This much I know about… how, despite our best efforts, we are failing the students who need us most

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about how, despite our best efforts, we are failing the students who need us most.

On 17 September 2012 Michael Gove addressed the Commons regarding the new GCSEs: “We expect that everyone who now sits a GCSE should sit this new qualification, but there will of course be some students who will find it difficult to sit the exams, ​just as there are some students who do not sit GCSEs at the moment. We will make special—indeed, enhanced—provision, for those students, with their schools being required to produce a detailed record of their achievement in each curriculum area.”

For the past three months I have been teaching two small groups of students who require additional support to access the new English and mathematics GCSEs. They are not quite the students Michael Gove had in mind when he said that some students “will find it difficult to sit the exams”; rather, they are the 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.

I have been teaching these students a systematic approach to the 40 mark writing questions on the AQA English Language GCSE papers. The students find it difficult to summon up the ideas to write very much, but by giving them a simple structure for planning their writing, they have begun to extend their answers and produce respectable responses which should claim at least half of the 40 marks on offer.

I began a lesson a few weeks ago by asking Jordan to take us through the systematic approach to the writing question on the English Language GCSE paper 1. The conversation went something like this:

Me: “OK. You are in the exam room, you are on question 5, the writing question. Jordan, what’s the first thing you do?”

Jordan: “Don’t know. Can’t remember.” (Jordan grins at the other students sat around the table in my office.)

Me: “Jordan! I can’t believe you are smiling. You seem proud to have forgotten what I have taught you. I was at a private school conference yesterday. No one in a private school would be proud to have forgotten what they have been taught.”

Stephen: “But we don’t go to a private school, do we?”

(Names have been changed.)

At that point – and just for a split second – I descended into a paroxysm of despair. The students were oblivious to my anguish. A deep breath later and we went through, again, our systematic approach to the writing question…

We have a cohort of students going through our new GCSES in English and mathematics for whom the increased challenge was introduced mid-stream. Those students have not developed from early primary school the depth of vocabulary, the confident dexterity to manipulate number and the deliberate memory skills to meet this increased challenge. The single tiered English GCSEs have been particularly challenging.

Consequently, some of our students are voting with their feet. We have had to instigate a highly efficient system for ensuring all our students make it into school to take the examinations, which includes texting parents, a mini-bus and a team of staff who go early-morning knocking on the doors of our most reluctant Year 11s.

Predictably, the only student who has persistently failed to turn up to take his examinations, despite our daily visits to his house, is Jordan.

As Michael Gove suggested we might, we have made “special—indeed, enhanced—provision” for Jordan, but the “record of [his] achievement in each curriculum area” will be pretty thin. And that leaves me with an overwhelming sense of failure.

Posted in General educational issues, School Leadership | 5 Comments

This much I know about how doing nothing much with your loved ones is the best thing

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about how doing nothing much with your loved ones is the best thing.

We have spent an Easter week in the Highlands’ village of Plockton, with our dear friends the Davies family, for a dozen years now. When we first arrived, on 31 March 2005, it was a warm, temperate day and the boys looked over the harbour wall with fascinated delight. They proceeded to spend three hours getting soaked as they explored the teeming rock pools. In the photograph which captured that moment, our two are in the middle:

When we reached Plockton at the beginning of this Easter holiday, Louise and I were left to unpack as the view from our new cottage lured the boys down to the water’s edge again:

We adore our Plockton holiday. It is a chance to do nothing of any consequence. We can all just be. One morning Olly asked me to kick a football about in the modest primary school playground, which has a pair of small metal goalposts. For an hour we played crossbar challenge, from one end of the playground to the other, and chatted about nothing in particular. Thumping the ball made my dodgy knee ache. And it ruined my shoes. Yet for that hour, Happiness arrived, quite uninvited, and made the primary school playground its temporary residence.

Whilst the boys are growing inexorably into young adults, my brother and sister have been seeing to our mother’s affairs; they are selling her flat to help pay for her care home fees. A couple of weekends ago, whilst clearing out mother’s sideboard, my sister found this note I had written to mother, some thirty-three years ago, communicating, with some brevity, how dad and I had nipped off to play golf before it got dark:

Dad would have been up at 4.15 am that day for the morning shift at the Post Office. His afternoon shift would have finished at 5.00 pm. After tea I would have badgered him to go golfing. As the early spring evenings were beginning to lengthen we would have dashed off to the golf club to play holes 1-3, 15 and 18, making the most of the day’s last light. Having already been up thirteen odd hours and done a day’s work, it was probably the last thing he wanted to do. And he was, by that stage, feeling wearied by his yet-to-be-diagnosed cancer which would, within a year, cause his death. But play five holes he did, because his son had asked him to.


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This much I know about…how, on Mother’s Day, our mother is still here, against the odds

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about how, on Mother’s Day, our mother is still here, against the odds.

On the weekend my brother and sister cleared our mother’s flat so it can be sold to pay for her care home fees, here is a short tribute to our mother’s indefatigability.


Engagement day, 24 July 1956

My mother’s maiden name was Browning. Her first name was Elizabeth. It might account for my love of words. She can certainly write, that’s for sure.

Despite her promising name mother wasn’t educated, having had to leave school when she was just 13 years old. She was a manic depressive, now known as bi-polar. For all that we might consider children’s mental health problems a modern phenomenon, they are, in fact, nothing new.

In 1939 Electroconvulsive Treatment, or ECT, was introduced to this country. ECT was devised by a Roman professor of neuropsychiatry, Ugo Cerletti, after he had observed, during an abattoir tour, the passivity induced in pigs by pre-slaughter electric shocks. A decade later, Mother was one of the youngest British recipients of ECT.

Sylvia Plath’s description of ECT is probably the most vivid: ‘Doctor Gordon was fitting two metal plates on either side of my head. He buckled them into place with a strap that dented my forehead, and gave me a wire to bite’. She goes on to describe how, ‘with each flash a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break’.

Like all ECT patients mother remembers very little of the shocks, something considered a positive feature of the treatment. Of all the senses, however, smell is the greatest evoker of memory. Graham Greene said that smell has a ‘power infinitely more evocative than sounds and perhaps even than things seen’.

Mother can’t recall what the doctor said to her. She can’t even recall what the room looked like. The one thing she can recall is the odour of her singed hair when she awoke from the treatment.

Mother met my dad when he was delivering letters on his post round. She had been tipped off by a friend that the Postman was quite dishy. She sat in wait for him on the wooden gate to the house. When he arrived, he offered her one of his Player’s Navy Cut. She was impressed.

The next line of this romantic tale should be, from that day forth they lived happily ever after, but, to be honest, over the subsequent thirty years the many joys were offset by more than just a few moments of despair.

Mother married my dad when she was just 20 years old. She tried to break off the engagement. She knew her manic bouts would test him. She knew her dark days would wipe away his smile. She knew she would bring him his unfair share of misery.

Before they wed, she wrote to dad to end their relationship but her father found the letter and destroyed it.

Mother could have finished with dad without having to serve her own decree nisi. Why didn’t she just tell him it was over? The answer to that question is lost forever in the thick mist of memory. She was young. She was cowed by her father. She probably snatched at the chance of happiness. After all, we all want what Raymond Carver wanted, don’t we? ‘To call myself beloved, to feel myself/beloved on the earth’.

So marry him she did. Miss Elizabeth Ann Browning became Mrs Ernest Harry Tomsett. And for purely selfish reasons, I’m glad my granddad found his daughter’s un-love letter.

Mother was born on 2 May 1936. Her father served in the Royal Navy between the wars and was steward to Admiral Sir Arthur Power. When he left he was appointed the Admiral’s butler and lived on his estate at Littlemead Cottage, Hayling Island where mother was born.

When World War II broke out the family moved to East Grinstead and lived in a tied cottage in the grounds of Abbey School in Ashurst Wood where Prime Minister Gladstone’s nephew, Robin Gladstone, was the head teacher. Granddad was a gardener on the estate. My grandma did housework at Mr Gladstone’s nearby house, Heatherlands, and cooked lunch for him and six boys five days a week.

So mother grew up in the grounds of a school. Whilst her parents were fully paid-up members of the servant classes, she had wanted more from life. She was sharp. She read voraciously. She attended Ashurst Wood School and, in 1947, she won a scholarship to the East Grinstead Grammar School. Education offered her the chance of social mobility, to be the first one in her family to attend university. She had the opportunity to grow beyond her relatively humble origins and embark upon a professional career.

Enter, at the age of thirteen, the black dog.[1]

Predictably, mother remembers little about her depression: ‘When you feel depressed it’s terrible. You can’t see any brightness in anything. It’s horrible. If you’re depressed, you’re so low. You can’t see anything worthwhile. You don’t like waking up, but you get out of bed and you dress and you what not, but…depression is a terrible thing. The worst time I had it was in my teens. I can’t really remember what happened. I didn’t do very much in those teenage years. I had two or three jobs. Then it gets hold of you again and you lose that job. You can feel it coming on and then, suddenly, you feel like life is not worth living any more. It’s not nice. You can’t get out of it. All you can do is just wait. You just wait until you feel on the up again. It’s all you can do’.

One of those jobs she took whilst she was recovering from the first bout of severe depression was at a nearby dahlia nursery. She twice helped to show flowers at the Royal Horticultural Hall in London. She left there to lodge and work at a fruit farm in High Hurstwood, in deepest East Sussex, where she learned how to prune fruit trees and to pick apples to pack for market.

The winter of 1954 was a cold one. It snowed hard. The girl who worked at the village grocery shop, which doubled up as a Post Office, couldn’t make it into work. Mother took her place, temporarily at first and then permanently. The Uckfield postmen called at the grocer’s every morning to collect the mail, one of whom was dishy. She married him on 27 October 1956.

‘I spent those years when I should have been at school at home, more or less. I don’t remember much about those years. I don’t think my mother understood. Dad was more amenable because he was more intelligent. Then when I met Harry it was alright. That was my salvation. Because he cared, love his heart.’

Mother and dad, c. 1980
[1] Sir Winston Churchill nicknamed his own depression the black dog.


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This much I know about…how not to recruit, thanks to fellow Headteacher Stuart Simmonds

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about how not to recruit, thanks to fellow Headteacher Stuart Simmonds.

From the BBC series People Like Us, which just keeps on giving…



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This much I know about…the importance of having a vision for your school, high expectations, an anonymous note and feeling discontented

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 importance of having a vision for your school, high expectations, an anonymous note and feeling discontented.

A decade’s work bears fruit. Unless you are creating a school from scratch, when you become a head teacher you inherit a school and its culture. When I began at Huntington in September 2007 we created Vision 2018, a description of the school we wanted Huntington School to develop into during the intervening decade. That decade is nearly up and a week last Friday evening I was in the café at the University of York Sports Village waiting for my son to finish playing football, generally minding my own business. A woman came up, apologised for interrupting me, put a piece of paper in my hand and left. What she had written made my evening, my weekend, my year:


What I particularly like is how she identifies that the “tone” of the school is great. Getting the balance right between a relentless focus on students’ outcomes whilst maintaining a culture based on love takes some doing. As I am fond of saying, it’s about creating the culture for truly great teaching.

I think the world is for the discontented and I am perpetually discontented. What follows takes nothing away from the priceless hand-written note above; however, this is based on a conversation that actually happened:

Subject Leader: How hard is John Smith working?
Teacher: Oh, not bad for a set 4.

What does that reveal about expectations? I have never met a school leader who has not claimed to have the highest expectations of students. But do we really? What does it mean to have the highest expectations? With Vision 2018 soon to be out of date, we have been shaping our new vision which will take us to 2022. It is anchored in the notion of high expectations:


In 2022 Huntington will be a school where we have the highest expectations of students and ourselves, where every student, no matter his or her starting point, is expected to work as hard as he or she can, and behave as well as he or she can, without qualification.

In 2022 Huntington will be a school where we have truly great, evidence-based teaching & learning, where we have collaborated as a whole staff on finding out what works and we evaluate our practice regularly against what we know works in our context.

In 2022 Huntington will be a school where we have the very best training programme for our staff, where every single colleague has a high quality development programme mapped out for them the moment they begin working at our school.

In 2022 Huntington will be a school we have the unqualified support of our parents, where parents have the highest aspirations for their children, where they work with us, not against us, in educating their children.

In 2022 Huntington will be a school where we have a challenging, inclusive curriculum, one which is built upon the foundations of reading, writing and arithmetic, and is shaped according to what our students need to know, understand and do in order to thrive for the rest of their lives.

In 2022 Huntington will be a school where we have students making exceptional progress in their studies way beyond what even they themselves think they are capable of making, where we can be as sure as we ever can be that every student sets off into the world with a set of examination results of which they can be proud.

In 2022 Huntington will be a school where we have a highly functioning Pastoral system, one where our pastoral and academic systems operate seamlessly together as one to ensure that every child at Huntington has a champion.

In 2022 Huntington will be a school where we cherish wellbeing, where every single one of us is wholly committed to our work, but has time to enjoy life beyond Huntington School, with family and friends, so that the school/home balance is in true harmony and we embody a celebratory, sustainable approach to life.

In 2022 Huntington will be a school where we have a core set of values that we live by, where our core values – Respect, Honesty and Kindness – direct our every interaction to the point where they are woven through us like the words in a stick of rock.

In 2022 Huntington will be a school where we have the highest reputation, one we genuinely deserve, where our excellence is manifest, where our Research School is leading national developments in teaching & learning, and the best teachers and support staff want to come and work here – and students from all around want to come and learn here – because they know they will thrive.

We have some work to do over the next five years if we are to realise our new vision whilst ensuring the “tone” of Huntington remains great.

Posted in School Leadership | 2 Comments

This much I know about…how best to support our most disadvantaged students

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about how best to support our most disadvantaged students.

Sobering moments can hit you unexpectedly. I was privileged to speak to a conference hall full of Glaswegian teachers recently at Celtic’s football ground, Celtic Park. Apparently their fans call the hugely impressive stadium, ‘Paradise’. I was told that the average life expectancy for men living in the surrounding Parkhead area is 54 years. As Sir Kevan Collins – my co-presenter – and I reflected, if we lived within sight of Celtic Park, I’d have eighteen months to live and Sir Kevan would have already popped his clogs.


Poor teaching perpetuates disadvantage. Here’s why we have to keep improving our performance in the classroom. The Sutton Trust Report, Improving the impact of teachers on student achievement, included this important finding:

The effects of high-quality teaching are especially significant for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds: over a school year, these pupils gain 1.5 years’ worth of learning with very effective teachers, compared with 0.5 years with poorly performing teachers. In other words, for poor pupils the difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher is a whole year’s learning.

It’s so obvious, isn’t it? My son came home the other day and asked me to print off a Biology GCSE Unit 2 exam paper so he could practise questions after he had revised. I had superfast broadband, a laptop and printer, I knew where to find the papers, I had a password to access the latest version. When I had printed off the paper, I even had a stapler… I went on to drop all the papers in an electronic folder for him and he proceeded to revise, asking me for help when he needed it. Any insufficiency in his provision at school is compensated for by the support he accesses at home. Not so for the boy from the estate whose parents don’t have such rich resources and insider knowledge.


A modest proposal. If our most disadvantaged students are going to thrive, as school leaders we have to stop guessing about what works and lead learning from an evidence-base. Our teachers have to be the best teachers in the world. Period. It was particularly apposite to speak at Celtic Park to Scottish colleagues who work in some of the most deprived schools in Great Britain, with Sir Kevan Collins. The CEO of the Education Endowment Foundation was on sparkling form as he extolled the virtues of the Sutton Trust/EEF Teaching & Learning Toolkit which has been recently up-dated.


Sir Kevan Collins on tour! If you want to hear Kevan speak, then come along to the Research School Regional Conference 2017 on 24 May where he and I are teaming up again! You also get to hear Alex Quigley… You can book here.


Forget school structures…we have to improve the quality of teaching in our schools: it is the only thing that matters.

Posted in Research, School Leadership | 5 Comments

This much I know about…modelling deliberate writing to a hall full of more than one hundred Year 13 students

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about modelling deliberate writing to a hall full of more than one hundred Year 13 students.

I write several times a week. It has fast become my favourite past-time. Writing with deliberate control is a hard-earned skill, which I am still learning. What fascinates me about the writing process is how much time is spent re-reading what you have written. To know what to write in your next sentence, you nearly always have to re-read your last. Re-reading whilst writing is fine when time is not a constraint, but when you have to write at speed in an examination, you have to re-read and write almost simultaneously. It is a skill students find particularly challenging to master.

Writing well in examinations requires a methodical approach which will withstand the pressure of the situation. I am teaching A Level General Studies this year. In the Culture paper students face a 13 mark question (Question 4) which requires them to discuss an issue and come to some kind of judgement about it. They only have 25 minutes to write the essay.  What is particularly important is the Assessment Objective for the quality of their written communication which attracts four marks out of the 13 available. Under examination conditions they need a methodical approach which will earn them full marks. Their mock examination contained the following Question 4:


Out of my comfort zone. As a follow up to their mock, I modelled to the whole of Year 13 how to write, with deliberate control, a perfect answer to the same Question 4 . I have to admit, I was a tad nervous. I began with a short presentation which has Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language at its root and then talked through and wrote a full marks answer (with, admittedly, a couple of odd mistakes – near the end I say the word “without” but write the word “with” which makes the sentence mean the very opposite of what I intended. Thankfully I found the mistake as we read through, en masse, what I had written…). It proved to be another one of my lessons, albeit to a hall of over 100 Year 13s, where I fed back on their mock examination and modelled the metacognitive processes inherent in deliberately controlled writing. Below are the presentation slides and the full 35 minute video of the session. In order to make the whole event effective, you need a good lapel microphone and a high quality visualiser – when it comes to the latter I recommend the Ipevo Ziggy-HD Plus.


We need to model explicitly the mental processes involved in learning which we, as teachers, can often take for granted. Today, back in the classroom, the students wrote the answer to a completely new Question 4 to embed what they learnt from this lesson. The root of all this work is in the Education Endowment Foundation/Sutton Trust Teaching and Learning Toolkit. As a (head)teacher, I swear by it…



Posted in Teaching and Learning | 1 Comment