A New Hope

There have been many deeply moving blogs recently that show how difficult conditions are in some schools, the dark side if you will,  Nearly two and a half years ago I worked in one of those schools.  RI.  Mocksteds.  Book scrutinies.  Learning walks.  Full page lesson plans kept in a folder for every single lesson taught, monitored frequently.  A ‘leadership’ style that consisted of telling those the next level down that RESULTS MUST IMPROVE!  A behaviour policy that meant if you were going to get C’s you could steal another student’s phone, set fire to their bag and still be in lessons to make sure your grade counted on our stats.  Experienced staff “moving on”.  NQT’s being employed to replace them and moving on themselves, often out of teaching, within a few years.  So many far worse individual stories that are not mine to tell.  As I write this I can feel my anger rising that this is a familiar story to so many, that I barely have to fill in the details.  Srsly, how is this the norm?! 

But this isn’t about that.  After 13 years there (No, I’m not a TOTAL idiot – it wasn’t always like that.  When I started it was the warmest, most supportive, inspiring environment I could have had the privilege to be a part of), I left.  For a 0.8 six month maternity cover, with no idea what I would do after.

This is about that, and the fact that 2 years later I’m still there, permanently, full time and at some point I think I might just possibly, maybe, have fallen back in love with this teaching malarkey ☺️ 

Maybe another time I’ll try harder to summarise what has made such a difference at my new place.  It’s a culture built on so many small things that together form the ethos of the school.  This is more about saying what past me would have liked to have read 3, 4, 5 years ago and about saying thankyou.  

Thankyou to the Assistant Head that saw something in me at interview.  Mostly just the fact I was there I guess, but, hey, I’ll take that.  Thankyou to the HoD who just assumed I would stay when a permanent position came up.  You probably have no idea how much of a vote of confidence that felt.  Thankyou to my tutor group who have become (although of course I don’t have favourites) my favourites.  Thankyou to my top set GCSE group and your constant (I mean, CONSTANT) questions, who have made me fall in love with my subject again.  Thankyou to my.., um.., really, really NOT top set GCSE group who deserve better than to be struggling through the new GCSE and who have made me fall in love with teaching again.  Thankyou to the department for making me start to believe that it might be OK to need help sometimes.  Thankyou to my colleagues, who have become friends, for seeing a me that I’m not sure I recognise, but would quite like to be.

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True Story

Once upon a time (as all good stories begin) there lived a young prince in a kingdom not so far away. The young prince went to school where he learned to read and write; to add and subtract; and many fascinating facts about the Kingdom around him.

When the young prince was six, his eldest sister (for he had two, so was more than a little spoiled) went to the local secondary school. Soon it was her first Parents’ Evening and the whole family went along. Amongst the many teachers was a kindly, if rather geeky, science teacher. (The brightest amongst you may have realised who the real star of this story is to be ;)) Having praised the eldest sister’s hard work and positive attitude, the kindly, if rather geeky, science teacher mentioned the local science festival. The young prince’s eyes lit up.

‘We went to one of them shows last year’ he said. ‘There was like this stuff that like all smoked everywhere but was like really cold’ (For this is how princes spoke in those times). ‘Then the scientist put it in a bottle in with some ping-pong balls and it expanded and blew up and the balls fired everywhere!’

And the kindly, if rather geeky, science teacher was happy to hear such enthusiasm.

And so every year the young prince would accompany his sisters to their Parents’ Evenings. Every year the kindly, if rather geeky, science teacher would greet him.

‘Hello young geekling!’

‘Guess what?!’

‘What is it, young prince?’

‘Did you know there are robots on Mars?’
‘Did you know, if you cut the leaves of some plants and plant them they will grow into new plants?’
‘Did you know, we used buzzers and bulbs and that to make a circuit but the electric will only flow if you have like a joined up circuit?’

And the kindly, if rather geeky science teacher smiled, for although she did indeed know these things and many more, it made her happy to hear the young prince’s enthusiasm for his new-found knowledge.

Finally it was the year before the young prince himself would start at secondary school. Again he went with his sisters to their Parents’ Evenings. The ten year old prince seemed tired and quieter than usual but, as always, greeted the kindly, if rather geeky, science teacher with a smile.

‘Guess what?!’

‘What is it, young prince?’

‘I got a 4.5 in my practice SATs!’

And although the kindly, if rather geeky, science teacher knew that hard work, learning and progress were indeed important, and although she, as always, smiled at the young prince, for some reason she felt sad.


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Festival of Education 2013: Part 1

It takes something special to convince me to set my alarm for 6am on a Saturday morning, but then #Educationfest is.

There may have been slightly too many attacks on the snooze button leading to a rather hasty dash down the motorway, but by 8:55 I had coffee, two new books and was marvelling at the stunningness that is Wellington College.

Caffeinated and slightly smug that I was in good time, I headed for the ‘Spiritual Room’ for Tom Bennett’s session. Only to feel slightly less smug to discover it was already standing room (or perch on the edge of a desk room) only.

I managed to grab a spot on a desk at the back and started chatting over-excitedly to the guy next to me. Both of us were happily tweeting away when it slowly dawned on me I was chatting over-excited drivel to Tom Sherrington *gulp*

Tom’s talk covered popular initatives in education, from Brain Gym to Thinking Hats and took a balanced look at the evidence (or lack thereof) behind them. A rational, balanced analysis of various educational fashions is well overdue, but when this is presented via Richard Feynman references? Well, you had me at ‘Cargo Cult Science’ 😉

If you are interested in the details of Tom’s talk (what do I mean ‘if’?) then it’s all in his book – beg, borrow or even better, buy one now!


Next up was Tom Sherrington, ‘Rigour, agility, awe and joy – the essence of great lessons’ Again, the man himself can convey the ideas so much better than I could, so take a look here.


I must admit the part that most resonated with me, after 3 performance management observations, 2 Mocksteds and countless ‘learning walks’ and book scrutinies this year, was his urging to focus on what you know is right for the kids in front of you, not what you think an observer might or might not tick off. We don’t yet have that culture or confidence at my place, but it’s good to know there are schools that do.

I decided I was going to need more caffeine if I was going to listen to Toby Young next, and couldn’t help but snigger when I spotted these leaflets on a desk in the cafeteria.

Day-dreaming in the queue, it took me a while to realise the guy behind me was @sciteachcremin whose tweets I’d been reading all morning – PLN anyone? The awesomeness of #Educationfest is not just the excellent speakers, it’s the discussions and debates afterwards.

So, it’s 11:30, I have a full cup of coffee and I’m heading for the Marquee to discover ‘What do we want our children to know?)…

Tbc 😉

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Our New Year started with an impromptu memorial to one of last year’s Year 11’s who died last week – Jamie.

I remember him in Year 7. Barely up to my shoulder; blazer too big; Liverpool FC bag twice as big as him over his shoulder and a cheeky grin bigger than both.

Fast forward three years to the end of Year 9.

‘Jamie? Can I have a word please?’
‘What have I done, Miss?’
‘Nothing – you’re doing brilliantly! Your test scores are excellent. Wish I knew how, because you’re a lazy so & so!’
‘Yeh, fair point, Miss’ *grins*
‘I want to recommend you move up to top set. You up for that?’
‘Suppose so’. *broader grin*
‘You’re going to have to work your backside off in there though. You won’t let me down, will you?’

He didn’t. And you know what, Jamie? I really hope you knew that.

Fast forward to Yr 11 and probably the last proper conversation I had with him. Head and shoulders taller than me now (OK, anyone who knows me will know that’s not difficult). He just decided to stay back after school and finish his coursework over a brew. Spring sunshine, his mates were outside playing football, but he was the probably the first in the class to finish off the last few sections. We chatted about his plans for the future; he finished his tea and left flashing the same cheeky grin.

Three o’clock today. First day back and almost 100 kids, young men and women now I guess, are in the canteen, back from college and sixth form to remember him and support each other. Pretty much the whole damn year group, Jamie!

Others have written, far more eloquently that I ever could, about what teaching involves and the skills we need. I can only add that it is immeasurably easier to stand up in front of Yr10 and try to convince them of the importance and fascination of the structure of the atom, than it is to talk with 100 grieving teenagers asking ‘Why?’

Facebook and Twitter are full of ‘RIP Jamie’ ‘Sleep tight’ and similar phrases. Not really my style. I guess all I can add is, when I remember you, you make me smile; through tears at the moment, but I smile.

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What’s the point?

So this is my precious free lesson.  Bob Marley is playing in the background, kettle’s boiling in the prep room and Ben and I are arguing over whether he really needs three sugars in his coffee.  Ben is in Year 11 and has spent the day with me, working on his BTEC science.  He’s now got one last assignment to finish off and he’s passed the course 🙂

Ben is the youngest of seven, all of whom I have taught over the last ten years.  I’ve taught him for the last three years.  We’ve had our disagreements.  He’s told me to go yonder and multiply (© Edzard Ernst) on several occasions, and has spent more than the occasional lesson working at the back of my Head of Department’s room.  He’s also got a sharp brain and a charming, if well-rehearsed, line in apologies.  He’s not been in school for the last two days because he’s been in court watching his two older brothers get sentenced for burglary.  My brain recognises the spotty, sullen mugshots on the front page of the local paper, but I still find it hard not to think of them as freckly, slightly cocky 11 year olds doing detention for lack of homework.

And now he’s completing his science BTEC.  We’re singing along to Bob Marley and drinking coffee to celebrate.  And I’m chuffed for him, genuinely.  The trouble is I know where he lives.  I know who he hangs out with.  There may be an infinite number of universes but I don’t like the odds against him in this one.  And there is part of my brain saying ‘So he’s got Science BTEC.  Whoopdedoo!  And?…’

I started off writing this genuinely negatively, tired and fed up, the title being a depressed and heartfelt plea.  However, I think in writing, I may have answered my own question.  Maybe this is the point.  This, here and now.  Right now, Ben is just a young man who sings along to Bob Marley, takes too many sugars in his coffee and is chuffed (possibly more relieved, but there was a smile and a high five, so I’m calling chuffed) to have passed his science.  Right now, he is on track to get the grades he needs for college.  Right now, things might go wrong; but maybe, just maybe, they won’t.

Maybe that’s the point?

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Dear Mr Gove…

Dear Mr Gove,

There are some people I would like you to meet.

This is Sam, he’s 13 going on 30. Polite, mature beyond his years, bright, quietly witty.  He’s from traveller background and spends his free time outside with his Dad, camping, tracking etc. He wants to work outside, perhaps in forestry, when he leaves school and already knows which college course he wants to do. He’s also a young carer for his mother.  His attendance at school is under 50% and has been since primary school. When he is at school he is often desperately unhappy. See, he’s missed so much school he doesn’t have the basic skills for subjects such as maths so he sits in class thinking how stupid he must be.

That’s Tom. He’s also 13. He spends every break and lunchtime playing football with his mates. They aren’t bad lads, but spend a fair amount of time in detention for chatting, not finishing work and basically being teenage boys. He’s also in top set for everything, on School Council and has the starring role in our school production. Oh yes, he also knows he’s going to be a lawyer.

Meet Sarah. She’s shy, quiet and socially slightly awkward. Until you get her on the subject of bullying or science. At which point she will happily speak fluently, passionately and knowledgeably to the group. She’s strongly against the first and for the second in case you wondered.

This is Simon. He’s mildly dyslexic and won’t mind me saying his spelling is entertainingly phonetic. He gets very little support though, because he has put so much effort into overcoming any difficulties that it impacts little on his attainment. He’s also funny, cheeky, popular, loves rugby and is gifted and talented in dance. He’s actually performed at the Royal Albert Hall.

Now Emma. She is hard-working and conscientious, also in top sets for everything. She’s the first to volunteer to help take messages, hand out letters etc. She’s on a table with a group of boys and they’ve learned to shut up and listen to the teacher when she tells them to. Noone in her family has ever been to university but she will.

You don’t know them and 6 months ago most hadn’t heard of you. They started Year 9 pretty enthusiastic about planning their option choices. Some liked the idea of spending a solid three hours rehearsing Dance or Drama or designing a product for Graphics. Some were keen to move on to more challenging science topics and have time to discuss the really big questions.  Admittedly some were just looking forward to dropping subjects they’ve struggled with.  They are now becoming disillusioned with the whole options process as their choices are being limited by what you perceive as important and challenging subjects.  Sam may well get at least 5 good grades at GCSE.  Do you want to tell him he’s a failure because he won’t do GCSE French?  Sarah will get superb grades across a range of subjects including three sciences, graphics, and french but doesn’t really want (or need?) to do history or geography, although RE or Philosphy and Ethics she adores.  Another failure?  Simon is going to find exams a struggle, but will achieve a good set of grades by most standards due to hard work and determination.  Unfortunately he’d find BTEC science more relevant to him than GCSE so he’s another failure.  And so on.

Finally there is me.  Hi.

I’m just a teacher.  I have the privilege to have all five of these characters in my tutor group, along with 25 others, and I care deeply about their futures.  I also care deeply about the reputation of my school which takes pride in being a true comprehensive and educating students of all abilities and from all backgrounds.  No matter what ‘choice’ you give headteachers, you must realise a school stands or falls on simple headline figures and the subjects included in those headline figures are what you decide.  If your English Baccalaureate is to be what we are measured on then schools like mine have the choice between failing by your narrow standards (and being closed) or failing the likes of Sam, Simon, Emma, Sarah and Tom by forcing them down a one size fits all route.

The breadth and range of subjects available at KS4 is vastly different from those offered when you and I were at school.  The skills and analysis required for some ‘vocational’ subjects I would argue goes far beyond the rote learning that can scrape a good grade at GCSE.  Your decisions are affecting the current plans and  futures of thousands of Sams and Emmas and mes, and the least they and I can expect is that they are researched, thought through and based on a sound understanding of the knowledge, skills and understanding required for each course.

Is that too much to ask?

Yours sincerely…

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Hello all.  So this is my first post – quite exciting 🙂  I am a science teacher at a secondary school and one of my roles is to link with our feeder primaries and support one particular school with their Gifted and Talented pupils.  Over the last couple of years we have tried to organise them visiting us 6 times over the year to have the opportunity to use our labs.

Some of the most successful activities I have run in previous years have been

  • Acids and alkalis – making and using indicators
  • Circuits – building switches and booby-traps
  • Gases – generating and testing different gases

This year I am trying to develop the project further and was thinking of giving all six sessions a continuing theme.

So I have a group of about 14 pupils, aged 7-10, who their school has identified as G&T.  I would love them to be wowed by our equipment and labs but also want to develop their investigative skills.  I have 6 x 90 min sessions over the year and time between each one for them to plan or for follow-up work.  Other than that I can pretty much do what I want *big grin* 🙂  I’m a chemist so I have a tendency to use any excuse to play with chemicals and make things go bang,  but I also want to make sure the kids are developing skills as well.

Do you have any suggestions / ideas for where I could take this project?

If so, many thanks – please leave a comment or tweet @arakwai.

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