This much I know about…solving the teacher recruitment and retention crisis

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about solving the teacher recruitment and retention crisis.

For a long time now I have been articulating this very simple argument:

  • We can take it as a given that we all want pupils to make good progress in their learning.
  • It is generally accepted that the quality of teaching is the most influential factor in determining the rate at which pupils make progress in their learning – broadly speaking, the better the teaching, the more progress pupils make over time.
  • The new curriculum at primary and the new specifications at GCSE & A level are significantly more academically challenging than their predecessors.
  • It follows, logically, then, that the best thing for our pupils is to be taught by well qualified, highly motivated, hard-working, happy, healthy, well trained, expert teachers.
  • School leaders need to create a culture where the staff are looked after first, because that will give us the best chance to recruit and retain well qualified, highly motivated, hard-working, happy, healthy, well trained, expert teachers, which is the best thing for our pupils.

If I am wrong, please someone correct me.

To attract well qualified, highly motivated, hard-working, happy, healthy, well trained, expert teachers to join the profession, we have to create working conditions which are something like those articulated below by the American educator Roland S. Barth, a copy of which I was given by a colleague at Hove Park, Wayne Jones; I have had it posted on my office wall for the last 25 years:

A Personal Vision of an Idealised School Culture

Roland S Barth

‘I would welcome the chance to work in a school characterised by a high level of collegiality, a place teeming with frequent, helpful personal and professional interactions.  I would become excited about life in a school where a climate of risk taking is deliberately fostered and where a safety net protects those who may risk and stumble.  I would like to go each day to a school to be with other adults who genuinely wanted to be there, who really chose to be there because of the importance of their work to others and to themselves.  I would not want to leave a school characterised by a profound respect for, and encouragement of, diversity, where important differences among children and adults were celebrated rather than seen as problems to remedy.  For 190 days each year, I would like to attend an institution that accorded a special place to philosophers who constantly examine and question and frequently replace embedded practices by asking ‘why’ questions.  And I could even reside for a while in a laundry dryer if accompanied by a great deal of humour that helps bond the community by assisting everyone through tough moments.  I’d like to work in a school that constantly takes note of the stress and anxiety level on the one hand and standards on the other, all the while searching for the optimal relationship of low anxiety and high standards.’

At a time when there is a very real shortage of well qualified, highly motivated, hard-working, happy, healthy, well trained, expert teachers, school leaders would do well to review their organisations’ policies and ask themselves whether their policies are conducive to recruiting and retaining well qualified, highly motivated, hard-working, happy, healthy, well trained, expert teachers; if they are not, then they might change the policies until they are conducive to recruiting and retaining well qualified, highly motivated, hard-working, happy, healthy, well trained, expert teachers.

Below are the first and last slides of a talk I am giving at the moment; at least some of the answers to the teacher recruitment and retention crisis are in school leaders’ hands.


Posted in General educational issues, School Leadership, Teaching and Learning | 9 Comments

This much I know about…different perspectives, flexible working practices, and Carlos Alberto

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about different perspectives, flexible working practices, and Carlos Alberto.

We all have our points of view. As an English teacher, I used to loathe multiple-choice questions until Daisy Christodoulou helped me see things from a different perspective. Colleagues on our city’s Independent-State School Partnership helped me overcome my stereotypically prejudiced view of independent schools. When I first became a head teacher, over 15 years ago, I automatically considered part-time staff to be a timetabling constraint which created too many split-classes and merely disadvantaged students. Fifteen years on, nearly 50% of our 112 teachers have part-time contracts, because it is one of the most effective ways to retain our best classroom practitioners. And two truly great part-time teachers are far better for our students than one average full-time teacher.

There is a big appetite for more flexible working practices in schools. As the number of likes suggests, since I tweeted about workforce flexibility late last night the response has been emphatic. It seems that there are still many school leaders who are failing to see the benefits of flexible working practices; considering the current recruitment and retention challenge in schools, they might look again at the advantages of family-friendly policies such as part-time contracts and flexible starting times. Without claiming causality, it is a fact that since 2010 we have employed increasing numbers of part-time staff and our students’ outcomes have improved significantly over that same time period.

Looking at an issue from a different viewpoint can give you a fresh perspective. If you hadn’t noticed, it’s the World Cup; as you will see from the two videos below of Carlos Alberto’s sublime goal against Italy in the 1970 World Cup Final, there is more than one way of looking at things.


Posted in General educational issues, School Leadership, Teaching and Learning | 2 Comments

This much I know about…the importance of implementation to improve student 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 importance of implementation to improve student outcomes.

Authentic implementation of school improvement interventions is the real work of a school leader. With superb studies emerging from several quarters (the Education Endowment Foundation and the Chartered College of Teaching to name but two) about what has the best chance of helping students make better progress in their learning, it is relatively easy to choose an intervention which, you hope, will prove to be the great panacea to cure all of your school’s teaching and learning ills.


We all love metacognition, don’t we? And in the EEF’s Guidance Report, Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning, you will find the third strand is modelling your expert thinking for students. I have become an expert user of a visualiser to help model the writing process. I first saw one being used several years ago as I walked through a mathematics lesson. The teacher was talking through his solution to a problem and there, on the board, was a close up of the question paper he was completing as he explained what he was thinking as his pen moved across the page. It was love at first sight. I proceeded to ask people about how they used them, read about them, bought one from @Ipevo and practised with my new visualiser endlessly. Even now, years later, when it comes to writing a talk-through 25 mark essay in front of the class, I practise the night before, writing the essay out once, twice, even three times so that I am sure it is a good essay and, most importantly, that I have identified the learning points I want to emphasise as I talk the students through what is going on in my mind as I write the essay.  To be completely honest, I sometimes have a full draft of the essay on the table in front of me when I am modelling the writing in class! Modelling writing effectively takes significant preparation and practice. The more I have practised, the more confident I have become. I am now at the point where using a visualiser holds no fear for me; it has become a central tool to support my teaching of the writing process and the students I teach rate my visualiser lessons very highly.

But we love implementation more! The effectiveness of metacognitive techniques to improve students’ learning cannot exceed the effectiveness of the implementation of those techniques. A couple of years ago, I stuck my oar into the English department’s preparation for the first English Language GCSE examination. At short notice, I decided, unilaterally, that instead of the students completing a timed paper, that every member of the department would use a visualiser to model a written answer to the main writing question, in real time. And they were going to do it the next day. Some colleagues had used a visualiser a few times before, others didn’t know what one looked like. None had been formally trained in how to use a visualiser. None had been mentored in how important it is to get the angle of the camera right. None had been shown how to ensure that you don’t get carried away speaking and writing, so that what you are writing is totally out of shot, the students being too embarrassed to tell you. Some rooms they worked in had the PCs facing in completely the wrong direction, neither facing the board nor looking at the students. I hadn’t even checked we had sufficient visualisers – we had to borrow some from other departments. I had expected colleagues to learn overnight how to use a visualiser effectively to model writing, something that had taken me a great deal of time and practice to master. Predictably, the outcome of the lesson the next day was mixed, at best. In some cases it was much worse than that. And it was entirely my fault, because the implementation of the intervention was poor. Like I said, the effectiveness of metacognitive techniques to improve students’ learning cannot exceed the effectiveness of the implementation of those techniques; in this case the implementation was rushed, the resources were inadequate, the training was non-existent, the reason for using the specific intervention was unsound, the desired outcomes had not been defined, the key features of effective practice were not understood…etc., etc.. In some ways this is a public apology to my English department colleagues.

Imp GR

Making the evidence impact positively upon student outcomes is the only point of using evidence. I have some highly successful examples of how using a visualiser effectively can enhance students’ outcomes, sometimes quite dramatically; well-planned implementation is the key to such successes. Professor Jonathan Sharples has authored an EEF guidance report on how to plan the implementation of your interventions entitled, Putting Evidence to Work – A School’s Guide to Implementation. It is essential reading for all school leaders, and I don’t say that lightly. At the moment we are about to implement seven months of work on improving our vulnerable students’ outcomes. We have a student body which is 95% white working class British, one of the worst performing ethnic groups in England. If we can implement our evidence-based strategies effectively, we think we have a chance of narrowing the gap in performance between our vulnerable students (and by vulnerable, I mean those students who: are low starters; have a Special Educational Need or Disability; started mid-year; or are disadvantaged, including those who are in care) and all other students. It is a huge challenge and over the next few weeks I will be blogging about our interventions and how we plan to implement them. One thing for sure, Jonathan Sharples’ advice will be our guide; I can’t keep getting the implementation wrong!


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:

Sheff Conf Poster V2

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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

Posted in Research, Teaching and Learning | 1 Comment

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

Posted in Research, School Leadership, Teaching and Learning | 5 Comments

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