Dear Santa… An education wish list

Dear Santa,

I know this is your busiest time of year, but amidst running your workshop, feeding your reindeer, checking your list (twice), and delivering all those toys, would you be kind enough to have a look at my school wish list? These are just suggestions; I certainly don’t expect everything, but some progress on one or two would be really helpful.

Invisible goal posts. Many children respond well to sporting analogies and I’d like a way to help explain how the new GCSE grades work. We could play a match where we know that there are goalposts, but aren’t allowed to know exactly where they are. Players can take shots at the end of the field and then, after the final whistle has blown, we can reveal where the goalposts were (adjusting them to allow only a few player’s attempts to count) and only then reveal the final score.

A new Progress 8 coefficient. I know I had one of these last year, so it isn’t very old, but it just doesn’t seem to be working properly. What I’d really like is a progress measure that measures progress and doesn’t get caught up in whether a school has got enough pupils doing particular qualifications.

A bucket. To be honest I’m not sure how I feel about buckets. I know they can be useful – you probably have one hanging off the back of your sleigh to clear up after the reindeer -and it seems that in English schools nowadays, everyone has to have their buckets full. The trouble is, I can’t seem to find the bucket I want. It’s called the ‘Really useful qualifications that help individual students fulfil their career aspirations, progress in life and become productive, responsible citizens within an egalitarian compassionate society’. If you could help with the search for this, that would be fantastic.

An understanding of the delegated SEND budget. My role at school is now focussed on inclusion and I have tried to understand how this funding works, but however hard I think about it, it doesn’t seem to make sense. The bible has been of some help: Jesus apparently fed 5000 people with a few loaves and fishes. This seems to equate closely to the funding model, but even in this example there is no explanation of what to do when more people turn up, undergo a lengthy assessment process, have their needs identified in an EHC Plan, and then schools receives additional funding of… well, nothing. 

A ticket to Shanghai. I’ve been hearing a lot about how well pupils do in Shanghai, particularly in maths, so I’d like to take a trip there. Hopefully I’ll be able to bring back some useful things: some resources and teaching methods yes, but also generous non contact time, a millennia-old appreciation of the value of learning, consistently high parental engagement, and an ingrained universal cultural respect for the status of the teaching profession, which also make up the full package.

Mousetrap. You know, the board game with lots of plastic bits that my mum said would only get lost. Not educational maybe but I put it on my Christmas list each Year through the 1970s. Thought I’d give it another go.

Thanks Santa, I’ll leave a mince pie, a nip of single malt, and a carrot for Rudolf by the fireplace as usual.
What’s on your list to Santa?

Picture credit:



Reverse Calendar for Advent

I wrote this post at the start of Advent 2016, then followed it up with an update when the project finished at the end of term.

This is a seasonal post for Advent. I want to share the work of a couple of my colleagues at St Gregory’s, Fran Walsh and Grant Price. They’ve put together a great a fantastic programme for tutor groups during Advent. It’s easily adaptable should others want to use the idea.

For several years we’ve raised money for the Oxford Food Bank in the run-up to Christmas, linked to a ‘Follow the Star’ activity where pupils follow clues to find the location of a star within the school, picking up instructions to complete a task. This has proved popular but feedback this year was that KS4 students wanted a change. 

Fran and Grant have worked to produce ‘reverse’ Advent calendars – instead of getting something out of them each day, you put something in. This originated (we think) with an idea posted on as a seasonal activity. KS3 tutor groups will be making a Jesse tree, building it up each day in Advent. They will continue to collect for the food bank, as in previous years. Each tutor group has one of these sheets. Pupils commit to bringing in one of the items so that as a group they collect them all.

KS4 students will be focussing on work being carried out by CAFOD to help those most in need, especially refugees. They will be collecting teenage items for a local charity, Stepping Stones. They work with vulnerable and homeless people and have requested particular help in collecting care products for teenagers, so the reverse calendar includes these.

Fran introduced students to this on Friday 25th November, in preparation for the start of Advent this Sunday and the launch of the activity on Monday. The initial response of students has been really heartening and full of generosity:

“But Miss, you can’t have pasta without pasta sauce. I’m gonna bring both!”

“What do you mean by ‘bag of rice’? My parents only buy 10kg bags, can I bring one of those in?”

“What sort of sweets should we bring? Probably best to get gummy, we don’t want an old person to break their first teeth.”

“We don’t just want to get the cheap brands because we want people to feel special.”

“I live right next to Sainsbury’s; I don’t mind bringing more in.” (Other supermarkets are available) 

I hope you’ll agree that this looks like an excellent start to our focus on giving this Advent. Please feel free to pick up on any of these ideas. It would also be great to learn about what other schools are doing for Advent and Christmas.
Update – 19th December 2016

The project went extremely well with students and staff all pulling together to collect items for both charities. The idea really caught the imagination of the wider community: several families decided to put together a whole box themselves and the appeal received coverage in the local press including this Oxford Mail article

The happy end result this generosity was that we collected far more than we had originally anticipated. In fact we had to make two runs to the Oxford Food Bank to get everything there! It was truly heartening to see the way that students took a lead in demonstrating a practical response to our school value of compassion. We’re pleased to have been able to support two charities whose work is needed more than ever. 

Seymour Papert: Computing and Creativity

Seymour Papert, mathematician, computer scientist and educational philosopher died on 31st July, aged 88. He was a passionate advocate for computing in education, not because he thought technology could provide useful teaching tools, but believed programming could unleash the creativity of children. 

Born in South Africa, Papert studied mathematics, going on to gain a PhD at Cambridge, and then to work with Jean Piaget in Geneva. He later drew on Piaget’s ideas while developing the Logo programming language and its associated floor ‘turtle’ at MIT. His aim was a simple programming language which nevertheless included the versatility to solve complex problems. The experience of Logo for many children in the 80s & 90s will have been using a physical or screen turtle to draw geometrical shapes. Papert saw this as important, giving children a way of exploring geometrical & mathematical concepts, but he  only intended this as the start. Logo was conceived to put the child in charge of this exploration; connecting the abstract to the concrete, learning creative problem solving, and gaining mastery of new technology as active developers, rather than just passive users. Sadly for many children in the UK their experience of Logo may not have gone much beyond following instructions on a worksheet to draw shapes on a screen, the antithesis of what Papert intended. For those, however, who were allowed to explore logo further, or it’s commercial inceptions such as Lego Mindstorms, a world of possibilities opened up.

Logo may no longer be the first programming language of choice in schools, but several versions are still popular and the derivative NetLogo modelling tool is still going strong. The principles (and particularly turtle graphics coding commands) live on in tools such as Scratch and text-based languages like Python. I have recently taught some computing at KS4 after a break from the subject of ten years. I’m pleased to see students captivated by the the ability that coding gives them to take charge of a task and create imaginative (and often elegant) solutions. When I look at the youngest pupils in our all-through school embarking on their journey into computing, I can only wonder at what they will be achieving the next ten years. I think we need to understand that, while we teachers may be the facilitators, it will be them taking us there, not the other way around. I believe a curriculum and pedagogy based on creative exploration would be a legacy of which Seymour Papert would approve. 

As ever, I welcome constructive comments. If you want to read more about Papert’s contribution to computing and creativity in schools, I recommend this excellent article Papert, Turtles and Creativity written in 2015 by Miles Berry. 

NetLogo is a programming language developed by Uri Wilensky at Northwestern University and is available here.

Lego MINDSTORMS is a trademark of the Lego Group.

Python is an educational programming language produced by the Python Software Foundation.

Scratch is a free first programming tool developed by the MIT Media Lab and is available here.

Image created using Logo interpreter by Joshua Bell.


And now for something completely different

We spent last week at school doing things that were completely different. We do this every year, using gained time from years 11 & 13, and year 10 being on work experience to suspend the timetable for years 7, 8 & 9 so we can challenge ourselves to work in different ways, try something new, combine knowledge and skills from different areas and hone our skills.

This year we had trips to Germany and France, we put on Macbeth in a day, we fought to survive on Mars like Mark Watney, built a WWI museum to commemorate the Centenary of the battle of the Somme, painted portraits, then designed and made frames for them, sang our hearts out, pitched products to dragons, ran year quizzes entirely composed of student questions, hosted a fantastic art show will all years represented (Y7 Terracotta Army in photo) and held a brilliant sports day, the best one ever (although I tend to say that every year). We may not be able to do it again.

Why not? One reason is that Year 10 work experience looks increasingly untenable. There are now whole fields such as healthcare where you need to be over 16 to get a placement. Work experience at KS4 is based on an idea of leaving education at 16 which is no longer true. Maybe this is a local issue, but it seems to be harder than ever to get quality placements – and we appreciate all the employers who do provide them – and more expensive to complete the process. This year more placements seemed to fall through at the last minute, sometimes because of the employer, sometimes because of the student or their family. We are thinking of moving it to year 12. They would be over 16, more likely to have a career in mind, and we could link it to their A Level / BTEC subjects. This change would make our alternative week more difficult, but we would still have some released time and could probably adapt.

The second problem is workload. Traditionally the people organising the week have to spend the next one lying in a darkened room. We made changes last year to ease the load, and this year to distribute leadership to year teams and clusters of subjects. My colleagues were their usual brilliant, enthusiastic creative selves, but they are also tired. As well as the ‘usual’ of improving standards, we have all worked hard to help disadvantaged pupils make better progress, introduce our new KS3 assessment model, we have had new GCSEs to learn, plan and implement, and the same for post-16 qualifications. Meeting the challenge of these changes will continue over the next few years. It’s a simple fact that something has to give.

The third factor is attendance. Last year our attendance fell dramatically during this week. We took steps to counteract this, flagging it, simplifying the programme, explaining it and, to be blunt removing some elements that were less aligned with the core aims. At the start of the week this seemed to have worked; attendance was 3% on same period the previous year. I looked at the figures for Friday in despair, however. They dragged the week to worse than the year before. We had to close partially because of the strike on Tuesday. We had been expecting Eid on Wednesday & Thursday, we know the proportion of students who will be celebrating. The attendance codes that concern me aren’t ‘Y’ or ‘R’ but ‘I’ and ‘N’. I know the jump in ‘I’ isn’t all illness, and the number of as-yet-unexplained absences on sports day was just dispiriting. It was a joyous event. The triumphs, large and small, the enthusiasm, the encouragement & support, the achievements, the enjoyment, ‘This Girl Can’ ambassadors proudly wearing their pink t-shirts, the camera dearie, the celebration of community – all of it lifted the heart. I’d really like any help readers can give about how to engage those families who think that all that is just pointless and not worth their children coming to school. My point here, however, is we just can’t afford a drop in attendance like this. We’re RI and while our last HMI letter was very positive, attendance remains a key issue.

I know that we created memories last week that will stay with students for the rest of their lives, helping form the ‘what’s left when we’ve forgotten all we learned’, but I wonder for how much longer we can afford to step away from the timetable and do something completely different given the constraints we face.

There’s a word for that – a positive celebration of Language

Through the British Psychological Society Research Digest, I recently came across a paper by psychologist Tim Lomas about positive words and phrases in other languages for which there is no direct equivalent in English – Towards a positive cross cultural lexicography. The paper sets out to address Western bias in positive psychology and Lomas is building a database of such words. This got me thinking about positive language at our school. We like using it, of course, but are we restricting our linguistic palette in our diverse school community, and missing an opportunity to celebrate the richness of language in our community? Could our EAL students be teaching us more?

I decided to share some of the words from the paper with my school colleagues. The list I shared included the following:

  • Sobremesa – Spanish for when the food has finished but the conversation is still flowing
  • Nakama – Japanese for friends who one considers like family
  • Gigil – Philippine Tagalog for the irresistible urge to pinch or squeeze someone because you love them so much
  • Suaimhneas croi – Gaelic for the happiness that comes from finishing a task
  • Firgun – Hebrew for saying nice things to someone simply to make them feel good
  • Asabiyyah – Arabic for a sense of community spirit
  • Pihentagyu – Hungarian for quick witted people who come up with sophisticated jokes and solutions (literally “with a relaxed brain”)
  • Kao pu – Chinese for someone who is reliable and responsible and gets things done without causing problems for others.

You can find a fuller list of words in the link to Lomas’s paper. 

Sharing some of these words produced some lively debate in school students had the opportunity to explain the meaning and usage of words to their peers; a pleasant role-reversal for some. 

We did uncover a couple of interesting points. ‘Firgun’ can also mean joy at the success of another. Our Arabic-speaking students, however, all viewed ‘asabiyyah’ as having negative connotations of exclusion, underlining how careful we have to be with our use of language. 

Lomas’ database is continually updated, so we are seeing what words our multilingual student community can come up with. I’d be interested to hear contributions from readers of useful words you have found that have no direct English translation.

Post finished and I’m starting to feel some suaimhneas croi.

Lomas, T. (2016). Towards a positive cross-cultural lexicography: Enriching our emotional landscape through 216 ‘untranslatable’ words pertaining to well-being The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1-13 


    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.

    Creative Arts – Their Place in the Whole School Curriculum

    we have had a couple of arts-based school trips this week. Year 11 went to the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford to research for their GCSE Art project work and the music department ran a trip to see ‘Stomp’ at the New Theatre, Oxford, on Friday night. Next week, nearly 200 students will take part in performing arts workshops run by international group Gen Verde. These will culminate in a public concert in a 1,000- seat auditorium.

    Why are we doing all this?  It’s not going to have a direct impact on our English & Maths results. It certainly doesn’t make a jot of difference as far as the EBacc is concerned. Nevertheless, we do it because it’s important.

    Arts provide a way for pupils to express themselves and fulfill their creative potential. A curriculum missing the arts cannot represent all that pupils are capable of expressing or achieving, nor can it prepare them to take up their role in society. Who would want to live in a society bereft of art, literature, theatre or music? It’s important therefore that we don’t view arts in school as an extra; a ‘desirable’ but not an ‘essential’. We know that children can be mathematicians and musicians, scientists and sculptors, astronomers and actors – they shouldn’t be forced to choose. The arts should not be in competition with maths, science or any other subject. An appreciation of the arts, and opportunities to explore our creativity enable us to be better writers, mathematicians, scientists, historians, etc. In short, the arts enable us to be better people, because artistic creativity is part of what it means to be human.

    If we need to be pragmatic, the arts are also a major contributor to the UK economy. In 2013, the Arts Council reported that the Arts and culture industry had an annual turnover of £12.4 billion, bringing nearly £6 billion of gross added value into the UK economy (you can read the report here). Earlier this year, the Department for Culture media & sport estimated that the wider creative arts, media and entertainments industry accounted for 1.7 million jobs and was worth £76.9 billion a year to our economy (read more here).

    So arts in education allow students to develop their creativity and reach their full potential as whole individuals, they enrich society and enable us all to lead more fulfilled lives, and they form a key part of our economy. Their absence from the the EBacc makes a mockery of the concept. It’s an omission that schools must address: The Arts may have missed out at the DfE, but we can’t let them be missing from the experience of the children we teach.

    I welcome your comments. I’d also like to hear how schools integrate arts into the curriculum.

    I’ve also written about the place of practical science in the whole school curriculum here.