to teach. The teacher recruitment crisis is not about just numbers, it is about quality too, and if our best graduates reject teaching as a career due to the impact of real terms cuts to school budgets, the very future prosperity of our nation will be threatened.

Posted in General educational issues, Other stuff, School Leadership | 1 Comment

This much I know about…why Geoff Barton should be ASCL’s new General Secretary

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about why Geoff Barton should be ASCL’s new General Secretary.

It is time for the Association of School and College Leaders members to elect their new General Secretary…I will be voting for Geoff Barton.

I could have written a lengthy post explaining why I think Geoff Barton should be ASCL’s new General Secretary. Instead, I thought it best to let Geoff demonstrate his experience, honesty, courage, humility and eloquence in this short video:

Posted in General educational issues, School Leadership | 4 Comments

This much I know about…’The Ladybird Book of Edu-Twitter’ (with apologies to @primarypercival)

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about ‘The Ladybird Book of Edu-Twitter’ (with apologies to @primarypercival).

A bit of fun which became, for just a couple of hours this evening, all-consuming…


























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This much I know about…a new concept of headship in a MAT-centric school-led system

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 new concept of headship in a MAT-centric school-led system.

An ego-free Headteacher is a rare beast. To be a Headteacher you need to have a certain self-confidence. If you are going to be in charge, you need self-belief in spades. And a new Headteacher usually assumes that he has to come into a school and make his mark. Schools are notoriously vulnerable in the wake of regime change. A new Headteacher can lead to a significant modification of the values and educational philosophy of a school. And perfectly good systems are suddenly abandoned for the new boss’ favoured alternatives, without a shred of evidence that in his new setting his old favourites will work. So, out goes setting, in comes mixed ability; goodbye SIMS, hello BromCom; exit Year Groups, enter Houses. And the rest of the staff just have to suck it up and watch whilst what worked stops working…

A Headteacher often has an inordinate impact upon the school he leads. The opposite is true at Toyota, one of the most successful companies over the past three decades. In their brilliant book, Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense, Pfeffer and Sutton point out that Toyota’s success stems from its great systems, not stunning individual talent…one study showed that Toyota was the only major automobile company where a change in the CEO had no effect on performance. The systems are so robust that changing CEOs at Toyota is a lot like changing lightbulbs; there is little noticeable effect between the old one and the new one. In the world of a MAT-centric school-led system, maybe there is something we can learn from Toyota, where its robust set of interrelated management practices and philosophies…provide advantage above and beyond the ideas or inspirations of single individuals?

How many Headteachers want to give up their decision-making powers? Headteachers whose schools join a MAT have to give up a certain level of power over the decision-making process, and anyone who claims any different is not being completely honest. Selecting one Headteacher to be the CEO of a new MAT inevitably leads to the other Headteachers feeling their authority is undermined. No wonder the DfE is outlawing the practice and insisting that Trust Boards are Headteacher-free zones. If we are going to create a new school system in England then we have to accept a different concept of headship, one which has Toyota-like features.

People like me need to get over ourselves. Schools which have lasted centuries have always been based upon a set of educational values, enshrined in a Founding Charter. Imagine creating a MAT whose Founding Charter was so firmly established that what the founding members believe about how students should be educated shapes the direction of the school decades, even centuries, into the future. A new Headteacher appointed to lead a school within such a MAT would be employed to be the guardian of the MAT’s/school’s educational philosophy and values-system, rather than someone given liberty to take the school in a quite different direction. Headteachers like me would come and go, but what matters – the education of children – would survive us all.


Posted in General educational issues, School Leadership | 10 Comments

This much I know…about improving the impact of Teaching Assistants during a budget crisis

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about improving the impact of Teaching Assistants during a budget crisis.


Our human resources matter most. There are 380,000 Teaching Assistants in English schools – a number that has trebled since 2000. There are more Teaching Assistants in Primary schools than there are teachers. If Teaching Assistants were cut from schools at a stroke, many schools, and countless thousands students, would suffer greatly.

We are in the midst of a budget crisis with a ‘flat cash’ hole in our budget. At Huntington, we spend nearly a quarter of a million of our budget on Teaching Assistants. Schools on average spend about £200,000 on Teaching Assistant provision. Writ large across the country we spend £5 billion on Teaching Assistants alone; this is more than the nation spends on roads and social housing! It comes out as the largest singular investment of schools’ Pupil Premium funding. With huge figures like that every school leader knows the role of Teaching Assistants in crucial. We therefore have a moral obligation to deploy our vitally important Teaching Assistant colleagues well.

‘It ain’t what you do it is the way that you do it’. Steve Higgins, author of the Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit, has shared this wise ‘Bananarama principle’ and how it applies to schools.  The evidence may show that employing Teaching Assistants doesn’t, on average, have a great deal of impact on students’ outcomes, but of course, such averages can obscure individual examples of high impact. We know from large scale trials that deploying a Teaching Assistant to undertake structured interventions, like the ‘Catch Up’ programmes, the REACH programme and more, makes a significant difference. It proves money well spent in frugal times.

The ‘Velcro problem’ of Teaching Assistants and student progress. TAs Teaching Assistants are often highly skilled professionals, but how they are deployed stunts their impact. Too many Teaching Assistants have long-since been allocated to a tricky class or a difficult student but the real problem of tackling how well students are learning goes unsolved. They are encouraged to act like ‘Velcro’ – sticking to the tricky student and helping them along. Paradoxically, such an approach may stop that child thinking for themselves. It comes back to good pedagogy and quality training. Teaching Assistants can encourage and foster independence in our students or they can inhibit hard thinking…it is the way that you do it, remember!

Teaching Assistants’ deployment, high quality training and the golden thread to student outcomes. It is the responsibility of school leaders to train and deploy their Teaching Assistant teams effectively; for our students and for our bottom line, we can ill-afford not to do so. Our Huntington Research School is running a high quality, evidence-based programme for schools in Yorkshire and the Humber on supporting leaders to train their TAs Teaching Assistants. The training focuses upon selecting the right structured interventions and engendering independence in the classroom, whilst sharing our best practice across our schools. Spending a fraction of what our Teaching Assistant team costs to ensure our Teaching Assistant colleagues are well-trained makes sense to us; I hope it makes sense to you. You can book your ticket here:


Posted in General educational issues, Research, School Leadership, Teaching and Learning | Leave a comment

This much I know about…not publishing data targets to students and parents

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about not publishing data targets to students and parents.

Matrix Data

One of the biggest differences between a students’ experience in school now compared to when I was at school in the 1970s is being told, as a student, your data targets. I had no idea what academic progress I was making when I was at school, I just knew I was trying hard and that I was doing fine.

When I took O levels I had no sense of which questions in the mathematics examination, for instance, were C grade or B grade or A grade. I just knew some were easy and some were harder, especially the ones near the end of the paper. The point is, I had no concept of an attainment ceiling, nor did I feel pressured to hit an aspirational target. I just wanted to do my best, whatever that might be.

The student data paradox means that academic targets are simultaneously dampening expectations for some students and exerting unnecessary pressure on others.

Peter Bratton was my head teacher when I worked at Hove Park School and he gave me Sir Michael Barber’s The Learning Game to read.[2] The passage which resonates with me as strongly now as it did then pertains to students’ so-called potential and that ‘somehow teachers know what this is’:

‘This seems to deny one of the central characteristics of humanity, which is that people often surprise you. They turn out to have qualities, talents and skills that no one, not even they themselves, believed they had…When I hear the phrase “full potential” in relation to a child, I shudder at the arrogance it implies.’[3]

How on earth do we know our own limits? We will all, at one time or another in our lives, find ourselves doing something remarkable beyond our own imagined capabilities.

Publishing targets or minimum expected grades for individual students can have, in my experience, two dangerous consequences. Too many students reach their targets and stop trying, claiming that ‘a grade B will do. I don’t need better than that’; others get stressed by aiming for an aspirational target they perceive to be beyond their reach and consequently give up. The latter is particularly damaging, in that under confident students with high target grades will often try less hard so that if they fail, they can claim that they knew they were going to fail because they did not try.

When my eldest was studying for his A levels there was a moment when he was going to give up trying. He hates to fail, and failing when you have given all you have to give is doubly humiliating. I told him that trying your hardest is the only courageous, honest approach to take to anything in life. My words must have slowly permeated his brain’s cortex’s frontal lobe, because within a day he was back in the library, studying hard. Phew…

I have always had severe doubts about target setting and its glass ceiling effect on students. Tom Bennett writes some great stuff, but I reckon the best thing of his I have ever read is a post entitled This engine runs on hope: why schools need to defy the destiny of data.[4] I would cite it all, but this line stands out for me… You know what my expectation of my children is? An A. For everyone. That’s the target I set myself, and if I don’t get it, well, I try again next year. I don’t cry into my coffee, I just try again.[5]

He also asks this question, ‘What does it even mean to ‘aim for a C, or a B’?’ It’s a great question. Think about it. Imagine you are a ‘grade C’ student, a ‘grade C’ human being. How would you feel?

Decades ago, when I taught the very bottom set Year 10 English GCSE, I had to return some of their coursework. These were students with grade D targets. They were not lower than grade D because grade D was the lowest target school policy allowed. Natalie said, ‘What does a G stand for?’ Lisa-Louise replied, without missing a beat, ‘Great!’ Dean chirped up, ‘I’ve got an F. That must mean Fantastic!’ The dark humour of their defence-mechanism was heart-breaking.

I have written at length elsewhere about Carol Dweck’s Mindset,[6] the idea that you either view intelligence as fixed, or you think we can grow our intelligence, through a combination of know-how and industry. We’re weaving the principles of Growth Mindset into every aspect of our school life. At our annual Prize Giving I present the Headteacher’s Growth Mindset Trophy. One year I awarded the trophy to Katie. Her teachers were delighted and they were unqualified in their praise for her. Barbara Lunn said, ‘In Year 10 Katie started GCSE with a C target. She was persistent, asking what she could do next, was her work good enough, could she stay behind at lunchtime to finish off or do more…the result of her efforts? An A* at GCSE!’

Another teacher, Anja Miller, said, ‘Katie has shown what can be achieved by sheer hard work and a constantly positive attitude’. Jane Burns summed it up when she said, ‘What impressed me about Katie, and what I remember when I think about her, is her lovely smile. It just says, “It might be hard, but I am not beaten and I am not giving up!”’

If Katie had believed the C grade target we set her for the end of Key Stage 4 was all she was capable of, she probably wouldn’t have taken A levels and gained two A* and two A grades. She wouldn’t have studied at the University of Leeds.

What irks me is that Katie secured her dazzling A level grades and her Russell Group university place in spite of her C grade GCSE target, a hopelessly inaccurate target which, but for Katie’s indomitable spirit, could easily have damaged her chances of examination success.

Once you start to think hard about what Dweck says you begin to question everything about what you do as a school leader. If Dweck is right – and in my personal experience I think she is – then setting students grades as targets is deeply flawed. The Subject Leaders of our two most successful A levels both fessed up to me, during a review of their department’s examination results, that they don’t look at students’ targets, they don’t consciously differentiate, they just teach to A* standard all of the time to all of the students.

On reflection, I cannot believe we have published estimated grades to students and parents for so many years. I wish we’d stopped long ago, or, like Dame Alison Peacock, never begun the dangerous practice. At the Wroxham School they focus on ‘learning (rather than simply attainment), nourished by a deep belief in the learning capacity of everybody’. [7] At the Wroxham School they have never used National Curriculum levels.

The idea that a school policy should put a cap on students’ outcomes seems so ridiculous; there are enough things which inhibit their progress, for goodness’ sake!

No, we have been liberated at Huntington by our decision not to inform students and parents of their target grades.

Our decision does not mean we will not track their progress using assessment data; rather we will use assessment data to enhance our teaching.

Those of us who learn at Huntington School do so in a culture of the possible. We do not believe that anyone can achieve anything; rather, we believe that with dedication, industry and know-how individuals can make progress beyond what anyone, including themselves, could have imagined.

And that should please students, parents and, of course, Sir Michael Barber.


As an EEF-IEE Research School we wouldn’t have made the decision to stop publishing data targets to students and parents without a paper justifying the decision…



[2] Sir Michael Barber, The Learning Game, (Phoenix; New edition, 25 Sept. 1997)

[3] Ibid, p. 253


[5] Ibid

[6] Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (New York: Robinson, 2012)

[7] Mandy Swann et al, Learning Without Limits, (Open University Press, 1 April 2012), p. 4

Posted in Research, School Leadership, Teaching and Learning | 24 Comments