Can everybody succeed?

When I listened to John Tomsett speak about his whole-school growth mindset approach at #TLT13, I felt genuinely inspired. John has helpfully summarised his talk here. Head of Year and science teacher Ashley Loynton, who was sat next to me, is currently running a pilot project at our school ahead of a wider roll-out of growth-mindset strategy, which you can read about here. One of the most interesting aspects of this development for me is testing my own thinking about growth mindset. Do I really buy into Dweck’s ideas? Harry Webb has sounded a note of caution, and I take the points he makes in his blog about the dangers of a growth mindset bandwagon being misunderstood and misused. However, the blog which really got me thinking about my own approach to growth mindset was Mark McCourt’s Every Single Child Can Pass Maths back in March. Mark is an ex-colleague of mine and I have complete faith in his assessment of things educational. His excellent blog argues that, given the right conditions and approach, every single child can pass Maths – i.e. become a functionally numerate mathematician at Level 2 standard. So the question I pose myself as a Deputy Head in charge of the curriculum is, do I believe it is possible for every single child to “pass” Maths and English at Key Stage 4?

It is very clear that some in the political sphere do not. Dominic Cummings, ex-special advisor to Michael Gove, argued in his paper Some Thoughts on Education and Political Priorities that genetics has a far greater influence on educational outcomes than teaching. This week, Boris Johnson has poured scorn on the 16% of “our species” with IQs below 85 with a clearly deterministic view linked to Cummings’ philosophy. I reject these approaches instinctively – they make my skin crawl – but I need to force myself to examine them rationally. Am I wasting my time? Are there some kids who, no matter how hard we try, are never going to pass Maths and English?

One barrier to overcome is comparable outcomes. A Level 2 pass – currently a grade C and GCSE – is no longer linked to a standard set of criteria. Although grade descriptors still exist in the appendices of English specifications, the assessment criteria provide only a numerical mark which is scaled to a uniform mark scale (UMS) in each exam season to award grades comparable with previous seasons. In other words, to make sure we don’t get more Cs, As or A*s this year than last year. This statistical determinism bears a striking resemblance to Cummings and Johnson’s arguments, in that it presupposes that better teaching will not increase the proportion of young people meeting the standard year-on-year. Which rather makes me wonder exactly how schools are supposed to deliver Sir Michael Wilshaw’s vision of continuous improvement in results when the results can only ever be comparable to the previous seasons…

The conclusion I’ve reached is that I think that Johnson, Cummings and comparable outcomes are wrong. Plain wrong. And that I do, as Mark McCourt does, genuinely believe that every child can pass Maths and English with the right conditions. I could not bring myself to stand in front of a class if I genuinely believed that some of them had been born incapable of succeeding. But of course they don’t all succeed currently, so what needs to change?

My thoughts on this are still being formed. I am writing this really to test out my own beliefs – will they stand up to public scrutiny? This is the true advantage of edublogging for me. If I find myself unable to defend my position on any of this over the coming weeks I’ll know I didn’t have it right in the first place. Where I find myself on firmer ground I’ll know I’ve found a true value. Here’s what I think we need to do if all children are to “pass” English and Maths:

  1. We need to all believe that all children can succeed – without this inherent belief failure and underachievement becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy

    Getting the basics right ensures that learning is built on a firm foundation

    Getting the basics right ensures that learning is built on a firm foundation

  2. We need to get the early basics right – the building blocks of successful literacy and numeracy must be secure or the whole edifice will tumble. The accountability system at primary school encourages teachers to move children onwards and upwards to the next level when it should be encouraging complete security at the level below. As I argued here, I don’t blame Year 6 teachers for coaching children to the new Level 6 tests but I worry about the security of the level 5 work underpinning it.

    Graphic (via @headguruteacher)

  3. The role of the family is vital – this month’s #blogsync deals with this topic and Tom Sherrington has written with characteristic vigour about the benefits of the “pushy parents” and the cognitive gaps between rich and poor. One of my most popular posts dealt with the Matthew Effect which argues that those who are brought up in word-rich environments where families value education have an intellectual and cultural capital which allows them to progress more rapidly still, whilst those who are not have nothing to grip on to education with. Changing the culture of those families who do not value education is a lifetime’s work, but there is no more important work for a teacher than that.
  4. All abilities should work together – hiving off the most able into separate streams, sets or schools sets a cap on the aspirations of those left behind whatever numerical cap is dictated by budget or facilities. Kenny Pieper lays out the case for all ability education here, and I have argued about the social importance of mixing all abilities and social backgrounds here. If a student is in a class – or a school – where they never get to see what a C looks like, much less an A*, how can we hope that they will aspire to achieve one?
  5. The core should be run through the whole curriculum – literacy and numeracy are the keys which unlock other learning. Every teacher should be developing knowledge, understanding and skills in these areas every day by providing explicit teaching of the literacy and numeracy elements of their specialisms. Requiring deliberate practice of literacy and numeracy skills should be part of the repertoire of every teacher, not just in a box-ticking “literacy across the curriculum” add-on but in a fundamental, foundation stone way. 
  6. We should abandon Key Stages so phases can work together – some students arrive in Year 7 too far behind for secondary schools to close the gaps enough. Every week in #SLTchat somebody mentions the importance of EYFS. I find the divisions into key stages unhelpful as it implies a shift where there should be a continuum. Anything we can do to collaborate and work together cross-phase is a must if we as a system are to turn out literate and numerate adults.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments or on Twitter.

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.

In defence of Media Studies


Media Studies is, of course, a Mickey Mouse subject. It’s easier to pass than other subjects. It’s not a rigorous preparation for university. It’s “soft”. I’m not taking the mickey here; Michael (Mickey?) Gove says so:

“…it’s a fact that some of our best universities consider media studies to be a less rigorous preparation for higher education than other courses. Students who take it up limit their capacity to choose freely between universities. Its a simple truth that a pass in physics or further maths opens more doors. But some schools still steer students towards subjects such as media studies because they know its easier to secure a pass. That easier pass will boost their league table ranking. It is no accident that the huge rise in students taking media studies GCSE has occurred in state schools, where league tables matter so much, while in private schools, where the interests and demands of students and their families currently hold more sway, there has been no similar rush to embrace the subject.”

Let me nail my colours to the mast. When I first started as a Head of English in 2002, one of the first things I did was implement a KS4 course where every student studied English, English Literature, and Media Studies. Almost every student triple-certificated after two years. And I didn’t do this to push my school up the league tables, I did it from a profoundly held ideological standpoint that media studies is a curriculum entitlement and a fundamental necessity for young people today.

Let me explain. This isn’t an just argument about effects theory, which attempts to teach young people how to avoid being brainwashed by the pernicious commercial and ideological messages of a sinister conspiracy imposed on the masses by “the media”. Such an argument is reductive and patronising, casting media audiences as passive couch potatoes without an independent idea of their own. It is this kind of approach that makes for easy headlines and provides a simple scapegoat, such as when Barack Obama called for research into the effects of violent video games as part of his gun control package in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. It isn’t just a protective discipline.

Primarily, for me, media studies is about creativity. Back in 2002 I was frustrated by the lack of creative opportunity in the existing GCSE English and English Literature specifications, and included Media Studies to provide a creative outlet for the students. Simply put, media provided them with the opportunity to make things. Since then, Web 2.0 has meant that nearly all of us are media creatives. Every Facebook status, every tweet, blog, vlog, pin, Instagram or Flickr share is a creative act through the media. David Gauntlett calls it “the make and connect agenda“; the young people we teach every day are not slavishly sat in front of the television of an evening, devouring commercial messages with square eyes and a blank expression. They are instead constantly creating, sharing, and self-representing, often clumsily and with little regard for the process and its potential impact on themselves and others. The need for a subject which frameworks their understanding of this is more pertinent now than ever.

I don’t want to denigrate the importance of an understanding of the world, either. It is essential that young people understand how important the relationship between news and politics is, how much the friendships between David Cameron and Rebekah Brooks or Andy Coulson matter. How the Rupert Murdoch empire controls not just The Sun but wants to control Sky too. How it’s no accident that James Bond’s phone is a Sony. Why it’s important that Google owns YouTube or that iPhones only work with iTunes. That the PCC is a self-regulating body and what the Leveson inquiry is all about. To understand media institutions is to understand the commercial and political structures of the country we live in. This, surely, is an educational entitlement.

I am proud to be a teacher of a Mickey Mouse subject. A study of Disney can lead into a history of the representation of the role of women from domestic servant to independent role model. It is a brilliant case study in the commodification of childhood, branding, and a horizontally integrated company. The narrative control, intertextuality and sophistication of films like Enchanted or the Toy Story trilogy provide a rich and rewarding experience on multiple levels in a way which the modern novel is struggling to match.

Sir Ken Robinson, in his Changing Education Paradigms speech, famously explains that the education system has to prepare young people for jobs which don’t yet exist in economies we cannot predict. There are young people like Charlie McDonnell and Tom Ridgwell currently making a good living from creating YouTube videos. I was lucky enough to teach Jack and Dean – for A-Level Media Studies – whose 11 million video views and 214,000 subscribers give them a bigger reach than most TV programmes. These young people are doing a job that most people still don’t understand in an economy that nobody thought existed. They are an example of young people making, creating and connecting, and forging a brand new career path to fit – the model of a new educational paradigm.

My triple-cert course lasted until the new model for GCSE English was introduced in 2010. At that point it was no longer possible to fit it into the time constraints, and the new specs for GCSE English Language incorporated more work on multi-modal texts as part of its core business which went some way to mollify my misgivings. We pushed Media out into the options, where it promptly recruited three groups. (I’m still amazed the curriculum deputy let me do it – it must have been like dropping a bomb into the options pool.) Yet now the proposed new national curriculum for English KS4 excises any mention of the multi-modal, removing any last vestige of reference to the moving image or to the flexible, dynamic way that modern writing and reading is developing through hyperlinks and embedded media. Whilst this sat within English, I felt more at ease. Without it, I don’t see English preparing young people for the types of texts they will be reading and creating as they become adults.

I am not the first to attempt a defence of media studies in the face of criticism. There is even a collection of defences far more academic and impressive than mine at the Manifesto for Media Education site, including coruscating pieces from David Buckingham, Julian MacDougall and Cary Bazalgette amongst many other luminaries. For me, media studies is an entitlement. Young people are connecting, creating, using, and innovating in media every waking hour; it is incumbent on educators to support, cherish and develop their understanding of the processes in which they are engaged to the best of our ability.

A whole-curriculum approach to literacy

I first heard about the Matthew Effect in some training materials Geoff Barton put on his excellent website. Subsequently I read a call to arms on whole school literacy from the equally excellent David Didau (@learningspy) citing the same source. For the uninitiated, the Matthew Effect refers to Daniel Rigney’s book of the same name and is based on this passage from Matthew 13:12: “The rich shall get richer and the poor shall get poorer”. Rigney applies this to literacy, arguing that:

“good readers gain new skills very rapidly, and quickly move from learning to read to reading to learn, (whilst) poor readers become increasingly frustrated with the act of reading, and try to avoid reading where possible.”

This leads to the literate learning more, faster, whilst those with poor literacy skills learn less, more slowly. Ed Hirsch Jr builds on this theme in his book “The Schools We Need“:

“The children who possess intellectual capital when they first arrive at school have the mental scaffolding and Velcro to catch hold of what is going on, and they can turn the new knowledge into still more Velcro to gain still more knowledge”.

Literacy is the velcro students need to gain purchase on the rest of the curriculum

There is no doubt this is happening at my school. We are doing exceptionally well with those who come to us with average or good skills already. We provide plenty of opportunities for them to develop more intellectual Velcro and progress rapidly. What we need to get better at is working with those who come to us in Year 7 without intellectual capital, who struggle to get a grip on the curriculum we offer and fall further and further behind. These are the students who often display low-level disruptive behaviour; without a handle on the curriculum that is being delivered they are left with little choice but to play up.

It took a chance conversation with our Head of English to remind me of an experiment we had run in the English Department of a previous school. I am committed to mixed ability teaching (here’s why) but the brilliant English teachers in the team were struggling with differentiation and asked if we’d consider setting. We compromised, creating mixed ability groups where the students were all weaker in either reading, writing, or speaking and listening according to assessment data. This allowed the staff to focus on developing that core skill; although the group itself consisted of students of the full ability range, what they all had in common was that their reading was weaker than their writing (or vice versa). It was a great success – teachers were able to differentiate the curriculum more effectively, and student outcomes improved, not just in the focus area but across the board at a faster rate than those grouped in the usual way. Why shouldn’t this work across the curriculum?

So this is the model we are going to adopt. From September, Year 8 and 9 will be grouped for almost all their subjects according to their area of greatest literacy need – reading, writing, or speaking and listening. I am hopeful that this will bring the teaching of literacy to the forefront of teachers’ consciousness across the curriculum and provide the necessary focus on a particular skill area. Thus, when teaching History to a writing-focus group, the teacher might spend a little longer teaching the skills of writing a good history essay, whilst the Geographer with the reading-focus group might plan a starter on skim-reading skills before tackling a lesson which requires reading from three sources. The Drama teacher who has a group with a speaking-and-listening focus could make an immeasurable difference, and an emphasis on presentation skills and group work across the curriculum for learners who struggle with those aspects could do the same.

Of course, this isn’t just going to happen. Teachers are going to need time to adapt their existing curriculum plans and schemes of work to look for the lessons which may need adaptation or variation depending on the focus of the group in front of them. They are also going to need the tools to deliver literacy skills to students with confidence. And thankfully, David Didau has provided those tools in an approach he calls “Literacy Cubed”.

Literacy Cubed (image from The Learning Spy

I have adapted David’s approach into a single-side of A4 Literacy Cubed help-sheet for staff. There are nine strategies here to help develop writing, reading and spelling. More will follow on oracy, of course. But if everyone – each member of staff, in each lesson – was teaching these strategies, my hope is that it will provide those tiny hooks that some of our learners so desperately need so they can begin to cling on to the learning that is happening around them and, eventually, begin to turn that learning into hooks of their own.

Here’s the Prezi I’ve prepared to launch this with staff following really enthusiastic reception from SLT, Heads of Faculty and Heads of Year. I’ll use this blog to chart the progress of this approach, which is the first step on a wider “Learning without Limits” campaign for 2013-14. Of which, more anon…