Explaining Easter: Why we celebrate the heart of Christianity with a rabbit that lays chocolate eggs.

The following is the background information for an Easter assembly I put together a couple of years ago. Feel free to use it if you are preparing an assembly or activity for Easter.

I wanted to do something a bit different, while marking the most important feast of the Christian calendar in an appropriate way. It proved popular with staff and students alike, the latter part prompting many students whose families originated from abroad to share some of their own cultural experiences. I have incorporated some of these, adding to those in the original assembly.

Why do we celebrate Jesus rising from the dead with a bunny and chocolate eggs?

EasterThe festival called ‘Easter’ in English celebrates Jesus rising from the dead on Easter Sunday, following the crucifixion, which is marked on Good Friday. It’s the most important feast of the Christian calendar. As hard as you look, though, you won’t find any references to bunnies, eggs, or chocolate in the Gospels. So why does the Easter Bunny bring us delicious chocolate eggs for Easter?

Eggs, new life, and barbaric Brits

Giving eggs in springtime predates Christianity. In many cultures, eggs represent new life, fertility and creation. In mythology, the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre found a wounded bird one winter. Realising that the bird could not survive the cold weather, she not only healed it but turned it into a hare. The hare did survive, and went on to lay coloured eggs the following Spring!

The early Christian church had problems bringing its message to the peoples of Northern Europe, who had a reputation as barbarians. The church decided to fix the dates of key Christian feasts near the times of the year when people were used to partying because of local celebrations. In Britain, Eostre’s festival became the Christian season of Easter. We retained the original name, whereas elsewhere Christians call it ‘Pascha’.

We forgot about the hare, but gave each other painted eggs as presents. Christians took on the egg as a symbol of resurrection. The egg can also represent the stone that was rolled away from Jesus’ tomb, or the empty shell (or half-eaten chocolate egg) can symbolise the empty tomb itself.

Chocolate eggs were introduced by confectionary manufacturers in the 19th Century and soon became very popular. The Easter bunny was reintroduced to Britain from the United States. The traditional hare, or Osterhase, who rewards good children with eggs, had been taken to America by German settlers, but the bunny has gradually lost the mythology of Eostre’s hare, and we now gloss over the idea of it actually laying all those eggs.

Celebrating Easter

There are many different traditions for celebrating Easter around the world:

  • Christians May keep a vigil on the evening of Maundy Thursday, remembering the night before Jesus died. They may then attend a service on Good Friday, remembering the crucifixion, and will go to church on Easter Sunday to celebrate Jesus rising from the dead. In the UK traditional Easter foods include hot cross buns, traditionally eaten on Good Friday, and Simnel Cake, which is topped with eleven marzipan eggs, representing Jesus’ disciples, minus Judas who betrayed him.
  • In Jerusalem, pilgrims may walk the route that Jesus is said to have walked to his crucifixion, the Via Dolorosa (‘Way of Sorrow’). Some carry wooden crosses, remembering that Jesus was made to carry the cross on which he was to be crucified.
  • Sometimes communities will put on Passion Plays which reenact the biblical events of the Easter period. In parts of the Philippines this is taken to an extreme where some participants allow themselves to be actually nailed to a cross.
  • Many children will have fun at Easter egg hunts on Easter Sunday and may have egg-rolling competitions. In the USA the president hosts an Easter egg roll on the White House lawn each year.

Egg painting is an Easter tradition in many European countries, as is bringing spring branches of shrubs and trees into the house and decorating them with painted eggs. In Russia and Eastern Europe eggs are often dyed red and patterns are carved into them. A modern trend is to paint pictures of politicians or celebrities onto eggs.

  • In the Czech Republic and Slovakia boys whip girls legs with decorated willow twigs on Good Friday.
  • In Poland boys pour water on people. Tradition says that a girl who gets drenched will be married within the year. In Hungary this ‘sprinkling’ has been replaced by a spray of perfume.
  • On the Greek island of Corfu, Holy Saturday is ‘Pot Throwing Day’. Earthen ware pots and plates are thrown from balconies to smash on the ground below to greet the spring.
  • In many Caribbean countries, kites are flown on Good Friday, symbolising Jesus’ ascension to heaven.

If you have any other Easter traditions, please let me know and I’ll add them to the list.

However you are spending the holiday, have a very Happy Easter!


Easter Bunny: Pixabay

Calvary: Public Domain Pictures

Painted Easter eggs: Pixabay

Decorated branches: Wikimedia


“I don’t know”: being certain about uncertainty.

‘Confusion is not an ignoble condition.’

Brian Friel, Translations.

I recently read an paper on about the persistence of ‘brain myths’, even among those trained in neurology, by Adrian Furnham. This included several myths about child development and learning. It’s well worth being aware of current research on this field, including those widely-held assumptions which are not supported by evidence. The myths and misconceptions explored in the study were derived from the books Great Myths of the Brain by Christian Jarrett and Great Myths of Brain Development by Stephen Hupp & Jeremy Jewell. Some of the more prevalent included:

  • Adults can usually tell if a child is lying
  • Girls are more likely to have clinical depression than boys
  • Dyslexia’s defining feature is letter reversal
  • Right-brained people are more creative than left-brained people
  • The brain is essentially a computer
  • We only use 10% of our brains

The proportion of participants believing these misconceptions to be true was independent of age, gender and education, including education in psychology. This tendency is therefore something that educators clearly need to be aware of, irrespective of experience or training. I know that I have a tendency to think that I can tell when someone is telling porkies, even when I’ve read the research contradicts this belief.

Are we happier to be wrong than to be uncertain?

One other thing that struck me about the study was the comment by the authors that participants were clearly reluctant to respond ‘don’t know’ in answer to questions, preferring instead to chose a response from the other available options (Definitely True, Probably True, Probably False, Definitely False). The participants in the study may have not wanted to appear ignorant of the topic in question, even if the alternative is to risk being wrong, or they may have been trying to ‘help’ the researchers to collect positive results by opting for a definite answer.

I wonder if we have a tendency to do that outside of the confines of psychology experiments? How often on Edutwitter do we see someone tweet “Interesting question. You know, I’m really not sure”? Most contributions, it seems to me, are firm statements of position in a debate and declarations of certainty.

Confidence in Uncertainty

I’d like to suggest that we we should be more confident about being uncertain. There Are three main reasons for this:

1. I think being comfortable with uncertainty is entirely consistent with reflective pedagogy. If we were certain of everything, then we wouldn’t ever need to ask questions, but we grow as teachers by asking ourselves, ‘How can I improve that?’, ‘Next time I teach that, how can I make it better?’, or ‘Several pupils dropped marks on that question, how can I address that?’. In striving to improve in this way, we acknowledge that accepting that we don’t know it all helps us to become better teachers.

2. We will become better models for our students. This is also something we encourage in our students: to question, try things out and experiment. If we expect these learning behaviours from them, it makes sense for us to model them in our own professional learning. When I first trained as a teacher, I used to worry that a student would ask a question I couldn’t answer. I later came to realise that I didn’t always have to be the ‘expert’, and later still that when they did, this was a fantastic opportunity to model learning. I should say that to foster this type of ‘don’t know’, as a spur to further investigation, we have to create an safe atmosphere of trust where students won’t feel they have to give the ‘don’t knows’ that really means ‘I’m afraid of looking silly / getting it wrong’.

3. We will become better informed and so make better decisions. A danger of being reluctant to say we don’t know is that we are more likely to make mistakes, as as the participants frequently did in the study mentioned above. Being able to say we don’t know when we are unsure, makes us less susceptible to social influence and prompts us to gather more information. In terms of debate, a willingness to be open to ideas, including minority views, enables us to make better decisions, whether or not we come to accept those views.

So, if you see me expressing uncertainty, on Twitter or elsewhere, please bear with me: I just think the path to knowing is sometimes through admitting that I am unsure.

Image: Max Pixel http://maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com/Matter-Note-Duplicate-Request-Question-Mark-2110767

Other posts on psychology and teaching: https://casebyscasebook.wordpress.com/category/psychology/

Investing in Secondary PE: good for both health and academic success

In January, I wrote a post about the clear evidence for the link between regular physical exercise and improved academic performance by children in school.

Last month, the Youth Sport Trust (YST) published the report of its survey of UK secondary schools: PE Provision in Secondary Schools 2018. The report, based on a survey of teachers in secondary schools, highlights a worrying decline in Physical Education:

  • Curriculum time for PE has declined over time, most markedly at KS4.
  • Curriculum time for PE reduces as students move from KS3 to KS4, and beyond.
  • The main reason given for the decline was that additional time was given to core subjects or EBacc subjects.

The YST report concludes that these findings confirm a continuing ‘spiralling downward trend’ in the curriculum time allocated to PE in secondary schools, and that the good work seen in primary schools was rapidly undone. Primary schools will welcome the continuation of the Primary PE and Sport Premium, but there is currently no equivalent financial incentive for secondary schools.

The report focuses on the negative impact this will have on students’ health, particularly in the light of the Government’s Childhood Obesity Plan which aims for an hour of physical activity a day; 30 minutes of which are in school. The average for KS4 quoted in the report equates to barely 20 minutes per day, most likely achieved in one or two sessions a week. While this is hugely important for the health of young people and the future impact of obesity on the NHS and other services, I believe that it will also be detrimental to academic performance in school. Research has shown that devoting curriculum time to physical exercise rather than having a detrimental effect on GCSE subjects, is in fact linked to improved performance by students in English, Maths and Science (Booth et al, 2014).

The YST report calls on the government and school leaders to do more to promote PE and the benefits of a healthy, active lifestyle. I think it’s also worth adding that we should take time to understand the research showing that what may appear to be an easy “quick fix” to meet academic performance targets is likely to be counter-productive.

‘Trad’ v. ‘Prog’ Education? Let’s get past this false dichotomy.

A Recurring Question

I really value Twitter as a source of information, learning resources and educational debate. In particular forums like #SLTchat on Sunday evenings have been hugely helpful in my development as a school leader because it’s such an accessible way to connect with a wide community of colleagues. I’ve been inspired, gained an insight into solutions and ways of working, and been given pointers to useful resources and contacts. The debate itself has helped my own thinking, and I hope others have found my own contributions useful. I believe in the value of partnership see this as a way of collaborating with a wider group of colleagues.

As many others have commented however, Edutwitter isn’t always a pleasant place. I’m fortunate never to have been caught up in any acrimony myself, but I’ve witnessed plenty of it. I appreciate that people hold strongly-held views, but it has often struck me as somewhat worrying that a few educators who must be either directly or indirectly involved in teaching children how to behave responsibly online don’t always manage that themselves.

One question that seems to involve more than it’s fair share of venom is the debate about ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ pedagogy. I’ve put those terms in inverted commas because (takes deep breath an pauses to put on tin hat) I have to say I don’t really understand how they apply to everyday teaching in schools. I know it’s a debate (often an argument and sometimes just an undignified brawl) that has been going on since before I was born, but it has always seemed distant from the day-to-day reality of how most teachers work. I’m now on my 50s, so surely, as far as those active in the profession are concerned, my own education must represent what is traditional – anybody who was at school during an earlier period than me is likely to be retired.

My own old-fashioned education

When I think back to my early education, what I recall seems to bear all the hallmarks of progressive teaching. Bear in mind this was ILEA in the late 60s / early 70s. Memory is a capricious entity, but I think there were actually kaftans. Here’s what I recall of my early primary (broadly what we’d now call KS1) education:

  • Making models using stickle bricks.
  • Being told by the headteacher, on a visit to the class, that I should stop playing with stickle bricks and do some writing.
  • Reading. Lots of reading. Reading myself. Being read to by the teacher. The Iron Man by Ted Hughes stands out. It must have been recently published.
  • Tie-dying t-shirts, which we then wore (I told you it was the 70s).
  • Drawing rainbow colours on a page in pencil, covering it in black wax crayon, then creating a picture by scraping the wax off, revealing the colour underneath.
  • Everyone in class being given sticker book about the 1972 Munich Olympics.
  • Picking apart owl pellets to discover the bones of small mammals inside (where do you find owl pellets in Ealing?!)
  • Doing bomb drills where we all went behind an grassy mound behind the school.
  • Doing a magic trick in class. I can’t remember why, or the actual trick but I had a matchbox with matches in up my sleeve which would rattle when I shook an empty match box in my hand, fooling onlookers that it was full. It must have been about the matches disappearing then reappearing.
  • Going to the hall to see a play about pirates. I seem to think this was linked to a book, possibly a reading scheme.
  • Making clay pots which the teacher fired in the kiln (a primary school with its own kiln!)
  • Doing a class survey about what jobs people wanted to do when they grew up and drawing a bar chart. Most of us wanted to be astronauts.
  • Having a Japanese class meal as part of a project. I remember seaweed.
  • Waiting, sitting cross-legged with the rest of the class in the ‘television room’ watching a clock count down before the start of an schools’ programme (Picture Box?). No way to record TV – classes had to catch it live!

That’s about it. Whatever your perspective, And granted that I may now only recall the fun stuff, I think you’ll agree that from the list above, my early school learning, and what must be by now the most ‘traditional’ education experienced by anyone still teaching, was very ‘progressive’; the very stuff of the Plowden report.

Perhaps this is the root of my views on the trad / prog dichotomy: I just don’t think it’s helpful. In my experience, both as a pupil and a teacher, is that good teachers apply a variety of strategies, some of which might be labelled ‘traditional’, some ‘progressive’. They are not only reflective about their practice, but keen to share and learn from others. They understand that the same technique or strategy will not be the best fit for every child or class and become adept at matching their teaching to pupils needs.

Some Help from Aristotle

So where does that leave the debate? Perhaps a way forward lies in looking to the past and one of the great teachers in Western philosophy: Aristotle and the concept of phronesis. Aristotle believed that we all seek to flourish, physically, emotionally, socially, and cognitively. We do this through exercising virtues such as generosity, industriousness, wit and bravery. Aristotle didn’t view these virtues as dipoles, for example bravery or cowardice, industriousness or laziness, but rather developed the doctrine of the mean. He taught that each characteristic had two forms of vice, one of deficiency, the other of excess. Virtue lies between these extremes.

For example, bravery is a virtue. A deficiency of bravery leads to the vice of cowardice, and an excess of it leads to the vice of empty bravado or rashness. According to Aristotle, bravery is not the absence of cowardice but rather the virtuous mean between cowardice and rashness. Phronesis is the practical wisdom that allows us to discern the mean in any particular circumstance, in this case where bravery lies between cowardice and rashness.

What if we thought about our approach to teaching as an Aristotlean virtue? I believe this reveals the trad / prog debate as a false dichotomy. It could take an eternity to agree exactly what a ‘virtuous mean’ of pedagogy looks like, but for the sake of argument, or perhaps phronesis, let’s say teaching takes place in a structured environment where teachers use evidence-based strategies, and their knowledge of individual pupils to plan challenging learning. They set clear boundaries and expectations, using these to create an atmosphere where children are confident to try, where failure is recognised as a valuable part of learning and where successes are celebrated.

I think our extremes of deficiency and excess now become not ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ but perhaps what concerns traditionalists about progressive ideas, and what concerns progressive about the traditional approach. One way of thinking about this might be the degree of structure. An excess of structure (let’s call this “constrained”), leads to a rigid one-size-fits-all approach, is focussed on summative assessment, and offers little room for empiricism or experimentation. On the other hand, a deficit of structure (perhaps we could call this “facile”) leads to a lack of pace and challenge, vague objectives and insufficient consideration of assessment criteria, and an unsettling absence of focus.

What I’m trying to say here is not ‘Traditional? Progressive? You’re ALL wrong!’ I believe that both perspectives have much to offer and that the role of the teacher is phronesis: to use our knowledge, understanding and experience to craft the best lessons that we can, drawing on all the tools at our disposal to strike the balance needed for a virtuous mean. Let’s just call that virtuous mean ‘teaching’.

As always, I’m interested to hear your thoughts. Let me know if it’s safe to take my tin hat off now.

Image: commons.wikimedia.org

How schools can help tackle knives

I wrote this post in February 2018, then updated it in April to include information about the Home Office #KnifeFree campaign launched in March. This new UK-wide anti-knife campaign picks up on many of the themes of the Scottish No Knives, Better Lives campaign, which I mentioned in the original post, and forms part of the governments forthcoming Serious Violence Strategy.

Knives and Children

This post is about a difficult topic: knives and children. Often thought of as an issue for schools in urban areas, the last couple of years have seen an upsurge in knife carrying and knife crime among children and young people across England and Wales, with knife crime increasing by 21% overall in 2017, despite increases in sentencing. In part, this has been driven by ‘County lines’ operations by drug gangs seeking to recruit children outside of large cities. As a 2017 National Crime Agency report describes, ‘County lines’ is characterised, among other features, by the exploitation of children and vulnerable people and the use of violence, with 85% of police forces reporting drug transportation and knife carrying being synonymous. The Children’s Society has more information about County lines on their website and have also produced a guide for parents who are worried that their children might be being criminally exploited.

Prompted by a lack of publicly available demographic information about those who died from knife attacks, The Guardian newspaper ran a Beyond the Blade campaign throughout last year. This collected both figures on knife crime and collected individual stories of those affected by its effects. As it turned out, 39 children and teenagers killed during the campaign, the worst year in 40 years. For each of these young lives lost there is a poignant story of a lost future and a family left to grieve.

Positive news from Scotland

In contrast to the worrying upward trend in knife crime reported in England and Wales, the Figures in Scotland are in decline, with no deaths of young people due to knife attacks in 2017. Scotland has a national approach to knife crime which addresses it as a social policy issue, rather than just a criminal justice issue, and attempts to address root causes. This approach was originally adopted in response to a 2005 UN report identifying Scotland as the most violent country in the developed world. The Scottish Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) has adopted a public health approach where the police, health, social services & education work together to address the issue by tackling the causal factors. Scotland also has a national knife crime information website: No knives, better lives. It provides information for young people, as well as separate sections for parents and practitioners, and allows conversations to start and information to be given, both anonymously. It’s well worth giving it a look, whether or not you live in Scotland.

This approach has had considerable success. During 2006 – 2011, 40 children and teenagers were killed in Scotland, but during 2011 – 2016 this number had reduced to just 8. Incidents of individuals carrying knives dropped by two thirds in same period.

Initially, policing and prosecution led the approach with harder sentencing and more stop-and-search, although less than 2% found with knife. The VRU did not stop there however. The police mapped all the gangs. Those at risk of prosecution were invited to a meeting which started by warning gang members that if thy continued would be convicted and go to prison, but then went on to educate. Police officers spoke about the injuries they saw and bereaved mother spoke about the loss of her son to a stabbing. The gang members were then offeredhelp – education, employment, housing. VRU is state funded, not charities competing for funding.

I think the positive impact of the national, collaborative approach taken in Scotland offers a model for the future in the rest of the UK. We haven’t yet got a national strategy, but we can make a start where we are by using the same elements:

  • Education about the impact of knife use and the penalties under law
  • A strong stance on prevention
  • Lines of communication and approach for children and young people
  • Collaborative work to provide real alternatives and a way out for those involved

What about schools?

So, what does this mean for those of us working in schools who have seen an increase in knife carrying and maybe violence among young people, perhaps as a result of ‘county lines’ linked activity? These are my thoughts on what is important:

1. Recognise that the behaviours we see are part of a bigger picture. It may also be the result of exploitation (whether or not the young people recognise it). The solution to such behaviour is far likely to come from a coordinated multi-agency approach, involving police, schools, social services and other parties. Schools can play a key role in working with others to help children understand the risks associated with knives.

2. Take a strong stance on safety. Of course there is a very real safety issue here, and I’m certainly not proposing that knife carrying is tolerated because those doing it may be exploited and/or afraid. The Scottish model shows us, however, that a strong legal stance is unlikely to work on its own, but is successful when combined with education and real initiatives to provide young people with a way out. Schools also need to think about how seriously they take the safety of pupils and staff: there are many institutions that would permanently exclude a pupil for possession of a knife, but are reluctant to use metal detectors (wands or knife arches) for fear of how this will be perceived. The DFE has recently updated the guidance on Searching, screening and confiscation with a particular emphasis on tackling bullying. This new guidance confirms the legal right of schools to use metal detectors without the need for consent from parents or pupils, and to refuse entry to those who do not comply.

2. Work with others, not in isolation. When a crisis hits a community, it can be tempting for everyone to hunker down in their own silos. This can sometimes lead to a blame game which solves nothing and hinders the communication and cooperation between education, police, social services, and the community which are vital to success. Schools also need to work with each other, recognising that issues affect whole communities, rather than just individual ‘problem’ schools. Teachers in particular can play a vital role in picking up early warning signs – even in helping to map involvement within a community – and communicating these to other agencies.

3. Help provide a way out to a better life. Distraction from drug-related and or gang activities can be useful, but there is a lot of evidence to indicate that once children are entangled financially, this is unlikely to be successful. The VRU project went as far as rehoming people when necessary. Local projects may not have the facility to do this, but schools can play a big part in providing alternatives through education and training, even for youngsters who may be the most challenging.

I also think it’s high time that teachers and school leaders started discussing this nationally. I suspect that the problems that have emerged for schools in Oxford, where I work, are being mirrored in towns and cities across the country – anywhere in easy reach of a big city by rail or road. Some great work is emerging in tackling knives, drugs and gang culture. There needs to be a way of sharing this.

April 2018 Update – #KnifeFree Campaign

In March, the Home Office launched a new anti-knife campaign called #KnifeFree, using advertising on social media and digital channels and the new KnifeFree website. This campaign draws on the Scottish No Knives, Better Lives format to tackle misconceptions about knife carrying and to provide routes to advice and further help. In particular, it uses real-life stories of young people who have made the choice not to carry knives to explore the consequences of carrying a knife, and to inspire young people to make the positive choice not to. The Home Secretary, Amber Rudd has announced that this campaign will form part of the governments forthcoming Serious Violence Strategy.

I think that this campaign to raise awareness of the consequences of knife carrying is a welcome step towards tackling the issue. The successes of the approach in Scotland have been achieved through an integrated approach. Advertising campaigns and websites formed only one part of this and I believe that the rest of the UK will need to adopt a similarly collaborative approach between services, at both national and local level, if it is to achieve the same success in reducing the number of deaths, injuries, and violent crime among young people.

Want to improve academic performance? Look to PE.

There is much debate among teachers and academic researchers about factors which influence cognitive functioning and academic attainment. Nature or nurture, traditional or progressive methods (whatever they mean), growth mindset, direct instruction – everyone has a view. If possible, there is even more debate about the quality of evidence supporting each claim.

In this context, it is perhaps surprising that one area that recent research shows has a positive impact on cognitive performance, and even exam results, is often ignored: physical exercise. A review article on the exercise effects on the brain and cognition published in 2008 in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, concluded that research across cognitive neuroscience and medical disciplines indicated that physical exercise can lead to increased physical and mental health throughout life (Holman, Erickson and Kramer, 2008). A review of 79 studies in this area by Chang et al (2012) concluded that exercise has specific positive effects on cognitive performance both during the exercise period and afterwards, even after a delay.

Cognitive effects in school age children

The majority is studies featured in these reviews featured older adults rather than children, with many focusing on mitigation of the effects of ageing in a medical context. In considering the educational effects of physical activity on school age children, numerous studies, including a paper by Dave Ellemberg & Mathilde St-Louis-Deschênes (2010) published in Psychology of Exercise and Sport, show significant positive outcomes. This study of 7 year old and 10 year old boys, compared the effect of 30 minutes of aerobic exercise on reaction time and choice tests with 30 minutes of watching TV. The results showed a significant positive effect of both measures, but especially the choice tests – the measure most resembling a school task.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has not summarised research on physical activity in its Teaching and Learning Toolkit, but does include physical development approaches in their Early Years Toolkit, with the focus primarily on growth and physical development. The EEF concludes that there is, as yet, little high quality research into the educational effects physical activity, but notes that the costs are low and that there is some evidence that young children learn better after physical activity. They recommend that early years settings consider if active play and physical exercise are integrated into each day.

How much physical activity is needed to have an effect?

Research shows that to have a positive effect on cognitive performance (as well as a range of health benefits), periods of exercise do not need to be long but they need to be repeated regularly, and an at least moderate level of aerobic activity needs to be achieved. In a review of over 850 studies, Strong et al (2005) recommended 60 minutes a day of varied, age-appropriate aerobic exercise was effective, and in their review Keays & Allison (1995) found that a similar period 3-5 times a week was effective for Canadian school children. In a large-scale study of Californian elementary school students, Carlson et al (2015) found that just 30 minutes a day had a positive impact on learning through increased attention and reduced off-task behaviour. They proposed that this could be achieved through a mix of classroom exercise breaks and extending opportunities for physical activity during existing school recess. The research team made several recommendations for implementing a programme in schools (see the reading list below).

Does this improve attainment?

The short answer is yes. An influential study by Trudeau and Shepard (2008) argued that sacrificing PE time from the timetable would not improve academic performance whereas increasing time devoted to PE would produce numerous health and behavioural benefits whilst not hindering academic outcomes. In a study as part of the large-scale Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, Booth et al found that regular physical exercise in 11-16 year olds in fact produced significant increases in attainment in English, Maths and Science, and especially for girls in Science. This study indicates that devoting a little more time each day for exercise, even if this is rescheduled from other subjects, would have a measurable positive impact on grades in academic subjects.

What can schools do?

Despite the finding of such studies, PE remains a subject that is sometimes reduced in the face of other curriculum demands. There is considerable evidence to support the introduction of daily physical exercise into the school day. This could be as little as 30 minutes per day. It could be achieved through a mixture of existing break time activity and additional scheduled time, but the evidence points to the greatest impact when children are led by a trained adult. Given the benefits that regular physical activity can provide across all subjects, there are several points school leaders should consider if they want to implement this:

  • Duration of physical activity – at least 30 minutes a day, each day
  • Type of activity – at least moderate aerobic activity, age-appropriate and varied from session to session
  • Implementation – can be achieved through a mixture of existing PE lessons, physical activity breaks within the existing curriculum, and opportunities for activity at break and lunchtime
  • Staffing – Staff members leading physical activity do not need to be specialists (unless a particular activity demands it), but they do need to be trained. Your PE specialists can play a valuable role

I don’t believe that for most schools, increasing physical activity in school would not require wholesale readjustment of the curriculum or the school day. Relatively minor adjustments, but involving all teachers, have the potential to achieve real measurable benefits.

Update, March 2018

I wrote this piece in January 2018. In February the Youth Sport Trust published a report on PE Provision in Secondary Schools. Worryingly, this report revealed a continuing decline in the time allocated to physical education in UK secondary schools. I have written about the implications of this decline here.

Useful Reading

This isn’t intended as a comprehensive bibliography, but as a useful resource for those who want to read further. I have only include publications that are available without a licence or payment. Some are under Creative Commons licences. If you know of interesting studies I have missed, please let me know.

Associations between objectively measured physical activity and academic attainment in adolescents from a UK cohort. Booth, J.N. et al (2003) British Journal of Sports Medicine 48:3.

Be smart, exercise your heart: exercise effects on brain and cognition. Charles H. Hillman, Kirk I. Erickson, and Arthur F. Kramer (2008) Nature Reviews Neuroscience 9:58-65.

EEF Early Years Toolkit – summarises research into the impact of early years approaches, including physical activity.

Implementing 10-minute classroom physical activity breaks in California elementary schools. Jessica Engelberg et al. Presentation based on the California elementary school study.

In Praise of Partnership

I have been privileged to work with many colleagues from other schools who are committed to the benefits of collaborative working. As a result, Both I and the schools I represented have benefitted from several partnerships over the years.

“The most valuable resource that teachers have is each other. Without collaboration our growth is limited to our own perspectives.” Robert John Meehan

This is one of my favourite educational quotes. I believe that teachers flourish by working collaboratively and that this collaboration is most powerful when not restricted to a single school. Achieving this isn’t always easy to sustain in a changing educational landscape. A few years ago I ran a conference workshop on partnership working. It was well-attended, but there was a wide range of experience within the group. There were leaders from schools in successful partnerships but in areas facing falling rolls and finding themselves competing for pupils with partner schools in the local area. Others were keen to work in partnership, but felt isolated either by geography, or because other local schools had their own priorities. Some were exploring how existing partnerships could work when member schools were now becoming members of different academy groups or sponsors. Perhaps it has always been true that when schools work together it is in a state of ‘coopertition’, but the concerns expressed in the workshop, by colleagues interested in partnership, seemed to underline new challenges.

I have been privileged to work with many colleagues from other schools who are committed to the benefits of collaborative working. As a result, Both I and the schools I represented have benefitted from several partnerships over the years. This post is about some of the benefits from partnerships I have been involved in over the last couple of years.


The Oxford East Partnership (OEP) is made up of eight primary schools (some of which also have nursery provision) an all-through school and a secondary school serving the same area of Oxford City. Since it’s formation, several schools have become academies, a new free primary school has joined, and one secondary has become an all-through school. Sadly a local children’s centre closed last year as the result of cuts to local authority funding. Throughout these changes, the shared rationale for the partnership has remained constant. it is summarised in the OEP Vision statement:

All schools in the Partnership will work together to secure better outcomes for all members of our community in East Oxford and Cowley by:

  • Raising achievement of all children to improve life chances
  • Engaging families
  • Promoting community engagement
  • Celebrating and embracing cultural diversity

OEP aims to serve the children and families in the local area, which contains some of the most economically disadvantaged wards in the county. It originally received funding from the local authority, but then became self-supporting. Administrative support is provided by one of the member schools. The Chair and Vice Chair are elected annually and rotate between schools, the vice chair from the previous academic year usually becoming Chair the next.

There are several areas of focus for the OEP:

Achievement of pupils. This has included several projects over the years, including adoption of the storytelling curriculum across all member schools based on training from Oxford Story Museum. This meant all schools took a similar approach to the development of writing, for a variety of purposes. There was also collaborative work on meeting the needs of more able students in mathematics (hosted at one of the secondary schools) and in English, particularly writing (hosted by the other secondary). The partnership is also a forum for addressing issues, such as school attendance, that affect the achievement of pupils.

Continuing Professional Development. The Partnership has promoted professional development in two main ways: sharing the costs of training at one school by opening CPD to other members, and organising joint CPD as a partnership which addresses common needs of the member schools. Notable successes here have been moderation of writing with the adoption of the new curriculum and assessment, and Partnership conferences, the most recent being last October. The conferences combined plenary sessions featuring keynote speakers with smaller workshops run by colleagues from member schools. In either case costs were much reduced through this collaborative approach, as opposed to sending staff out on CPD courses, and there was more scope for ongoing work between colleagues, building on these events.

Recruitment and retention of staff. This is an issue that is raised at almost every meeting! Oxford is well-served for ITT providers, but is an extremely expensive area to rent or buy in. It is therefore often difficult to recruit and especially retain teaching staff at all levels. OEP has adopted a joint approach to tackling this issue, producing a joint brochure pointing out the benefits of joining not just a new school, but a supportive partnership of schools. This is especially true for school leaders, many of whom say that the most valuable aspect of the partnership is as a forum to discuss issues that they face in school.


Oxford City Learning (OCL) is made up a group of seven schools in and around Oxford. The member schools were originally all secondaries, one has since become an all-through school, one now partners a primary school and another is sponsoring a free school due to open next year. Oxford Hospital School is also a member, as is an Alternative Provision College.

The work of the partnership has been wide ranging, but was founded on the premise that if Oxford had world-class Higher education, it should have world-class secondary education too. In its current form, the OCL structure consisted of three groups:

Strategy group. This is made up of the Headteachers and Principals of the member schools. As well as providing a regular discussion forum for these school leaders, it sets the strategic priorities for OCL and commissions and evaluates the work of the other groups. Principals may also coordinate joint responses to educational issues affecting the local area and emergency planning, such as the response to severe weather.

Curriculum and Standards Group. This group is made up of SLT members responsible for curriculum and assessment in each school. In recent years, the group has worked on the new curriculum, got to grips with the impact of the EBacc, life beyond levels, and new assessments at GCSE and A level.

Professional Leadership Development Group. This group is made up of SLT members responsible for CPD at the member schools, and is the group I have been involved in. This covers each career stage, from initial teacher training through to the growth of school leaders. For several years the PLDG has organised an annual ‘Hot Topics’ event where school leaders meet to address an issue the strategy group has agreed affects all members schools. Recent topics have included ensuring that vulnerable pupils make good progress, the best use of the Pupil Premium Grant, and mental health issues in schools. The group also runs an Annual OCL cohort of the Oxford Teaching Schools Alliance courses for Middle Leadership. It also works with the Oxford Education Deanery on action research projects by teachers and academic research projects run in school.

As well as these groups, the OCL schools also form an IYFAP Strategy Group to improve the work of the City In-Year Fair Access Panel. This meets before the panel meeting and focuses on improving the way that member schools can work together to improve outcomes for pupils and reduce exclusions. This work includes improving transition between schools (including transition of vulnerable pupils from primary school) and evaluating the effectiveness of managed moves between schools.

I hope these examples illustrate just a few of the ways in which schools, teachers, and students benefit from collaborative partnership in the local area. I would enjoy reading about other examples of successful partnership working. I believe that the key to the success of both OEP and OCL has been twofold: A commitment to a shared purpose, coupled with flexibility to see opportunity in a time of challenge. This has enabled both partnerships to continue to be effective in the midst of the break-neck pace of change we have seen in education. Adhering to a clear vision of what the partnership seeks to achieve enables it to weather this change: individuals may come and go, different types of school may emerge, and new policies and procedures may be enacted from on high, but the aims of the partnership do not. In holding on to the most valuable resource we have – each other – we can grow together, becoming more effective in meeting the needs of the families we serve.

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