Data and wellbeing: horse and carriage?

Data has become a dirty word in English schools as of late. I tweeted about this early in the week and, upon the request of Naureen, I want to clarify my thoughts in an extended blog. The purpose of this blog, therefore, is to explore why data has become so unfavourable and elucidate exactly why this is so dangerous.

What’s the problem? 

I believe that recently teachers have become scared of using data in their classroom and their lessons. Firstly, and perhaps most fundamentally, some teachers take the view that data and wellbeing cannot neatly coexist. This fear takes two forms. One the one hand, some teachers stress over the fact that data will impact negatively on their wellbeing. This scenario quickly conjures up images of a teacher stuck at their desk, late into the evening, inputting line-by-line of data with a slightly warm microwave meal as they’re ripping out their own hair because one child doesn’t show satisfactory progress. On the other hand, some believe that a fetishisation of data impacts negatively on the child’s wellbeing. I have spoken with friends and colleagues in the past who reluctantly mention how a certain intervention may improve the child’s grades, P8 score or their bucket three contributions. They normally preface any discussion on data with: “but of course it’s not about the data, it’s about the child.” By apologising, teachers are loudly shouting that data and a students wellbeing do not coexist and that these entities are wholly and completely separate. This is wrong.

Secondly, and perhaps quite crudely, data can be daunting. As a form tutor, I keep a spreadsheet of all the assessment grades of every one of my tutees in each subject, their baseline data and their subsequent ranking in the year group. I have a second spreadsheet for all of the EAL students in the school, which is about 75% of the school’s cohort. There is something similar for the History students that I also teach. These spreadsheets are incredibly large and actually too big to simply attach in an email. When I first started tracking this data, it was a challenge to simply know where to look as I all I saw was numbers and colours. I thought to myself: what does this actually mean? However, this data has been invaluable to me as a classroom teacher, a form tutor and now a middle leader. For example, in an assessment cycle a little while ago I noticed that all of the students that started school with the highest band of baseline data (Band A) where not in the top 10% of their rankings of the year group in that assessment cycle. Rather, they were mainly situated in the second quartile. Yet the top 10% of rankings was almost entirely populated with people who achieved a baseline score of Band B when they arrived in Year 7. This highlighted two things to me:

  • Not only in my form, but in the entire year group, the students with the top baseline data (who might be typically referred to as more able) were doing something wrong. This had to be changed. (So what, now what?)
  • Students who received a lower baseline score (sometimes as low as Band D in the fourth quartile) were doing fantastically, outperforming their more able peers and were thus bright spots. (So what, now what?)

With this data, you can question: what are the bright spots doing so well and how can I use that, as a teacher, to support our most able? Why are the most able students under-performing and what interventions can be put in place to ensure that each child makes progress rather than simply passing the exam?

Thirdly, since the DfE scrapped KS3 levels and teachers have realised the extent to which these were damaging and largely futile, some teachers have forgotten data all together and shunned it as something dirty. Much has been written on this so I will not elaborate on this point any further.

Why is this so problematic? 

As I explained in my initially Twitter thread, I was a FSM student for quite a chunk of my life at school. I had happy upbringing but at times we really struggled for money. We lived paycheck to paycheck, I cared for my mother who was unwell and a lot of the time, I helped manage the household finances and juggled my schoolwork. With this, I also looked after my younger sister and prepared her for school, cooked dinners and cleaned. Sometimes, my free lunch was the only hot meal (and sometimes the only meal) that I received all day. This was tough.

I worked incredibly hard at my GCSEs and my A-Levels and secured a place to study History at UCL. When I arrived at UCL, my lectures were filled with mostly white middle class folk and I typically shared  discussions with people that went to private schools that cost £30,000 a year to attend. Yes, I felt proud that I had worked so hard to get there and I was now in a room, sharing seminars with the elite; however, I was so unprepared. I hadn’t learnt how to take notes properly at school, I didn’t know how to write a proper essay and what should be written in each paragraph, and I certainly didn’t know how to be original or form my own opinions on a subject. I had no academic confidence.

I then had to work extra hard to not only go through all of the reading for the courses but I had to find a way to learn all of the skills that my peers seemed to just know. This was exhausting and triggered some quite serious issues with my mental health that, at the time, had to take priority. Thankfully, that has all been resolved.

Looking back, I think that my teachers were obsessed with looking after me because I was on FSM. They wanted me to be happy and enjoy life at school because my home life was at times so challenging. They covered me in cotton wool, and whilst I enjoyed those seven years, I was wholly unprepared for the life ahead of me. I categorically believe that the best pastoral support that we as teachers can provide a student is a strong set of GCSEs, the ability to think originally and form own opinions, and an awareness of the world outside of the school gate. Looking back, I would have much preferred it if my teachers were obssessed with my data and the progress that I was making, rather than hollow gestures of happiness to alleviate the stress that I was experiencing elsewhere.

Luckily for me, I knew that education was going to set me free. The better education that I got, the more likely I was able to earn more money and provide for my family. However, I fear that a lot of young people do not think like that. By forgoing on data analysis in favour of upholding a child’s wellbeing, teachers are actually sacrificing the wellbeing of the child later in life. This may well include financial or intellectually wellbeing or, as I experienced, mental wellbeing.

So how can we use this data to help with students’ wellbeing? 

  1. Accountability. Schools make children accountable for their behaviour and actions every single day. We see this as a necessity because, when they enter the real world, they will need to know how to interact with other people. However, making a child accountability for their academic effort and contributions is seen as robbing the student of their childhood and, at worst, inhumane. As an adult, I am accountable all of the time, not just for my behaviour but for my contributions to the school, my family, friends etc. I think it is important to be transparent about a child’s data. For example, I would often sit down with a child and talk them through my observations of their data (especially if they’re not putting enough effort in or under-performing) and I would be fair but frank and tell them that they are accountable for their scores and that they need to find a way of making the score better. If they find that process challenging, I am more than willing to help. I wasn’t given academic accountability at school and struggled at university. These data-accountability conversations should happen.
  2. Wellbeing = progress. I am not suggesting for any minute that the only way a child can be happy is if they’re making progress. Of course not. I also admit that poorly used data can poorly impact on a child’s wellbeing (like poorly used anything). However, I think it is important to have conversations with students not only about how they’re feeling but also how their studies are coming along. Actually, whenever I discuss behaviour with a child, I link it to their outcomes in the classroom. They will thank you in the long run and, once again, I wish that I had more of those conversations at school.
  3. Data for moving forward. In schools, we must be careful not to go completely the other way and collect data for the sake of collecting it. Every time I collect data, I add a section called “notes on moving forward” on to the spreadsheet. This was first used with my Y11 class but now I do it all the time. If a child is under-performing, this needs to stop, and the moving forward section helps me to clarify what I and the student will do to change that. Alternatively, if a child is doing incredibly well (bright spot), I want to know why they are doing so well but I also want to monitor them so that they stay on track. By looking at bright spots and noting down the reasons for their achievement, I can help those not doing so well by sharing strategies. The moving forward section of the document is used to track that.


As John Tomsett said during my latest Twitter thread, data and wellbeing goes together like horse and carriage. They don’t just sit neatly with each other, but one drives the other. In this instance, I believe that frank and open discussions about grades and progress drives a child’s wellbeing. Everything I do is to ensure that my students, who largely come from low socio-economic backgrounds, get the best start in life. I am blunt about their data and the competition that they are up against when they sit their exams and go to university. This is because I care. Once again, the best pastoral support for a child is a strong academic foundation.



Day-To-Day Organisation Tips


Teachers are busy. Our days are populated with briefings, meetings, duties, parents’ evenings, extra prep sessions, planning, marking, feedback, child protection issues, emails, logging behaviour sanctions, and some teaching too. Whilst most teachers work on average of 48.2 hours per week, at least 1 in 5 teachers work more than 60 hours a week.

As a teacher, I have found that this work is not particularly hard but there is just so much of it. Usually, the work can be mentally draining and physically exhausted as working with young people, and with especially children in need, is no easy task. Resultantly, teachers end up taking their work home with them and their professional identity quickly engulfs their personal one.

Keeping track of all of these jobs, announcements and tasks can be challenging and, if a proper organisational system is not in place, then the day-to-day tasks of a teacher can quickly become overwhelming and the profession undesirable. In this blog, I wish to share three day-to-day organisational techniques that I use to organise my life. They help me run on “auto pilot” as I know exactly what I need to do and when. This allows me to easily prioritise and quickly adapt to any situation. I have attached copies throughout the blog that can be downloaded so that you can adopt one or more of these strategies from Monday morning!

1. Clear timetable: 

Every year, or whenever my timetable changes, I open up an Excel spreadsheet and fill in all of my duties and commitments. As you can see, this timetable sets out what I should be doing from the moment I step into the building, to the curfew that I must observe to achieve a proper work-life balance. This may seem a bit too regimented; however, I follow this timetable to the letter and ensure that my curfew is always met. For example, I like to leave early on a Monday so that I can ease myself into the working week gently, but I don’t mind working later on a Thursday or a Friday. The wonderful thing about this is, if and when your commitments change, you can easily and simply change the timetable. This is how I populate it:

First of all, I put all of my teaching in because teaching must always come first and drives everything that I do. I then decide what I will do every morning. On the timetable, it says that I arrive to school at 8.15 but in reality it is often earlier, say 7.45-8.00. During my “Daily Tasks” time, I get myself a cup of coffee, set up my classroom, get my notebook for staff briefing and do my ablutions before the day. Note that I take the tube into work so check my morning emails before I even get to school, which means I have actioned a few things before I even arrive. I also eat my breakfast on the tube and check Twitter and the news too.

After that, I plug in my after school commitments. As you can see, I do three Y11 Prep sessions after school each week, I make time on a Monday after school to do EAL related tasks (as I am Head of EAL), which currently include policy writing, making departmental-specific support and making Achievement Plans for every EAL student at the school. I also dedicate time on a Thursday to mark student work and set the weekly online quiz. Usually, by Friday afternoon once I have completed my last Prep of the week, I am ready to leave for the weekend.

Lastly, I fill in the “middle bit”. This includes three Line Management meetings. I see an AP every fortnight to discuss all thing EAL strategy and on alternate weeks, I meet with the EAL teachers that I line manage. I then have a History department meeting once a week and a NQT check-in with my NQT mentor once a week. I usually make time for two or three Learning Walk slots on my timetable: these might include learning walks on my form tutees to see how engaged and focussed they are in lesson or Drop-In support to help EAL pupils in other lessons. You will see that I am on duty every single break time, lunch time and at the end of the day. I love speaking with the students outside of lesson time, I love supporting my SLT in making my school the best, and sometimes, I love being outside in the fresh air.

Download my timetable here Timetable MAR 2017-18

2. Daily Tasks Ticklist

There are a series of tasks that teachers do every single day. The non-negotiables, if you will. For me, these are separated into AM and PM tasks. In the morning, I always check my form tutees’ uniform, I sign reports or put a child onto report, I read out who is in an after school detention that day, I check equipment and I do learning walks. After school, I always find time to visit my form tutees in the centralised 1 or 2 hours after school detentions or internal exclusion so that we can reflect on their behaviour and ensure that they do not return. If I have put any students in these detentions, then I make sure that we reflect on their behaviour so that next lesson is a fresh start. I also find time to call home for good/bad students each day and log anything that needs logging on SIMS. I make sure that these are always done, every day. If they’re not, I don’t go home; however, as I said above it quickly becomes such a routine that it’s like you’re in “auto pilot.”

Underneath the tick list, I have a section to write the names of the form tutees in detention that day and any announcements for my form that were said in Staff Briefing. I also have my weekly LM meetings also listed there, along with a set of tasks that simply must be completed each day of the week. For example, we give one child a recognition at the end of the week so I have that on my tick list for Friday.

Lastly, I carry this tick list with me everywhere in a fold-over clipboard. In that clipboard, I also carry spare tutor behaviour and achievement monitor reports, spare photocopies of planner pages (in case one of my form tutees fails to bring their planner to school), along with pieces of paper that I collect during the day that need filing later. At the back of this fold-over clipboard, I keep a copy the end-of-term reports for every child in my form. With this information in my hand, I would frequently go up to them at break and remind them of their reading age, test scores or engagements scores in certain lessons and ask: “What have you done today to make sure you’re reading score will be higher next time?‘”, “Last time, your engagement in Spanish was good. What are you doing today to make sure it’s excellent?“. When I took over my form last year, they were incredibly challenging in many ways, but now they have become responsible learners with a desire to always improve. The more I question them, the more specific their own interventions become to help them improve too!

Download my Daily Tasks tick list here Daily_Tasks.

3. Weekly Lesson Plan

Every Friday afternoon, I print of this weekly lesson overview. It prints directly onto an A3 piece of paper and lists all of my lessons and classes on it, along with my three weekly LM meetings. When my Friday is finished, I spend 15-20 minutes writing down in each box the topic of the lesson along with the page numbers of the booklets. I then highlight each of these a different colour for each year group. Straight away, I can see what year group I am teaching next lesson.

This sheet never leaves my desk and acts a quick reference to see what I am teaching next. It’s another simple tip but it means that none of that information has to be kept in my head and remembered.

Sometimes, at the end of each lesson, I write a quick lesson reflection on a Post-It note and and stick it over the lesson square. Because the sheet is A3, it’s big enough to do so and this automatic self-reflection is some of the best CPD around.

Download my Weekly Lesson Overview here. Weekly Lesson.


Teaching is tough and teachers are busy. In this blog, I discussed three simple, easily adaptable, daily organisation techniques that YOU can use from Monday to make your life easier and your brain less crammed with information.

They may seem simple and there is a lot of overlap but with these techniques, but because of them I meet my deadlines, I have more time to think about teaching, I rarely work late into the evening, and almost never work weekends.

I hope this helps!



Improving behaviour with intrinsic motivation

When I was at Secondary School, the highlight of the academic calendar was the last assembly before our long Summer break. In this assembly, we reflected on our year, we remembered some key events with the help of a photo montage and cheesy, motivational music in the background and we saw performances from other students. However, the most exciting part of this assembly was the behaviour awards.

The behaviour system in the school that I attended was simple: we were given credits whenever we behaved well. For example, we may have been particularly polite to a teacher, we may have helped a student on a tricky maths question or we may have completed our homework early. In return, we got a credit and stuck it into our planner. The more credits you got, the higher rewards you got: bronze, silver, gold and platinum. The higher rewards you got, in effect, the better student you were.

In each end-of-year assembly, the Headteacher would typically wheel on a very expensive bike or pull out a brand new iPad from behind the stage. I remember cheering and waiting in anticipation to see who behaved well enough to win these fantastic prizes. The name would be read from a piece of paper, that person would go up to the stage and collect their prizes whilst the crowd appladed. All of this for just being ‘good.’

I never won this prize. This doesn’t mean that I didn’t try hard in school and it doesn’t mean that I wasn’t polite and respectful. I was all of those things, all of the time, but I just was not lucky enough to win. Soon enough, like any young person, I stopped caring about the prize and then stopped caring about behaving well: Well, if I never win the prize, what’s the point?

This situation made me think:

  1. Was the winner of the prize a better student than me because they got more credits and won a bike?
  2. Should I not be a well-behaved, respectful and dedicated student for me, because it will help build a better future for me, rather than to just win a prize?

A lot of schools fall victim to this kind of story. This is called an “if… then reward”. You tell someone that “if you do X, you will get Y.” Often, many Senior Teams see that there is a problem with behaviour, low-level disruption, punctuality or attendance and create a point system. And, after all, we all know that points mean prizes. However, as brilliant as this system may initially appear, it sends completely the wrong message to our students about reasons to behave. It tells them that they should come to school or be respectful because, if you are, you might win a fantastic prize. It tells them that you should offer to help you teacher with heavy bags or hold open the corridor doors for visitors because you might get an extra credit. It tells them that the best reason to come to school is because they have a chance of winning a shiny, new bike at the end of year. How wrong is this?

What shall we do instead? I strongly believe that in order to improve the problematic behaviour that many of our schools face, we must turn the behaviour model from one based on extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation. This means we should bin the “if… then” rewards and replace them with “Now that…” (Now that you’ve revised, your test score is higher). In short, a good  behaviour system tempts students to behave because of a possible outcome; a great behaviour system can take away the goodies and students want to behave because it’s the right thing to do. 

We should be teaching our children that they should want to behave and submit their homework early because it helps their education progress and makes them better at time management. We should teach our children that we should want to help our teachers carry their bags because we see someone in need. Above all, we should teach our children to realise that the more diligent, respectful, punctual and well-behaved they are, the better chances they have in life.

If a child is rewarded for meeting an expectation, then they will want another reward for meeting another expectation. Very quickly, by using this system, a school can build a culture of hollow respect and good behaviour, all because a student really wants to win the prize rather than being a better person or improving their education.

So, I suggest that schools move away from counting behaviour points and also move away from rewarding students with “if… then” prizes for doing what we expect from them. No doubt this transition will be bumpy, but the students’ behaviour and intentions will be much more genuine. Furthermore, if a person’s motivation is intrinsic, they they are more likely to stay motivated when life gets even more challenging and the perceived reward is hard to see . Lastly, life doesn’t reward you for turning up to work on time or paying your mortgage and we ought not to send this wrong message to our students.


How I use multiple-choice quizzes to build memory

At the beginning of the month, I created the #BlogShare website with the explicit aim of creating and enhancing debate on edu-twitter. Each month, a new topic is announced and people are encouraged to write blogs and responses accordingly. The topic this month is: how I get students to remember what they learn. This blog serves as my contribution as I explain how I incorporate multiple-choice quizzes (MCQs) into my history lessons to develop my students’ memory recall.

This is by no means a new topic as much scholarship and debate has already been carried out on the humble MCQ. Some of the blogs that have interested me are:

  • Joe Kirby talked about the various reasons for using multiple choice quizzes as they make assessment more reliable, they make marking less labour intensive and they make understanding more visible to the teacher.
  • Jo Facer adds to this by talking about using MCQs to reduce workload, diagnose clearly what student do and don’t know, and testing breadth and depth of subject knowledge.
  • Daisy Christodoulou discussed the underlying complexity of writing challenging and effective
  • Robert Peal has written about how he uses MCQs in KS3 summative assessments and then uses that data to address misconceptions.
  • Michael Fordham has addressed his concerns and praises of the MCQ.

Each of these blogs tend to allude to Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve, stressing the importance of recapping content in order to build long term memory and Willingham’s quote that ‘memory is the residue of thought.’ 

Whilst each of these are valid contributions and incredibly enlightening discussions to have, it appears to me that the debate has been greatly focussed on why teachers should use MCQs and how they should be constructed. There does not, however, appear to be much writing on actual application. Upon reflection, there are three stages to effective implementation of MCQs in lesson: (i) homework; (ii) low stakes lesson starters; (iii) higher stakes lesson starters

1. MCQs for homework

Each week, every one of my nine classes receives homework in the form of a MCQ. This quiz will consist of ten simple questions, with three possible choices and only one of these choices will be correct.

At my school, we use a wonderful website called Show My Homework (SMHW), which has multiple highlights. First, I can set the weekly homework quizzes online and it means that I don’t have to spend hour after hour printing. Secondly, students can access SMHW on their computers, laptops, iPads and phones so there is no excuse for not completing it. Thirdly, because it is all online, the MCQs are automatically marked and the site provides me with a breakdown of everyone’s scores, the class percent average and an analysis showing which questions students found more challenging. Finally, because the quizzes are stored on SMHW, students can access the quizzes months later for independent revision.

This analysis not only saves me a lot of time but allows me to quickly and easily spot key areas of misconception that my classes may have. I will either nip those in the bud straight away but briefly re-teaching that specific piece of knowledge or see students individually during the lesson.

2. Low stakes lesson starters

After completing the homework, students then come into class and sit a MCQ immediately. My students have been drilled into the routine of completing this in no more than three minutes (just enough time for me to complete the register) and in absolute silence. This MCQ is consisted of fifteen questions. The first ten questions are exactly the same as the questions they received for homework. Questions eleven to fifteen are multiple-choice questions taken from a topic that students learnt roughly six weeks beforehand, and are not seen in the homework task. In the example below, the topic in question was propaganda during the Great War and the last five questions were on the causes of the Great War.

I have found that this combination of short term and long-term recall has been incredibly effective and these completed quizzes quickly become mini fact sheets that students then refer to when they are completing an extended writing task.

As Robert Peal has eluded to, marking MCQs can quite easily become quite a laborious waste of time: “I have found MCQs too time-consuming to create, and too cumbersome to mark, on an ongoing basis.” To combat this, I simply read out the question and the answer for all fifteen questions in no more than two minutes after I take the register. I stress to the students the importance of ticking and correcting their answers in purple pen.

3. Higher stakes lesson starter

In the second lesson of the week, my KS3 students once again come into the lesson and are given a quiz. Once again, it is comprised of fifteen questions which are exactly the same as the lesson before. However, instead of providing students with three possible choices, they aren’t given any choices at all and must write their answers completely from memory.

I have found that my students have become excited by this challenge and are proud of the fact that they can recall specific dates (for example, a Y7 student recalling the exact date and time that the Saxons and Normans met 10 miles outside Hastings) without any prompt whatsoever. These higher stakes quizzes are marked as before.

Oftentimes, as I do duty every single day, I would often ask students (Y7-11) quiz questions around the school and, if they are in a group, they often turn it into a competition to see who can either answer the quickest or who can add the most detail to the answer. 


There are a number of points to be taken from this blog. First, much debate has taken place on the whys of MCQs and much more writing needs to be done on the how. Secondly, it is a complete waste of a MCQ to use it only once: use it multiple times to hammer home the importance of the set substantive knowledge. Thirdly, over time, change the order of the questions and slowly increase the stakes to improve memory over time.

An interesting next point is questioning how I transfer this ‘fingertip knowledge’ (Christine Counsell) into students’ historical writing.



Are we fighting the wrong fight in education?

Yesterday, on the 24th October 2017, Teach First held its first ever Challenge the Impossible Conference in the Wembley Arena to not only celebrate it’s fifteenth birthday but to also highlight that a child’s upbringing should not determine its achievement or outcomes in life.

Many of the speeches were outstanding and suitably inspiring. Marcus Shepherd’s speech on the turnaround of the Merrill Academy and the performance of the school’s first ever choir was tear-jerking. The wildly breathtaking Muzoon Al-Mellehan spoke about her journey from war-torn Syria to her A-Levels in England and then becoming the youngest ever UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. Co-founder and Honorary President, Brett Wigdortz, reflected on his hills of happiness and valleys of death over the last fifteen years of leading Teach First. Ultimately, it was an inspiring day and, if you missed it, you can catch up with #TFChallenge on Twitter.

Most interestingly for me, however, was a comment made by Lucy Crehan who said boldly that ‘perhaps the problem in the UK is that we focus too much on social mobility and not enough on educational equality.’ In this blog, I aim to dispel my thoughts on this topic.

Educational equity > social mobility: 

In order to fully access this debate, we must first define two key terms and highlight the difference between equality and equity. The terms below are defined as according to the Oxford Dictionary.

  • Equality = the state of being equal or the same, especially in status, rights or opportunities; 
  • Equity = the state of being fair or impartial.

I believe that most of us strive for a starting point of educational equity, where a student’s background does not limit their academic achievement, in order to later achieve a state of educational equality. As shown in the picture, it is important to clearly distinguish between these terms.

So, where does the issue of social mobility come into this debate? Social mobility, meaning the ability of individuals and families to move within or between layers of society’s class system, is important to teachers as we wish to ensure poorer students (those on FSM, for example) have access to further education establishments, like Oxford or Cambridge. As Sonia Blandford said, ‘being working class does not mean that you’re destined to fail.’ After all, this seems fair, the right thing to do and will have a long-lasting impact on multiple lives. However, social immobility is a sickening symptom of educational inequity. Surely it is better to cure the illness rather than merely treat its effects?

Why do we focus on social mobility, then? 

Social mobility is easily measurable. It is clear when poorer students get into Russell Group universities and it is clear when students with low socio-economic backgrounds fail. For example, 25% of TeachFirst participants were on free school meals and 40% of them were the first people in their families to go to university. On the other hand, not one pupil premium student from the entirety of North Eastern England gained a place at either Oxford or Cambridge University last year. These examples are both clear and shocking and, because of this, it is easier to simply work towards moving the number and think that we’re doing a good job, but this really doesn’t touch the surface.

Rather, measuring educational equity is much more challenging and is unfortunately much easier to ignore. In order for our education system to be based in equity, we must:

  • Realise that social mobility (and immobility) is a symptom and that the disease must be cured for long term effect, rather than simply treat a symptom in the short term.
  • Find a measurement to ensure that we can establish this equity: How do we work out what schools get which support? When should this support be limited to help another school?
  • Ask: How do we ensure that those schools that don’t receive as much extra support are still sufficiently supported and do not go under the radar?
  • Question: How do we develop a system which monitors schools in a way that highlights the need for extra support but doesn’t become overbearing or overly bureaucratical?
  • Consider that addressing educational equity will have more of a positive effect but is a long term goal; how can we support those poorer students in the interim until the education system catches up?

Don’t just fight the good fight, fight the right fight! 

I do not have the answers to these complex questions but, if our aim is to ensure that no child’s background or household income limits their attainment or destination in life, then we must focus on curing the disease and not just treating the symptom. Indeed, once we remove this barrier then we can focus on promoting equality. However, we are unfortunately so far from this and therefore must move away from the rhetoric of fighting social mobility and instead focus on promoting educational equity. That way, we will get to the crux of the issue.


Kaizen: “Always Improve”

In September 2016, I joined the Totteridge Academy as a history teacher along with Chris Fairbairn, the new Principal, and a brand new senior team. One month later, we joined United Learning – Britain’s largest Muli-Academy Trust. In the space of a year, Totteridge has improved extraordinarily, witnessing a jump in GCSE results of 27 percentage points (40% – 67%) and a progress 8 score of +0.32, up from -0.44 the year before. The following series of blog posts entitled “The Totteridge Way” go some way to elucidate the ongoing success of the Totteridge Academy.

The purpose of this blog post is to explore how the philosophy of Kaizen has been used by students and staff at Totteridge. Meaning “continuous improvement”, Kaizen has been used mainly in the business arena to improve and streamline multiple lines of work but it is also a common mindset in Asian education and life-coaching. In many ways, Kaizen is meant to symbolise the small-steps that one takes every day to become either a better person or a better professional. It is not about improving oneself strategically over a period of years.

How do we use Kaizen at the Totteridge Academy? 

Each member of staff is continuously critical of their own work and strives to implement a cyclical review process into everything they do For example, I make and write the booklets for the history department and aim to sit down at the beginning of each academic year, re-read them and then edit them where necessary to ensure that they are the best tool to effectively teach history to the given year group. I may, for example, change the way that I want to teach a certain concept (either first or second order), I may include more writings from historians or I may change the overall enquiry. I know that already, I plan to change the structure of the multiple-choice quizzes, gradually taking away the choices and increasing the stakes each time the same quiz is taken.

The policy of Kaizen is also used outside the classroom. For example, Totteridge has a fairly logical and streamlined approach to interviewing and enrolling casual admissions throughout the year; however, because of our focus on Kaizen, certain members of staff have evaluated this process and ensure that it is even better…

Students are also drilled with the philosophy of Kaizen. They are told that the grade that they get is not important but finding a way of improving it is more important. In my class, for example, a large emphasis is put onto purple-pen self- and peer-assessment, not only as a means of improving one’s own work but also being a part of someone else’s improvement Kaizen process. With this in mind, when students sit their exams, I try not and say “good luck” but rather “good preparation” as they are drilled that they can always do more and be more, both personally and academically, and that they should not rely on sheer luck. The result is that classroom behaviour is calm and purposeful as students focus on their learning and personal development because of their deep belief in continuous improvement.

But don’t we all “do” Kaizen

Indeed, critical reflection is fundamental to most teachers’ practice. Department meetings are usually focussed around teaching the specialist subject in the best way, SLT meetings are centred around ensuring that the given school is performing the best either in the local area or in the country, even NQT mentor meetings are focussed on improving the fundamentals of their teaching.

However, at Totteridge, Kaizen is not an unwritten or unspoken rule. We do not assume that people will continuously strive to be better and we do not take this process for granted. Rather, the word Kaizen is used frequently and meaningfully. Each one of the teachers will know what it means and the importance of striving to be better. Certainly, every one of my students will know it too. In my classroom, I have displays centred around Kaizen and we even have a chant. When I say “Kaizen”, my students reply “always improve” to signify that we are about to start either self- or peer-assessment to help us become better learners and better historians.

Yes, this mindset is frequent but actually talking about it isn’t.

Is Kaizen really that good?

Like with everything, there are strengths and drawbacks to this philosophy. First, I believe that because Kaizen focussed on small-steps towards improvement and sweating the small stuff, it is not a daunting process to “becoming better”, which is often such a vague endeavour. Indeed, by sweating the small stuff, oftentimes larger and more fundamental areas of school life look after themselves and fall into line.

When using this mindset, however, one must be careful to not become obsessed with the minor areas of school life and neglect the longer-term strategic overview. Lastly, by continuously striving to be better, one must also ensure that students are aware of what they do well in the moment, allowing them to accept what makes them proud, rather than rejecting all that is good for the sake of continuous improvement.

The progressive bias in teacher training

A few weeks ago, I finished my first year of intensive teacher training and have since qualified. This blog aims to reflect on the past year, reviewing the progressive bias that I experienced whilst jumping through the hoops that would lead me to the world of QTS.

During my six week summer training, I was exposed to the “knowledge versus skills” debate in history education, which provoked much contestation among the trainees and tutors alike. However, I do not recall the words “progressive education” or “traditional education” used once and therefore I was left neglected and ignorant to this enthralling and topical side of my career. To say the least, this was a crying shame as this has been central to my first year of teaching and has guided much of my personal reading and research.

In reality, however, these two debates (progressive versus traditional and knowledge versus skills) are simply not the same and deserve equal treatment. The prior is about how we should teach, whether didactically (“chalk and talk”) or whether the teacher should take a more removed role in the classroom, facilitating knowledge in a collaborative learning environment. Rather, the latter is centred around what we should teaching and, perhaps more importantly, in what order.

Because most of the trainees and tutors favoured a cooperative style classroom that prioritised skills, there was not much information about effectively teaching substantive facts and building “finger-tip” knowledge as Christine Counsell would call it.

Indeed, we had some fantastic speakers such as Christine Counsell, Ian Dawson, Martin Spafford and Arthur Chapman (to name but a few); however, without having a deep understanding of the intellectual context within which these people were speaking, it was very hard (as a trainee) to effectively challenge their ideas about the best and most productive ways of teaching Secondary History. We were also taught extensively about teaching through enquiry – our two main essays were based around this – with little recognition of other ways.

This bias came to head during one of my lesson observations this year with a tutor of mine. I was quite firmly challenged during my feedback on a lesson that I thought went quite well because it didn’t align with the progressive ideology. For example, I didn’t use my interactive whiteboard, or any PPTs, I failed to include a colour-coded card-sort, because I didn’t overly differentiate, and because we simply read 800 words of History together and then students demonstrated their knowledge with answering the questions. Did all of my students engage? Arguably more than ever. Did my students understand the topic and reach the expected outcome? Absolutely.

Whilst this doesn’t sound particularly major, I have noticed that this bias has seeped its way into various annals of education. Luckily, I am in a school that is incredibly supportive of individual teacher autonomy. The main concern that I have with this is the effect on enthusiastic, clever and passionate trainee history teachers. I quickly felt inadequate, backward and wholly ineffective at teaching history because I was unable to explain the enormously complex causes of the Great War with role play and different hats, because I didn’t have the time to sit down and cut out a whole class worth of card-sorts or because I genuinely think reading and writing history is not only beautiful but much more valuable than a whole-class big human timeline.

Worryingly, I do not seem to be the only teacher who has experienced this:

This leads me nicely to the new “knowledge based” BPP teacher training programme. Quite like Robert Peal, I genuinely do believe that there is not only a space but a need in the teacher training market for an idea like this as it will fill the deepening “knowledge gap” that many teachers around the country aren’t satisfactorily exposed to in their training. I do hope, however, that a budding trainee in two or three years time doesn’t feel the need to blog about the traditionalist bias in their training either.