This much I know about…making evidence work in schools and the World Cup!

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about making evidence work in schools and the World Cup!

Sheff Conf Poster V2

Out of nowhere I am suddenly excited about the World Cup! And my excitement has been fuelled by the History Channel’s non-stop focus on football. One programme, Return to Turin sees Gary Lineker, Paul Parker and Terry Butcher reminisce about the Italia ’90 tournament. For people of a certain age, it is mandatory viewing. At the end of the programme I wept for time past, for my own footballing days and for the fun I had watching those matches with my mates the first time, 28 years ago.

One tale told by Lineker was illuminating. He explained how, the evening before the quarter-final against Cameroon, the team had practised for an hour in the stadium itself. At the end of the session he shaped to begin his normal penalty-taking preparation: forty identical penalties into the exact same corner, one after the other. Before he kicked a ball, however, the manager, Bobby Robson, ran up and told him there was rumour of a Cameroonian spy in the stands and that he might want to think about that when he runs through his practice routine. Lineker then proceeded to belt forty footballs into the bottom left-hand corner of the goal.

Sure enough, when Lineker stepped up to take his first penalty in the actual match, the Cameroonian keeper was already poised to lunge towards the same corner his spy-in-the-stands had watched Lineker practise into the night before. Lineker, of course, slotted the ball into the opposite corner.

Lineker tells the story beautifully. At the final whistle, Bobby Robson runs on the pitch straight to Lineker, laughing, saying, “I told you so, I told you so!”

As a football fan it is a great anecdote; what I like about it as an educator, is Lineker’s relentless, repetitive practice of a single element of his whole game. Last year, one of my colleagues, Francesca, worked on improving her Year 8 class’s conjugation of a small number of key verbs through repetitive drills. She followed an evidence-informed approach and could demonstrate, with some conviction, that the drilling had helped improve her students’ spontaneous writing. The following video shows Francesca in action:


Francesca’s work is based upon evidence from three research papers: The bottleneck of second language acquisition, by Roumyana Slabakov; Constructing an acquisition based procedure for second language assessment, by Manfred Pienemann and The grammar correction debate by Dana R Ferris. I will be talking at much greater length about how we translate evidence into practice which improves students’ outcomes on Friday 15 June 2018 in Sheffield at our annual conference, Making Evidence Work in Schools, in conjunction with Learn Sheffield. If you would like to attend the conference, click the programme below for further details (the line-up looks great, BTW) and book a place via this email: And with no afternoon matches that day, there’s a good chance you won’t miss a single kick of World Cup coverage!

Sheff Conf Poster V2

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This much I know about…education, a tie-pin and having a choice in life

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about education, a tie-pin and having a choice in life.

It is 15 June 1940. Ernest Harry Tomsett is twelve years old. The following summer he will leave school without any qualifications to be a Messenger Boy, before graduating to become a fully-fledged Postman. He can read but barely write. He will deliver letters every working day of his short life; without qualifications, he has no choice.

My dad is wearing his Sunday best. His Brylcreemed hair is perfectly sculpted. The jacket is slightly tight, whilst the turned-up trousers are too long. The tie is Windsor-knotted short, so it sits atop his trousers which are pulled up way above his waist. The trousers are surely hand-me-downs from his big brother. His shoes are all leather, as shiny and black as his hair.

The maternal hand on his shoulder is both protective and proud. His big sister loves him.

Fast forward almost exactly 78 years and his grandson graduates from the University of Durham with a degree in History and Politics, free to choose a career. What enabled such social mobility? What combination of personal, social, economic and cultural forces allowed my dad’s son to be the first in the family to attend university in 1984 and his grandson to hold his own at one of the most prestigious universities in England?

Rab Butler’s 1944 Education Act had lots to do with it; too late for my dad, but in time for me when I began school in 1969.

But you have to want to take those opportunities an education offers.

I look back at the picture to see what clues there might be to answer my questions. Dad’s tie-pin is too small for the tie and appears functionally useless. And yet, beyond the ill-fitting jacket and trousers, maybe it is dad’s tie-pin which hints at an aspiration beyond the rural poverty of 1930s Britain in which he grew up.

My dad’s tie-pin is a middle-class affectation, originally worn by wealthy English gentlemen to secure the folds of their cravats. Embedded in that piece of jewellery is, perhaps, a desire to be as good as he could be, despite his lot. Certainly, such an aspiration allowed me to seize the educational opportunities offered me in the 1970s and ’80s and choose to leave our council house behind.

Thanks to my education I have never felt the need to wear a tie-pin.

So, when my son is handed his degree parchment later this month in the splendour of Durham Cathedral, I will think, with some gratitude, of that tie-pin worn by his granddad who, through no fault of his own, never had a choice.

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This much I know about…subject specific pedagogy

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about subject specific pedagogy.

Recently, I have been posing a question to anyone who teaches which goes something like this: “What are the specific hallmarks of pedagogy in your subject?” It is a question which initially stumps most people. General responses, such as “modelling”, are not really specific – most subject teachers use modelling techniques as part of their pedagogic armoury. If someone offers “modelling” in answer to my question, I then ask, “But what modelling technique is specific to the subject content you are teaching and how does that modelling technique you use in your subject differ from how another colleague teaching a different subject might use modelling as a pedagogic tool?” That usually results in the person I am interrogating saying that they need to think about it and that they’ll get back to me, which many have done and the debate has continued.

The thing is, “What are the specific hallmarks of pedagogy in your subject?” is a really hard question to answer, but it seems to me crucial that colleagues in each department have a shared understanding of subject specific pedagogy so that when they plan lessons – particularly for our vulnerable students – they do so in a way that addresses the more complex barriers to learning which the subject content inherently contains.

Whilst it is somewhat dated and, perhaps, flawed, Shulman identifies what he calls “pedagogical content knowledge” which he defines thus: “Within the category of pedagogical content knowledge I include, for the most regularly taught topics in one’s subject area, the most useful forms of representation of those ideas, the most powerful analogies, illustrations, examples, explanations, and demonstrations – in a word, the ways of representing and formulating the subject that make it comprehensible to others . . . [It] also includes an understanding of what makes the learning of specific concepts easy or difficult: the conceptions and preconceptions that students of different ages and backgrounds bring with them to the learning” (Shulman, 1986, p. 9).

To help further, you can find a discussion of pedagogical content knowledge in Science here ( and Christine Counsell recommended, as a good exploration of the generic pedagogy vs subject specific pedagogy debate, this blog post by Michael Fordham.

Our Subject Leaders have been thinking about the specific hallmarks of pedagogy in their individual subjects and what their conclusions mean for planning in their subjects, especially planning for the learning of our vulnerable students. They will be having a similar across their individual departments, so that they can formulate an expert understanding of their subject specific pedagogy which is shared by each teacher they lead. That should enable them to establish a process which has unique aide-mémoire for planning learning in their subject.

We might begin to move from the generic to the specific pedagogy of our subject by starting with a list of generic techniques but thinking about how they are specific for our subject considering our subject’s specific content: modelling in [subject X] looks like…; writing in [subject X] looks like…; questioning in [subject X] looks like…; exam craft in [subject X] looks like…; metacognition in [subject X] looks like…; and so on.

To kick us off, our Deputy, Matt Smith, ex-Subject Leader of mathematics, explored the subject specific pedagogies of his subject:

I am a pseudo mathematics teacher. I have one way of teaching simultaneous equations and I find it hard to comprehend why students cannot understand how to solve simultaneous equations after I have explained a worked example. When they ask me to go over it again, I repeat the same explanation, but talk more slowly and loudly, as though I am explaining in English, for the second time, to a garage mechanic in rural France that my car is overheating.

An early conclusion to our debate has been the importance of teachers’ subject knowledge. As my son would say, Obvs…

Shulman, L., (1986). “Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching”, in the Educational Researcher, Volume 15, issue 2, pp. 4-14

Shulman, L., (1987), “Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform” in the Harvard Educational Review, Volume 57, issue 1, pp. 1-22

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This much I know about…how examination boards are making the teacher recruitment and retention crisis worse

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about how examination boards are making the teacher recruitment and retention crisis worse.

This conversation happened yesterday afternoon between me and Laura, one of our brightest and best, incredibly dedicated young teachers. She teaches the OCR Cambridge National Certificate in Health & Social Care, Levels 1/2. I was walking the school during the last lesson of the week, visiting every Year 11 class to offer support to teachers and students. Laura was coming out of her office – she is a House Pastoral Leader – and I just asked her how things were going…

Me: ‘Hi Laura, how are things going?’

Laura: ‘Oh fine, I’m just a bit stressed.’

Me: ‘Stressed or under pressure?’

Laura: ‘Oh, it’s fine, it’s just this Health & Social Care marking. I’ve got 29 pieces of coursework to mark on this new spec and the exam board have sent us no exemplars. Nothing. There is nothing to help us mark this coursework. I have been on the chat rooms in the evening trying to find someone who might mark with me, but the closest person I can find is in Cumbria. She said, “Yes, come over to me and we’ll work together”, but I haven’t got time to go across there at the weekend. So, I am desperate to mark the work, but I don’t feel confident that I know what the difference is between “Basic”, “Sound” and “Thorough” – especially between “Basic” and “Sound” – and when you ring the board to ask for help they make you feel like you are cheating.’

Me: ‘That’s outrageous.’

Laura: ‘Do you want to see what I have to do?’

Me: ‘Sure.’

Laura then took me to her classroom, where piles of coursework were strewn across  every table, and showed me what she has to mark. She has 29 students’ work to assess, having to write comments to justify her marks in 7 boxes for each student. That is 203 separate comments with minimal, if any, support from OCR. Page after page of assessment descriptors without any exemplar materials to help Laura, and her colleagues across the country, make accurate interpretations of what on earth the descriptors mean:

And when Laura talked me through the coursework and showed me the descriptors it was even worse, because at least one of the descriptors was quite confused:

‘Some’ is quantitative; ‘minor’ is qualitative; ‘few’ is quantitative’. I could misspell eight words and that would constitute ‘some’ errors, but I could misuse a comma 50 times and that would constitute 50 ‘minor’ punctuation errors. Just one spelling mistake would constitute ‘few’ spelling errors. How did this get through OFQUAL’s quality assurance mechanisms?

If we want to recruit and retain the very best teachers in our schools, the examination boards have a responsibility to stop this assessment nonsense. If we have to have descriptors, and each descriptor is linked to a certain number of marks and the teacher has to decide a best fit for the piece of work and award a specific mark accordingly, why does the teacher have to write comments to justify the marks? It is obvious that the teacher has awarded that mark because he or she thinks it meets that descriptor. If, as an examination board moderator, you want to judge whether the teacher has awarded a mark accurately, read the student’s work, not the teacher’s commentary, because the commentary will just mirror the descriptor.

We have to keep the Lauras of our teaching world in our schools. Our Laura works tirelessly. Students adore her. She is brilliant in the classroom and a superb middle leader. I want her to have her weekends back. I want her to remain in the profession.

But what Laura showed me yesterday, on a wet Friday afternoon in late April, when the pressure of impending examinations is at its peak, was wholly unnecessary. As a school we are doing a great number of things to reduce teacher workload, but if the examination boards are piling the pressure on teachers through their inadequate and unnecessary assessment practices, we will continue to see the teacher recruitment and retention crisis deepen.

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

This much I know about…metacognition and self-regulation

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about metacognition and self-regulation.

As Jim Royle would say, “Magic dust, my ****!” If you read all the edu-chat around lately, it feels like metacognition & self-regulation are the universal panaceæ to cure all teaching & learning ills. Flavour of the month for the teacher-magpie…sprinkle a pinch of metacognition over your lesson plan and all will be well…just behind Feedback, they are number 2 on the Education Endowment Foundation Teaching & Learning Toolkit…lob in a dose of self-regulation and, hey presto, students’ outcomes this summer will be tickety-boo! But, as anyone who has taught knows, it is not quite as simple as that…

What on earth is a self-regulated learner? I am planning my next book and it is about fishing rather than education. It has been nourishing to think about something else other than education in my down-time. But, that said, one of my fishing anecdotes exemplifies precisely what is meant by a self-regulated learner. I was fly fishing for trout. Anchored in the middle of the reservoir, there were fish rising all around the boat. I could barely thread the line through the rod-rings for excitement. I began with a black gnat fly. I swiftly moved on to a mayfly, then a daddy-longlegs. Nothing. The fish ignored my several offerings as they continued to tail walk in front of me, waving with their fins. If one had jumped into the boat of its own accord, I wouldn’t have been surprised. An hour later, having worked really hard, I was fishless. It was pointless carrying on in the same vein. I took stock of what was happening. My technique was fine. I was casting well, so that the fly presented naturally on the water. I was using gunk to keep the fly afloat. I had cast in every direction around the boat. I had experimented with a range of different flies. What else could I could I do? It was at that moment, reflecting upon what I was doing and what I knew about fish, that I peered over the side of the boat. So small they were almost imperceptible, I could see dozens of miniscule flies, tiny, green aphids. I had nothing so small in my fly box, but I did have a green fly to which I took my scissors and cut away from the hook all but the merest flick of green feather. My shorn imitation greenfly had sat on the surface of the water for no more than a second before a hefty rainbow trout snuffled it away. I caught three trout in three casts, six fish in ten. Then the sun broke through the early morning mist and the trout vanished into deeper water.

As a fisherman, I am an experienced self-regulated learner. Self-regulated learning involves: cognition (the skills and knowledge needed to complete the learning task) – I have fished for nearly fifty years and have a huge hoard of skills and knowledge to draw upon; metacognition (the ability to control cognitive skills) – on that greenfly day I constantly monitored what was going on and after an hour of trying different techniques, reviewed what I was doing and applied my skills and knowledge to find a solution to my lack of success in tempting a fish; and motivation to apply these skills and abilities – returning home without a fish to a derisory reception from my sons wasn’t an option…

Metacognition & self-regulation aren’t at number 2 in the charts for nothing. The EEF guidance report on metacognition and self-regulation is due out at the end of this month and provides a definitive guide to understanding and implementing metacognitive practices in the classroom. It has been written by Alex Quigley, Daniel Muijs and Eleanor Stringer, some of the best edu-brains in the business. If you want to be trained on how to implement the EEF’s findings on metacognition and self-regulation, you can sign up here. Not only will you improve your teaching and your students’ learning, you might just get better at whatever it is you do when I am off fishing…

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This much I know about…being an agnostic

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about being an agnostic.

When it comes to religion, I am an agnostic, I think. So it was odd to find myself delivering an assembly recently which ended with a prayer. As I get older it becomes harder to sleep and so Prayer for the Day sometimes seeps into my consciousness as dawn breaks. A few weeks ago The Reverend Dr Alison Jack of Edinburgh University’s School of Divinity delivered a prayer which moved me to such an extent that I was prompted to share it with the entire school community, staunch agnostic that I am. Click on the image below to listen:

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This much I know about…how Progress 8 might just be a proxy measure for poverty and EAL

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about how Progress 8 might just be a proxy measure for poverty and EAL.

It is worth pointing out the bleeding obvious. When we were inspected back in October, I failed to point out to the inspection team that our cohort is 95%+ White British, the sixth worst performing ethnic group in England at Key Stage 4 in 2017 in terms of progress (P8 score: -0.14). The five ethnic groups whose P8 score was worse than White British were:  traveller of Irish heritage (-1.13); Gypsy/Roma (-0.80); white and black Caribbean (-0.33); black Caribbean (-0.23); Chinese unclassified (-0.41). With the average P8 score for disadvantaged students being c. -0.4, then it is not hard to see that if your cohort is overwhelmingly White British and disadvantaged, then, according to the data, the challenge to secure a positive P8 score is huge.

Gorton vs York revisited. A few weeks ago I queried why a disadvantaged child in Gorton, Manchester, makes better progress than his or her York counterpart at every stage of his or her education. It prompted the Principal of Manchester Enterprise Academy in Wythenshawe in Manchester, James Eldon, to contact me. He sent me two graphs. The first graph plots the 2017 outcomes of a number of schools whose cohort is 0-5% English as an Additional Language. The Y-axis measures the schools’ Progress 8 scores and the X-axis measures the percentage of “Pupil Premium Ever 6” students:

The second graph plots the 2017 outcomes of a number of schools whose cohort is 35-40% “Pupil Premium Ever 6”. The Y-axis measures the schools’ Progress 8 scores and the X-axis measures the percentage of EAL students:

A school’s Progress 8 scores certainly measures its students’ academic progress; after looking at these two graphs, James Eldon and I wonder whether the Progress 8 score also measures the levels of poverty and EAL within a school’s student body.


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