Down to Brass Tacks – What Really Makes a Difference?

Earlier this Month, Steven Tierney (@LeadingLearner) wrote a ‘Saturday Thunk’ post about focussing on priorities in the New Year:  Stop Wasting Time. In it he used the phrase “It’s down to brass tacks on this one.” that got me thinking about the things I think really make a difference. Those aspects of the sharp end of teaching that make a real difference to students and staff, and so turn a vision into a reality.

Here’s my list. It isn’t about vision, or the ‘big picture’ but rather the things we do that stem from our vision as a school and that I believe are driving improvement day-by-day.


  • Daily late gate with same-day follow up
  • Call home within 1h of unexplained absence
  • Tutors enquiring after absent students


    • Frequent quality verbal feedback to students
    • High Quality written feedback to students
    • Dedicated improvement & reflection time so students can act on feedback
    • Differentiation including both support and challenge
    • Planning and teaching that responds to student need
    • Targeted support to students with specific needs

      Quality of Teaching:

      • Concern for health and wellbeing of colleagues
      • Collaborative working within and between teams, focussed on a desire to improve outcomes for students
      • Numerous regular opportunities to engage in CPD

      Wellbeing & behaviour:

      • Daily contact with tutor
      • Relationship with teachers – starts with welcome at start of lesson
      • Ready access to nurse / counsellor / chaplain
      • Consistent recognition of achievements
      • Modelling of expectations by staff
      • Consistent use of consequences system
      • Immediate follow-up of incidents by Relevant staff

      Doubtless there are other things that could be added to the list – I’d welcome suggestions of other elements readers think make an impact.

      At the moment our focus at school is to persist with these and to develop other areas including more effective use of collaborative learning in lessons; a future addition to the ‘progress’ list, I hope!


          Don’t Read This – learning with a little reverse psychology

          In December I contributed at a TeachMeet organised by Rob Bown (@CheneyLearning1) at Cheney School, Oxford. My presentation was about using visual cues to help A Level students link researchers with particular research studies and theories.

          However, what seemed to catch most people’s imagination was one particular type of resource I mentioned – file and folders I n the student shared network area specifically titled ‘do not read this’. I haven’t found a better way of getting students to read files!

          The presentation was about how I’d addressed the increased number of named researchers on the new AQA A Level Psychology specification. Some students find it difficult to link researchers with particular studies or theories, so I wanted to introduce more support.

          I introduced more photos of researchers into my teaching. One way was by linking them to descriptions of their work and research findings. 

          Another was to add visual cues when we were thinking about the significance of their research findings in class.


          I also did this when we looked at how researchers were influenced by the work of others.


          Apart from these visual cues within lessons, I also gave some biographical detail and encouraged students to research the life and work of psychologists as homework. In addition to all this, I ‘hid’ some further information in plain sight on the student area of the network. Each folder is headed with something like ‘Do not open’ or ‘Don’t read this!

           These files go beyond the specification content to consider issues connected with the research covered in lessons and the background of researchers. For example, for the social psychology unit on social influence, I wrote a piece considering the fact that so many researchers in the field of minority influence themselves grew up as members of deprived, and sometimes persecuted, minority groups. These seem to have met with a good response; I quipped at the TeachMeet that I haven’t found a better way of getting students to read around the subject. Of course, I have to use this approach sparingly or the network would just become cluttered with files telling people not to read them!

          Does it work? Well comparing the responses of students to 12 mark questions  this year and last year, there has been an increase in accurate references linking researchers to studies/theories of around 40%, so it does seem to help. I do think it’s a strategy that can be applied to any subject with similar requirements; I hope you find it useful.

          Your comments are always useful and I’d love to here about strategies you use to address this issue.

          Ofsted Offerings 2 – Preparing for a Section 8 Visit

          last March, I wrote about our section 5 Ofsted inspection. You can read that post here. In this post, I share our experiences of preparing for a Section 8 monitoring visit in December 2015.

          Getting the Call

          If you are judged RI in an inspection, you know there will be a follow-up monitoring visit, so in a sense there are months of notice. As it turned out, ours came much later than we expected. We had the call a Thursday for a monitoring visit the following Monday – the start of the last week of the Autumn term. Probably not the week we would have picked – busy with nativity plays, carol concerts, etc., but then again lots to show a visitor! So the answer to the question ‘Will Ofsted visit in the last week of term?’ Is ‘Yes’. 

          Having notice before a weekend is a double-edged sword: there is more time to prepare but there is also more time to worry. All the documentation had to be sent in advance; the SEF had been done and the SIP was being tightened up anyway, so these things were in place. We told staff at a special briefing on Thursday and it became clear that colleagues made good use of the time they had.

          Use the Handbook

          This was only the second monitoring visit I had experienced, so I was less familiar with the format than that of a full inspection. I found the Ofsted handbook really useful in understanding the purpose and format of the visit, what the inspector would be looking at and what the possible outcomes could be. Our inspector was Chris Wood, interesting because I’d read some of his work on Pupil Premium. I’d led the PP evaluation last year and authored our new plan, so this certainly served to concentrate my mind.

          The Day

          The day included the following elements. Although Mr Wood specified most of the order of events, exact scheduling was left to us.

          • Meet Head
          • Meet SLT
          • Learning Walk (11 classes were visited)
          • Meet Middle Leaders (He chose which)
          • Meet student group (mix of abilities, we chose individuals)
          • Meet Governors
          • Meet Diocesan representative (we’re a faith school. Due to availability this was a phone call)

          Apart from these elements, some further information was asked for with a couple of follow-up conversations. This was to clarify points and/or provide further evidence.

          Even better if…

          In general we were well-prepared and the day went smoothly, sticking to the schedule. One question I had to deal with was accessibility of pupil premium information on our website. This puzzled me because it should have been easy to access. A hyperlink was broken so the 2013-14 evaluation could be seen but not 2014-15. I should have double-checked that all was OK.

          My favourite moment – when in conversation with inspector in the school office, a colleague walked in dressed as a minion (all part of the infant nativity play – don’t ask). What did I do – kept calm and carried on! “I don’t see that in every visit” Commented Mr Wood with a smile.

          Hope you find this useful if you have a visit coming up. I welcome any comments you may have.

          Let it Go – Achieving a better work-life balance.

          I wrote my original post about using Brandon Smit’s self-regulatory technique to improve work-life balance in January 2016. I then updated it at with some reflections after trying it out for a couple of months. In short, I’d really recommend giving it a go.

          Last year I wrote a post, Getting the Better of Email, about my attempt to deal with email more efficiently (it’s going quite well, thanks for asking). In that post I also mentioned planning my day in 15 minute chunks so that when the unexpected occurs, it only derails what I had planned for a few of these chunks.
          The problem is, what to do with the work that gets derailed? I have to reschedule it and sometimes that will have to be for another day. I often find however that it’s thoughts about this planned-but-unfinished work that intrude into my downtime or prevent me from getting to sleep.

          I recently came across this research paper by Brandon W. Smit,  reported in the British Psychology Society Research Digest here that looks at the effectiveness of a simple technique for dealing with this type of difficulty in ‘detaching’ from work.

          Smit asked workers to create plans of where, when and how to resolve goals they had not yet completed at work. Adapting this for teachers this could be:

          “I’ll go into work tomorrow and after morning staff briefing I’ll collate the data I need so that I can complete the CPD evaluation requested for the Governors’ meeting.”

          He found that for a subset of his participants, those high in job involvement (sounds like teachers to me), this simple planning technique increased their ability to detach from work when at home to a statistically significant extent.

          Putting this together with my previous post, I’m going to start the New Year by using the following elements to try and make a clearer work-life boundary:

          • Segment work tasks into 15-minute blocks, or multiples of them.
          • Define clear goals for each of these work blocks.
          • At the end of the day take stock of the goals I have successfully met and any that remain incomplete.
          • Use Smit’s suggested planning technique to decide when, where and how I’ll deal with unresolved goals.

          February 2016 Update

          I’ve been using this idea for about six weeks now and it really does seem to make a difference. Ending my working day by reviewing what I have achieved and writing a single-sentence plan on how I’ll deal with incomplete tasks or unresolved issues does seem to allow me to detach more from work so family time can be family time. I’m also sleeping better – I no longer lie awake thinking about work issues and the number of times I wake up in the night with work thoughts has reduced to only two occasions in the six week period. It’s also helped me be better organised and more able to prioritise.

          The technique doesn’t, of course, reduce the workload, so it hasn’t stopped the fatigue that comes at the end of a hard day! Nevertheless, I’ve found that using this simple exercise each day has made a real improvement in my work-life balance.

          As ever, I welcome your thoughts and comments. If you decide to give this a go, it would be good to hear how it works out for you.