An Appointment at the Reading Spa


The Chew Valley Reading Spa is in session…


I’ve just had the great pleasure of taking part in our inaugural Reading Spa. Inspired by the brilliant gifts available from Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath, the event was designed for our sixth formers to help re-ignite their love of reading and brilliantly organised by English teacher Bell Wall alongside our librarian Jane Hillis.

Each sixth former was given an appointment with a member of staff to serve as their “bibliotherapist” for their spa session; in my case Amelia, a Year 12 student. These weren’t students we taught – the bibliotherapists were assigned from willing volunteer teachers to each sixth former. The students filled in a reading survey giving details of their reading tastes, habits and enthusiasms; I was given Amelia’s survey a week in advance so I could have a think about what sort of books I could recommend for and discuss with her.

If this doesn't reignite your love of reading, nothing will...

If this doesn’t reignite your love of reading, nothing will…

The library was transformed into a reading spa for the day with comfy sofas and chairs, mood lighting, and a wonderful array of cakes and coffee laid on. Jane, the librarian, had gathered a great selection of books from a range of genres to pick and choose from. The spa was on!

A huge array of reading delights!

An array of reading delights!

Amelia and I chatted through her reading survey, getting to grips with the sort of books she liked and what she’d already read. She’d devoured The Color Purple as part of her Literature course and already ordered Beloved and The Secret Life of Bees to broaden her reading in that genre. I recommended Twelve Years a Slave, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Yellow Wallpaper, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, The Bluest Eye and Cloud Atlas before leaving her to browse the selection whilst I enjoyed a florentine,  and a wedge of chocolate cake, and a mug of Arabica, whilst struggling to believe that this was actually work.

After a period of browsing (during which Bell recommended I have a go at The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton) Amelia decided to have a go at The Bluest Eye and Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. Whilst we were having our chat three other sixth formers were meeting their appointed bibliotherapists, and there are more appointments scheduled throughout the week. In the future, Bell plans to expand the project to include staff, to create a wider reading community and help answer that perennial question: “what should I read next?”

All in all, the reading spa was a great success. I loved the opportunity to talk about books and reading whilst Amelia got some more books to read, all in a relaxed quiet hour in the library. With cake. Highly recommended!

Download a reading survey template.

Reading Spa 2014 Feedback

Creative Writing – Poetry Workshop

I was reminded today of one of my career highlights. When I was a keen young second-in-English, I organised a creative writing workshop for enthusiastic students of all ages with a visiting poet, Anthony Dunn. He ran a great workshop which I have adapted and run myself numerous times since. Here’s how it works:

The shock of the unexpected – The Jaguar

The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel

The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel

The first exercise is a cloze using Ted Hughes’ poem The Jaguar. Here it is (download link):

The Jaguar

The apes yawn and 1________ their fleas in the sun.

The parrots shriek as if they were on fire, or strut

Like cheap tarts to attract the stroller with the nut.

Fatigued with indolence, tiger and lion

Lie still as the sun. The boa-constrictor’s coil

Is a fossil. Cage after cage seems empty, or

Stinks of sleepers from the 2__________ straw.

It might be painted on a nursery wall.

But who runs like the rest past these arrives

At a cage where the crowd stands, stares, mesmerized,

As a child at a dream, at a jaguar hurrying enraged

Through prison darkness after the 3_________ of his eyes

On a short fierce fuse. Not in boredom—

The eye satisfied to be blind in fire,

By the 4_________ of blood in the brain deaf the ear—

He spins from the bars, but there’s no cage to him

More than to the visionary his cell:

His stride is 5_____________ of freedom:

The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel.

Over the cage floor the 6____________ come.

The aim of this exercise is to get the students to think of the word that fits the gap, then not to use that word but to think of a far more  interesting word to use instead. Ask them to feed this back and discuss their choices, and what the do to the sense of the poem. Finally, show them Hughes’ version. His language choices a startling – muscular, electric, and totally unexpected. This is what we are aiming for in our writing: language which shocks the reader into attention.

Getting the words flowing – free writing

Next, get the students to write for two minutes without stopping. There should be no brief other than that quality control doesn’t matter, and that the writing won’t be shared. The only rule is that they must continue writing at all times, without pause or hesitation, whatever comes into their heads. Anthony Dunn uses this technique as a warm-up whenever he sits down to write. It overcomes the fear of the blank page, gets words flowing from the brain to the pen, and allows inspiration to come from the mundane external world or the internal monologue the writer has with themselves. The work the students go on to produce will be written underneath the free-write; the fact that the page is already half-filled with poorly-structured, half-formed thoughts in a messy scrawl is liberating and enables more of an anything-goes approach to the creative process.

Focusing on the detail – describing the everyday

Knitted wool - seen close-up!

Knitted wool – seen close-up!

The final warm-up is to describe an everyday object with the closest scrutiny and attention to detail possible. Anthony Dunn used his jumper, a particularly chunky knit as I recall! I have since used a board rubber, jacket, and a classroom clock. It doesn’t need to be coherent, but the description should try to capture the detail of the object with as much clarity as is possible. Reward this in the feedback!

The main event – bring on the metaphor

The final creative task is to write a poem in which an everyday object serves as a metaphor or vehicle for another idea. I usually ask them to look in their bags or pencil cases, or around the classroom, for an object they can use, but I have also provided stimulus objects on cards before (a mirror, a clock, a ring, a coin). Through the close description of the everyday object, they should aim to shed light on the broader or deeper idea they are exploring. Memorably, one student wrote a series of monologues as different mirrors including in a shop changing room, a handbag compact, and a car rear-view mirror, giving their perspectives on what they reflected. Others have used clocks and watches to meditate on the merciless march of time. My career highlight, however, was a collaborative poem written by two students in the very first session with Anthony Dunn, using the sharpening of a pencil.

sharpening a pencil

The sharpening of a pencil

Clara and Eleanor’s poem was so good, I submitted it to the TES back when they published student poetry, and it made the paper in November 2001. I still have the clipping. I hope they won’t mind my reproducing it here:

The sharpening of a pencil

Lead to the table top,

The first twist around the metal pole

The striptease continues.

Slowly she sheds her dirty skin,

Leaving her lingering scent behind her.

Around the newly revealed figure,

Lie the peeled coils of colour.

As the rhythmic turns continue

A crowd of stubble gathers.

Tapping in trays, piles of ash form,

A dense black smoke mingles

Around her new body.

She turns: Clean. Pure. Sharp.

Getting straight to the point.

On occasions like this, when I’m privileged to be the midwife to creativity, I am reminded that there is no better job in the world than teaching – and these are not rare occasions. How lucky we are.

The end of coursework

or…What’s assessment for anyway? 

When I took my GCSEs in English and English Literature (in 1991) they were 100% coursework. I wasn’t alone; according to the 2006 Review of GCSE Coursework from QCA (found here) about two-thirds of 16 year olds in the early 1990s were taking GCSE English through syllabuses that had no examinations. Much has changed since then, and all 16 year olds who take GCSE English in summer 2017 will do so following syllabuses with 100% terminal examinations (as announced by Ofqual).

A mindset change

Coursework has been part of my Key Stage 4 experience as a student, trainee, teacher, Head of Department and Senior Leader. Its removal requires a complete shift of mindset. Curriculum design, long and medium term planning in English has always been about fitting the coursework (or latterly controlled assessment tasks) into the two years to form a coherent programme of study around the assessment tasks. No longer. At this point in time, this feels like a blessed relief from the millstone of controlled assessments, and an opportunity to open up curriculum time to learning, but it will feel very different.

A change of gear is needed

A change of gear is needed

It will also require a mindset change for students. I have felt uncomfortable for some time about the prevalent attitude of “will it count towards my GCSE?” amongst students I teach. The unfortunate truth at the moment is that if it does, most will really try and put in every effort. If it’s “just practice” or, heaven forbid, an assignment merely to develop or secure understanding, it doesn’t get the full focus of a “proper assessment”. I will be glad to see the back of this distinction as it will allow and require a full focus on the process of learning in every piece of work throughout the course.

Teacher assessment is best

I genuinely believe that teachers are best placed to make accurate and complete assessments of their students’ abilities. It seems almost ridiculous that I have to state that at all. Teachers spend every lesson with their students and know better than anyone the full range of their achievements within the subject, in much more detail than any examination can hope to discover, no matter how long or rigorous. This will be lost in the terminal exam system. Teacher assessment (in English especially) has snapped under the weight of the accountability framework’s focus upon it. This was recognised in the QCA GCSE_coursework report:

5.44: The environment for GCSE and A levels has changed. Twenty years ago there were no achievement and attainment tables (formerly performance tables), no national or local targets related to examination grades and no link between teachers’ pay and students’ results. The environment now is far more pressured and in these circumstances, it is likely that internal assessment of GCSE and A levels as presently practised has become a less valid form of assessment.

Teacher assessment + high stakes accountability = a powder keg

Teacher assessment + high stakes accountability = a powder keg

This is undoubtedly the case. Teacher assessment is still the best way of assessing student progress and learning (although, as David Didau asserts, measuring learning is a horrifically complex business). It should still be the basis of teaching and learning in the classroom but only if the sole purpose of that teacher assessment is to measure the child’s progress and identify next steps in learning. If the teacher assessment is also serving the purpose of proving progress to senior leaders and external inspectors in order to maintain the school’s standing in performance tables and the teacher’s own salary, then of course there are vested interests at play which will encourage even the most professional professional to err on the side of generosity. And this is how we’ve arrived at our current situation. The accountability and pay systems have rendered the most accurate and helpful form of assessment unreliable and corrupt. Excellent work, policy makers.

Moving forward

I have several tasks as a school leader now to make the most of this new assessment framework.

Jumping through hoops - a necessary evil?

Jumping through hoops – a necessary evil?

  1. To help subject teams re-think curriculum design away from the coursework/controlled assessment structures that have been in place for so long. We will have a lot to learn from Maths and other 100% examined subjects here; we will need to make the most of the time freed up from controlled assessments to teach curriculum content (which is a combination of knowledge and skills, of course).
  2. To decouple teacher assessment from external accountability and pay progression as far as possible, to allow it to be carried out accurately for the benefit of the student’s learning, parents, and teachers themselves to inform planning.
  3. To work with all teachers and students to jump the hoops of the new terminal exams. I hate this part of the job, but recognise that teaching exam technique is vital to success in exams. I will also make every effort to keep this in proportion to the real business of teaching the actual subjects.
  4. To continue to do my best to construct a Key Stage 4 curriculum in the best interests of the learners at my school.

I’ll let you know how I get on.

#EngchatUK: the importance of oracy

I will be hosting an #EngchatUK on Monday 30th September. The focus of the chat will be oracy and speaking and listening skills. There are a few issues to discuss!


The removal of speaking and listening assessment from GCSE English

This is clearly a big current issue at the moment. How can we preserve the place of speaking and listening in the curriculum when its “value” (in assessment terms) has been removed? You can read Ofqual’s justification for the removal of speaking and listening here: Changes to GCSE English and English Language. That page also contains some useful links to the consultation responses. It’s also worth reading Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher)’s account of his meeting with Glenys Stacey, CEO of Ofqual, on his blog: Ofqual Insights. Closely allied to that topic is this:

The place of speaking and listening in the new programmes of study for English 

Back in April, Tracy Parvin wrote this article about this very issue by exploring the (then draft) programmes of study: Speaking, Listening and the Curriculum Proposals – a tale of two gameshows. You can find the (now finalised) programmes of study here: National curriculum in England.


Of course, we’re all also very keen to share:

Strategies for teaching speaking and listening really well

I’d certainly start by pointing towards David Didau (@learningspy)’s Developing Oracy: It’s talkin’ time! I know that group work has come in for a bit of a bashing on twitter recently, but for those of us who are happy to teach the way we want to teach no matter who is scoffing in the blogosphere there’s this: Success with student group work by Dr Stephanie Thornton, and Group Work is Great by Sue Cowley.

Suggestions from Twitter

There have been some great suggestions from twitter for things to discuss also:

If you have a suggestion for discussion on Monday, please feel free to leave a comment below or tweet me @chrishildrew. Most importantly, get online and on Twitter at 8pm on Monday 30th September, search for the hashtag #EngchatUK and get involved! Remember to unprotect your tweets and include the hashtag in your tweets so that others can see them.

See you then!

Childness; or Why I Read Children’s Books


I was fascinated to read the report in the Guardian on the research project conducted by Jo Bowers and Dr Susan Davis into the benefits of children’s literature. Focused on their primary PGCE cohort at Cardiff Metropolitan University, they found that reading children’s books helped their trainees in and out of the classroom. There is some great supplementary research cited in the article, including the NUT’s excellent Reading for Pleasure and the National Literacy Trust’s Reading for Pleasure research overview. They also cite the UKLA’s Teachers as Readers article which begins: “For primary teachers, knowledge of children’s literature…is essential in order to support the development of younger readers”.

The UKLA research emphasises the importance of reading children’s literature as professional development; the National Literacy Trust and the NUT the importance for well-being. Bowers and Davis found both benefits in their PGCE study. I found myself nodding along as my attitude to children’s books combines both of these. As a secondary English teacher, I feel it is my professional duty to read the latest books aimed at the age group I teach – the Carnegie list, the Guardian prize winners, and more locally the Centurion Award shortlist. I think it helps make me a better English teacher to be able to recommend books to the students I teach. I also love it when – as Jo Facer has described – they recommend them to me! (As an aside, you must read Jo’s excellent blog – she is Reading All the Books).

Photo 31-07-2013 10 53 57

Secondly, I really enjoy a good children’s book. I love them like I love teaching. Back when Harry Potter books were being published, I pre-ordered and waited up for the postman to deliver my Amazon packages on release day. I was in the beta for Pottermore and got sorted into Slytherin. I was so taken with His Dark Materials that I went straight back to Northern Lights as soon as I’d finished The Amber Spyglass. I read the Chaos Walking trilogy back to back. I loved Lauren Laverne’s rock’n’roll magic realism in Candypop. I did an MA in Children’s Literature. 

My love of children’s books and my love of teaching are, of course, inextricably intertwined. I spend my working life in the company of teenagers, and I find them a real pleasure to be around. It’s little wonder, then, that I also enjoy the world of teenage (or “young adult”) literature.


It’s more than that, however. It’s also about the concept of “childness” outlined by Peter Hollindale. Childness encompasses the characteristics attributed to childhood and children by the society and culture of the time. Hollindale says “childness is a changing, culturally determined concept, not a static one, and this is very important to our understanding of its influence. The childness prevalent in our age will permeate the images of it which we transmit to our children, in children’s literature and in other ways” (Hollindale, 1997: 48).

The concept of childness explains why we have a mid-twentieth century age of innocence where writers like Arthur Ransome, Enid Blyton, and CS Lewis showed plucky young children getting on perfectly well without adults, solving problems and behaving honourably without the awkward intervention of hormones (except for Susan Pevensie, denied entry into Aslan’s Kingdom in The Last Battle because she is “no longer a friend of Narnia…she’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up”). It also explains how this conception of childness seems somehow inadequate nowadays. We don’t see children in the same way any more.

So how do we conceive childness today? Are our children capable of horrendous crimes as in Ann Cassidy’s Looking for JJ or Anne Fine’s The Tulip Touch? Are they sexually voracious as in Melvin Burgess’ Doing It or Julie Burchill’s Sugar Rush? Are they possessed of the inviolable moral compass of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books? Of course, there are as many different answers as there are children’s books, or teachers, or Daily Mail columnists firing up another “youth of today” opinion piece, or indeed children.

One of the constant joys of teaching in 11-18 schools is helping young people navigate the minefield of their teenage years. They arrive as children; they leave as adults. Literature can help them vicariously try on different ways of being a teenager for size.  It helps me to empathise and explore different perceptions and conceptions of the fluid, shifting sands of the teenage experience through the filter (usually) of an adult author. Because this is what my job is about – trying to understand, empathise and sympathise with the experience of growing up from the position of having already done it. Reading the books helps me to see it better.


For anyone that is interested, I explored the notion of childness and the treatment of sexuality in children’s literature for my MA dissertation. You can read it here. I’d also love to hear recommendations of your favourite children’s literature, either current or from your youth – leave me a comment or tweet me recommendations @chrishildrew. Thank you!

The book that made me – Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems

When I read about Waterstones’ The Book That Made Me there was really only one choice: Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath, edited with an Introduction by Ted Hughes.

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My copy of the Collected Poems

I can remember my first encounter with a Plath poem with microscopic clarity. Upstairs in a sixth form classroom, summer 1992. Mr Rattue was nearing the end of our term-long journey through English Literature from Chaucer to the present day when we were presented with “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus”. Reading those poems was like an electric shock. I had never read anything like them before. The fury and fire in those lines blazed off the page and scorched themselves into my mind. I was dazzled by a poet who was an absolute mistress of her craft, channelling her personal trauma with almost clinical precision without sacrificing one iota of the emotional content. At an all-boys school, this fiery-haired, powerful and terrifying female voice mesmerised and enchanted me. After the lesson, I remember asking for more, and Mr Rattue lending me a copy of Ariel from the English office. I was hooked.

Photo 04-06-2013 22 12 51

My copy of The Bell Jar

I read more and more Plath, seizing on The Bell Jar next. I was bewitched by the imagery, the detachment of the narrator, the autobiography of it. I held on to Ariel, reading and re-reading the collection. I typed out “The Moon and the Yew Tree” on my Nan’s typewriter and kept in my wallet for years afterwards. I remember reading its steady, dead rhythms to calm myself before my university interviews.

Photo 04-06-2013 21 33 41

Inside my copy of the Collected Poems

The Collected Poems came later, in a week of milestones. After many great productions, I was awarded the Service to Drama prize for my work on lighting the school plays. This was the first time the prize had gone to a backstage performer rather than an actor that anyone could remember; I was incredibly proud to win it then, and it remains one of my proudest achievements. All school prizes were given as book tokens; we had to buy one to be awarded at the ceremony. There was no question what I would choose. I remember the frustration of waiting the week from handing the book in to school, to being awarded it on Tuesday 15th December 1992. Wednesday to Saturday I was behind the lighting desk for Twelfth Night, our school play that year and the last one I was involved with. And on the Saturday afternoon I got my acceptance letter from Oxford.

I took the Collected Poems with me, writing about Plath’s poetry in my first year for Craig Raine and receiving the best comment I have ever had about any of my work. I returned to Plath for my finals, working with Tim Kendall towards my extended essay where I drew comparisons with Emily Dickinson. I taught The Bell Jar on my PGCE and again in my NQT year, and came back to it and Ariel again as Head of English. I used a quotation from “Nick and the Candlestick” as the title of my first blog. Whenever I return to it, even to write this post, the experience is as gripping, chilling and breathtaking as it was in 1992.

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My annotations on “Ariel” in the Collected Poems

The Collected Poems is the book that made me because it is tied up so tightly with landmark experiences of my young adult life. The voice of the poems speaks so clearly, so personally, with such craft and skill, such poignancy and power, that I measure everything else I read against it – but nothing comes close.

Canon Fodder

Michael Gove, in what has become known as his “Mr Men speech“, made reference to “a Great Tradition of English Literature – a Canon of transcendent works” as something which the curriculum should adhere to. He made this reference to summarise the arguments put forward by Joe Kirby in his blog Pragmatic Education to play Stephenie Meyer off against George Eliot for his rhetorical conclusion. His message is clear – Canon=good, trendy=bad.


Earlier in his speech, he derided the text choices of candidates (i.e. teachers) in English Literature GCSE, using the 16,929 candidates who “chose” An Inspector Calls as evidence of low expectations and seeming to hold up the single candidate who had studied She Stoops To Conquer as a beacon of rigour in a sea of mediocrity.

I have a problem with this. I would choose An Inspector Calls over She Stoops To Conquer any day. Not because I’m some trendy left-wing let’s-teach-computing-through-dance slave to engaging relevance – because, let’s face it, the dual context of composition and setting for An Inspector Calls is at least as distant from contemporary teenage experience as Goldsmith’s comedy – but because it’s a better play.

How do I know it’s a better play? I’m not going to justify it here. The fact is, I think it is. I have made a judgement that this play is better than this other play. I have done the same as F.R. Leavis did in the 1930s and the same as Michael Gove did on Thursday. I made a value judgement about the quality of literature that was not directly connected to when it was written.


Old does not equal good

This is a perennial bugbear of mine. I remember the fury and outrage at the list of the worthy published in the National Curriculum for English (2000) as the prescribed content for the “English Literary Heritage”.  The list persisted in the 2007 revision as follows:

Matthew Arnold, Jane Austen, William Blake, Charlotte Brontë, Emily
Brontë, Robert Browning, John Bunyan, Lord Byron, Geoffrey Chaucer,
William Congreve, John Clare, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wilkie Collins,
Joseph Conrad, Daniel Defoe, Charles Dickens, John Donne, John
Dryden, George Eliot, Henry Fielding, Elizabeth Gaskell, Oliver Goldsmith,
Thomas Hardy, George Herbert, Robert Herrick, Gerard Manley Hopkins,
Henry James, John Keats, Christopher Marlowe, Andrew Marvell, John
Milton, Alexander Pope, Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, RB Sheridan,
Edmund Spenser, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jonathan Swift, Alfred Lord
Tennyson, Anthony Trollope, Henry Vaughan, HG Wells, Oscar Wilde,
William Wordsworth and Sir Thomas Wyatt

I’m not denying the quality of the writing that the people “on the list” have produced. But as a qualified teacher of English with a degree in the subject I resent being told what is good. I hate Sheridan. I find Wilkie Collins formulaic and potboilery. Defoe wrote one half decent book. Sir Thomas Wyatt may have been an early adopter of the sonnet but he’s no Shakespeare. Six women on a list of forty-five?

Of course, Gove is all about removing the prescription and putting the power back in the hands of teachers. Which is why his draft National Curriculum proposals for English at KS4 only specify:

studying high-quality, challenging, whole texts in detail including:

  • two plays by Shakespeare 
  • representative Romantic poetry 
  • a nineteenth-century novel 
  • representative poetry of the First World War
  • British fiction, poetry or drama since the First World War 
  • seminal world literature, written in English

Finally, I get to decide what “high quality, challenging” texts are. I can choose. In my mind, An Inspector Calls is better quality than She Stoops To Conquer. There is also no doubt, however, that my students would find She Stoops To Conquer much more difficult. So which should I go for? Which provides the rigour?

Engaging and relevant does not equal good either, does it? 

breaking dawn book

Of course it doesn’t. I really enjoyed Breaking Dawn when Bella finally became a character rather than a vapid pining excuse for inertia. I thought it was the best of the four Twilight books but it couldn’t hold a candle to His Dark Materials or even the Carnegie winning Chaos Walking trilogy I’ve just finished. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t think it was “good”. But then, who am I to judge? What Twilight and Harry Potter are is engaging. This is a quality all of its own. Kids read them, lap them up, devour them. The writers have tapped into something that speaks directly to readers and grips them. This is a good thing. I suppose the adult equivalent is Dan Brown – sales by the bucketload, gripping legions of readers with writing that is at best formulaic and at worst…well…terrible.

David Didau (@learningspy) has written about Robert Swindells’ Stone Cold in the same light: 

“it’s not OK to use store cupboard favourites like Stone Cold as class readers. Whilst this may be a perfectly enjoyable read it’s not particularly worthy of study…So, while we should encourage students to read anything and everything, we should only actually study texts which build cultural capital.”

I’m not sure I agree on this example. I think there is some merit in the twin-track narrative of Swindells’ novel and there is some good suspenseful writing in it. But I agree with David’s principle here – “we should encourage students to read anything and everything, [but] we should only actually study texts which build cultural capital.”

Whose cultural capital?


The English curriculum, as I have blogged about before, must help young people understand their culture. The texts we study, and the contextual understanding they bring with them, help us to understand the roots and evolution of our society, as well as speaking timelessly of the human condition. They provide important cultural capital in a society which values this knowledge. However, a curriculum rooted too much in the past does the richness of contemporary culture a disservice. I proudly teach Media alongside English, and there is real cultural capital in knowledge of the media. It’s not capital valued by Michael Gove and his National Curriculum (in which media is completely excised from English), but it is capital which has real traction. And the humanising influence of a good, well-told story can be as powerful in modern TV drama as in seventeenth century poetry.

As with so many of these artificial debates, the solution is in the balance. Nobody – nobody sensible anyway – would deny the importance of knowing and studying canonical works. Nobody would deny the importance of reading widely; I would not seek to prescribe what anyone reads, provided they are reading. It seems as though nobody is talking about the importance of contemporary, multi-modal and media texts as worthy of study – but they are.

Progress in my classroom? How it is made and how I know it.

This is a response to the April #blogsync topic.

Progress in a lesson – knowledge

Many bloggers have written persuasively about how difficult it is to see progress over the course of a single lesson, and how it is a ridiculous demand for senior leaders to make when observing a single lesson that in order for it to be outstanding “progress is at least good for different groups and is exemplary for some.” I agree, but there are clear instances where I can see progress in a single lesson in my classroom, and these seem to be around the acquisition of knowledge. A student can come in to my classroom not knowing how to use colons and semi-colons to construct a complex list, and they can leave knowing it. Students can come in not knowing the difference in camera movement between a pan and a crab or a crane and a tilt, and leave not only knowing it but having filmed using them. They can come in to the classroom not knowing who the “Havisham” in Duffy’s poem is, and they can leave wanting to read more of Great Expectations. This learning can happen by discovery in a carefully planned inductive activity, it can happen by direct instruction, it can take the whole lesson or five minutes. I can check it in a mini-plenary, via whiteboards, thumbs up, traffic light cards, a homework, or if I’m feeling particularly Ofqual a twenty-question in-silence written test.

Knowledge matters. It is of critical importance that children leave my lessons knowing more than they did when they came in. Imparting knowledge is part of my core responsibility but, it seems to me, is the simplest bit of this most challenging job.

Progress over time – skills

More difficult to quantify, and with much less “stickability”, is the development of skills. This is a long game. As Tom Sherrington memorably put it, “it takes the time it takes”. You can develop skills through direct instruction, but this is more about modelling, trial and error, repetition, and what David Didau calls “deliberate practice“. In other words, the students themselves have to develop and strengthen the intellectual muscles used in that particular skill. The ability to construct an evidenced and persuasive argument is something that develops slowly, over time. I rehearse it in writing, applying the skill to Shakespeare or school uniform, smoking or Seneca; I repeat it in spoken debate with feminism, Marxism, media theory on in-role character defences. I will use the process to intervene, refining and developing the skill in written feedback or spoken interactions, and I will plan peer assessments so the students can benefit from each other’s expertise.

Progress in skills is rarely linear. Students will often produce a stunning assessment, then slip back in the next one. Slowly, incrementally, they get there. How do I know? Because I am a subject specialist – I know what I am talking about. I know what an evidenced and persuasive argument looks like, I know what a well-edited cross-cut film sequence looks like. I know the difference between a “sophisticated” piece of writing and one which is “assured”.

The hard thing with assessing skills is, that unlike with knowledge, there are so many ways to get them right, so many degrees of success. There are infinite shades of grey in each of my examples above, and in each case I have to apply my judgment. Sometimes, my judgment will not agree with AQA’s or OCR’s or Ofqual’s, in which case I will protest and make representations and appeal but, ultimately, refocus my attention on the students. I still know what a sophisticated piece of writing is, but it is essential for my students’ success that I also know what AQA think a sophisticated piece of writing is and that they get the benefit of both definitions.

Progress that really matters – development

The progress that matters to me most in my classroom, however, is not subject specific. One of the real privileges of teaching 11-18 is seeing students arrive as children and leave as adults. The influence that teachers can have over young people in this phase is a humbling and heavy responsibility. Schools should help to shape tomorrow’s adults with compassion, empathy, a sense of responsibility, an understanding of the world around them, and the confidence to make their own minds up. I strive to provide students with the skills to express those qualities in the best ways they can. Often, I won’t see this progress in my classroom. But, sometimes, a few years later, an ex-student will pop back to school, or I’ll see them in the street, or a shop, or on holiday, or they’ll contact me on Twitter, or, as has happened five times so far in my career, they apply for a teaching job at my school. Then I’ll see it. I’ll see what well-adjusted, astute and confident adults they turned out to be. I’ll remember them at 14, and know that I played my small part in that astonishing metamorphosis of growing-up. And there is no prouder moment for a teacher than that.

What is English?

English is a subject suitable for women and the second- and third-rate men who are to become schoolmasters” (Professor Sanday, 1893)

School Subject of English

Everyone knows what English is, don’t they? Say “I’m an English teacher” and everyone’s pretty clear what you do. But the subject “English” is an amorphous, nebulous thing. Brilliant minds have tried to quantify it for almost a hundred years, since the Newbolt Report (1921), through Bullock’s “Language for Life” (1975), and on to Kingman (1988) and Cox (1989). The first National Curriculum sprang from the work of Cox in particular, and since then successive governments have laid out what they believe English to be.

English is a vital way of communicating in school, in public life and internationally. Literature in English is rich and influential, reflecting the experience of people from many countries and times. In studying English pupils develop skills in speaking, listening, reading and writing. It enables them to express themselves creatively and imaginatively and to communicate with others effectively. Pupils learn to become enthusiastic and critical readers of stories, poetry and drama as well as non-fiction and media texts. The study of English helps pupils understand how language works by looking at its patterns, structures and origins. Using this knowledge pupils can choose and adapt what they say and write in different situations. (Introduction to The Importance of English (2000) – from National Curriculum for English (2000). See also KS3 English National Curriculum 2007 for a slightly revised version)

We are now at an important – nay, critical – juncture in the definition of English in secondary schools. Michael Gove has laid out for consultation his proposals for a national curriculum, with specific details for English at Key Stage 4. Here’s the new take:

English has a pre-eminent place in education and in society. It is a subject in its own right and the medium for teaching; for pupils, understanding language provides access to the whole curriculum. Through being taught to write and speak fluently, pupils learn to communicate their ideas and emotions to others; through their reading and listening, others can communicate with them. Through reading in particular, pupils have a chance to develop culturally, emotionally, spiritually and socially. Literature, especially, plays a key role in such development. Reading also enables pupils both to acquire knowledge and to build on what they already know. All the skills of language are essential to participating fully as a member of society; pupils, therefore, who do not learn to read and write fluently and confidently, are, in every sense, disenfranchised. (Purpose of Study from Draft KS4 English Curriculum (2013))

There are obvious changes in emphasis here. Gone is the mention of international aspects of English, reference to media, specific references to creativity and imagination. In their place a greater emphasis on knowledge, the notion of English as a carrier for the rest of the curriculum, and that deliberately political reference to franchise.

But this isn’t why this is such a critical juncture. We’ve had national curriculum redrafts before (see National Curriculum Comparisons) but since I’ve been a teacher we haven’t had the freedom and independence that we have now. As Michael Rosen noted in his brilliant letter from a curious parent recently, the new national curriculum does not apply to academies (or free schools or independent schools, for that matter). If you are a subject leader in an academy, you can start with a blank sheet of paper and you can decide what you think the English curriculum should be. Of course, exam specifications at Key Stage 4 and post-16 will still straitjacket your curriculum to an extent. But you can write your own rationale and develop a curriculum in English that’s right – right for you, right for your context, morally, spiritually,politically and culturally right.  This is an opportunity unprecedented in my career.


I am not a subject leader in English any more – but I was. And I have been thinking long and hard about this opportunity. Here’s what I feel “English” is:

English is reading

Reading for pleasure, of course. Reading with discrimination and the ability to infer and deduce. Reading widely across genres and forms. Reading multi-modally, to understand and assimilate the web of links behind online and multimedia texts.

English is writing 

Writing confidently, fluently, skilfully. Writing accurately and clearly. Writing with craft and attention to detail. Writing creatively. Writing for self-expression. Writing for purpose. Writing in many voices, genres and forms. Writing multi-modally. Writing for pleasure.

English is speaking and listening

Speaking confidently, fluently, skilfully. Listening sensitively, thoughtfully, carefully. Speaking formally and informally. Speaking to present, discuss, perform, share, explore, explain and argue.  Listening to different voices, perspectives and views. Listening to understand, learn, and grow.

English is functional

Students need to understand the mechanics of English. They need a metalanguage to be able to explore and analyse how the language works. There is a knowledge base that needs to be taught in order to achieve this. The application of this knowledge supports the understanding needed for effective and critical listening and for powerful and purposeful speaking and writing.

English is cultural

English language and literature documents culture. Students need to explore that cultural heritage widely and with an understanding about the threads of common humanity that transcend time and place. The English cultural heritage is important, but the place of England and English in a wider British and global culture is equally so. The great richness that our history, present and future as a multicultural melting pot has brought to our language and literature is critical. And the use of various Englishes globally to express multiple cultural realities is essential.

English is humanising

In 1868 the Rev. G.G. Bradley, Headmaster of Marlborough school, said “I would give unusual weight to the teaching of English language, literature and history, to attempt to humanise and refine a boy’s mind”. Whilst I think his agenda was somewhat different to mine, there is something vital that happens in the English classroom that must not be lost. Somewhere in the collective experience of exploring the thoughts and feelings of other people through the language they use, we all learn more about what it is to be human. We learn about empathy and understanding others, and about self-expression, and through this combination we learn about ourselves and who we are.


It’s no wonder we struggle with effective assessment in English. With a subject as diverse, culturally and politically loaded, and profound as this, any assessment can only possibly look at small fragments of it. Planning the delivery of a curriculum like this is a monumental task, and actually teaching it a staggering responsibility. But what a pleasure and a privilege it is. I wouldn’t have it any other way.