Our new marking policy makes me feel stupid

When OFSTED came it was a bruising and unpleasant experience. This was particularly so for the Maths department. We were singled out for criticism because the Maths results were not as good as the English results. Enough about that because that’s a subject for another post/rant. What’s relevant to this post is that they said the quality of marking/record keeping and the systems for demonstrating progress was inconsistent across the school.

This resulted in our new “one size fits all” marking policy.

Before I continue I should say that this is not intended to be a rant about SLT. I like my current leadership team. They have been very nice to me. They run the school pretty well and are generally competent and well intentioned. Whenever I have had personal problems I have got a very human and sympathetic response. I would say that there are 3 members of SLT that are excellent. The rest are what I would call “a safe pair of hands” in most regards (damning with faint praise perhaps but then I would describe myself similarly).

I also do not completely hate the marking policy. It suits some departments very well. It is a genuine attempt to reduce workload and for us in some regards it has (Ks4 for example) in Maths. Some departments say it has made an enormous difference to their workload.

I’m only going to write about the problematic bits of the policy as it applies to Maths.

There are several problematic areas for me. The first is the sheet on which the pupils are supposed to record the evidence of their progress. Imagine an APP grid on which pupils are supposed to record what they can and can’t do and write where the evidence that they can do these topics can be found. On these grids they are supposed to record their test results, transfer or summarise my written diagnostic feedback from their book to the record sheet and RAG each topic.

My first issue with this is the time consuming pointlessness of most diagnostic marking in Maths (blogged about here: https://mylifeasacynicalteacher.wordpress.com/2014/01/31/book-scrutiny-once-again-shows-that-i-dont-do-much-of-things-i-think-are-pointless/ )

This is compounded by expecting pupils to copy this feedback onto a separate sheet (although it does, I suppose, ensure that they have looked at it).

The second issue with this is pupils recording with RAG what they can and can’t do. The problem is that this is not set in stone and is fluid over time. Let’s say for the sake of argument that all pupils do their best to fill this in properly. If they record something in green at the time of learning it there is no reason to assume they can still do it when they come to revise for a test. There is no reason to assume they will still be able to do it when the inevitable learning walk or book scrutiny comes round. In my experience there is no compelling reason with a lot of pupils to assume they will still be able to do it next lesson.

The Head of Maths to his credit has decided that the best way to address this is to test pupils on a topic a few weeks after the topic has been taught and fill the grids in on the basis of those tests. This does rather go against the intended workload reduction element of the policy and does not address all  the problems but it’s better than nothing. SLT said that 1 question can constitute an assessment. This my well be true in some subjects but personally I would find giving  meaningful grade or level on the basis of one maths question problematic.

Different people in the department are filling in these grids in slightly different ways so we have had several meetings to try to get some sort of consistency across the department.

My classes end up with a grid containing:

  1. A list of the topics they have studied this year broken down by term- useful
  2. Where a revision resource for that topic can be found- useful
  3. Where the evidence that the pupil can do this topic can be found along with my feedback- not sure what the point of this is
  4. RAG for each topic- merits of this are dubious in my opinion.

In the meeting I asked who these grids were supposed to be for. Initially I was told that they were to benefit us as teachers. When I queried this I was told that the grids would make it easier for teachers to show all the good practice they are doing when SLT or inspectors observe them. I pointed out that if the purpose of this is to benefit me then I ought to be able to opt out if I can’t see or don’t understand these benefits. Apparently not. I asked if I could opt out if I don’t really care about showing observers my amazing practice. No. I asked if I could opt out if I felt that the benefits were significantly outweighed by the extra work. No.

The meeting then moved on to how these grids benefit the pupils. To be perfectly honest I didn’t understand this bit either. I understand why having a list of topics is beneficial. I understand why having where to find revision materials would be useful. I have been through the arguments for why it’s beneficial for pupils to fill in the rest of the grid several times now. I still don’t get it.

I asked what the minimum effort I could possibly put into grids without anyone hassling me is. I was informed that if I did the minimum it would look bad when I was observed as I would inevitably be compared to people doing their best. I did not get an answer though.

In my experience of using this a significant minority of pupils struggle to read, understand or remember what the topics are based on the list. This means they either don’t fill it in correctly or it requires a significant amount of my time to get them to fill it in properly. The pupils could be spending this time learning something. On top of that I have checked pupils understanding of previous topics during lesson starters and found what they can and can’t do does not match what they have recorded.

Only a tiny proportion of pupils appear to be benefiting at all from this. It takes up quite a lot of lesson time for very little benefit as far as I can see. It is also deeply tedious and results in unnecessary confrontations with pupils as they have to be made to fill it in (and often made to do it again when they yet again fail to do it properly). Despite my efforts lots of pupils have not filled it in properly.

The obvious beneficiaries of this new system are observers. They can look at the front of any book and see pages of assessment results and diagnostic feedback. This seems to be used as a proxy by which whether people are doing their jobs properly are judged.  They can also see whether teachers are doing what they’re told or not. One box given to them by OFSTED can be ticked.

Every time I get feedback from a learning walk or observation the grid not being filled in properly is one of the main opportunities for improvement. I’m doing it wrong. I can’t do it right because I don’t understand the point of it. Having used it I understand it even worse than I did when it was hypothetical because it quite clearly is not doing what it is supposed to.

The people pushing this policy are intelligent people. Maybe my inability to understand this marking policy means I’m not as smart as I previously thought.




How I’ve voluntarily changed my teaching this year and the impact this has had on low ability pupils

I’ve had to change certain things about the way I teach many times over the years to suit the many and varied policy changes, whims of OFSTED and vagaries of the many leaders I have worked for. I have recently changed my marking as we have the joy of a new marking policy for example.

Not many of those changes have been voluntary though and the longer I have taught for the fewer have been the voluntary changes I have made to my practice.

One change I have made this year is to get a lot more use out of things like the excellent diagnostic questions website.

The other is the one I am writing about in this post.

For most of my teaching career I have employed different methods to teach low ability pupils and SEN pupils than my brightest pupils.

This is partly because I have always been told to. It is partly because I always viewed this as a necessary part of differentiation. It is partly because I thought the different groups would learn better if I taught them differently but it is mostly because I thought the lowest ability pupils would not be able to cope with the way I teach my more able pupils.

This year I am trying something different with classes of all abilities. Not in every lesson but just where I feel it’s appropriate. Initially it was an idea I had for getting more out of the lowest ability pupils but then it occurred to me that it would be interesting to see what would happen across the board.

I put everything they need to know for a lesson on the board. This is what their working out should look like at every stage of the solution. I talk them through it.

While this is hardly revolutionary I have to plan in more detail because I am not intending to give further help if a pupil gets stuck. That means I have to think in more detail about what I am asking of the pupils and what I am going to put on the board than I usually might to ensure that everything fits together and that the level of detail is right. I also had to rethink the seating plans.

I then tell all the pupils who feel able to to start their work. They start in silence initially. Generally the first thing they do is copy the key examples. This is because I ask the class if anyone would like 1 or 2 more examples before getting started and require silence if anybody would like further explanation. Once the further explanation has been given I tell them that will get no further explanation because they now have all the information they need to answer the questions. The most they will get from me is a prompt.

Once everyone has started. I go round the class marking and prompting. Should someone ask for help I refer them back to the examples on the board. They have to tell me specifically which step they need help with. I get them to show me where they are up to on the model solution. If they are not sure I prompt them and ask them from looking at the examples what they think they should do next. They key is that I don’t tell them anything that isn’t already on the board. I often find that when someone puts their hand up someone sitting next to them goes through it with them if they are waiting for more than a minute or so. I still check to make sure they know what they are doing when this happens.

The outcomes have been quite interesting. Initially none of my classes really liked these lessons. There was a period of training them into it. The more able classes got used to these lessons pretty quickly. The least able took a little longer to get used to the idea (as expected) but I persevered and now they really like them.

I am very pleased with the progress the least able pupils are making and the way in which their confidence is growing. I have also been pleasantly surprised by how much they can do on their own and how much more willing they are to try than they used to be.

When I asked the low ability pupils why they like the lessons better they said things like:

  1. When they figure things out for themselves it makes them feel smarter.
  2. When I tell them that I know they can do it without help I make them feel smarter.
  3. Needing help all the time makes them feel dumb
  4. Not understanding what to do makes them feel dumb
  5. Being told the answer makes them feel dumb
  6. Being taught in the same way as top sets makes them feel smart
  7. When they do all the work on their own they remember it better
  8. It’s not fun exactly but maths is better than before (damning with faint praise?)
  9. It’s still boring but at least I’m learning more

I’m beginning to think that in the past I have asked too little of my low ability pupils. By giving them too much support and scaffolding and by helping them too much at too early a stage I may have held them back. By not allowing the low ability pupils to be stuck for any length of time and by intervening at a very early stage if they were struggling I may have inadvertently hindered their ability to work effectively.

That’s not to say they haven’t made progress and generally done ok but I can’t help wondering how much better they might have done had I asked a bit more of them.

This had led me to ask myself why I have scaffolded so much for them and why I have not expected them to figure more things out for themselves.

  1. I have been concerned that if they can’t do the work it will put them off maths (more than they were already)
  2. I have been concerned that their behaviour would be awful if they could not do the work.
  3. I have been reluctant to ignore all the advice on various IEPs and school documents and training sessions about teaching low ability pupils and pupils with SEN.
  4. What I’ve always done has been quite successful and so I didn’t particularly want to try something that might not work.

The downside of these lessons is that I spend twice as long thinking about what questions I am going to give them and what examples I am going to put on the board. I put a lot more time into structuring the examples in a way all the pupils are highly likely to understand.

I also look through their books in more detail to make sure I have good grasp of what they will understand which also takes time. I found that without doing so these lessons don’t really work.

I am yet to be observed teaching in this way so it remains to be seen what the leadership of the school think.

I also employ the Bigkid Taxonomy which helps things along 🙂




Key stage 2 results advice on Starterforfive- Some thoughts

The advice offered was here https://starterforfive.wordpress.com/2015/11/05/key-stage-2-results-by-anonymous/ for those that have no seen it.

I wrote this a while back about KS2 SATs and I think it is still relevant.


I will go through the points in the advice one by one:

1: Don’t treat them as accurate, especially if you don’t teach Maths or English.

The reason why it matters if someone teaches Maths or English or not is because the Maths and English KS2 results are often used to generate targets in all subjects (much to the annoyance of every teacher of MFL, Music, Drama, Art and DT that I know). This often result in targets that are insane.

In my experience around 50% of students arrive with a KS2 level that I do not agree with and that they do not achieve in our baseline test. It might not be a million miles off but it’s not the same. It’s very unusual to find students that have KS2 levels that are too low in my experience.

There are reasons why a student might have a KS2 level that does not reflect their ability when they arrive on day 1 of year 7:

  1. They have been well drilled and prepared for their KS2 exams. They have probably not done huge amounts of English and Maths between their SATs and their arrival in my classroom. That’s certainly long enough for them to forget stuff and get rusty and some stuff.
  2. The KS2 SATs are not great tests of mathematical ability. They are at best, in my opinion, a way of crudely ranking pupils in how good they are at KS2 Maths tests. The level pupils arrive with tell me very little about what they can and can’t do. Anyone who makes any assumptions about what pupils can and cannot do based on their KS2 SATs is almost certainly going to be wrong.
  3. The KS3 curriculum is broader and deeper than the KS2 curriculum. A Level 5 at KS3 does not mean the same thing as a Level 5 at Ks2
  4. Levels are a nonsense of the highest order. Giving pupils a level that supposedly reflects their ability is and always has been fundamentally flawed. Giving pupils sub-levels is taking that nonsense and wrapping it in some top level insanity.

None of this is the fault of primary school teachers. In the last three schools I have worked in primary teachers have done an exceptional job in getting the pupils to get the results they have. That doesn’t mean that the levels generated tell us much about the pupils maths ability though.

2: If the child had a reader, the results will be even less accurate.

If a pupil has a reader in their KS2 Sats it doesn’t necessarily follow that they will have one in my lesson. It may therefore appear that they are less able than their KS2 level suggests. On top of that students with scribes, readers, prompters etc getting more help than they technically should is not a new issue or one restricted to primary. Given the unlikely results that some SEN pupils arrive in Year 7 with (The student with a level 5 in maths that could neither read nor count springs to mind) it is ridiculous to suggest there is no issue here.

3: Baseline assess your students on entry, so you have an argument come performance review time.

Given that large numbers of pupils arrive with levels that do not reflect their ability this is sensible advice. The last 2 schools I have worked in have done baseline tests. The results, as I mentioned above, are frequently a bit lower than their KS2 level. Sometimes they are much lower. Without the baseline test my colleagues and I would not have a leg to stand on when the pupils fail to achieve the target grades they are given based on their KS2 SATs.

4: If it’s a teacher assessment, it’s inflated further.

Teachers have PM targets to meet. This inevitably impacts to a greater or lesser extent on the levels they give when doing teacher assessments. This is particularly true if there are sub-levels involved. Sub-levels are a made up nonsense so if someone has a target of 5a and in my opinion they are level 5 then I’ll have no qualms about giving them a 5a in my teacher assessment. Why would I make a rod for my own back by saying they haven’t met a nonsensical made up target by giving them a different nonsensical, made up level instead? Why would anyone? Every class I have ever inherited from another teacher has had inflated end of year teacher assessments. I expect it and I don’t let it bother me greatly. After all someone is inheriting the pupil I gave a 5a to.

5: If you don’t teach Maths or English, assume they’ve been taught almost nothing about your subject.

I genuinely have no idea if this is the case or not. I would assume it is more true in some subjects than others.

I don’t see the advice as an attack on primary teachers so much as an attack on a system that makes no sense at all. However I can see how some might see things differently.

My experience tells me that if points 1-4 were liberally sprinkled with the word “probably” they would be reasonable advice.

I have no idea about point 5.


I recently posted 5 pieces of advice on the @starterforfive blog. Several tweeters took issue with the advice. While I don’t mind healthy debate or people disagreeing with me I don’t feel that those that were taking issue get what I’m about. Hence this post.

Firstly I am going to post some links to some previous blogposts about observations for the purpose of giving context and to avoid repetition (earliest first). Everyone’s view of observations will be coloured by their experiences of observations…








To be honest I was initially surprised by the negative reaction until I realised 3 things:

  1. Most of the people taking issue with it were members of SLT
  2. They were saying that THEIR school wasn’t like that or that THEY as SLT members weren’t like that
  3. They were saying that observations SHOULDN’T be like that.

In actual fact what they were doing was personalising the post and turning it into a criticism of them or their school. That was not my intention. I think they may also have misunderstood the intent behind my advice as well. I also think they may have been reading things into my advice that I did not actually say because there have been so many blogposts over such a long period of time complaining about observations. This is a summary of what I meant.

  1. Find out what the observers are looking for- I don’t see how this is controversial. My school has a focus. It has a school improvement plan. There is a departmental improvement plan. Observers will often focus on these things in their observations and in their feedback. Individual observers have their foibles and preferences just like anyone else. Of course nobody is supposed to have preferred teaching styles any more. Anyone who genuinely believes that they or anyone else doesn’t have preferences is living in fantasy land. It’s worth knowing what the preferences are.
  2. Give them what they want- If you know what observers are going to be looking for why would you not show those things? If something is in the Departmental or School improvement plan then why would you not make sure that you do it and do it well? If an observer prefers a certain style of teaching or lessons or ways of managing behaviour why not do it that way? The NQT year is HARD. Why create additional levels of difficulty unnecessarily?
  3. Don’t confuse a great observation with great teaching. All too often they’re not the same thing at all-  Observations are highly subjective. I’ve had very positive feedback from lessons I have thought were ok. but no better. I’ve had very negative feedback from lesson I thought went ok too. This happens more often when being observed by non-subject specialists and people who don’t know the kids very well. Great teaching happens over time. It’s what you do day in and day out over a long period. A great observation can be indicative that great teaching is taking place but it certainly isn’t the same thing. I know many teachers that can turn out a great observation that really struggle to reproduce that standard day in day out.
  4. A great observation is one after which the outcome is you being left alone to get on with the job of teaching- I find that the frequency with which new teachers are observed/supported/dropped in on is directly related to how well they are doing. Is this not the case everywhere? It’s certainly my experience.
  5. A bad observation is one that necessitates further observations- In my experience even when feedback is negative unless there is some sort of follow up observation resulting from the negative observation it wasn’t that bad.  It’ generally only been the worst of my observations that have resulted in a follow up observation.

In my current school they have recently moved away from doing full, graded lesson observations towards a system of 10 minute drop ins. It’s supposed to be supportive, non-judgemental, formative and collaborative. I think it eventually will be. The person leading on it is very good and having discussed it with SLT it is clear that they want it to be successful. I have played a not insignificant role in advocating and pushing for the changes and have invested what capital I have in the new system. I have made my suggestions and I think they have been taken on board and we will move to a system that is pretty close to how I would do it if I were in charge in the reasonably near future.

Some issues remain though:

  1. Staff are used to their pay progression being dependent on very high stakes, judgemental graded observations. There are still a lot of performance lessons going on and limited trust in the system
  2. Some middle and senior leaders are not conducting the learning walks or giving feedback in the agreed way. This is being addressed as a training need and hopefully will be sorted out in the near future.
  3. When things don’t go as they should staff tend to keep it to themselves or address it through their union (eventually) rather than at the time and through SLT. This has led to SLT only hearing the positive and having a slightly false rosy picture of how it is going (The staff are positive about the change but not universally so and the system is not without flaws)
  4. There are still a minority of people using observations to grind axes and push agendas.
  5. The observations are almost exclusively done by post holders. This is changing slowly but there is still a long way to go.

I have personally had no negative experiences of being observed in the last 2-3 years. I have also had little feedback that has made me any better at teaching. The best thing about the observations has been the discussion afterwards about teaching maths (when I’ve been observed by a Maths teacher). That could happen without the observation though.

The best system of observations I have experienced was entirely informal. Every member of the department would sit in the back of someone else’s lesson doing their marking during frees and then have a chat about the lesson afterwards.

Dialogue during observations-What new torture is this?

I have read a couple of blogposts about observers offering feedback or intervening in lessons during the lesson being observed. After I had ranted at my partner about what an awful idea this is and how I would down tools if it happened to me again she suggested that I write a blogpost rant instead.

Before going on at length about why this is a bad idea I will say what conditions would have to be in place to make this acceptable to me:

  1. All observations would have to be conducted by someone whose opinion on how to teach Mathematics I respect.
  2. All observations would have to be conducted by someone whose feedback on the teaching of Mathematics I value.
  3. Any dialogue or intervention that occurs would have to be subtle and unobtrusive so as not to undermine my credibility or disrupt my lesson.
  4. If, when and how any possible intervention is going to take place would have to be agreed and it would have to be my decision whether or not it actually happened. If I can’t veto their intervention I don’t want any interventions taking place.

I’ve written several blogposts about my experiences of observations and the various senior leaders I have worked with over the years. I have come to the conclusion that while many of them are nice people and most of them are competent at at leat some aspects of their jobs I don’t really want them in my room. I don’t want to be observed by most of them. No good ever comes of it. I don’t want their feedback. It’s rarely any use to me. I want to be left alone to get on with the job of teaching.

I tolerate these interlopers in my classroom disturbing the learning environment because I have to but I’m not obliged to like it.

Almost every time an observer has decided to contribute to one of my lessons in some way it has either been disruptive, undermining or both. Rarely has it ever made the lesson go any better.

I think my main issue with this idea is simple. It assumes that the observer knows what a lesson needs better than the teacher does. Lets look at that assumption for a minute:

  • Does the observer know the dynamics of the class better than the teacher? Unlikely.
  • Does the observer know the various needs and issues of the pupils in the class better than the teacher? Unlikely
  • Does the observer know what the pupils in the class are capable of better than the teacher? Unlikely
  • Does the observer know more about the subject material being delivered than the teacher? possibly if they are a subject specialist.
  • Does the observer know more about the best way to get the pupils in the class to understand the material? Possibly if they are a subject specialist.

I do not believe that most observers would know best if they were observing one of my lessons. There are only a handful of colleagues I have worked with that I would have been happy to have contributing to or intervening in a lesson during an observation. Each one has been an excellent maths teacher, someone I trusted to act in my best interests and someone whose opinion on teaching Maths was valuable to me.

I have worked with far too many middle and senior leaders that I would not, for a variety of reasons, have wanted intervening directly in one of my lessons during an observation. The ones I would not want commenting on or intervening in a lesson far outnumber the ones where I wouldn’t mind.

As I don’t see how it would be possible for staff to choose which observers can and cannot intervene in a lesson during an observation that is not problematic in some way I think I would hate an observation system like this. Unless there is  a serious issue with the behaviour of the pupils, the safety of the pupils or the professionalism of the teacher, that needs addressing immediately, feedback can wait until after the lesson.

Differentiation- a follow up post

It took me an unconscionably long time to understand that different people mean different things by the term differentiation.

I went into my first proper job thinking that if you planned lessons that catered to the needs of all your pupils and gave all of them the opportunity to make progress then you were differentiating. The goal was to maximise the progress each pupil made in the lesson.

Provided the level of the work and the resources used were appropriate for the students I viewed pupils not behaving properly, not listening or not doing enough work as a behaviour management problem rather than a problem of differentiation. Unfortunately at that time my behaviour management was not great. The effect of this was compounded by the general behaviour in the school being appalling, the processes for dealing with behaviour ineffective and the leadership team disinterested in dealing with poor behaviour (and often ineffective on those occasions where they did actually attempt to do something).

What confused me at the time and interests me now is that the school considered inadequate differentiation in my lessons to be more of a problem than my behaviour management. Differentiation was frequently mentioned as an area for improvement in my lesson feedback and for a long time I failed to understand why. I was setting work that every pupil was capable of doing. I was providing support and extension work for those that needed it. I had different resources for those that needed them. Nobody was able to adequately explain what they wanted in terms of differentiation.

Finally it clicked. I was planning lessons that pupils would be able to access if they listened and tried. I viewed it as my job to find ways to make them listen and make them try to enable them to access the work. I was giving them tasks that required a bit of thought sometimes. Those that didn’t listen could not do the work. Those that didn’t want to try would get “stuck”. They’d get “bored” and start messing about. In my eyes the problem was that I was not able to get some pupils to listen and/or try. I was not succeeding in my attempts to deter pupils from messing about.

In the eyes of the school the problem was largely one of planning. A lesson in which pupils struggled if they did not listen was “too ambitious”. It showed that I did not know the ability of the class. A lesson in which pupils were required to think was “too ambitious” or “unrealistic” in terms of what the pupils were being asked to do. If pupils misbehaved because they “didn’t get it”,  “the work was too hard”, “too easy” or “boring” it was a failure of planning. The pupils reasons for not working were always taken at face value.

What they meant by “differentiation” was that lessons should be planned to minimise poor behaviour rather than to maximise learning. If there were behaviour issues in the lesson that this was put almost entirely down to poor planning of the lesson.

All of the training and support given on planning and behaviour was about how to keep the pupils entertained rather than how to get them learning or doing what they were told. If anything following the advice given in that training made the behaviour in my lessons worse. Fortunately my department had some excellent managers of behaviour in it so I learned from and was supported by them.

This had an enormous impact on how I planned lessons before I learned how to manage behaviour. The goal was to get pupils from the beginning of the lesson to the end without ever having to listen, be stuck, think about how to answer a question for more than 2 seconds or  do anything they might find challenging (unless it was the sort of student who enjoyed challenge in which case challenge had to be provided). If they learned something that was great but nobody seemed to have much of a problem with it if they didn’t provided they behaved.

Even when my behaviour management improved the prevailing view was that if you had to set detentions or send pupils out then this was a failure on your part to plan a sufficiently engaging and properly differentiated lesson. This meant that any teacher wishing to be viewed positively by the leadership team or ambitious for promotion planned their lessons with behaviour at the forefront of their thinking with learning a distant second unless they were an excellent manager of behaviour or the pupils were scared of them.

The only teachers I’m aware of that did not plan in this way much of the time were the ones the pupils were scared of.

I thought when I moved to a better school I was leaving all that behind me. Sadly not.

In my next school the behaviour was better. The way the school dealt with poor behaviour was better. The results were much better. The view of differentiation was much the same though. It just caused fewer problems because the behaviour in the school was pretty good most of the time. If you were a reasonable or good manager of behaviour then the behaviour in your lessons would be fine most of the time. The pupils were largely compliant but many were disaffected and did as little work as they could get away with.

The NQTs really struggled with behaviour. This was partly to do with a lack of clarity in the systems and procedures for dealing with behaviour. Most of the NQTs simply did not know what they were supposed to deal with themselves, what they were supposed to refer upwards or two whom they were supposed to refer it. The behaviour policy was extremely vague and whenever anyone asked they were just referred back to the policy most of the time. There was also a very real fear of being judged if they asked for support with behaviour. This was hugely damaging. I tried to support them in a similar way to the way I was supported when I started out.

NQTs that had problems with behaviour in their lessons were often given criticised for or given support with their differentiation, planning and resourcing of lessons rather than training or support in managing behaviour. In my opinion this not only damaged the standard of education their pupils were receiving in the long run but also slowed their development as teachers where classroom management was concerned.

If the proposed solution to poor pupil behaviour is “easier lessons” or “more engaging lessons” then it speaks volumes about the priorities of a school. If a reasonably well planned and differentiated lesson doesn’t work because of poor behaviour then to suggest “more differentiation” as the solution is bonkers.

One observation I was doing an algebra revision lesson just before a mock exam. I had algebra packs on a range of topics ranging from simple linear equations to simultaneous equations with a quadratic on each table and pupils had to choose in their pairs which they wanted to revise. The overwhelming majority of pupils worked really well. 2 did not. They were convinced they were A* students and should do the hardest questions when they couldn’t. When they struggled to complete the hardest pack rather than choosing an easier one, looking up how to do the work in a textbook or their exercise book or even listening to a brief explanation they loudly proclaimed that my lesson was **** and refused to work until I had no choice but to give them detention.

In my feedback session I said that I was disappointed that they had not worked and that I had to set them detentions for lack of work and disruptive behaviour. I said I would ensure they did the work in detention. The observer said I had not considered that their preferred learning style was kinaesthetic, that I should have differentiated for their preferred learning style, that I should have known that they would behave in that way when faced with challenging work and planned for their reaction to avoid the confrontation. I pointed out that my plan of monitoriing their work and effort and giving them detention if they did not do enough work was planning for their behaviour. Judgement: Requires improvement…

What that feedback in essence says is that if a child is lazy that should be differentiated for and that if a child is a giant pain in the posterior that should also be differentiated for. Why? Are these now considered special needs?

Are we really saying that if a child is lazy or poorly behaved then giving them easier work is a better option than making them work or making them behave? If a child is lazy and we reward their laziness with less or easier work then what message does that send to the rest of the pupils?

My current school is a very good school yet a significant proportion of the teachers I’ve seen teach strip much of the challenge out of their lessons.

Planning and differentiation can have an enormous impact on pupil behaviour. Of course they can. I’m not suggesting otherwise. If the lesson is too demanding or not demanding enough then poor behaviour is more likely. If pupils cannot access a lesson the likelihood of poor behaviour is increased. However that does not mean that all poor behaviour is caused by poor planning or a lack of differentiation.

In every school I have worked in a significant proportion of some teacher’s planning and differentiation is motivated by a fear of poor behaviour (and a fear of being judged as a result).

Too many teachers plan lessons that are less demanding than what we know the pupils are capable of. When we know that pupils could do something if they listen and if they try but we also know that some of them won’t listen or won’t try the temptation is always there to avoid the behaviour problems by avoiding the topic or dumbing it down. I still find myself doing it sometimes.

I decided years ago that I was going to plan every lesson assuming all pupils were going to behave and do their best and that I would deal with it if they didn’t. Initially the behaviour was very difficult and the learning dropped off a cliff but over time two things happened. The first was that my classroom management improved beyond all measure. The second was that the pupils started to not only learn more but become more self-sufficient. Giving them permission to be stuck and trying to shift their view of what it means to struggle with something or be stuck on a question slowly changed their attitude to the subject and to hard work.

Too many teachers, in my experience, seem to view differentiation as compulsively avoiding any situation where a pupil might become stuck. We hold their hands, spoon feed them and give them very little thinking time before intervening. Some of us don’t even know or recognise we’re doing it until it’s pointed out.

If we “differentiate” away the difficulty in our lessons we deny pupils the opportunity to experience successfully struggling with something difficult by themselves. We deny them the sense of accomplishment that comes with figuring out something really difficult and we ensure that if they come across something they can’t do in the exam (and they probably will) they will be ill equipped to deal with it.

I find pupils arrive in Year 7 willing to attempt challenging questions and willing to have a go at things they don’t get. That might suggest that things are different in primary schools. Their willingness to risk failure, looking stupid or getting things wrong decreases the longer they are in secondary school for. This is often the case across the entire spectrum of ability. While puberty and peer pressure play a part in this I think the way we teach plays a big part too.

Things Michaela School may wish to think about

In my previous post I described my visit to Michaela School. The visit was very positive and I was very impressed with the school.

I’m not so arrogant that I think I could run the school (or maths department for that matter) better than they are being run but I do have a few issues and suggestions the school may wish to consider. Many of them the school may have already considered and almost certainly are already aware of but I’m going to offer my unsolicited advice anyway.

Having met some of the staff of the school I’m confident this will be taken in the spirit it is meant.


In my experience routines that work with a small number of pupils can fall down or require amending when the number of pupils increases. This is particularly true of routines involving a lot of staff members. The end of break time and lunch time routines may need changing as it may be difficult to make them work with fewer staff members per pupil. SLT are likely to be spread thinner as the school grows.

The narrow corridors are likely to result in bottle necks even if all pupils observe the rule about walking on the left because the stair cases are fairly wide so when pupils go from the wide stair case to the narrow corridor the school may find it quite slow going. There are various way of addressing this. A one way system for the staircases might help but having a slightly (2-5 minutes) staggered end to lessons so Year 7 can get to their next lesson and line up outside before the larger children are let out of their lesson would probably have more impact. This is unlikely to be a significant issue next year but might start to become a problem as the school grows.

It’s worth considering whether a routine that works well with 120 pupils will still be practical when you have 600 or more and planning how the routines will evolve as the school grows. This can help avoid persisting with a system that is unlikely to continue working and pre-empt problems that are fairly predictable.

The Curriculum:

While I agree with and have long been an advocate of a knowledge based mastery curriculum it is not without it’s issues. One of those issues is the difficulty of curriculum mapping.

The idea that pupils do not move on from a topic until they understand it, can reliably do it and have retained it makes mapping out the curriculum significantly more challenging.

By mapping out the curriculum I mean having a detailed plan for which students are going to have covered what and by when. One of the advantages Michaela School has is that Schemes of work and curricula are being devised from scratch or incorporating existing work elsewhere that they perceive as excellent. This means a lot of work for the people creating the schemes of work as there are a lot of one person departments. It also means there is no need for compromises or disagreements between department members about how it all should work.

I think it would be worth each subject looking at the entire GCSE curriculum and deciding for each topic which ability groups will study that topic and when. This has several elements to it.

  1. What did the pupils arrive with us knowing or being able to?
  2. What grade/number/letter in the new assessment system de jour do we want pupils of each ability group to get at the end of Year 11 (or 13)?
  3. What do they need to know or be able to do to get that grade/number?
  4. What are they going to learn and when that will get them from one to the other?

Obviously in a system where the class does not move on until they have mastered something different pupils and different classes will get through topics and different speeds but a good scheme of work can allow for that.

Having this progression pathway mapped out would go some way to addressing one of my concerns about assessment that I will come on to later. Levels have been scrapped but the new system for assessing pupils at the end of Year 6 will if anything leave us even less informed about what pupils can and can’t do (and that is quite an achievement in my opinion) and who knows what “3 levels of progress” will turn into? Either way having the progression pathway that ensures pupils can jump through whatever hoops are placed in their path (and the path of the school) can only make life easier for everyone.

While I understand the schools view about doing things because OFSTED want to see them the fact is that in the absence of much data the schemes of work are going to come under closer scrutiny than they otherwise would. That being the case it wouldn’t hurt for the scheme of work to show clear rigour and differentiated progression pathways for the pupils of different abilities.

I also think it’s a good idea anyway and something I have long wanted to do myself. Having always been frustrated by working in schools with separate KS3 and KS4 schemes of work that don’t necessarily join up very well and aren’t always coherent I would love to have the opportunity to write a better one. I’ve considered doing one but it wouldn’t get used in my school so while I’ve started making one many times it usually gets abandoned. Every school I have worked in has had some topics that are not covered enough, some too much, some topics are taught too soon (with low ability pupils particularly) and we often discover knowledge gaps once we start the GCSE. It ought to be possible to avoid these issues. I would also recommend that as much planning of the schemes of work for future years happens this year as possible. As more pupils arrive nobody is likely to wind up with more free time. More management responsibilities will, if anything, reduce HoDs time available to get this sort of thing done.

Bodil has already decided what she wants pupils to know by the end of year 7. I would do the same for Year 8-11 as well but have different ones for each level of ability in each year group starting from Year 11 and working backwards. That gives a framework on which to build a scheme of work.

I would also spend a fair bit of time teaching exam technique in all subjects. Every year we have pupils (especially pupils that are EAL or have poor literacy) that fail because they struggle to decode the questions or struggle to understand what the question is asking for despite having the maths knowledge needed to pass. If they were taught how to do this from year 7 their chances would be significantly better in my opinion.


I like the self-quizzing and I like the end of unit online tests that I saw when I visited the school. The school may well be complimenting these with many other forms of assessment but I did not see those. As such some of these questions may be redundant. The school may well have the answers to these questions but the following occurred to me:

  1. End of topic tests may tell you whether pupils have learned the topic but do you know 2 weeks, a month or 6 months later whether they have retained it?
  2. Will pupils, parents or an inspection team understand that a pupil who gets 80% one week and 30% the next might have made progress. They like their numbers to go ever upwards…
  3. If pupils can retake tests in the computer lab or at home then how do you know it is their work and the result a true reflection of their ability.
  4. How do you judge using the percentages whether a pupil is heading towards the grade/number you want them to get?
  5. How will the assessment system feed into target or predicted grades (numbers?)?
  6. Would it be possible for a pupil to get good marks on all their end of unit tests (after retakes?) for 5 years and then get a bad grade (with no causal disaster or extenuating circumstances)?
  7. Would it be possible for a pupil to appear to making progress when they were not?
  8. Would it be possible for a pupil that is making progress to appear as though they are not?
  9. How will you generate the big picture of what each pupils knows at the moment in each subject?

The biggest issue for me is how do you know whether pupils are making the expected progress or not? With the demise of levels there will be a new system of judging expected progress. It is highly likely to be as ridiculous as the last but we will all be judged against it. A way will have to be found to marry up your system with that system. That could be tricky.

This is where having an evolving over time curriculum map would be a massive help as it would be much easier to see and much easier to show where pupils are and where they are headed in relation to whatever the new “3 levels of progress” might be.

SLT and Middle Leaders

One of the better managers I have worked with once told me that when considering introducing a new policy think about the following:

  1. What difference will it make?
  2. How much better is it than the existing system?
  3. Is that worth the extra work?
  4. When will you evaluate it?
  5. How will you know if it is successful?

When evaluating a new policy consider:

  1. You have introduced your policy…so what?
  2. What impact has it made?
  3. How do you know?

I have found thinking about these questions helpful in the past and recommend considering these questions regularly.

I wish the staff and pupils of Michaela school every success and will be following their progress with interest