Playing the long game – thoughts on improving outcomes

I was thrilled with our French pupils’ GCSE results this year. They achieved us a 71% pass rate, which, to some, might not seem that high, however, I teach in a fully inclusive, comprehensive school and this is high for us! Brief context: pupils used to achieve a pass rate of 54 %  (with only 34 pupils in the entire cohort) when I took on the HOF role, over 4 years ago. By stating that we are “fully inclusive” I mean (in terms of MFL) that we encourage any and all pupils to opt for GCSE study, regardless of ability, we really do not discriminate (as some do) by encouraging only our “More Ables” to study GCSE French or Spanish. We teach in sets at KS3 (determined by ability in English and Maths) and we always have pupils from our “bottom” sets (HATE that word!) choosing GCSE study and we actively encourage and are delighted by this.

This upturn in results was certainly no overnight success. It has taken us 5 years to get here. No exaggeration. Nor do we now consider ourselves at the finish line! Whilst I am no longer the HOF (I moved into SLT) these results are just another milestone in the journey.  I may not be at the helm any more, but my successor has taken on the vision to continue improving outcomes for our pupils and I will still get to share in this.

At this point I wanted to pass along a few ideas for anyone about to go back in to school who might be feeling despondent about results, or for those new to the HOD role who might like some advice on where to start. Again, this list is just what I have found works for us, so please don’t see it as an exhaustive list!

  1. Sustain your vision – As clichéd as it sounds, as HOF, I had an unrelenting vision that things were going to get better. I never stopped believing. I wrote a bullet-point list of what I wanted to achieve; firstly by term, then by year and I literally ticked off our achievements along the way. I shared this list (in a condensed format) with my faculty staff.
  2. Bring your staff with you – I shared this vision with my staff and I lived it. Every. Day. But I needed them to live it to. How? To start with, I made sure I was visible and present in everyday lessons, doing “walkabouts” and supporting staff where possible. I was sharing my resources. I was walking the talk. I asked staff what they felt their strengths and weaknesses were and we used faculty meetings to actually discuss (how many meetings are simply information-sharing!?) what we wanted to achieve and how we’d go about this. We’d do paired observations and look at each others’ books and, most importantly, we TALKED and LISTENED to each other. We were (are!) a very close team.
  3. Celebrate every success – It’s important to remind your staff not to lose sight of the big picture- you must celebrate the successes, however small, because eventually, they all come together to add up to something greater and perhaps, more obviously “measurable” to whoever needs to know. This was especially pertinent for me in Year 2 of the development plan, when results actually dipped slightly from 58% to 57%. I reminded my faculty staff that out of this 57% was 18% A*/A and considering we never used to get the top grades at all, this was a definite “win” and worth celebrating! This helped soften the “blow” of feeling like we hadn’t improved at all!
  4. Share, share, SHARE resources as a team! – This is a no-brainer. Why have 4 separate staff members of the same team all planning the same thing at the same time? What a huge waste! Divide up your SOWs and resources and use your team’s individual expertise to make things better for everyone. When I first arrived as HOF, the team shared nothing. Not a thing. So, my first task was to set up the shared area and I literally dumped all of my own resources in there that I’d gathered up over the years. I didn’t care that some of them were a bit rubbish – think “exhausted NQT planning VAK lessons early in their career” and you’re about halfway there to the contents of my USB. Nevertheless,  I opened myself to (possible) scrutiny (doesn’t everyone panic a bit when someone else is proof-reading their resources?!) and just gave people a starting point.
  5. Don’t make the mistake of thinking it will all happen overnight – Sustained success and avoiding being a “flash in the pan” one year, takes time and commitment. Changing an ethos or a culture absolutely takes time. It also takes a lot of patience and resilience. Do not get disheartened. As I mentioned earlier, you have to keep the vision in mind and for it to stick, it needs to be worked at, all the time. Have your goal in mind and never stop trying to achieve it. If something goes awry? Reflect on it. Ask your team what could be changed? Always be ready to hear suggestions and think about their implementation.
  6. Sweat the small stuff – Homework, presentation of work, punctuality to lessons, completing assessments in exam conditions, not calling out, looking after classroom resources, you name it, we worked at it. How on earth can pupils make progress in their learning,  if the conditions for learning aren’t correct? Have unrelentingly high expectations of pupils and you’ll be amazed at how quickly your standards become accepted and it just becomes who you are (instead of something you have to do).
  7. Sort the behaviour out – I always knew that my staff would be able to teach better lessons if they had to spend less time on managing behaviour. We agreed our expectations in faculty meetings and we decided on department-level sanctions and how we could best support each other. This included introducing a faculty detention rota and doing “drop ins” to each others’ lessons. Especially crucial for us, as in terms of staff turnover, I had an NQT join the team every year. As HOF, you simply have to be a presence in your area; pupils need to see you, not only teaching in your own room, but around the department, around the school, out and about, even going on trips and dropping into other people’s lessons (those within your faculty, of course!) When I dropped in to MFL lessons, I simply would ask the teacher if the class was meeting his/her high expectations today and if not who would they like to draw my attention to. I would then offer a reminder to the pupil 1-1, in the corridor and draw their focus back to their learning. If it was more serious (rarely) I took them out of the lesson. This began to “bed in” and eventually all I needed to do was show my face at the door and the pupils would visibly straighten and look suitably on task, before I would enter the room. This allowed lessons to be more orderly, calm and focussed on learning. Other staff would comment on how pupils talked much more positively about their MFL lessons and some members of SLT commented that they had noticed the sharp downturn in requests for assistance! Of course, it wasn’t always plain sailing and I did make a point of getting SLT involved when it was required. It is crucial that as HOD, you don’t feel that only you can do everything to raise standards. Pupils must see that you have backup and that you can escalate sanctions as and when required. When pupils feel that staff work in tight-knit teams and follow systems, they know where they stand and the expectations are clear for everyone. This usually does lead to fewer issues all round.
  8. Praise and publicly reward the expectations that ARE met – We could never get the results to improve if we didn’t get the pupils working in a way which was conducive to good learning. But they also needed to know what we wanted from them. So we made a point of publicly praising pupils with a drive on really pushing the school reward system and trying to give merit marks for excellent work, attitude and effort. We launched a faculty “Student of the week” certificate and as I mentioned earlier, I am a big advocate of positive phone calls home to parents. We changed our displays in the classrooms and put more of the pupils’ work on the walls, to demonstrate what excellent work looks like. We introduced a KS3 and a KS4 trip to France each year – a massive commitment for staff (and pupils), but, if you can, do it, as it’s crucial to language study, in my opinion and pupils and parents love it! It really helps grow your reputation as the MFL department if you can run trips abroad.
  9. Don’t be afraid to take some risks– Ultimately, if a department isn’t performing as well as it could, something will have to change. In regards to the GCSE Course, personally, I grew tired of GCSE Controlled Assessments (and the fact our pupils didn’t seem to be performing all that well in them- The Writing in particular) so I did some research and thought about giving the iGCSE (AQA Certificate in French) a go. At this point I genuinely thought “well the results can’t exactly get any worse so what’s the harm?” I wanted to get back to an examinations-based qualification which was good timing, considering the new GCSE was on its way. Why did I want to do this? One simple reason. Pupils hated controlled assessments. I mean, hated them! If they did badly, they always wanted to re-do them (never possible in MFL) and they couldn’t understand why I couldn’t bend the rules. Most never really put much effort in to each individual one either, because they thought there would always be another chance and they’d try harder in the next one. Enough. I wanted terminal, “real” examinations and to be honest, I wanted it to be a bit more on THEM. Revision and making things stick in long-term memory, was an effort they would have to make and by us doing controlled assessments as we went through the course, just meant we felt we were constantly teaching to tests and the GCSE became really dull. I think this 2 year swap to iGCSE ended up helping us as teachers for this new GCSE and it forced us to address KS3- as we realised we weren’t being robust enough in our assessments, nor being ambitious about what pupils really could do in Years 7-9- especially because they were coming in with some knowledge of French from Junior school.
  10. Make KS3 your top priority – I’ve left this to the end because I really want it to linger in your mind. Too often we “intervene” at GCSE (either Year 10 or 11) and in my opinion, it’s far too late. My mantra has always been about not having to bridge gaps at GCSE, by never letting them open up in the first place at KS3. The cohort that has just left was my first year group officially in charge of the MFL Faculty. This cohort over the 5 years definitely experienced much better teaching, from a more cohesive department, where we were actively doing all of the above I’ve just mentioned. KS3 is vital for embedding knowledge and in MFL, skills which will then become refined at GCSE. You can foster a love of your subject and be more creative. I wouldn’t encourage “teaching to the test” at all at KS3, but rather, focussing on developing vocabulary and grammar structures and helping verbs and tenses stick. KS3 is when you CAN play the recording more than twice and allow pupils to read aloud from notes and sentences in their speaking assessments! We can play games and be silly! We know pupils perceive MFL as difficult enough as it is, let’s not turn them off it at the first opportunity.

These are just my experiences. I won’t lie and say it has all been plain-sailing. We have had staff leave and I have learned a lot about myself as a Leader, when faced with staff in my faculty who didn’t want to “buy in” to the new regime. I’ll leave that story to another blog post!

Remember, if we want to turn departments around, we need to commit to their long-term success. It’s brilliant, yes, if you can achieve really noticeable gains in 12 months, but in my experience, for it to become habitual and secure, it is something that you need to plan for over the course of a few years. It’s never easy stepping up to the accountability of being in charge of a department, but I would always encourage someone to go for it. Equally, SLT; trust that your middle leaders are planning for long term successes, over the course of many years. Don’t allow 1 year of results to tell the whole story. Support and encourage them if the plan falters a bit, and praise them and their staff when they have achieved successes, no matter how small.

Being a middle leader is a fantastic role, where you still get to teach, but also get to drive success on a larger scale than simply in your own classroom. If you’re interested in being a HOD, go for it! I wish you and your pupils every success! Our own story is to be continued………….!

As always, thanks for reading and happy to take comments/questions!



New GCSE Speaking Booklets

As promised, here is what we have put together for our year 10s in preparation for their speaking examinations in year 11.

There are F + H French and H Spanish (we don’t currently have Foundation Spanish GCSE Students, but this is something we shall make over the coming year).

To be honest it might still be a work in progress; the feasability of students being able to memorise answers to quite a few questions might not work out, and we will certainly review this after their mock examination in December.

Also, the “spontaneity” aspect worries me a little. However, it’s worth keeping in perspective that it’s “only” worth 5 of the marks overall.

There are photo cards and role plays from each of the 3 themes.

Please feel free to use, adapt, share! It might hopefully save someone some time and work!

GCSE Spanish Speaking Booklet H.docx

Foundation Speaking Booklet FRENCH

Higher Speaking Booklet FRENCH

Also- we photocopied them in A5 which looked nice 🙂


It’s not me, it’s them

Ah, the inextricable link between teaching and behaviour. I can’t help but feel that there continues to be an element of “blame” put on classroom teachers regarding the behaviour of the pupils in their charge. Plenty of teachers will have spent much of their own time this weekend poring over lesson plans and re-thinking learning activities, all in the vain hope that “pupil Y” will engage with their lesson, the next time. This idea of great teaching bringing about great behaviour is STILL being spouted by some leaders in schools. The “if you build it, they will come” fallacy is what’s keeping teachers working weekends, evenings, perfecting resources and materials. It’s as ridiculous as it is dangerous. Many teachers, especially those inexperienced and new to the profession, will no doubt have quite a few lessons where things go wrong and learning will go out the window because Pupil Y won’t stop calling out or distracting others (probably for the 5th lesson in a row no doubt). Then, a “helpful” mentor or HOD or SLT will probably say to them “well what was your lesson about? Why do you think it didn’t engage Pupil Y?” and then said teacher will go off to reflect and no doubt agonise over the blame and stay up all hours trying to make something “fun” so that Pupil Y stays on task and doesn’t ruin the next lesson. All the while nothing changes. Pupil Y chooses to misbehave because they can. Because the school allows it. This is all wrong.

I think back to my own schooling, I mean, we had some ridiculously boring lessons, lessons which today would no doubt get the experienced teacher “capability” and a 4 from from Ofsted. I don’t really recal massive efforts being made to “engage” me.  One teacher I remember in particular, would teach us Geography just by writing our notes on the whiteboard. I’m not kidding, she would write out paragraphs and we copied down everything. I can remember we would try to predict the next word (especially some of us keen and fast writers) and admittedly, it was as dull as dishwater. Anyways, I digress. So, why did we comply? Why wasn’t there a Pupil Y ready to throw something when her back was turned, as it was often, as she was writing essays for goodness sake! No one did! Why? Because WE were too sh**-scared to even think about messing around! We knew the Head teacher would give us a real dressing down, we knew we didn’t want to get sent out (the horror!) we knew detentions were bad, as they were scarce, they sounded scary and boring and our parents were informed. We knew that getting into trouble was something which shouldn’t happen, because the boundaries and culture of the school was that the Teachers were in charge and woe betide you if you didn’t figure this out sharpish. As a result, we got on with our learning. We didn’t have distractions. We stood up behind our seats when ANY member of staff entered the room (some at the back would scramble for their blazers at this point too). This was the culture. It was about respect for the adults. We weren’t the ones in charge. It might seem “old-fashioned” nowadays but it didn’t do us any harm. I don’t remember ever feeling like I hated school, in fact, I loved it. I loved the discipline, the rules, the boundaries, the learning. It made us feel safe. I felt safe.

So how do we fix things? Well, for a start, we could get away from the idea that “outstanding lessons” bring about outstanding behaviour. Jeez, if it were that simple then teaching would be overrun with brilliant lessons and A*s would abound in every school. No, the behaviour needs to be sorted out first. You can’t get fantastic lessons if pupils don’t know where they stand or don’t respect that the Teacher in charge IS the one in charge. Stop going on courses promising “outstanding engagement” and start looking in-house, in school and getting clear, fair and robust behaviour management systems in place. SLT; please stop “blaming” your staff for causing the poor behaviour. Start helping staff by sharing information about “Pupil Y” and the external influences which could be hindering the excellent behaviour of which they can be capable. Get experienced staff helping more with pupils who require extra support. Don’t lower your expectations of behaviour because of SEN or other factors, take them into account, of course, but support that student to reach their potential as you would everyone else.

The kind of teacher I am confident being now, is one where I expect every pupil to behave well, whether we are using the Chromebooks or I’m doing a dictation. They’re kids. They’ll make mistakes. However, it’s BECAUSE I have high expectations of them that I won’t allow them to belittle themselves and just accept misbehaviour, because “that’s the way they are”. No. It’s only now that I don’t blame myself the way I used to as an NQT. I can recall hours spent into the night, trying to create active learning resources, games and “fun” things which would help the lesson go more smoothly. Invariably, doing this only had limited success. I can remember the heartbreak of seeing my “quiz quiz trade” cards being ripped up by the naughty kids in the corner, who just didn’t want to be involved in the lesson. The students that I couldn’t engage in French, didn’t engage in Maths or English. It wasn’t me. It wasn’t my teaching. It was more than me. I didn’t get much support from the SLT in that school and so I left. Inevitably, those students left school too, but not with great grades in any subjects. See, when behaviour isn’t sorted out, nobody wins.

The number of teachers I know personally, really, genuinely, want to just get on and teach their lessons. They don’t actually want to get into arguments with kids or have them hate their lesson. They, naturally, want to engage pupils and see them achieve. But when it goes wrong, they need support, instead of being made to feel that they must keep behaviour issues within the constraints of their own classroom walls. However, the outside support doesn’t always happen because it’s much easier to “blame” the adult for the situation than it is to look deeper into the real issues. However, years of us doing this across many schools in the UK is why teachers are starting to feel worn down by the demands of this job. It’s. Not. Us. It’s not our fault. It still infuriates me to hear of schools who lay the responsibility for pupil behaviour at the door of the classroom teacher. This “well what have YOU done about it?” attitude towards pupil disruption is toxic to teacher morale and the status of the profession as a whole. Behaviour is the school’s issue. It’s the Management’s issue. It’s inherent in everything the school is and does. If the behaviour is not right, nothing will go right.

Anyways, if you’ve gotten this far, I thank you for reading. So, let’s get behaviour right.  If you have a “bad” lesson, breathe, realise it’s ok to think to yourself, “maybe it wasn’t me”. And call in backup. Accept nothing less. And don’t ruin your weekend making any extra resources loosely based on something that today’s students might vaguely be interested in (Pokémon Go, I’m looking at you here- but that’s a whole other blog 😉 )

“Moderating” the marking- review, 1 term on

I posted here in October

about how we have changed our Faculty marking policy to move away from marking everything the students write down in their books. Here’s how it’s going, after 1 full term.

  1. The workload is more manageable. Seriously. When teachers in my faculty now know that they need mark only 1 lesson’s worth of work, every 2 weeks, that’s a big load off their mind. It leaves them free to do other important stuff, like delivering brilliant lessons. Now, I couldn’t imagine being faced with a stack of 30 books with which I have to trawl through 2 whole weeks worth of work and check it all for SPAG, understanding, presentation etc, for 7 separate classes. Nightmare. Impossible. When would I get this done!?
  2. The students are taking greater ownership over the work done in class- because they don’t know which lesson will be “sampled” for marking, they know they have to up their game and make sure every lesson is presented well, vocab copied accurately, classroom activities completed and marked, homework completed and set out neatly. They LOVE when I have no errors to complete (yes, they get more merit points for this, but they love that their work was of the standard I expected!). They ask their friends “did you get any mistakes, did you have any targets to address?” and there’s a real sense of competition going on!
  3. It really helps me identify those who are struggling- because I’m marking less, more frequently, the discussions I can have with those who are persistently not completing work, or getting things wrong, are more meaningful. We’re well into a good routine now, when they get their books back, they automatically know to check for highlighted boxes with improvement targets and while they all do this, it allows me 3/4 mins to chat with those who need a verbal explanation.
  4. The targets highlighted in the books are obvious and can be developed before an assessment. We formally assess every 1/2 term. With the book marking, they way it is, I can tell the students to go back, find all the times they were given targets and write these on their “plan” before their assessment. This means that they are actively addressing the formative targets on their summative piece of assessment, and thus showing the link between classwork and assessment. I don’t think I have ANY student who has nothing to develop- they’ve all been given an improvement target, at one point or other.
  5. We’ve not had any complaints, from either student, parent or SLT about “why isn’t everything being marked?” We were clear from the start, with the students, that not all of their classwork was going to be marked. It would be looked through, but only 1 lesson’s worth would have recorded feedback. Just because there’s no green on the page, doesn’t mean it hasn’t been looked at by the teacher, mind!
  6. I’m developing this marking across the school, as part of my NPQSL Project and the Science faculty have recently adopted our policy of not marking every piece of work, this term. I’ll be really interested to see how they’ve got on, when they report back to me at Easter. Obviously, it helps that we have a good SLT who aren’t “breathing down our necks”, insisting that everything the child writes must be marked and have given us the freedom to trial this marking policy. Our whole-school policy is simply that 1 piece of work is “deep marked” every 6 weeks. Yes, this is generous and yes, in MFL we currently go above and beyond this, so perhaps it’ll change in the future. Ofsted are due- it’ll be interesting (or not!) to see what they think of it!


Closing the gap

I have just completed the 2 compulsory Face-to-face sessions at the IOE London as part of my NPQSL. I thought it’d be helpful to share what I’ve learned from these days (carefully NOT breaking the professional confidentiality we all agreed on) and what ideas I’m taking back to my school as a result.

Firstly, we were given this quote to consider (unsure of who it’s by) and I want to share it, just so that in a culture where we’re so caught up in acronyms and labels, we don’t forget that we’re dealing with humans:

“Treating pupils who are labelled as belonging to a particular group as homogenous is simply misleading. Despite the clear trends and averages associated with these groups, each of the pupils is unique and it is not possible to predict the extent to which their circumstances might define their potential”

In-school variation is the greatest factor in determining the causes of gaps in achievement. All of the “closing the gap” initiatives happening in schools right now, should be about addressing this. Don’t be concerned with what the school down the road is doing, the real problem to be tackled is much closer to home. Successfully doing this, though, remains a stubbornly difficult task.

All schools should be investing in their greatest (and yes, costliest) resource; TEACHERS. Get all of your teachers to be performing at their absolute best in the classroom, with every child and guess what, you might not have any gaps at all. In practice though, what does this look like? High-quality CPD, greater staff ownership of their CPD, all teachers as researchers, enhanced and purposeful communication between your departments/faculties in schools, a collective ethos of reflective practice, embedding a culture of everyone wanting to succeed.

Keeping up, not catching up

How many of us agree that most “interventions” tend to happen at KS4? They’re a sort of “knee jerk” reaction to the “this child is going to leave school without a certain amount of GCSEs unless we do something fast” kind-of-thing. Already now, this is TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE. We need to do more to stop the gaps opening up so wide (if at all), as students progress through their years at secondary. Getting them at Year 7 is crucial. Getting them to be “keeping up” with their learning and not “catching up” later on. Yet, as we know, most schools priortise their staffing at GCSE and put their best teachers in these classes. KS3 can often be a mish-mash of non-specialist subject teachers, shared classes and cover lessons.


How am I going to lead on intervention and closing the gap in my MFL faculty at school? Well, we’re already seeing improvements in results, year on year, because my priority right from the start was sorting out the Teaching and Learning. When I took over the faculty 4 years ago, there was high staff turnover, lack of subject specialists in KS3 French and no consistency of practice at all, between teachers and classes.

The teaching and learning that goes in every classroom is crucial for student success. Other things can be effective “add ons”, but unless you (we) address what happens behind closed classroom doors, any bolt-on “interventions” are ridiculously futile.

Some things to consider:

  • High quality teacher-student relationships
  • Careful teacher monitoring of student progress
  • Go beyond “monitoring” your staff; allow more peer-to-peer observations, support, professional dialogue, team teaching, high quality in-school INSET
  • Higher levels of parental involvement
  • Staff as learning mentors for key groups of students (FSM, PP, SEN etc)
  • Access to revision/homework/lunchtime clubs
  • Seating plans- think about whether or not you inadvertently “group” certain students together?
  • Purchasing extra resources (revision guides, ICT, study days, trips etc)

Leadership to close the gap- is this just SLT’s “job”?

A final point to consider; the best attaining schools tend to be those where there is effective distributed leadership. From West-Burnham (2011): Learning Centred Leadership. A point which I thought makes real sense: “Redefine leadership in schools so that it is seen as situational (school, team, classroom) rather than linked to hierarchical status”. Empower all of your staff, within a school and work together as a team, with a shared goal. It really can be that simple.

If you’re asked about interventions for, say, Pupil Premium students, it might be worth reading this: Sutton trust

Don’t forget as well, it’s a statutory requirement that all schools receiving PP funding publish on their website, a breakdown of how it is spent.