Sunday, 30 June 2019

The Fight: understanding parents of SEND students

I suppose I am in unique position because I understand this situation most as I am one of those parents. Before I carry on, I will say that I am not a reflection of all parents. Just the ones like me.

Teachers have empathy by the buckets. It is probably one of our key defining features. We can regularly empathise within seconds of a situation. In fact, if it was an Olympic sport, we’d regularly win as a nation. The problem, for me, is the difference between empathy and understanding. Teachers can easily empathise with a parent of SEND student, but rarely will they understand them.

I had an interesting conversation with a teacher this week and it highlighted this discrepancy. We were chatting about a situation and I simply said: ‘Do you know this parent has had to fight at every step of their life as a parent?’ The teacher simply didn’t see the situation like I do. I have lived it.

Parents of SEND students have had to fight for everything. The world would like to suggest that having a disability is one of ease, luxury and copious amounts of monetary benefits. It isn't. It is about a lot of conflict and fighting.

Being a father to child with Cerebral Palsy, I have lived with 'the fight for' over a decade. Everything is a battle. My wife and I are constantly fighting to get things done or organised. A battle that parents with non SEND children don’t have.  These are just some of the battles.

The fight to get an EHCP.

The fight to keep the EHCP and it not change.

The fight to get access to specialists.

The fight to get a blue badge.

The fight to get my daughter to do the activities that others do.

The fight to get regular physio.

The fight to get appropriate splints / wheelchair access. 

The fight to get a TA.

The fight to get a TA trained in physio.

The fight to keep the same TA.

The fight to get my daughter to be in the right group and not just the group where the TA is needed.

The fight to get systems right for my daughter.

The fight to get schools to see things from my daughter’s perspective.

The fight to get teachers to view my daughter academically rather than physically.  

That fighting takes time and it is the main reason my wife works part-time, because along with all that there are hundreds of appointments, meetings and check-ups.

There is also the conflict.

The conflict of being the parent who has to park close to the school for physical access when the others have to pack elsewhere.

The conflict of being the first on an aeroplane, when others have had to queue.

The conflict of having a parking space closer to the shop when others have had to wait for ages to find a spot.

The conflict of having preferential treatment in society.

I’d love to say that people are lovely and kind to a person with a wheelchair and people with a disability, but that wouldn't always be true.  People are kind, but every so often you get people who are not so kind. I find that people are not happy to wait when the reason the transport bus isn’t moving is because they are waiting for me with a wheelchair.

We get looks, stares and silent judgements.  Or, people will say something.

It is amazing how in some situations people forget common sense and human decency.

Then, you face all this alone. The fight. The conflict. There are not lots of us. My wife and I have dealt with all this on our own, because we live in a rural part of the world and there isn’t anybody nearby. We know of no one in the same situation as us. There isn’t a group of us in the playground. In fact, my daughter is the only child with Cerebral Palsy in the school. So, we are in a club of one. We have a clique of one.

So, when you talk and have dealings with a parent with an SEND child, think of the fight, conflict and social unease they have had to deal with. Think of how they have dealt with this on their own. School is just another thing to cause fight or conflict. Understand this and you’ll understand them and their children better. We don’t need emotions or sympathy. In fact, I’d be bold to say that the last thing I want from anybody is pity. Pity helps nobody. My sharing of this blog is not about garnering any emotion. I’d stuff your pity in your face like a big cream pie, if you so much have an ounce of pity in your heart after reading this.


Understand a parent and you understand the situation better.

Understand a parent and you understand a child.  

I will leave you with one little bit of understanding. A perfect example of what made my week. My daughter had a transition day in her new secondary school this week. During the day she had a PE lesson. The teacher told her she could go on any of the machines in the fitness suite, including the running machine. My daughter went on the machine and she loved it. She then told me afterwards, ‘people would never have let me do this in my school.’ Two types of caring people. One understood. One empathised.

Empathy can be hindering and damaging in a school. We have to control it as it dominates understanding. Empathy smothers children. Empathy stops things. Empathy stops people from pushing themselves to the limits. Caring can stop us from truly helping a child. It might seem like some backwards logic, but schools often compensate the difficulty of a situation with loads of compassion.

My daughter, when grown-up, doesn’t want pity; she wants you to understand that she finds it difficult to walk and that stairs are the work of Satan. My grown-up daughter, like me, would take the piss out of you, because bleeding hearts and emotions are not going to get her up those bloody stairs.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 23 June 2019

System No - Why we need to stop complicating teaching and schools?

Look at parents’ evening. I’d say that the process of parents’ evening is a very polished system of interactions for teachers. They will adapt or subtly change depending on the context, but more or less the process is the exact same one. Greet. Praise. Discuss progress. Identify ways to improve. Good bye. That process is them repeated thirty times, or if you are subject like Art, then you do three hundred times in one night.

If we treated parents’ evening like we teach lessons, then we’d have thirty different ways to run the session. For parent A, I have constructed a crossword. For parent B, I thought I’d tell them a story. For parent C, I have used the media of art to comment on their child’s behaviour. For parent D, I use silence. For that one process, I could, if I did it like teaching, have hundreds of approaches and systems for dealing with parents. But, I don’t. I have the one process and I adapt that process for the context with the parents. I don’t plan thirty different ways. I just do one.

Schools love a system. That love stealing systems and adding systems to existing systems. I have worked in several schools and they’ve all been obsessed with their systems. A system for marking. A system for behaviour. A system for data. They love stealing systems that other schools use. They love using systems that Ofsted seem to prefer. Yesterday, I spoke to someone who informed me that their school have three systems to deal with behaviour.

I love a system. I love a systematic approach. I park in the same spot every day and I live life according to little systems. The system, rational or irrational, helps make my life easier and how I cope with a difficult and demanding job. If I can’t park in my spot, my little system is out of kilter. But, we have hundreds of systems we live by. A system for dressing. A system for locking the house. A system for food shopping. We use systems to make life easier and remove the cognitive strain on our brains. If I follow a process I use to lock the house, then I am confident that my house is secure. Therefore, I don’t need to think about that part of my life during my day.

In schools, people often get the blame, when it is often the system’s fault. Systems are hard to hold accountable, but people are usually the face of systems. It is usually ‘who’s to blame?’ instead of ‘what’s to blame?’. In fact, we observe teachers on a personal level for lesson observations. We don’t refer to a teacher’s systems.

Let’s go back to parents’ evening. What if rethought the way we taught in terms of a system? What if we had a clear system for teaching poetry? What if we taught each poem we teach in a clear systematic way? What if my colleagues taught poetry in the same way? What if as a school we taught poetry in the same way? It’s up to us to decide the process, but we could uniformly follow the same process. You just adapted the process subtly to the poem.

We have an obsession with variety. There are four billion – I’ve counted them – ways to teach a poem. Our problem is that we might have a week of teaching of poetry for a week (hypothetical idea rather than reality). That could be 25 different systems for teaching a poem. Let’s look at the start of those lessons:

1: YouTube video

2: Drama

3: Eating a sweet

$: Puzzle

6: An image

I could go on. There would be 25 different approaches and 25 different processes to teach a poem. This was certainly the problem before when engagement was a huge emphasis in education. You’d be working on planning complex and intricate lessons to enforce fun on students. The system for teaching a poem doesn’t become a clear process, but actually 25 different systems. Is it any wonder student teachers find teaching difficult? We aren’t teaching them the best system; we are teaching them the best hundred systems. We are expecting a novice to decide which one is the best system in this context and then judging them on it. Well, I am sorry your lesson wasn’t good because you used process 2 when you should have used process 99? What do you mean you haven’t learnt that one yet?

Why don’t we teach student teachers one approach and get them to refine and adapt that process?

My daughters had an awful experience in school with Maths, because of a school’s policy of teaching them several different and varying processes to complete long division. Instead of becoming an expert of one, they became novices in several to the point they had difficulty in deciding which system to use when faced with the problem. The school made them novices rather than experts in Maths. That is the danger we have in schools. We should be the problem solvers and not the problem makers. We should have this as our philosophy. Are we giving students too many systems to learn?

Hey, if I am using hundred different systems for approaching a poem, I am teaching students a hundred different ways to do things. Am I making problems or am I solving problems?

There is a conflict in education. Team Creativity. Team Uniform. They have battled over grammar, reading, writing and several things in the past. At the moment, Team Creativity are probably reaching for the smelling salts and lit a scented a lavender candle to combat my cold, grey, soulless heart. By definition, the texts we deal are creative and soul enriching, but I will probably the big (well short) bad meanie weanie  for suggesting that we look at making it about one process that ensures consistency, harmony and cognitive ease for students [and teachers] in a systematic and routine approach when teaching these texts. Why don’t we have one system for teaching a poem that we refine subtly and complexly? Why don’t we use that system to build and support learning? Why don’t we work on that system to make it the best? Why do we insist on using hundreds of approaches to teach on thing?

If we had one system for teaching poetry, we’d save teachers planning. We’d support them in their teaching. We’d say that you can save your energy and effort for making sure the experience is the best one in the classroom. They’d focus much more on the learning instead of worrying if the Youtube video will work or if the chocolate has melted in their bag for Period 5. We’d support the teachers and the students with cognitive processes and cognitive overload. We’d be basically reducing planning and organisation.

Team Creativity will think that I am crushing creativity. Here’s my answer to that argument. How do artists, poets and writers get their ideas? They pick up ideas from life around them. They don’t pick it up from enforced creativity meetings. They don’t meet with their managers and do some blue sky thinking around a table. They find their ideas hidden on a bus. Down the back of sofa. They find inspiration in the gaps of life. Not in a creative lesson. In fact, the texts themselves teach creativity. They reveal it. They show it. So, can you tell the man with the sniper rifle to stop pointing the red dot at me Team Creativity?

We changed the system for writing in KS3. We used the 200 Word Challenge to systematically teach writing. We weekly teach a different writing style, vocabulary, sentence structure with a very clear repetitive structure. Students know it. Teachers know it. It has reduced our planning and stress, but at the same time it has made students write more in lessons and write more creativity. Creativity and Uniformity can hold hands sometimes.

This term is an important one. There is somebody somewhere in your school tapping away at a laptop with their PowerPoint slide for INSET in September. They are physically typing stress and increasing stress for teachers. They are planning a new system. A new system that teachers are going to have to learn in September and process and internalise. Then, the students are going to learn that system.  

This term should be about tweaking the systems in place and changing them subtly. Or, reducing the cognitive overload for teachers. I go back to the parents’ evening example, because it is the best to highlight my point. A single process repeated again with slight changes and subtle amendments. Teaching is hard and it is harder if we are not working to simplify the process.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 16 June 2019

Teaching poetry at KS3 – why we need more chat in the classroom.

 When did written assessments become the sole way to mark a student’s understanding of a text, idea or concept? The sad thing is that in an attempt to develop students and praise the God of Progress, we have ditched some useful, handy, and relatively easy, ways to judge an assessment. Instead of getting students to explore texts in depth we are stuck on a pretty limited way of analysis.
Three years ago we ditched all written analysis of poetry at KS3. When students were writing essays about Shakespeare and essays about novels, it becomes tedious when you add another essay or essay style writing. We stopped completely. We, well I, felt that all we were doing was repeating the assessing stage and not repeating the idea forming stage. We were obsessed on the marking rather than the thinking. Were we getting students to think of interesting ideas in the poem? No, we were rewarding those interesting ideas in writing, but were we working heavily students learning the ideas and not necessarily coming up with their own interpretations.
There was another important reason for ditching a written assessment on poetry was the workload problem. At different points in the academic year we have Year 7, 8 and 9 not having a written assessment for a term. This alleviates the pressure points of mock marking. The time when teachers mark mocks is a real pressure point, because suddenly a normal workload is increased by 100%. You’ve not just got a pile of work to mark for each class, but now added to that, because it is the educational equivalent of the Easter Bunny leaving a brown treat, you are left with not just one piece of work to mark but the work like bunnies has replicated themselves several times. So, you are left with four essays per student, because it is ‘fun-time mock season’. That’s why we place the spoken assessments at this point. The last thing you want hanging over your heads is another set of marking, when you have thirty Year 7 essays hanging over your head.
So, how do we use poetry? We have an anthology of poems selected from various times, poets and styles and we link them thematically. Then, we work through the poems one at a time. At the end, we get students to compare two poems and make an interesting comparison. Usually, the talk will comprise of the student selecting two lines from the poems and exploring their ideas and their observations. Finally, we assess the talk for performance (pass / merit / distinction) and then for quality of ideas. We have two levels of assessment. The key thing for us is getting students to talk about poems and explore. And, if I am honest this unit involves lots of annotating and lots of talking. Talking is good. Talking is great. Talking is easy. We talk about relationships in Year 7. We talk about voices in Year 8. We talk about setting in Year 9.
For me, the emphasis on raising the quality of discussion is far more productive than the identikit written analysis we were doing before and I talking too of the awful APP units too. We talk before we write. And boy isn’t that the problem with KS3. We write before we talk. ‘Write down your idea before we share it,’ is a phrase often said. Our emphasis is on the written communication. The forming of sentences. The capturing of thoughts on a page. How many teachers fear having a blank page in exercise books at the end of the lesson? 
Ideas need space to form, develop and grown and that happens verbally. One of the things I often say to students is the need to talk in English. Argue. Chat. Disagree. Question. Challenge. Persuade. If a student can talk about something, they can sure as hell write about it. I love being challenged. I had a lengthy debate with one student over the colour of the lighting in An Inspector Calls. He was challenging me and I loved it. I even went to Twitter to seek support. He apparently did a poll with the students on another social media platform. Some might call it a ‘spark of interest’. Another might call it ‘engagement’. I’d call it the exploration of an idea.    
Boys can cope with challenging and complex texts, but has the process of how we do things had a negative impact?  I was that loud mouthed boy at secondary school. I’d talk about anything and everything. Get me involved in a conversation and I was hooked. Give me something at that age and ask me to write about it and I would struggle. I’d struggle because I hadn’t bounced the idea around in my mouth and in the air around me. I hadn’t heard the sound of ideas and heard that one thing sound better than another thing else I had said.  
Again, the problem is the nasty loathsome GCSEs spoiling everything. Because there is a large unseen element of the exams, we have internalised that exam process in planning ideas for lessons. We give students a task and expect them to treat it like an unseen text. Think of an idea on your own and write it down. We don’t go and get them to talk about it first. This process is repeated endlessly in lessons and classrooms. We know boy’s engagement is an issue, but is that engagement something simple like the use of communication skills? Is it our emphasis on writing that is hindering boys’ ability to communicate? We talk about looking for the quick fixes, but could it be as simple case of us using the writing process as the dominant way in rather than the spoken process. We spend half our time telling boys to be quiet, when maybe that should be the thing that we promote. Talk boys, but make sure it is about what we are focusing on in lessons.
Now, I am not advocating people get debates and formal discussions in lessons. In fact, far from it. A debate is probably the last thing we need. I do, however, think we need to explore how we use chat and discussion in lessons. How could we use it to engage students with the ideas, content and texts? Are we turning everything into writing? Do we want English to be the subject that is solely known for writing? Wouldn’t it be better if English was the subject where students felt they thought about things?
Right, here is one such thing I did with some poetry. I revealed the poem ‘Stealing’ by Carol Ann Duffy one line at a time. I then gave students this grid. 

Deeper meaning

·         I think the poem is really saying…
·         For me, the poem is teaching us…
·         On the surface the poem is about … but under the surface it is about…  

Comparing to the other poems

·         This poem is a bit like …because… 
·         The poem is the opposite of … because ..
·         I think this poem shows an alternative perspective to …
·         This poem focuses more on … than

Pick on a word and explore

·         The word ‘…’makes me imagine…
·         The word ‘…’ makes me think of …
·         The word ‘...’ reminds me of...
·         The word ‘…’ make me feel …


·         To make us feel _________, the writer shows us…
·         To make us feel _________, the writer uses the image of …
·         To make us feel _________, the writer uses the combination of …. and …


·         The writer uses …. to be a symbol of...
·         …. is usually a symbol of … but here it is used as a symbol of…
·         … is symbolic of the relationship between … and …

Connections between aspects in the text

·         The use of … and … makes us…
·         There is a pattern of … across the text…
·         The writer seems to be repeating…

An alternative way of looking at things

·         Another way to look it is …
·         It could also suggest…
·         Someone else might think that…

Developing / Increasing / Decreasing

·         As the poem develops, the …. increases because …. 
·         There’s a marked decrease in … as the poem progresses
·         I notice that … develops in the poem

·         The mood changes when…
·         The writer changes the tone of the voice when...
·         The turning point in the pome is when…
Students had to share ideas and explore the poem using the sentence openings. Each time they shared one with the class they ticked it off. I didn’t get through the poem. In fact, I only made it to the second stanza with them. The discussion was relentless. I had boys exploring how the snowman might be a metaphor for a man dehumanising a body after killing a person. Another, kept seeing patterns in the words. Another spotted subtle changes in the tone. We, together, explored the choice of taking the head first, exploring the fear of eyes looking at the stealer / murderer.
Did all the boys contribute? No. Did all the girls contribute? No. The majority did. A few didn’t. And that’s simply because not everybody is the same. These students, and I know them to, would prefer to write their ideas down rather than share them with the class. Some of these students like to absorb the ideas and then come to their own idea as result of hearing the others talk. Next lesson, we’ll see what they come up with.
There is no one model that fits and suits all students, but do we have a model for teaching that hinders a part of the school population. Balance is key. Maybe the balance has been shifted too far one way. If I asked those students to write about the poem, they’d do so with aplomb. That process is needed to help them get to a point of independence. KS3 isn’t the wasted years. It is the idea forming years. We need it to be a time for forming ideas. And that starts with talk.

In the beginning, I learnt to talk and I did that before I started to learn to write. Before all writing, there comes talk.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 9 June 2019

Diet GCSE English Language or GCSE English Language Zero

The problem we have with GCSE, which I think Ofsted has cottoned on to, is that it is all too easy to tippex out the acronym GCSE on the exam papers and serve it up to KS3 students. Look at us, we are challenging the students. The exam board did this and gave us ‘KS3 friendly’ exam papers, which were watered down GCSE papers. As a result of this, some students are going to be beaten over head with the structure question for six whole years. How is the text structured to interest the reader? More like, how is the curriculum structured to interest the teacher (I mean the student)?

Those evil little exam questions and texts worm their way through KS3 and taint everything. They are questions to test the learning at the end of the teaching. Not at the beginning and the middle. They are not the curriculum and all too often they are the curriculum planners. The GCSEs are the end point. The time when, in theory, the knowledge and skills come to fruition.      

The problem comes when shifting to GCSE work from KS3. The time when you pointedly say numerous times that you are doing GCSE work now. You probably go all out and write GCSE several times on a PowerPoint slide - just so they get the idea that this is really, really, really GCSE work. Oh, and you adopt a serious tone to your speech.

This year I tried something with Year 9s and I am finding it quite useful for teachers and the department. I wanted students to get used to the reading demands of the GCSE exam papers from an early start, but at the same time I wanted to see what the students needed to focus on for Year 10 and Year 11. So, I decided to use the GCSE exam extracts in a multiple choice format. Instead of just giving students the GCSE questions or being kind and just giving students two of the four reading questions, I gave students the texts and thirty or so questions to work with. I wanted to analyse and view the skills and understanding students had.

The writing element of the GCSE questions is problematic and it can discourage students. A student can have a good understanding of the text, but if their writing isn’t good enough, then we’ll not see that level of understanding in their answers. Using MCQ allows me to separate the writing and the reading elements, which can help to motivate students when they see that they have understood the text and they understand that their writing is just the thing holding them back.

The process was pretty simple. The students did the test. Then, they marked each other’s test. Using a grid, they could see the areas of weakness. The beauty of the grid was it contained answers so it avoided the teacher reading out the answers one question at a time. There was no marking for the teacher, but lots of information. Information on word knowledge, summary skills, analysis etc. We then provided students with a PLC and tips on how to improve those key areas. Included on the sheet was the average mark for each area for the year group. Students then could see how they did in relation to others in the year.

The great thing about this process is that as a ‘step up’ to GCSE this was relatively easy and useful. It has been so effective that I am using it with our current Year 10s before they do a mock on Paper 2. They are going to do the MCQ test and then they’ll work through the real questions with an understanding where they might fall down with the reading skills and good understanding of the texts.   

 I have included the test and the resources used. This is based on November 2017 English Language Paper 2. The test is not perfect, but it is a starting point for us. I am still in the early stages of MCQ usage and, like all things, in time I’ll get better at them.

Marking sheet for the test  

Thanks for reading,