My ten most read posts of 2021

Here’s a run down of the ten most read posts on my blog in 2021. Topics range from perennial issues facing teachers to questions arising from the Covid-19 pandemic.

10. Things to look forward to in spring 2021. I write one of these for the start of each term but none have contained truer words than “This spring term may be more uncertain than any that have gone before”!

9. Lots to look forward to in autumn 2021. Another ‘looking forward’ post; this one for the autumn term. For some reason, Summer wasn’t as popular, at 17th place.

8. Volunteers returning to teaching – Seven practical questions. A recent, topical post on the DfE call for ex-teachers to return to the classroom.

7. Wasp in the classroom. A perennial summer challenge for teachers – I was even asked this once at interview! This advice draws on my experience at the Museum of Natural History in Oxford.

6. Ten ways to gain a class’s attention. Visiting schools means I see a lot of techniques to gain attention. Here are ten to choose from.

5. Looking for a little inspiration? A post pulling together all my downloadable picture quotes posts in one place. The only ‘resource’ post to make the top ten. I update this regularly so it’s worth returning to.

4. Progress on behaviour – haven’t I seen this graph somewhere before? An older post from 2016 on the ups and downs of improving behaviour in a secondary school.

3. Thank you teachers! I wrote this ‘thank you’ when some we might hope would be saying it weren’t forthcoming, despite the challenges teachers had faced.

2. Learning and long-term memory. Another older post that’s still proving popular. This one is about different types of long-term memory and learning.

1. Do windy days wind children up? Once again, a post I wrote back in 2016 is the most read! It’s about research on that perennial teacher topic: does windy weather make children’s behaviour worse?

I hope you find something useful in these posts. If you do, it would be great to hear about it!

Not the moment to move on mobiles

A recent announcement about the DfE Consultation on Behaviour indicated that Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, was minded to require schools to ban mobile phones. This is a view he has expressed on several occasions in recent months.

Regular readers of this blog will recall that, a few years ago, I wrote a couple of posts on this subject. At the time I was a Deputy Head with responsibility for behaviour at a large secondary school. We decided to ban the use of mobile phones during the school day, and I wrote about our reasons, including academic research findings, our early progress, and the positive impact of the ban for students’ attention, behaviour and wellbeing.

You might then think that I would be in favour of this move by Mr Williamson. I am not, for two reasons.

Firstly, I believe that this should be a decision for individual schools. Back in 2016, we took the decision for specific reasons and had clear, measurable objectives related to our own improvement plan. Just because a strategy is right for one school does not mean it must be a priority for all.

Secondly, it hardly seems be a priority at this time. Schools have had the most extraordinary 18 months, have implemented entirely new ways of working, and are now contending with rising case numbers, increased staff absence, and a mix of in-class and remote teaching. This is all happening in the face of confused guidance from the DfE and a complete lack of clarity about the next academic year.

Decisions over mobile phones, and other such issues, are for schools to make, to choose if, when and how they should be implemented in their particular context. Right now, most schools have other priorities. At a time when clarity from the DfE would be welcome, perhaps Mr Williamson should consider his own.

Wasp in the classroom

A recent twitter thread reminded me of the perennial issue of the wasp that blithely buzzes into the classroom, instantly derailing the best-planned of lessons. This annual threat seems to occupy the minds of teachers and students alike – I was once asked by the school council in an interview for a senior leadership post what I would do if a wasp flew into the room.

It occurred to me while reading the twitter comments that while teachers may be exercised by how to get rid of insects, in my current role I’m paid to do the exact opposite: visit schools to bring insects INTO the classroom! Let me assure you that after a brief look, we leave wasps, bees and anything else that might get aggravated by a trip indoors well alone and outside. However, this did get me thinking about how entomology can help us tackle that wasp which stumbles into the classroom.

Why MY classroom?

Don’t take it personally. If a wasp, bee or other insect flies into the room it’s either by accident or because it’s been attracted by something. This could be light or food. Many insects will fly towards light and both wasps and bees are attracted to sweet scents. In addition, wasps are also attracted by protein (bees get their protein from pollen). While you probably don’t have a permanent snack buffet in your classroom, food waste often attracts insects. Wasps are usually very purposeful when foraging but in late summer and autumn they can become a little wayward as the social structure of the hive begins to break down.

Preventing wasps coming in

One way of ensuring that wasps don’t come in is to keep the windows shut, but that’s impractical in hot weather and, at the moment, UK government guidance is that windows are kept open to ensure rooms are well ventilated. Even with open windows, we can make sure that our room isn’t actively attracting yellow-striped visitors by making sure any food debris is cleared away. Don’t just leave that banana skin or apple core in the bin, get rid of it entirely. Similarly, an aluminium can in the recycling box might have enough sugary drink left to attract wasps.

What if the wasp is already in?

Depending on the temperament of the class, the appearance of a single wasp might risk instant pandemonium, but there is a lot you can do to head this off.

  • Turn the lights off. On a dim day, your room may be brighter than outside. Switching the lights off reverses this and most insects will head back the way they came.
  • Open all the windows as wide as they can go. This gives the wasp more exit routes. Don’t worry about more coming in, it’s only within a few metres of a hive that there’s a risk other wasps will rally to a distressed sister.
  • Model a calm, collected response (even if that isn’t how you feel!) and encourage this in the children. The wasp won’t hurt anyone unless it feels threatened.
  • Move swiftly but efficiently. Flapping, waving arms or swatting will only aggravate the wasp and make it more likely to sting.
  • If the wasp isn’t leaving, or is repeatedly banging its head against the window, use a glass (or plastic) cup to trap it on a flat surface. Slide a piece of thin card (better than paper) underneath and remove it, safely sealed, outside. Keep these things ready near your desk, just in case.

What’s the point of wasps anyway?

Well, the point of a wasp is to make more wasps, rather than to be useful to us, but they are actually valuable in many ways. They make a significant contribution as pollinators and, as carnivores, they play a role in controlling many insects which are garden pests. So, don’t be tempted to kill a wasp that interrupts your lesson, it doesn’t mean you any harm and it’s doing a good job as part of an ecosystem.

If you enjoyed reading this, you might be interested in my earlier post ‘Does windy weather wind kids up?’

Image: Pixabay

Ten ways to gain a class’s attention

In my job, I’m fortunate in visiting lots of schools. I ask the class teacher I’m working with how they usually gain the children’s attention and then use that familiar strategy. This is useful on the day, but has also given me an insight into the variety of strategies teachers use. There seem to be three broad categories – call & response, music & rhythm, and silent strategies – but an almost endless inventive variety within these. Here are my top ten.

Call and response

This takes many forms, but in all the teacher says a word or phrase and the pupils respond, orienting to the teacher and then listening. Examples I have heard include:

“Active…” “…listening”

“One, two, three, eyes on me” “One, two, eyes on you”

“One, two, three, four, five…” “…once I caught a fish alive.”

And one from @FerryNqt on Twitter: “Avengers…” “…assemble!”

Music and Rhythm

One option is to use a musical note to signal attention. The teacher uses a chime or triangle to sound the note. In one case the teacher played a piano chord, but that was in a music room and they had a piano. I have to say that I’ve heard about this technique more than actually seen it used, perhaps because of the inconvenience of needing to carry the musical instrument around with you. The exception is, of course the ubiquitous and invaluable playground whistle.

Many teachers prefer to use clapping rhythms rather than speaking. The teacher claps a simple rhythm and the children repeat it. This gets attention quickly because you have to listen to the rhythm in order to repeat it. The simplest I have heard is just three short claps, but the teacher can be more inventive, using more complex rhythms.

In some Oxfordshire schools I’ve seen this developed into a game to include one rhythm that’s NOT clapped back, so the rhythm _ _ . . . Stands for ‘don’t-clap-this-one-back.’ This requires the children to be more attentive so that they don’t get caught out.

Actions speak louder than words

Some teachers prefer an attention routine that requires no sound at all, simply raising their hand when they require a class’s attention. The children respond by doing the same, stopping all talk and activity to face towards their teacher.

There are a couple of variants to this, usually used to teach young classes who might be slow to refocus their attention from what they are doing and onto their teacher.

In ‘Pause your paws’ the teacher holds one or both hands up closed (perhaps saying ‘pause’); the class respond by holding both their hands up to show their ‘paws’.

Alternatively the teacher may hold their hand (or both hands) up with outstretched fingers and count down to zero by fingers one at a time. As the children notice they copy the countdown until by ‘zero’ they are all attentive. This may later be developed into a simple countdown without the hands.

I hope you found these ideas useful. If you give one of them a try, I’d love to hear how it worked out. Perhaps you use another technique that you’d like to share? Either way, please use the comments.

If you’re interested in children’s behaviour, you might like my post Does windy weather wind kids up?

Image: unsplash.com

Do windy days wind children up?

This is a perennial topic for the staff room or playground duty. As Storm Doris approached the UK many a veteran teacher was predicting that the strong winds would  lead to some challenging behaviour.

But is there any evidence that high winds do affect children’s behaviour? I’ve often wondered and a took the opportunity to collect some data on wind speed (published by the nearest weather station) and the behaviour incidents logged at our school over the last two school weeks, one of which featured lower wind speeds, the other higher speeds as Doris passed over the UK.


I’m not sure exactly what that shows, it isn’t a lot of data, and it isn’t a precise measure of misbehaviour (‘incident’ covers everything from homework not handed in to having to be removed from a lesson), but it doesn’t look like any kind of convincing correlation. Another interesting point is the positive side of behaviour – we gave out 12% more achievement points in the Doris week than when wind speeds were low. As for every week in school, the number of achievements recorded far exceeded the behaviour incidents, with teachers giving out over ten times as many positive achievement points as negative behaviour ones.

In Oxford we were only on the southern edge of the storm, maybe the effect would be greater further north. Anyone want to share some data?

What does published research tell us?


I had a brief look at the range of research on this topic (incidentally, it’s best to avoid typing ‘wind’ and ‘children’ into a search engine unless you’re researching flatulence). There are several ideas as to how high winds could affect behaviour including change in air pressure associated with storm fronts, extra-low-frequency atmospheric pressure oscillations,  increased sensory stimulation, and an increase in positively charged ions. I didn’t explore this last one because the ions are created by hot, dry winds and that doesn’t apply to February in the UK.
Bill Badger and Eric O’Hare of The University of Lancaster researched the effect of weather on the behaviour of students at a secondary school in Cumbria in 1989. They found that behaviour was affected by weather but by changes in the prevailing conditions, rather than the type of weather itself. You can read the abstract here. In a US preschool study in 1990, Eva Essa, Hilton & Murray found that stormy, unsettled weather caused children, especially girls, to interact more with other people than toys (abstract here and paper free if you sign up). A small lab-study by Delyukov and Didyk in 1999 showed that artificially produced pressure oscillations reduced attention. This methodology created lovely controlled, replicable, conditions (abstract here) but was perhaps a long way from the conditions we experience teaching Year 9 on a windy wet  Wednesday lunchtime.

So, research suggests that changes in weather and atmospheric pressure do affect children (and adults), but there isn’t a clear link to increases in ‘wild’ behaviour at school.

If you’re interested in involving students in the topic the Met Office have produced a maths investigation for use with their Weather Observation Website.

No More Mobiles – Six Weeks in

At the start of September, I wrote my post No more mobiles about why we took the decision to ban mobile phones from school. There were several reasons, the foremost being the level of distraction they created. That original post generated quite a bit of interest, as did this follow up after the first week. Here’s the view from six weeks in.

Testing the boundary 

It probably won’t surprise teachers that after a smooth first week with only a handful of students using their phones, a few more decided to test the boundary in the second and third weeks, with a few more phones in evidence and a couple of arguments. The peak was only 24 phones in a week, though. I don’t think four or five a day is that bad, and once it became clear that the new rule was here to stay, that quickly dropped back to a few a week. We also had a couple of disgruntled parents, but they also complied with the policy when it was explained to them (one not to happy that his daughter’s plea that he must come in immediately to get her phone was not exactly the case!)



The Art of Conversation

As we approach the half term holiday, the main impact of the ban is as it appeared in the first week – students are spending much more time talking to each other face to face. At break and lunchtime, our cafeteria, social spaces and playgrounds are full of groups of children, chatting, smiling and laughing. The phones do come out again at the end of the school day, but they don’t seem to be missed in school.
As we thought, we have made some concessions for individuals who are, for example Young Carers or use apps to assist because English is an additional language. Our policy has also identified a few pupils with several phones – four confiscated from one, three of which parents didn’t know about!  Clearly a concern and that is being followed up.

Hopefully we have set the pattern for the year ahead. We are now planning specific ways in which pupils can use mobile devices purposefully, perhaps on Bring Your Own Device Days. As always, your comments are very welcome.

Tackling behaviour to improve learning – a rocky road but we’re getting there

Last year I wrote a post called ‘Progress on behaviour – Haven’t I seen this graph somewhere before’ about work I had been leading on improving the behaviour of pupil premium students for whom we had identified poor behaviour as the main inhibitor to learning. That became my most read post by quite a long margin. The main point I made was that any improvements we achieved were not through a straightforward upward path, but through a messy reality including plateaus and setbacks, with any progress emerging only through perseverance. Here, I’ll discuss what impact our work on behaviour has had on the progress in learning of the children involved.

In my original post I identified three different ‘response types’ among the students involved:

  1. Pupils who reacted quickly to interventions and made rapid improvements in behaviour.
  2. Pupils who took longer to react and/or had more frequent setbacks, so made more gradual progress, with improvement taking longer.
  3. Pupils who did not seem to respond to interventions and whose behaviour did not improve, or even deteriorated.


Impact of Behaviour shift on learning

Not surprisingly, any consequent improvement in academic progress followed the same pattern, with the group of pupils who achieved the most rapid turn-around in their behaviour also making the greatest progress. 

The graph shows the correlation between shift in behaviour (measured using our school conduct points system) and GCSE value-added (through a simple comparison of prediction and end of year results, using old money A*=8, A=7, etc) for Key Stage 4 students. For year 11 the end results were actual exam results, for year 10 they were end of year assessments.


There is a statistically significant positive correlation between improved behaviour and value added (Pearson’s r=0.715 exceeding the critical value of 0.400 for p<0.05, N=18). 

Now, I know this isn’t exactly headline news: improving behaviour leads to a better chance of academic success. I do think it’s important. The rocky road of ups and downs that I described in my original post ultimately led to real positive gains for most of the students involved. Remember, they were those with the worst behaviour at the start of the year. This shows us that when the going is tough, and when there are setbacks, it really is worth persevering with these students. 

Broadly, the three student response types resulted in these outcomes:

  1. Rapid improvements in behaviour led to students generally achieving(and sometimes exceeding) their predicted grades.
  2. Students who made more gradual improvement picked up their performance but still had a slightly negative VA. Often other factors had a significant impact, including poor attendance, or the impact of events outside school.
  3. Students who did not improve their behaviour had markedly negative VA. this was often characterised by erratic attendance, lack of cooperation with the basics of the school code of conduct and, sometimes, difficulty in engaging parents.

Certainly for group 2, we have taken the view that earlier identification would have helped secure faster improvements in behaviour and better academic outcomes. We drew up our new student groups last term, so we were ready to proceed right from the start of the new school year in September. For the same reason, we’re also making sure we tackle attendance issues much more quickly. The toughest challenge is those students in group 3. We’re working so that our pastoral and inclusion teams are communicating more closely to respond to behaviours that may result from special educational needs, and use behaviours to identify unmet needs. We are also responding to the fact that the group of pupil premium students generally responded more gradually than their peers by making sure that, as a whole school, we our applying our ‘Pupil Premium First’ policy consistently.

My next job is to analyse the progress of the groups we set up because poor attendance was the main inhibitor to learning. As always, I welcome any comments or suggestions you may have.

No more mobiles – the first week

At the start of September, I wrote my post ‘No more mobiles’ about why we took the decision to ban mobile phones from school. There were several reasons, the foremost being the level of distraction they created. That original post generated quite a bit of interest, so this is my first update on how our decision is going, based on the first week back at school.

On the first day back everything went very smoothly. We had made the decision to give students warnings and literally only a handful them needed a reminder about having their phone out, or headphones round their neck. All responded straight away, a couple saying it was news to them. Several students proffered their phones for safe-keeping at reception in the morning but mostly there was no phone in evidence. It’s likely that most had decided to keep their phone off and in their bag. I only spotted one student at lunchtime with their head almost inside their bag – “I’m just putting it in my bag.” The first day back usually goes smoothly though, doesn’t it?

The rest of the first week continued much the same way however. By Friday several staff reported that they had given reminders / warnings to students, but students had responded quickly and put their phone away. Colleagues also said that students were giving each other reminders not to have phones out.

What surprised me was the lack of complaint or questions from students. I had thought that the new policy wasn’t a change as far as lessons went, but at break and lunchtime, some students would might have difficulty adapting. This just didn’t happen. Apart from the few reminders I mentioned, phones weren’t in evidence in the cafeteria, indoor social area, playground or the field. 

So what were students doing if they weren’t on their phones? Talking to each other, face to face, in groups, chatting, smiling, laughing! I also think there were more playing sport, skateboarding, etc. These are just casual observations – most pupils chatted in groups last year, with maybe one in four on a phone at the same time, more were outside playing but we had good weather last week. Colleagues report a ‘renewed focus’ among students, but then it was the first week of the year. We will need to see how things develop as the year progresses.

Did we have to confiscate any phones? Yes, six from five pupils, who did not respond to reminders (that’s  about 0.4% of students). In my first post on this I listed four reasons for our decision to ban mobiles:

  1. Distraction, most likely to be those who had fallen behind their peers and could least afford it.
  2. The high proportion of behaviour incidents in school that centred on phone usage. 
  3. Use of social media in bullying (and other interpersonal  nastiness).
  4. Thankfully much less frequent and involving very small numbers of pupils, the use of mobile phones in the involvement of children, by older peers and adults in substance abuse, crime, and CSE. 

In all five cases, confiscation was because of 1 – distraction from getting to a lesson on time – moved to 2 by the students’ choice to ignore a warning. In a couple  of cases there may be a connection to 4, readers will appreciate that I cannot write more on that.

This may or may not turn out to be representative of the year ahead, we shall see. I aim to write another update later in the autumn term. As always, your comments are very welcome.

No more mobiles 

From September we are banning the use of mobile phones in the secondary phase of our all-through school (we have never allowed them at primary). As this is a contentious issue, I’m going to blog about how it works and what issues arise.

This first post is about why we took the decision.

Our school opened in 2003, combining former middle and upper schools. We moved into new buildings in 2006 and opened our primary phase in 2012. We have grown as as school in parallel with the growth in mobile phone use by children and the development of smartphone technology. Up to now our policy has been that mobile phones should be off and put away in lessons (unless a teacher specifies their use for an educational purpose) but can be used at break or lunch. 

Last year a team at the LSE produced this paper on the positive impact on exam results at schools which had banned mobile phones – Ill communication: Technology, Distraction & Student Performance. The results were clear-cut and chimed with the concerns that mobiles, especially mobile access to social media were a distraction to students. Nevertheless, we could also see that there could be educational advantages in using this technology, and that we could involve students in the decision. We spent a year monitoring the impact of mobiles. Our Principal spoke to students in assembly about the research on mobiles, how persuasive the evidence was for a ban, and how we would be considering it.

At the end of last term we announced the new rule, publishing it in our newsletter. We took many factors into consideration but four predominated in our thinking:

  1. A proportion of students are distracted by social media. As the LSE research found, these were more likely to be those who had fallen behind their peers and could least afford the distraction.
  2. A high proportion of behaviour incidents in school centred on phone usage. This was a minority of students but took up a disproportionate amount of staff time.
  3. In almost all incidents of bullying (and one-off interpersonal nastiness) social media was a key component. Incidents were prolonged and magnified because of social media comment. This involved a small number of students but a vast amount of staff time.
  4. Mobile phones are a central aspect of the involvement of children, by older peers and adults in substance abuse, crime, and CSE. Thankfully this involved only a very small number of children but they are the most vulnerable of those in our care.

The most frequent educational uses of phones, outside of computing lessons. were recording homework or for reference (e.g. dictionary, web search). Other resources for these are available to all students.

    In view of all this took the decision to ban mobiles in schools. We have addressed parental concerns about safety on the journey to and from school by collecting phones at the start of the day  and handing them back at the end (yes, that has required logistical planning). If a pupil keeps their phone off and in their bag all day we will be none the wiser, of course, but if a phone is used it will be confiscated until a parent / carer can collect it. The exception we have made is students with special needs or disabilities, or who have English as an additional language and use specific apps to help them access the curriculum.

    All that has been theory up to now; we start on Monday 5th September. I’ll be posting updates on how it goes. Your comments are always welcome and I’d be interested in hearing how other schools address this issue.