Kindness and understanding.

This Caroline Flack news has really made me think about how we treat people as a society, but women in particular. I wasn’t a fan, she was just someone that hung around in the periphery of my world understanding, but the news did affect me.

About the same time that the news broke about her relationship with Harry Styles, I was living with my then partner who was 10 years younger than me. Most of my partners have been younger, for no other reason than that is just who I have fallen in love with. Before the Flack/Styles news no one had been that bothered, I’d always had the odd comment; nothing major, but I remember getting a few more digs then normal around that time. But nothing compared to what I read that she was dealing with, people shouting ‘Paedo’ at her in the street and the media stoking the fire of general disgust and horror. Even supposed intelligent people who understood the double standards between it being ok for a man to date younger than him, but disgusting for a woman, revelled in the ‘cougar’ moniker. Just think about that…’cougar’ has connotations of danger, pouncing on you against your will and hurting. I wouldn’t hurt a fly, but I do date younger men. So what?

We teach young people who are bombarded with media images all the time, they scroll through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook etc and see things which aren’t always true but presented as either true or normal. It’s become increasingly difficult for them to navigate truth and fake.

One of the scariest things for me is how for the younger generation, there has become a focus on just two ends of the scale, perfection or imperfection. They see perfection held up as the norm that should be aspired to, and often those who are flawed or imperfect are vilified. There is rarely a middle ground where people are allowed to make mistakes. This isn’t the fault of our young people, it is how society and media has made them feel that they should be thinking. Listen to how young people speak about celebrity, it’s always interesting. But what is also interesting, is that it they are very aware that there should be a middle ground between perfection and imperfection, they shouldn’t have to aspire to be perfect to be successful, because young people aren’t stupid.

I’ve watched my own children, who are now in their 20s, navigate this ‘perfection based’ society; my daughter has found it harder than my son. For a young girl there are mixed messages about having to be both sexy, but demure, confident but humble and that showing flaws is failure. But our flaws are what make us who we are, people don’t love us for being perfect, they love us flaws and all.

But we all get swept up in this idea of ‘perfection’. My daughter on a few occasions has said, ‘how can you expect me to love myself despite my imperfections, when you don’t’. And sometimes I don’t, I see my failures more than my successes…but I’m learning. I’m learning that my successes outnumber my failures, quite significantly.

I went to see the author Matt Haig talk recently, and he discussed an experiment where a group of young people had photos taken by the photographer Rankin. They were then asked to make them ‘social media’ ready. Some of the teens photoshopped themselves almost beyond all recognition. It is an interesting experiment to discuss with young people and ask if it is ok to always expect perfection.

Caroline Flack wasn’t perfect, I’m sure there were truths in the court case, whether or not it should have been taken to court is another matter. However, no one deserves to be vilified for making a mistake. As a society we need to stop and think and realise that sometimes the things that we do that are less than perfect might be because we need help. We need someone to listen. Telling us that we are bad for doing them just adds to the sense of failure. Making judgements about each other without listening is dangerous.

But let’s also think about how we treat women in society. You know, it’s ok to have partners that are younger than us, it’s ok to not settle down and want marriage and kids, it’s ok to go to the shops without make-up on. Caroline Flack needs to be remembered for two things, obviously the horrific effect that vilifying someone in the media can have…and yes we contribute to that because we read it. We forget that they are real people. But secondly, she built herself a pretty good career, she was clever and savvy and worked to create the career that she wanted. And that’s more than ok.

I texted my daughter yesterday who was at work, her reply made me proud. Her reply made me realise that the best thing we can do for young people is to allow them to think about their reactions, to teach them that we can always be the better person, that we can change, we can do better for each other.

The quote at the top is one that Caroline Flack herself shared on her Instagram recently. I’ve shared it a lot too and I have it on a T-shirt. Because despite the ‘corny’ image of quote sharing, some, like that one, matter. There have been times where one person, doing one kind thing has mattered to me more than anything. Kindness has made me do things that I never thought I could do, kindness has made me wake with a smile, kindness has allowed me to be me, flaws and all. We need more kindness in society, we need to be more understanding and accepting. Maybe that’s one thing we can all pledge.

I do think things are changing. I recently travelled by train to Manchester and had to change at Leeds. When I got to Leeds the station was packed, no trains were leaving towards Manchester as there had been a suicide. Train station employees were shouting across the concourse that there would be a two hour wait for trains. What I found most interesting though was that no one complained, people just stood and waited for news. There were conversations going on about how awful life must have been for the victim, how much people felt for their family, and the train driver, how people wished they could have got the help they needed. It warmed my heart.

We can’t like The Sun attempt to delete everything unkind we have ever said, but we can show that it is better to never say it in the first place, to not give it air time, to just treat people with the kindness that we want to be treated with ourselves…small things can make a big change.

Why don’t we like book targets?

I’ve seen tweets, a couple quite scathing, about those who use apps to record the number of books they read. I’m one of those people who did. I didn’t make a big deal out of it, or push it daily on the world, I just did it because I wanted to make sure that I was giving myself a little push to do something that wasn’t work based. It worked this year, I read more than I have had for a long time, in fact I beat the challenge I had set myself by double. I spent a longer amount of time somewhere else in my head, sitting on my balcony in the sun with a book, and was it nice to see that shift in well-being in numbers at the end of the year? Yes it was.

If I hadn’t met the little target I set myself then I would have questioned it for myself, not for anyone else. I would have questioned what else I had been doing with my time, and as many years before I know what the answer would have been – working. I do work hard, I work very hard and there are times when I spend much longer than is acceptable working because I need to get things done. In the half term up to Christmas I was working 7 days a week. That isn’t good, I’m not proud of it. In my opinion we should all have at least a day a week not thinking about work at all.

I find it interesting but also quite sad that we laud people who blog or post resources every day, never questioning their well-being or the effect on the people they work with. Don’t get me wrong, there are people who have it absolutely right and seem to be machines at making amazing resources whilst also reading books, visiting brilliant places and just generally enjoying life. I am in awe of those people.

But I get a lot of DMs from people through Team English and over the last year or so there has been a significant shift in people feeling completely burned out, or feeling inadequate for wanting to prioritise family or well-being over work. They DM because they feel it is a shameful secret, that they can’t admit that they feel this way on a Twitter where ambition is rife.

As a woman of a certain age with grown-up children I have had time to reflect. Do I sometimes think that I prioritised work that I didn’t have to do over spending time with my children? Yes, I do. Do I think sometimes I prioritised work over my own well-being so much that it affected my children? Yes, I do. My daughter and I have had conversations and will continue to do so about that very thing. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it also means that it is time that is gone and I can’t change it. I wish I had been better at balancing life and work. I wish that sometimes I had been emotionally mature enough to say sometimes that it was just a job and that in life there are things that are far more important…and that actually most of the time those things were people.

Not that I am saying that there is anything wrong with blogging. I blog, I have spoken at many conferences and events, but I tend to blog sporadically when I feel like I have done something enough and have the experience and knowledge to know that it works. I love reading other people’s blogs, but the best blogs for me are always those that are methodical, have trialled things over an amount of time in the classroom, have thought about the impact and are not afraid of saying what hasn’t worked. There are some fantastic reflective practitioners out there who I respect enormously. Blogging can be a great way to cathartically assess your practice and share with others what you have found. The trick is to never think that you have all the answers, or that one way is the right way.

But back to the start of this blog. I’d like to think that we can be less critical of people for choosing to set targets when it comes to books, because we have made massive assumptions about why people do. If you are sniping more at those who set themselves a target of books to read in a year, but are happy to laud those who are advocating nothing but thinking about work all day every day then there is something a bit askew.

I am lucky to work for leaders who consistently model a work-life balance. I am more likely to see their days out with family and friends, or the books that they have read on social media than anything to do with work. As I’ve matured I’ve realised how important that is as a push for me to manage my own work-life balance.

So I’ve set my target of books to read this year. Will I be annoyed if I don’t reach it? No, not really, unless it is an indication that I have prioritised work consistently across a period of 12 months. I actually think I am a better teacher and person to all those around me when I get that balance right. It doesn’t happen as much as it should. I will consistently be in awe of those that get it right. They are my heroes. So go ahead and set targets, record your reading, or don’t. Do whatever the hell you want to do that makes your life a better one.

Some thoughts on the book controversy

I’ve been thinking about the whole Kate Clanchy book controversy. Admittedly I haven’t read the book, but have seen the extracts and screenshots and I feel uncomfortable. I mostly feel uncomfortable because I have seen some really intelligent, articulate people making calm and reasoned points who have been seemingly ignored. I feel an odd sense of embarrassment and shame.

However, there is another reason I feel uncomfortable. I feel uncomfortable that the extracts I have seen went through the editors, publishers and the panel of the George Orwell book prize. I’m on Goodreads and have many friends who have read and rated the book highly. I know those people aren’t racist people, so perhaps they unintentionally didn’t see what others did. That could easily also be me, it doesn’t make them bad people. It’s easy to read a book and think ‘it must be good because that person I really respect likes it’. Don’t get me wrong, it is ok to like a book but be uncomfortable with elements within it. I think perhaps the sense of uneasiness in me is that I could also have not seen the difficulty in some of the language used. I would hope that I would have felt unease, but I don’t know now as I wouldn’t be able to read the book without everything I know now in mind.

As an English teacher we spend a lot of time teaching text within context. For example, when we read Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four, there is an opportunity to look at Orientalism and allow students to discuss and critique the text with that extra understanding. It’s almost easy to be critical of 19th century texts, or Of Mice And Men because they are written in a different time. It’s easier to feel removed.

In that book, the character of Tonga is described as frightening, it’s a classic example of ‘the other’. The trouble is I kind of saw a bit of that in the thread about the book yesterday. A voice explaining what they see through their lens shouldn’t be seen as frightening if it is not threatening and that is another thing that made me feel uncomfortable.

But how often do I myself critique when I read more modern work? I can enjoy a book or author whilst still feeling uncomfortable with the language or depictions used. But I am also reading through my white female lens, so I need to listen to those who are reading through another lens, who can educate me.

Alongside this, we have to accept that anything that we write and post publicly is open to critique. This blog is open to critique. If we write it, we own it. But in owning it, we can also admit we may have been wrong, or perhaps have seen it another way. We can change. We are allowed. It is hard not to feel defensive when critiqued, particularly with something as personal as our own writing, it can feel like an extension of ourselves. But no one will ever write anything that is loved by all, so we have to accept that there are people who will probably be critical. It is ok, however, to hold our hands up and say, ‘ok, I get why that might be controversial, I’m willing to listen. Educate me’.

Many, many of us teach very diverse cohorts. Perhaps I need to think more carefully about the students I teach and how they might feel about a text, or a description and to admit that sometimes I might need help with that. At the very least, I should give students the tools to be able to critically evaluate themselves and the environment for them to be able to express their opinions and concerns.

So basically if there is one good thing that comes out of this, it is that l can remember to listen to concerns, I can try and remember to think critically and think about how others might feel. It feels like we have reached a crunch time where we can actively listen to voices that might see language from a different lens. I, like the vast majority, want things to change, but I have to also be a part of that and I have to understand that sometimes that means I have to be made to feel uncomfortable. And maybe that sometimes is frightening, but because I might be pushed out of my comfort zone, not because I might be hurt.

All I can really hope is that others are happy to be pushed out of their comfort zone too, that we all make that little bit of an effort to understand how someone else might be feeling. We just need to listen sometimes.

What I know…about teaching AQA English Language Paper 1

I was told recently that I don’t shout enough about my expertise…and  maybe I don’t, but I am also someone who believes that expertise in teaching takes time, reflection, a willingness to adapt and to scrutinise very carefully how well something has worked. It takes time and patience. If you read any of my other blogs, you will know that I am someone who likes to have trialled something in my practice for a considerable amount of time before I impart my knowledge. As teachers, we are rarely experts in all aspect of our practice, but we come to a point where we are knowledgeable enough to support and advise others.

Since their arrival in 2017, I have come to know the AQA GCSE Language papers very well. Across that time I have marked literally thousands of exam papers, analysed results, exam scripts, examiners reports and individual responses right down to question level across every cohort. I have worked across two schools in that time, leading and planning schemes of work for the Language papers, running student intervention sessions for every question and running  CPD on both the teaching and marking of the exam papers. So, I feel pretty confident in the knowledge that I have and am about to share, which will hopefully be useful to both new and more experienced teachers.

One thing that I think is key in in all of this, however, is that to get the absolute best results for students at GCSE, we have to consider how we teach the skills at KS3 so that we are not teaching from scratch at KS4. What I don’t mean by this, however, is that we explicitly teach the exam questions right from year 7, because KS3 is there to inspire and to challenge, not just as the bit between SATs and GCSEs. How it should work is that the skills are interleaved within schemes of work. It is easy for example, to look at the structure of a text when looking at extracts from dystopian fiction (1984 and Fahrenheit 451 are excellent for this), so that students understand the importance of considering structure, not only in what they read, but for their own creative writing. Other skills like language analysis can be broken down so that it can be developed across KS3 because we want students to feel confident before they are expected to analyse unseen extracts at KS4. Paper 1 Question 4 asks students to respond to a statement on a text. If students aren’t used to giving their opinion, or are not confident in evaluating a text, they inevitably struggle and we don’t want them to struggle on a 20 mark question. So, at KS3 we should think about how we can introduce this skill without explicitly teaching it as a GCSE question. When looking at Great Expectations in KS3, students might therefore be given the essay question: ‘A critic said, ‘Havisham is considered one of the most intriguing and disturbing characters in literature’. To what extent do you agree? This might then serve many purposes; students are able to continue to practise the skill of essay writing, they gain confidence in expressing their opinion, they learn how to respond to a statement, they understand how a writer’s methods shape how a reader responds to a character. Students might also use what they have learnt to create their own character, thinking about what statement someone might make about their own character, and the methods they themselves use to create this impression. We can do all this, without having to explicitly teach GCSE questions at KS3.

In this blog and the next I will share what I have learnt about answering each question across the language papers, with some teaching tips…starting with Language Paper 1. At this point I must thank Sophie Hiles @HilesSophie who at my previous school spent hours and hours bouncing ideas round with me.

Question 1 – Fact retrieval (AO1)

A relatively easy question, designed to allow all students to gain some marks. However, where students can lose marks is where they do what actually we have spent years wanting them to do, and that is make inferences about the text. One or two marks can be the difference between a grade, so it is really important that it isn’t assumed that students can just get on with answering this question. Allow time to practise, talk through the question step by step, and even though the question doesn’t necessarily need it, encourage students to write simple sentences, beginning with the subject of the question so that their responses are focused. I always tell students to answer this question before they read the rest of the source, so that they aren’t thinking about the rest of the extract.

Keep practising this question every so often, use them as lesson starters, they are great as settling tasks because they don’t take up too much time in a lesson.

And then get students to mark their own or others, this allows them to see what the expectations are for a response.

I find that with we get to the point where students are able to write 4 clear facts in about 3 minutes, and it gives them the initial boost to tackle the rest of the exam paper.

Question 2 – Language Analysis (AO2)

By the time they get to this exam in year 11 and even preparation in year 10, language analysis is ideally a skill that students will feel fairly confident in tackling. The biggest difference is that often they will have looked at an extract with some contextual understanding, within a novel they have been studying, or with plenty of class discussion. So the issue is perhaps supporting students in gaining the confidence to find examples of language to write about independently, and in a relatively short amount of time.

I think one of the mistakes we can make is to focus too much on language devices. I have lost count of the number of scripts I have seen where students simply list language devices, without actually saying anything about the effect, and perhaps not even relating them to the question. It is far more important therefore that they start by focusing on what impression is being created. Often the question is focused on a character or setting, so students should initially be encouraged to look at small extracts and consider just one question:

What impression is being created of the character/setting etc?

In the example below, students were asked to simply answer the question, ‘what impression is being created of Mrs Flowers?’

Once they can articulate a response to their overall impression, then students should be asked ‘how’ that impression is created. This is where they can discuss language devices, with the added caveat that they need to explain ‘why’ the writer is using that language device. So therefore a student might think that overall she seemed a bit cold and unapproachable and it is important that they are able to articulate this understanding of the impression that is created before they dive into language techniques and the ‘how’ and ‘why’. An overarching statement in the exam before they leap into the language itself often encourages a response to stay focused.

Where students do less well is where they lead with the language technique, often because they then think that every paragraph they write needs to have a language device, and therefore the language device becomes the ‘thing’ that will get them the marks, when it reality they can write an entire response devoid of naming language devices that still scores pretty highly because of what is said about the effect of the language. There seems to be a misunderstanding that students are limited if they don’t mention language devices, which really isn’t true – if you don’t have examiners in your department that can support with this idea, call exam papers back to analyse; it really is interesting. Students should always therefore be clear that it is always the explanation of the effect of the language that should lead their response and the use of language devices should compliment that explanation. This stops students simply writing things like, ‘the writer uses a simile’ but saying nothing about the effect of that simile, but also hopefully also encourages students to write about anything that they believe creates an overall impression. What is sad is when students know that something is important to their understanding, but don’t write about it because they can’t remember the name of the technique. If they have something brilliant to say, then ‘the word’ or ‘the phrase’ is sufficient – better to do that, then not to say something they regard as important to their analysis. Of course, ideally a student will be able to seamlessly integrate language devices within their response, but without doubt the biggest impact I have seen on marks, is when students fully understand that they should start with the overall impression, and then ‘zoom’ in on the nuts and bolts of the language considering ‘how’ and ‘why’. Connotation circles/chains are also really useful, particularly with students who struggle to articulate ideas in thinking very carefully about ‘how’ the effect is created and moving them away from that focus on the device itself.

Something else that students forget is that they are able to place the section that they are analysing, within the context of the extract as a whole. For example, if the impression of a character changes later in the extract, they can discuss why this initial description might be misleading, or if the language used hints at what happens later. Students do need to be careful not to therefore analyse language outside the extract, but I always advise students to read the whole extract after answering question 1, before focusing on the lines given in the question.

Question 3 – Structure (AO2)

When we initially saw the specification for the new GCSE, this was a question that arguably caused most panic. Again, what arose out of this was lists and lists of complicated structural features – I think many of us were guilty of overcomplicating this question, when really all that mattered were two questions – what is happening and why? Again, ideally students will have looked at structure at KS3, not only when looking at a writer’s work, but also when considering the structure of their own work, so again the main issue should be the unseen aspect of the paper.

Students struggle the most with this question when there is a lack of the fundamental understanding of what is meant by structure. My degree is in English, Media and Film and I have taught A level Film Studies and the moving image as a text is often very useful and perhaps undervalued in understanding the idea of structure. I often use the opening of the television series Lost to show students how information can be drip fed to the viewer and how a story can be gradually built. Analysing short film extracts, particularly openings can really support students in their understanding of not only why information is given at certain points, but also how focus changes e.g internal to external, from one character to another, different viewpoints, close ups, long shots. flashbacks etc, all of which transfer to the written text very easily. When talking about the written text, it can also be useful for students to think about how they would film the extract if they were directing it. I have seen light bulb moments with students doing this, when they realise that a writer has purposely given the reader a piece of information before another, because the second wouldn’t make sense if it were structured differently. It also encourages them to understand narrators, for example that the narrator is omniscient because they know something about the writer’s feelings that would be difficult to convey if it were being filmed.

Once they understand the fundamentals of structure, it is much easier for students to articulate the ‘what’ and the ‘why’. In this question they need to think more carefully about what is being introduced at certain points and why the writer has chosen to include that structural feature/order.   They should see the text as a construct, thinking about the beginning, middle and end is a good place to start and then considering the journey through the text to get to the final point. Exam extracts normally have structural features that students can talk about, whether that be clear shifts in focus, time shifts, flashbacks, shifts in setting or movement from internal thought to external. They might use symbolism or repeated motifs that become a structural feature. Again, it is the explanation of the effect of these choices that gains the marks in this question.

One thing that is also hard for students to understand with this question, is that they don’t need to quote, the reference to the text does not need to be a quote. In fact, I always find that lots of modelling is needed to show how using a quote works in practice, so that they don’t fall into the trap of slipping into analysing language.

Question 4 – AO4

The biggest change in both my teaching of this question, and ultimately students marks for the individual question, came with the realisation that the evaluation is of the statement itself and that this then pushes into evaluation of the text, but within the context of that evaluation of the statement itself. Therefore, it is vitally important that students understand that concept before they move into looking at how to relate that to a text. Sophie Hiles @HilesSophie spent some time thinking about this in my previous school and came up with the idea of introducing the question with the teaching advert and two opinions of the advert (Twitter was full of plenty of opinions at the time.

Students were encouraged to evaluate each statement considering the evidence and methods used in the text (the advert). They could see how the individual teachers might have that opinions and encouraged to give reasons why each teacher thought that way. Two opposing opinions also helps them to understand how people can see the same text in a different way, but each opinion can be backed up with what is seen in the text.

Again, as mentioned before, being able to express an opinion, and to be able to understand other people’s opinions, is something that needs to be built into KS3. What we don’t want is for students to get to KS4 without that confidence to not only express their own opinion, but to be able to pick apart other’s opinions, understanding that they are always rooted in a perception of the text.

When we move on to look at the question itself, I always start with the statement. There are always two points of focus in the statement, supported by the bullet points in the question, so we start by breaking down the foci and discussing how they are different.

Once students understand the requirements of the question itself, and the statement that they are evaluating, then we move onto thinking about the ‘how’. I always model this by showing how I have taken one of the foci and thought about ‘how’ I can see where this opinion has come from in the text. One of the best ways I have found for students to really think about their analysis is to take each focus from the statement and consider, ‘they think this BECAUSE…’ and then ‘BUT is there another way of looking at this, or something else to consider’. In this case, we also looked at how if Mr Fisher’s story was better than expected, then he must have had low expectations in the first place. A modelled example is below:

I have often heard students ask, ‘do I get more marks if I disagree?’ I’m not sure where this comes from, but we need to be careful that they understand that the statement is never incorrect, it is always someone’s opinion and therefore valid. What they should do instead is consider the ‘but’ and use tentative language to consider how it ‘could’ be considered differently, not launch into a scathing review of the statement. I have found using an image from the advert they previously looked at here is really useful; they can practise verbalising sentences using tentative language before using it within their analysis.

As we all know, and I am not teaching anyone to suck eggs here, breaking down a modelled response is always extremely useful before students practise writing their own. Getting them to find examples of everything that has been discussed in lessons is always beneficial, in this case they focused on the four particular skills, but then we discussed the strength of the analysis. They were also given ‘poor’ responses that they were asked to improve.

I always make it clear as well, that both language and structural features are relevant methods for this question in fact, anything that is relevant to their evaluation. Once they feel confident, I often finds that this is one of the questions that they most enjoy, perhaps because they have that bit more time in the exam to articulate a response, but they tend to find it easier to have the statement as that focus for the answer.

Question 5 – AO5 and AO6

Question 5 probably deserves a blog of its own, it is a huge topic so I am not going into much detail here. As I have mentioned many times in this blog already, I do think the key here is that across KS3 students have built their creative writing skills so that KS4 never ends up a ‘quick, let’s teach them everything about creative writing’ course. When planning a curriculum at KS3, we can think about spreading out all the nuts and bolts of good creative writing so that KS4 can become a chance for a bit of playing around with structure, or targeted teaching of skills.

Now, I personally do have a huge issue with this question, in that they will never have to write a narrative or description in 45 minutes again, but actually if we think about it, it is the creativity that they have practised before in lessons that will shine through in the exam. Some people tell students to complete this question first, I personally allow students the freedom to choose what they feel most comfortable with whilst mooting it as an option.

Structure is essential in this question, whether it is the narrative or descriptive, a well-structured piece of writing will ultimately score more highly. KS4 should be a chance for students to move away from the typical narrative arc and start to play with structure. I have used Stuart Pryke’s @SPryke2 lessons using the Present – Flashback A – Flashback B – Present structure that student have really enjoyed and I have seen some wonderful creative examples. Students that struggle with creative ideas have really benefitted from using the structure below, it is basic, but encourages a clear structure in their work

I always encourage students to aim for 2 sides of writing in this question (depending on handwriting.) Too much and it starts to lack focus, think about the ‘and then we…and then…’ type of responses. Instead, I encourage them to focus very carefully on the crafting of their work, reminding them that we don’t need to pack in whole novels worth of events, For both, it is a small snapshot. A couple of years ago we called scripts back to analyse; the students that who receive the highest marks all wrote short but well-structured pieces and had carefully thought about their crafting of sentences and ideas.

I talked about this recently at TeachMeet Icons, but there are three books I really recommend for the teaching of creative writing (see below). Lindsay Skinner’s @lindsayjskinner is a great resource for targeted interventions and teaching one particular skill and Chris Curtis’s @Xris32 has whole sections focused on the nuts and bolts of writing, whilst Jenny Webb’s @FunkyPedagogy is just a great all round resource for understanding the writing process.

Working on those little bits e.g sentence types, paragraph types etc can not only improve writing, but also ignite creativity and ultimately increase a student’s confidence. Here are some examples of writing using some of the ideas from these books. The second typed examples were students during lockdown, who actually really engaged and anecdotally said it gave them confidence that they could write creatively when actually, all they were looking at, at that time was their own four walls

A last idea that I have found works really well is something that students certainly do later on in their school career (A level Lang/Lit courses for example) and that is to write emulating the style of an existing writer. An example I have used is the opening of Lovely Bones. Students learn how to emulate a very particular first person writing style, whilst relating it to another text that they know (bonus revision of a poem). Again this encourages them to play about with narrator and style.

This isn’t meant to be a ‘this is how you must do it’ blog, but rather a sharing of ideas that comes from several years of reflection and analysis. I’m a great believer that we don’t know what works unless we have a significant period of time where we teach, watch, reflect and adapt, and this is simply a sharing of what I have learnt through that process which I hope is useful. My next blog will look at Paper 2, a paper I am very confident with and therefore enjoy teaching – although it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea!

Phrases I am fed up of seeing

Phrases I am fed up of seeing from armchair pundits who haven’t spent time in schools during the pandemic:

Teachers are lazy and don’t want to work

This really does show a lack of understanding of how much work goes into remote teaching, whilst also teaching keyworker and vulnerable students. It is much harder than teaching a class in front of us. But, this remains a favourite of the armchair pundits and they don’t see how much work it takes, so will never change their mind.

Teachers just want to stay at home

Well… a) we won’t be at home. I’ll still have to use public transport every day and sit in a cold ventilated classroom to teach children online, so…and b) ask any teacher with small children how easy it is to teach online whilst looking after your own children. It’s like doing a triathlon every day.

Teachers don’t care about children.

If I didn’t care would there be any point in doing this job, remotely or not? Why would I bother going through all the stress and abuse I get for being a teacher. And I certainly wouldn’t bother answering the random questions from students who email over the holiday, mostly because they clearly just want a chat with a friendly face…and yet I do. I don’t do it for the lack of respect from the media, I do it because I care about young people, and it really bothers me that actually in all of this, people are shouting on what they say is their behalf, but don’t actually talk to them about how they feel. Try it – you might be surprised.

Teachers don’t care about parents and their jobs

We really do. We want this pandemic under control so no more parents need to lose their jobs. We care that many have already, which is why lots of school staff delivered food packages over the holidays, because we care about our communities and the difficulties that they face. We care that a virus has affected our communities in horrendous ways. We care that we teach children who have lost relatives. I rang a parent a few weeks ago whose child had been isolating because the parent tested positive. I asked how they were feeling, and they said I was the only person who had asked them that question and actually they had been really unwell and hadn’t talked to anyone for ages. It does matter and we do care, which is why we want to stop the virus affecting more lives, we can see that it needs to be controlled and quickly. Enough of the muddling along and just hoping.

The schools have been closed

Really, I can’t believe people don’t get this. The schools were never closed. If we weren’t in school with keyworker and vulnerable students (which in some schools is quite a lot of students), we were teaching remotely. Like many, many other professions we are all still doing our job, just in a different form. And I don’t know one teacher who wants to have to do it like this for longer than we absolutely have to, because it isn’t easy at all.

Why are teachers moaning? It’s worse in shops and supermarkets.

Shops and supermarkets have legal limits on the amount of people allowed in at any one time and people move around, not sit in front of you for an hour at a time – a contact is classed as 15 minutes face to face. 30 students in a classroom (by the way, it’s nothing like the images that the media roll out for articles) is what the majority of classrooms are like. The only thing we can do is ventilate by opening windows, which in mid winter is not pleasant in the slightest for anyone. If anyone feels unsafe at work, supermarket, shop, whatever, then they should shout about it. I have spent as long working in retail in my life, as I have teaching, and my daughter currently works in retail. Every keyworker gets my respect for the work they are doing and everyone should feel as safe as possible.

Children aren’t as affected.

No, they don’t seem to be as severely affected. Some do get pretty ill though, which is why cases have been picked up. They are ill and get tested. However, to argue that that makes it all alright is completely missing the point about how infections spread. A child may bring it home, they might infect a parent, an elderly relative that lives with them. They might have unknowingly passed it on to 5 other classmates who go home and do the same. Of course testing will help, and no one has any real problem with testing, we know that it might help and we want anything that will. But those who are shouting that ‘kids are alright’ need to think about how a child might feel thinking they have passed something to a relative. Imagine the effect on the mental health on those who have lost people close to them and believe you, me it really does happen.

But also do the adults in a school really not matter? Are people honestly saying that they really don’t care about school staff who become seriously ill or die (and yes there are many documented teacher deaths). I don’t actually think people are that heartless, but honestly, I really just don’t know anymore.

I was one of those people who just thought we probably just needed to get on with it, but now that I have seen how ill it makes people, when I see the long-term effects, when I have talked to young people and parents, my mind has been changed. We need to stop it. Don’t be angry at teachers and the school leaders who, in particular, have been utterly amazing throughout all of this, blame those who have played roulette with schools, not those who are trying to protect and do the best for their communities. And honestly, if you think it is an easy job, please do come and train and join us. We are desperate for teachers (I notice the adverts have come back out again) and you would be welcomed with socially-distanced open arms. Just take a step out of that armchair.

Some musings…

I last saw my son at the beginning of the year when he came home briefly from China for a visit. Pretty much as soon as he got back to China, there came the frightening time when he went into a complete lockdown and we didn’t know what would happen. He was in lockdown for 54 days, not able to leave for food unless he was checked.

After 54 days things gradually started to open and become normal again. Any outbreak since has been controlled really quickly. In one area 9 million people were tested in 5 days for a handful of cases, to stop it spreading. Simple really – mass test people to catch all cases.

He has been living a normal life there now for several months. He hasn’t had to deal with another lockdown, things just gradually got back to normal. I’m not worried about him as much now, I am far more worried about my daughter across The Pennines in Leeds having to endure lockdowns, furlough and little uni teaching time. Our young people are struggling.

I seem to spend a lot of time angry. A couple of months ago if everyone had been tested in parts of the North West, or if we had had mass testing in schools, we wouldn’t have had to deal with the ridiculous number of isolation periods, we wouldn’t have had to juggle those in and those out learning remotely for extended periods of time. Students would have the routine of being in school, where they should be. Instead there seems to be constant criticism of schools for doing the right thing, for taking medical and scientific advice to isolate contacts and try to drive down the virus in their local communities. There almost seems to be a sense of embarrassment and shame for schools that have had to deal with large number of cases. A few weeks ago I read a tweet proclaiming that their school (in an area with low case numbers) had dealt with it ‘really well’ because they had no cases, somehow making it sound like those schools constantly battling where somehow doing something wrong, or were more unhygienic than others…not that there were in areas where there were higher number of cases. At certain points parts of the Greater Manchester area had cases of 1:20. That is bound to come into schools – it’s approximately at least one per class. I know people who have had it, and believe you and me, none of them were wandering around maskless, allowing students within 2m to breathe all over them and never sanitising their hands.

So, back to my son. I am not scared for him in China anymore. I am scared for us. I won’t be able to see him for the foreseeable future, but he is safe, he can travel and visit other places and he is living his life and that is all that matters. I love seeing the photos of him and his classes, not needing to distance or wear masks. I posted a picture of him out socialising a few months ago on Twitter and was told he was ‘irresponsible’. Actually what I think is irresponsible is the way in which it has been dealt with on this country. I am in no way saying that China is a fantastic shining beacon of a country – and that’s a whole other debate, but he is pretty much safe from a virus that we are not. Ironically, he is more worried about us.

As teachers, parents, school leaders etc, we shouldn’t be angry at each other, we should be angry at how poorly this whole pandemic has been dealt with. At points, decent testing and a robust track and trace system would have pushed rates right down. Businesses in parts of the country wouldn’t have had to be shut for the majority of the year. Students wouldn’t have had to have been in and out of schools like boomerangs.

Everyone has basically been given license to socialise at Christmas. Despite warnings from scientists that it really isn’t a good idea, lots of people will and we will undoubtedly see another rise when we go back after Christmas. In fact, this seems worse to me, particularly the silence from those in government about this possibility. Just telling people that they should ‘be sensible’ doesn’t cut it.

I hope that I am wrong and it somehow miraculously starts to disappear and next term is easier, but I doubt it. Until then I think we should all rest over the holiday and brace ourselves. I’m sure the New Year will be filled with education announcements on top of everything else. And meanwhile I shall pride myself on being an old pro at the Live Lesson – who knew I would be able to embrace technology so quickly?

Back to school

Just before lockdown, a student in one of my classes sneezed whilst talking to me in the office. Another member of staff shouted at them, saying they shouldn’t be in school, it was dangerous, didn’t she know about coronavirus, she shouldn’t be so selfish etc. The student cried, we had to call in support, the student was checked out at medical, all was fine so she came back to class, but the lesson had been derailed for her in her upset about the incident.

But it did make me realise that whatever we are thinking and feeling, whatever anxieties we have, we must make sure that we don’t project them onto the students. I’m reading so many tweets at the moment where teachers are angry. Much of it seems based around anxiety around going back to school, which is understandable, much as it is understandable that students might be feeling the same. But it is happening and we are returning.

Some students will come back and, for whatever reason, not have been following the social distancing and hygiene rules that we will expect them to follow at school. We know that restrictions weren’t always followed by some in lockdown. We have to be careful not to be frustrated with them for making mistakes in the first few days; instead we should explain the reasons why we expect them to follow the protocols. Students do tend to understand the ‘whys’ if explained to them calmly and rationally. What they don’t like, and I don’t think any of us do, is for people to treat them like they are stupid, or get angry with them for not knowing.

I’m not personally anxious at all about going back to work, I miss the human interaction it brings. I’ve seen what my school has planned, communication has been brilliant and I know the school has done everything they can to keep everybody as safe as possible. Things will be strange, we will have to work in a different way, there might be quick changes and we’ll need to pull together, and that’s ok. But I do know that others might be anxious or worried, and that’s ok too. Hopefully that will change as people get into a routine. We have to be honest that this is going to last for a long time, for months, possibly years and life might never be the same way again. I’d like to be able to live as much of a life as possible and I do want our young people to come out of all this as mentally unscathed as we can help them to be. That bothers me more for the long term, if I’m honest.

If a student chooses not to wear a mask in an area of the school where it is optional, then that doesn’t make them a bad person. If a student doesn’t follow social distancing rules, a calm conversation explaining the reasons for doing it might mean they think next time. We have to make a decision about what is actually wilful, what is forgetting and what is not understanding.

So whatever our opinions, we need to be careful they are not projected onto the students we teach. We will probably all make mistakes, we are human after all, but this crazy world isn’t the students’ fault. They are living through it as much as we are, and in some ways we, as adults, are perhaps in a better position to understand and deal with it all.

I hope everyone has a good start to the year and we can all get through this, one step at a time, even if it is one step forward and two steps back for a while. Keep breathing and keep smiling and enjoy the fact that we get to see some of our young people again, because they are generally the most brilliant people to spend our days with.

On face masks.

I have an opinion on face masks, and I will probably get shouted at about it, in fact the last time I even tried to have an opinion on Twitter I was accused of killing people, but I’m allowed it. I think Scotland have got it right in their announcement for communal areas. I don’t want to teach in a face mask, but I understand others might want to. We need to have a discussion, we need to find a balance.

I worry that face masks have taken over what are the important things to remember, washing hands, not touching faces, cleaning, social distancing etc. Why have we stopped talking about these things?

I don’t drive, so travel a lot on public transport. Recently, I have travelled on several trains for 3 hour stretches. I find it a very uncomfortable experience and by the time I get off the train I am desperate to get my mask off and get some air, and that’s without talking. I get headaches and according to my smart watch, have had a noticeable shifts upward in my heart rate when wearing them. Granted, I do have other personal reasons for not liking them, but I do. And I do follow the rules in all the places I need to, shops, trains, trams, taxis, shopping centres etc. I now own many, many face masks in an attempt to find the most comfortable (the pleated versions I prefer, if you’re interested.) But at the moment, I can control pretty much how much time I spend in one. I can decide to do a half hour shop, or plan my journey thinking about when I might be able to get a break. It is very different to having no choice for 6-7 hours a day, plus travel time to and from school.

But the most interesting thing is how people behave with a face mask. People think that they can forget about everything else; it provides a false sense of security. I’ve seen people constantly touching their faces adjusting their mask. I’ve seen people wiping their hands on train seats after eating and then putting their hands on their faces to put their mask back on. I’m not seeing much hand sanitising at all. And I have seen many people without masks at all, but unless they are in large groups, who am I to question why that might be?

Yesterday, as I was getting off the train people were pushing to get on, clearly thinking that face masks meant that social distancing didn’t matter. Ironically, there were plenty of seats in the train (I actually haven’t come across a busy train yet) so they didn’t need to. But it is very clear that this constant focus on face masks makes people feel that wearing one they are safe, whereas we really should all be aware that it is just an extra layer of protection.

I went to the hairdressers last week. My hairdresser was saying that the most frustrating thing about it all is that it is extremely difficult to communicate with the person they are working with and they have to be careful to make sure they are doing exactly as the client wants. She was saying that they are all hoping that it doesn’t have to go on for very long, as it is difficult to enjoy work, but I fear this might be much longer.

My son teaches in China. They don’t wear masks in the classroom, neither do the children because teaching English it is important that everyone can see faces. They instead have very strict cleanliness routines and temperature checks. There have been no cases since they re-opened. But we don’t hear much about the countries that don’t, only about the countries that do.

Many of our schools have students who are new to English, some have students who are hearing impaired. I heard a parent on the radio earlier saying that her Autistic son really doesn’t like people to be wearing masks. We have to think about how their needs are met too; it is essential in some cases that students can see faces, we have to find a way to work round that.

I have also seen people posting on social media with pride how they have confronted people not wearing masks in shops. It worries me that students with invisible illnesses, which are suddenly there for all to see because they unable to wear them, would be open to similar behaviour. As well as that, there will be students who feel incredibly anxious in a mask. It would need careful management. I’ve seen people with exemption cards…something about that makes me very uncomfortable, people having to carry cards or wearing things on their clothes to mark them out, never seems to go well…

I spoke to a friend who is a doctor in a hospital (she was happy for me to share.) She said this, and I have seen others tout a similar idea, which seems sensible to me.

We have to think about how to work this in the long run and possibly for up to 2 years at least. I agree that the government has not been clear and that is a whole other story, but we have to have a realistic attitude and not make snap decisions.

We have to balance those staff that are generally very worried with those who have reasons for being worried about having to cover their face for long periods.

Scotland seems to have gone a sensible way, corridors and communal areas at break and lunchtime. We could also stretch this to meetings, office spaces etc if it meant others felt safer. It should then be optional for those that want to to to be able to teach in them.

However, we must make sure that our young people are aware that wearing a mask is not an alternative to making sure they handwash regularly, that touching their face is still a problem in a mask. I was reading an article where it was explaining the fact that the eyes are important to remember as it can be caught through the eyes – who knew? Tired students rub their eyes – we all do. Listening to a scientist on the news today, a cough or sneeze behind a mask will still release droplets that land on surfaces and therefore regular cleaning is far more important.

What we need is conversation. And we really needed time to prepare. If face masks are made mandatory, then schools might need to provide them for some. Students wearing reusable ones will need to be aware that they would need washing pretty much every day. Students using the disposable ones must know that can’t wear it more than once. If visors are going to be acceptable when teaching then where do we get them from? Do we provide our own, in which case are there recommended stockists? And this needs to come from government first and boy, is it getting late to sort this.

But, let’s not be angry at each other. Let’s not think that face masks are the thing that lead to a Covid free world, because they really won’t, they just provide an extra layer of possible protection. We have to just have conversations that are sensible and rational and not based on fear and panic; we are in this situation for a very long time.

Just a Teacher and Her Students

This has been one of the most insane weeks I have known in the last 17 years of working in education. A level results have been a huge topic across the country, they are constant announcements, constant backtracking and in all of it teachers are angry.

For every person who is angry, there is a comment that teachers shouldn’t have got it wrong in the first place, an opinion fuelled by media headlines scapegoating teachers for all the chaos inflicted over the last few months. I, like many, am tired of being told that I am lazy. I am tired of being told that I am trying to hold back students coming back to school. I am tired of being told that I am not providing enough when I am battling in a society where millions of children still have no access to devices of internet access. Basically, I am tired of being blamed.

It’s GCSE results this week and teachers across the country are dreading it. There will be some more teacher-blaming I’m sure, but that isn’t why we are dreading it; that’ll happen anyway, we are worried for completely different reasons.

I have just left my previous school. Ironically, I didn’t leave until the June half term so that I would have been there for year 11 right until the end. I organised a move across the country around what would be the fairest and easiest thing for the students I taught – something that in the end ended up not mattering. Like teachers in the core subjects across the country, I had spent up to 4 hours a week with each year 11 class. In fact, with 3 classes, the majority of my timetable was year 11, many of whom I had taught for 3 years, others at various point in their secondary school career. As every year, I had spent a lot of my life with these students, I had spent hours marking their work, I had seen them through their ups and downs, I knew them.

Despite what seems sometimes like overwhelming public opinion, teachers don’t teach for the long holidays. We teach because we enjoy spending time with our young people, we want the next generation to have opportunities, to be educated, to know things, to have choices. We spend hours with these students, we know them individually, we know what makes them tick, we see them through their ups and downs, through personal issues, we know what they are capable of and we constantly push them. We build relationships. My own children used to joke that I had them and my other children, who became as much a family as my own and to a large extent that was true.

This year we were faced with a pandemic. One minute we were preparing students for an exam, the next minute we faced not seeing year 11 again, with no idea what would happen with the exams. I told students to just make sure that I had proof of anything that I had assessed for them, just in case, and students turned up with bags of essays, books and mock papers that they piled up at the back of my classroom. And then the exams were cancelled. What should have been a period of revision, refining and practising wouldn’t be happening. It is something I have really missed this year – this intense period that always creates a sense of camaraderie, our class against the world.

By the time they go into the exams I know pretty much exactly what grade they are going to get. Teachers do. If you asked teachers to predict at that point what each student would get, they would pretty much predict the exact grade. In fact they do…many schools ask for predictions at around that point, because it gives an idea what to expect with results and barring major grade boundary changes, mistakes made in exams etc they are pretty much what schools come out with. Because we know them, we have seen what they are capable of, we know how students working at the same level previously have done, we have seen how they performed in mock papers. We used those mocks to help students to improve, we know exactly where they are at.

So it was teacher assessed grades that would matter. Well, good because we knew where they were at, we knew what they would have achieved. And believe it or not, teachers didn’t just put in random grades. They used everything they knew about those individuals that they knew so very well to provide a fair and realistic grade. We had hours worth of TEAMS meetings checking them over and over again. These were then checked within schools, at a department level and at a whole school level. There would be happiness and disappointment, as always, but they were honest, realistic grades. No school thought they could just put in high grades and no one would notice – alarm bells would ring at exam boards immediately, it just wouldn’t happen.

This week we had A level results and we all know what happened. Like many, I was angry, though I had taught year 12 this year. I will leave it to others and those who know how to to unpick the statistics and algorithm and there are some great Twitter threads and blogs doing exactly that, but as a teacher and someone who has watched individual students through 7 years of schooling my anger is focused on those individuals and how they might feel. I will also be especially angry that any algorithm seems to have been unfair to those in disadvantaged areas because we all should be. I have chosen to work in schools with considerable disadvantage, just as others teach in different types of schools, because that is where I feel I can make a difference and it matters. I will retweet individual’s stories because ultimately it is the individuals it affects that matter and because it just might help. A colleague at my previous school was so incensed that an unfair result had cost a student to lose their place at university that she took to Twitter to gain enough momentum that they reconsidered and changed their mind. They did so it was worth it.

So, unless something changes between now and GCSE results, I have a feeling that I am going to continue being angry. If students are treated in the same way at GCSE then this will be one of the horrific years ever in education. I will take in the statistics, but ultimately I care about these students as individuals. They are the students I have stood in front of for hours a week, who I know so very well. I don’t expect perfect results for them all, every results day there is disappointment amongst the happy tears, but more often than not I have known exactly where that will be and I thought I knew this year. This year shouldn’t be any different, and yet A levels this year has proved not to be the case.

Teachers across the country will tell you that the few days before results are always horrible, because despite opinion, we want the best for every student we teach. I really do love my job and I am honestly really looking forward to the next set of students that I will teach on my journey. But I want them to be treated fairly and not in a shambolic way.

One of the saddest things for me was that I didn’t get to say a proper goodbye to the students I taught. I hope to be there this week to see those picking up their GCSE results. The day before I officially left and therefore lost my email access, I replied to all the student emails wishing me luck. I had always told my students that hard work and self-belief got them where they needed to be. It should never matter what background they come from, how disadvantaged they are, their ethnicity or religious beliefs or how well someone in a previous year has done. My last email was from a 6th form student I had taught lower down the school, wishing me luck and repeating back to me something I had said to her. I really hope that in all of this students can still believe what she sent to me….


Disadvantage – High Expectations and Strategies


This is a blog about ways to attempt to tackle the disadvantage gap. I’m not going to bang on about  statistics and cite published research, I’m going to offer some practical ideas that I have used and borrowed from others, and have worked within a classroom setting in the hope that they might help others. So, if that’s not your thing, that’s ok.

When you look at media coverage of education during lockdown, two phrases pop up time and time again – ‘disadvantaged’ and ‘catch-up’. For those of us in education this is nothing new; we are constantly aware that there is a gap that needs to be filled, we spend hours considering what we, as educators, can do to try and close that gap. It sometimes seems like an impossible, un-ending task. And for those of us working in areas of high disadvantage lockdown has been particularly frustrating. There were nights at the start of lockdown I spent wondering how the hell I could reach out and actually teach anything valuable to students not accessing anything. But, like most of us this was replaced with a sense of resignation that I could only do as much as I could, and provide what I could. But we try, as we will try in September when we go back into the classroom, albeit in a new, stranger way.

A bit of personal background. I had a lovely middle-class upbringing. But my dad was a headteacher in one of the poorest areas of not only our city, but the country,  who also worked with the Child Poverty Action Group. Mum was a SENCO also working with students facing disadvantage. After I finished my GCSEs I helped out at dad’s school and between that and the experiences I heard from my parents,  my eyes were opened to the fact that things weren’t the same for everyone.

I spent a lot of my adult life as a single parent, and at times things were tough and I needed help, but I was still lucky that I had support to make sure that I never fell too far. But I was still aware that there was some stigma, and some assumptions placed on my children, as children of a single mother, that there were somehow at a disadvantage.

I have recently moved schools, and across the country, but at the beginning of lockdown, I was working in a school in Peterborough, and had done for nearly 17 years. Peterborough is one of those places that people don’t know (moving up North has made me realise just how many people have never heard of it) but it does have a couple of dubious honours, it is in the ‘top 10’ areas for child poverty in the country and in 2018 it was the very bottom LEA in the SATs table, in 2019 moving to second from the bottom.


Sats 1


The school I worked in had high levels of Pupil Premium students – in our last year 11 cohort, 50% of the 330 students were Pupil Premium. It also had high numbers (well over 50%) of students with English as an Additional Language and I remember being in a meeting where it was announced that there were over 80 languages spoken in the school. So, a school in a city facing significant difficulties, but with a wonderfully diverse cohort.

Year on year, like those working with similar cohorts, we did whatever we could to try and close that gap and to make sure that all our students had the same experience and opportunities. Earlier this year I presented to the local English department heads on some ideas and strategies that we had trialled and used within our department to try and close the gap – what follows are some of what was included. This is by no means a ‘must-do’ list; we all have different cohorts and different priorities. It is simply some of the strategies and ideas that we used, some of which definitely worked, others appeared to be making a difference and I think are worth sharing.

All students work included has been done so with permission from the students themselves.


Consistently High Expectations and Positive Relationships

How many of us have described a class as. ‘the bottom set’ and said, ‘they won’t be able to do that’? We have to be honest with ourselves and think about  our own expectations – I’ve done it in the past, I hold my hands up. In fact, I don’t think I trust anyone who says that they have. Sometimes it is rooted in our experiences, and thus is hard to shake. So here’s my experience. I picked up a class in year 9. They were difficult, and when I say difficult I mean their behaviour was hard to manage, they had no interest in learning anything and every lesson felt like hell. I was an experienced and competent teacher but I would go home and cry and dread every lesson. But I would keep them until year 11, that was the way it went, and I, and them needed it to be the best experience it could be. As a class where there were nearly all PP students, I needed to do what I could to make it a positive experience.

These were students who believed they had been the bottom since way before they had met me, most since well into Primary. One of them actually used to mention their low SATs results continuously. There needed to be a mindset change and it needed to come from me. The first lesson of year 10 was me welcoming them and telling them that I didn’t care what had happened in the past, they were not leaving me without decent GCSE grades and that now on, we were in competition with top set and we were going to do better than them. I could lie and say they believed me straight away, but they didn’t. They pushed against me for weeks and months, but I stood my ground which was hard. Sometimes I wanted to just give in to their relentless telling me there was no point and they couldn’t do it, but I stayed firm with the help of some brilliant TAs, who went along with me. It was the little things I held onto. They were used to just arriving in their coats, sitting in their coats in a lesson and people letting it slip rather than causing confrontation. I just simply said, ‘top set aren’t sitting in their coats’ and would wait until all their coats were off until I started the lesson. It was constant praise, constant positivity and giving them really hard work. Really, really hard work, because in my head I wasn’t going to allow there to be a ceiling placed on these kids. I had consciously placed the fact that there were students with 1 and 2 targets to one side – and they never actually knew what their targets were.

And then some amazing things happened. I loved going to their lessons. Some of them would come and walk to the lesson with me after my PPA. They would actively seek out more work, they would have discussions about texts – one of the most interesting comments I have ever had about Paris and Capulet was from that class, and they wanted to do really well. In year 11 I sat and watched them proudly as they explained to year 7 what they had been learning. My heart swelled as they completed pages and pages of work in mocks, and I smiled as they insisted they needed to go and show the Head of Department what they had been learning (who brilliantly used to pop in and tell them how proud he was of them.) And then this happened, and I knew it had really all been worth it.


I have left the school at the end of their school career absolutely loving that class and being so very proud of them. I can’t tell you what results they have achieved, I know what I think they have and I will be travelling back for results day to see them get those results. But the point is this – we have to really honestly think about our own expectations, and that sometimes requires hard work, but it is ultimately rewarding.

The school I was at switched to mixed ability in an attempt to encourage changes to mindset. We also mixed GCSE classes so that they were a much wider banding of students, meaning there was no top or bottom set. Some schools use names or mix the numbers up, but ultimately, none of this matters unless we make sure that as educators we don’t allow either ourselves or others to place ceilings on a student’s learning. Interestingly, there will still be those that think they have a ‘weak’ class, even when classes are carefully mixed.

Students arrive with us already ingrained with assumptions about themselves, much of which may have come from a level of disadvantage. Talking to other teachers, this can perhaps be more pronounced for students in schools where there isn’t a high level of disadvantage. Students may ‘stand out’ more and really know they are at a disadvantage. In a  school where at least 50% of your class are PP, you perhaps are less likely to treat a student differently, because you just can’t.

The wonderful Jennifer Webb, who I encourage you to listen to talk on the topic puts all this in a far more eloquent way than I.


Cultural poverty

Students from a disadvantaged background will be missing life experiences that their more privileged peers may have. We know this. Many children in Peterborough have never seen the sea, or much of the countryside, or hills. Every time I have taken students on a theatre trip, it is most of the students’ first experience of the theatre. When I went for my interview in Rochdale, the students who showed me round the school found the fact that I had stayed in Manchester (just up the road) the night before incredibly exciting, but proudly showed me the hills they could see from their windows. As schools we are very good at understanding what cultural capital our students have, we just need to unpick what they are missing and try and fill gaps where we can.

Jennifer Webb again:


It has never failed to amaze me what cultural information students might be missing. Google has been my friend many times when students suddenly admit they don’t know what something is. Below are a selection:

  • Christmas – some students who don’t celebrate Christmas don’t have the knowledge about Christmas dinners, or Christmas morning needed to fully understand a Christmas Carol.
  • Lighthouse – Again Christmas Carol – none of a year 11 class knew what a lighthouse was
  • Swan – the poem Winter Swans. Some students had never seen one.
  • Osprey – Some of you may remember the infamous Osprey IGCSE paper where students across the country had no idea what an Osprey was
  • Straw – I spent half a lesson babbling on about Crook’s bed being made of straw in an Of Mice and Men lesson before realising none of them knew what straw was.

cultural pics

Some of this we can predict, knowing our cohorts and their general cultural experience. We are never going to be able to teach everything and much will come up as we teach, but there are some things that we can include in our schemes of work. We can do the following:

Cultural deficit

We decided to work backwards in my previous department. We thought about the essential cultural knowledge that was missing when they arrived at GCSE and tried to embed it at KS3. Alongside this we considered what was missing generally and tried to include as much as we could that would be useful in life. Biblical allusions and Greeks, Romans and Rhetoric were placed into year 7, for example. It is something that is very hard to get right, and we are never going to give students all the cultural capital that they are lacking compared to their more privileged counterparts, but we can give them as much as we can to help them succeed.

Of course, alongside this we also have to have the added discussion around including and celebrating the cultures and backgrounds of all of our students, but it is perhaps easier to attempt to unpick these separately. Addressing cultural poverty is more thinking about the cultural knowledge which students might come across at various points, and which give them the confidence to tackle new texts for themselves.


We all know the importance of vocabulary. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to have a limited vocabulary and be lacking in ‘word wealth’.  There has been a huge push over the last few years to think about how we teach vocabulary within our lessons. Having a bank of words at our disposal is essential for us to be able to express ourselves effectively and succinctly. I blogged previously about a trial I did a few years ago where I focused on vocabulary, but very simply, it proved to me that it was one of the simplest and quickest things that we could do to improve a student’s writing. It is also important when teaching pupils with EAL to give them the tools to express themselves. Too often EAL students are put in lower sets because they don’t have the vocabulary yet to be able to express themselves, and in some ways when it comes to vocabulary, we should understand that some of our disadvantaged pupils equally need to be taught the vocabulary that will help them to succeed.

Lots of people have written about vocabulary and I will link further reading at the end of this blog, but essentially, teach them it and they will use it. Hopefully you can see below the impact that it may have on writing.


vocab 2


Dual coding also works wonders. Students can really play with he meaning of words and think about what might help them to remember meanings. The resources below are from the brilliant Stuart Pryke.

Dual coding

dual coding 1


In my experience, disadvantaged students are often lacking in confidence when faced with a new text. I had the privilege of listening to Alice Vissar-Furay talk at a conference about the strategies that she had been working on within her school. I encourage you to read her blog, which is also full of resources and ideas, and an explanation of how they teach students to read and unpick new texts.

I was sat at the conference with Stuart Pryke, who then went back and produced a brilliant lesson (A Christmas Carol – lesson 13) using the strategies for A Christmas Carol. It really does work well; students read something very difficult but felt extremely clever by the end of it. They used the same strategies again with other texts and articles, and it certainly helped them to feel confident when faced with new texts.

High 5

Another strategy that builds confidence is to show students how to read round words that they find difficult. More often than not, if a student feels like they don’t understand a text, they won’t write about it – often, it is the unseen 19th century non-fiction text that can make students feel as if they are a failure. Giving students a difficult text and asking them to pick out what they can understand and help to build confidence. The two texts below I gave to my year 11 class and asked them to highlight the words that they did know. In both cases they could tell me what they thought the reader’s opinion was, even if they couldn’t understand the whole text and go on to write a response. As a task, it helped them to realise that there is always something there to write about, and always something that they will understand.

I had the pleasure of teaching 900 students at GCSE In Action last year and when I talked about this there was lots of nodding enthusiastically, so it is clearly something that worries lots of students.

Reading round 1Reading round 2

Building Writing Skills

We often expect students to write narratives and creative responses without making sure that they have played with all the small skills that make an interesting and skilful piece of writing. On top of that, they will need to do it in just 45 minutes in an exam. Examiners complain of overly long, rambling, unstructured responses, planned on a narrative arc of novel length, that they will never be able to write in a month, let alone the 45 minutes given. Spending time teaching interesting ways of writing and focusing on the small skills that make good writing encourages confidence in students expressing their own ideas, something that they are often afraid to do.

We spent time as a department last year teaching year 10 two structures that we wanted students to practise using. The first was a structure written about by @EDmerger and adapted into a lesson by @SPryke2. I had used it with year 11 to great effect and had seen some wonderful writing produced using the structures. The second was a structure that my brilliant colleague @HilesSophie had used to great effect within her classroom. The two structures were as follows:


Alongside this we also wanted them to be considering the nuts and bolts of writing more closely. Chris Curtis’s (Xris32) How To Teach English and Lindsay Skinner’s Crafting Brilliant Sentences are both excellent for strategies and resources to support writing. We picked a handful of ideas from each, 3 paragraph structures from Chris’s book and a focus on noun and verb choices from Lindsay’s book. These were introduced along with the text structures and students spent lessons practising and playing with each.

paragraph sentences

Students then sat a mock paper and were told to use the structures and strategies that they felt comfortable with. When marking the mock papers we looked at where they had been used, how students structured their work and their marks on the writing task, compared to previous cohorts at that time of year.

What was most interesting was that even though there were students that slipped back into random story-telling (you know, the ones who just re-tell the plot of Fast and Furious), the majority not only answered the question, but answered it well, using the strategies that they had been taught. Knowing how to effectively structure work had given them the confidence to do it, but also their creativity wasn’t stifled; narratives were varied and interesting but crafted far more successfully than we had seen previously. It also stopped the pages and pages of response. Students wrote 2-3 sides of well-crafted and considered response and average marks were considerably higher than we had seen in previous years at the same time.

work 1work 2work 3work 4work 5work 6

Some might argue that teaching set structures stifles creativity, but when you are teaching students whose level of disadvantage means that they may not read a wide range of fiction or struggle to have ideas, it gives them a lever to start from. It gives them a toolkit to take from, and I would argue that toolkit actually encouraged creativity.


Knowledge retention

One of the biggest issues that we found, particularly with the literature texts, is that students didn’t know enough to write about the texts. They didn’t have the knowledge to be able to talk about characters, themes, or to generally have an opinion about a text. We’d seen lots written about the use of Big Questions and decided to consider how we could use them to make sure that students had the vital basic knowledge that they needed to succeed. It also meant we could be sure that there was a level of consistency across the department; we knew that all students would be taught the essential knowledge that we wanted them to have, but there was a level of autonomy in how that was taught by individual teachers. Again, I am grateful to Stuart Pryke who consolidated my thinking and showed me his way of doing.


We started at KS4, adapting all schemes of work to cover the essential knowledge that we wanted all students to have. As a caveat, we didn’t forget about skills – skills were interleaved within the lessons. KS4 students had a copy of all the Big Questions in their books and would answer the question after the lesson. After approximately every 8-10 lessons, they would receive a blank copy of the Big Questions and be tested on what they remembered. Once they had filled in the sheets, they went round and spoke to others, adding anything extra in green pen. This very quickly allowed a teacher to check students learning, and see any aspect that perhaps needed re-visiting at either a class or individual level. It was noticeable than when this was done well, students performed better in both extended writing and mock papers as there was significant increased confidence in what they knew about a text.


To test the effect further, we trained a group of year 7s who visited year 11 lessons once every few weeks with a list of the Big Questions, and asked random students to answer the questions they chose. They recorded their answers and we could see what knowledge was being retained. Year 7 enjoyed the responsibility, but there was also a level of confidence and pride in year 11 that they could answer questions and show off their learning.

This was then rolled out to cover aspects of language teaching  and to our KS3 schemes of work. Below is an snapshot of our planning for a year 7 scheme of work – Greeks, Romans and Rhetoric.


How does this help tackle disadvantage? Well it is one way of ensuring that all students have the same level of challenge and there is a level of consistency. It gives students a confidence that they do know something about a text and in my personal experience, it pushed those who struggled with English to have confidence to express an opinion, because they knew something about a text.



Tackling the ‘disadvantage gap’ is something that we know is going to be in the news over the coming months. I know there are teachers across the country frustrated at how much learning time has been lost, worrying about the effect that it has had on our young people. We know that all students have lost out, but we have to be realistic and understand that there are those who have struggled more than others. Those without a laptop or device, with no wifi, or limited data. I have seen people saying, ‘but all students have a phone’ – that really shows a lack of understanding about all the factors that make a student disadvantaged in comparison to some of their peers.


I have moved schools, and moved across the country – up and west. I choose where I wanted to work based on the fact that I find working with some of our most disadvantaged young people the most rewarding and important. I know I have a lot to learn, disadvantage does not look the same everywhere, and I have yet to meet the students I will be spending my days with. But I am excited and looking forward to working with what I have already seen are some of the most passionate and forward-thinking colleagues, who clearly know and love our cohort – and I will too.


And across the country, we will do what we can…because we always do.


Further Reading

Closing the Vocabulary Gap – Alex Quigley

How to Teach English Literature – Jennifer Webb

How To Teach: English – Chris Curtis

Making Every English Lesson Count – Andy Tharby

Bringing Words to Life – Isabel Beck et al

Reading Reconsidered – Doug Lemov et al

Alice Visser-Furay

The Writing Revolution – Judith C Hochman et al

Dual Coding with teachers – Oliver Caviglioli