To kick off 2018, here are some of the best ideas I’ve come across on my travels to various schools around the UK. I’ve limited most of this sample to practices I’ve encountered in more than one school – to avoid the sense that things can only happen in specific contexts. Where relevant I’ve named the schools doing something more niche.
Knowledge organisers and retrieval practice
A lot has been written about knowledge organisers this year. However, I see a lot of variation in the way they are used. Crucially, investing time in knowledge organisers is not about creating them or making them look pretty; it’s about using them routinely to secure good foundational knowledge. In the best cases, students have clear quizzable knowledge organisers in their possession (not just dumped online) and engage in regular quizzing as part of lessons. Retrieval practice can be engaging and buzzy, it is always low stakes whilst being rigorous with students showing excellent recall of prior learning. It’s quite astonishing the difference it makes if students are given the tools to develop secure recall – the materials and the strategies. Of course, recall is a bedrock strategy; a platform for wider, deeper learning. But when it is weak, so is everything else.
I’ve encountered some superb strategies for planned reading. Two particularly good approaches were:
Structured reading at Michaela: an amazingly thorough approach with pre-printed texts showing key words, numbered lines and a taught routine for whole-class reading. Above all, students are given high-volume diet of subject-specific reading every day.
Early morning daily reading at London Academy: Every tutor group in Year 7-9 starts school half an hour early so that they read together every day: that’s 150 minutes of reading time per week – extra! This was also coupled to lunchtime tutor periods where reading interventions took place for those that needed it.
I would say that in too many schools students don’t read enough each day – but it can be done.
High Frequency, Low Stakes Developmental Lesson Observations
The best practice I see is where schools have dropped set-piece formal lesson observations altogether replacing them entirely with learning walks or with multiple short unannounced observations. In at least five schools I’ve visited, staff spoke very positively about this: no more showcase lessons, no more grades, lots more feedback. Teachers like to get feedback. Of course flags can be raised if things are not going well but mainly teachers are evaluated on a more rounded picture and get a steady flow of feedback. Leaders devote a lot more time to being in and around classrooms which has lots of spin-off benefits.
Systematic QA Systems
I’ve encountered some excellent simple systems that leaders use to make sure they are keeping on top of things and safeguarding against the possibility of things slipping:
The power of 10: a big school where 10 leaders would drop in on 10 lessons by different teachers with a focus on 10 identified students, one per lesson, every 10 days. This was all mapped in advance but with leaders having the freedom to plan their set of 10. This meant they really knew what was happening in quite a systematic way. Teachers got feedback on the specific agreed focus for the cycle.
One-a-day; five-in-five: Various schools tackle the challenge of parental contact – with hard-to-shift persistent absence cases for example – with pastoral leaders or tutors identifying the priority cases each week and setting the goal of addressing one per day or five in five days. This makes a long list manageable; better to succeed with five than be overwhelmed by 20.
Weekly light touch departmental book scrutiny, one year group at a time: Year 7 one week, Year 8 the next and so on. This was a 30 minute scan each week by subject post-holders, all book sets gathered and then sampled; nicely manageable and routine for everyone.
I’ve now seen several schools that follow ‘the Huntington model’ -as I call it. This is where time is taken from the timetable once a fortnight or every three weeks, to create a routine slot of time for staff CPD. Various other schools have taken every minute of directed time and given it to weekly staff meetings, a high proportion of which are exclusively for CPD. One school made Mondays and Tuesdays longer, freeing up the whole of Friday afternoon for weekly CPD. Yes, weekly!
CPD should not be snatched, begged or borrowed or confined to INSET days. Built-in CPD is the way to go and lots of schools are showing the way.
Alternative Parents’ Evenings
At School 21, they replace regular parent-teacher conferences with termly exhibitions where student work across the curriculum is showcased with students on hand to talk about it. This changes the focus entirely, doing a different job to the usual progress check, but is a great way to engage families and to put the work at the centre.
At Parliament Hill, Year 7 parents’ evenings involve key staff and senior leaders seeing parents for an extended appointment where the students present a portfolio of their best work in the year. This puts students and their work at the centre and helps to embed the school’s learning culture with students developing the capacity to talk about their learning and progress from an early stage.
I’ve only seen this at Michaela (and Eton!) but I’ve heard of other schools that do it: students sitting at tables together to eat shared meals in a family style – not the normal canteen queue. It’s quite wonderful to see in action, all part of building cultural capital and the school ethos. I wrote more about my Michaela visit here.
Intelligent Data Reporting
To be honest, there’s a lot of misdirected effort in this area but some schools are breaking through to report attainment and progress in a meaningful way. The best systems I have encountered have a similar basis: cohort-referencing. This means that subjects assess in their own way, using appropriate modes of assessment to generate scores of various kinds. These are then processed into standardised scores – usually around 100 in common with other national standardised tests – that are reported alongside raw scores. This system is much more secure than using 1-9 scales and flight-paths or the horror-show of learning statement banks. It’s honest about standards having meaning in relation to the cohort and allows different subject methodologies to work without having to fudge the equivalence of grades across subjects.
Higher Education Visits and Aspirations
In some schools, the ‘we’re all aiming for university’ aspiration is a tangible feature of the ethos and curriculum. Some schools take whole cohorts of students on a university visit at least once. At London Academy their goal is to take every student in KS3 to a university every year: it’s an impressive commitment. At other schools the programme of university engagement – with visiting speakers, returning students etc – starts in Year 7. It’s not left to the Sixth Form.
Building Test Confidence
This is genius. At Parliament Hill, students in science (especially those in the middle sets) are given advanced notice of topic tests. They see the actual questions perhaps a week before the test and are given detailed learning checklists supported by revision material directly linked to the tests. Students begin to see that, if they learn the material, they do well on the tests; that they are not doomed to fail. For some, this realisation is a break-through. It’s obvious really but if students can’t get 80% on a test they have seen in advance, they won’t get 80% on a test that is a surprise. The aim is build confidence; to show less confident students how to link learning activities around certain bits of content to the process of being tested. They’ve had huge success with this – and their excellence FACE It strategy.
Behaviour Systems that really work
In a couple of schools I’ve visited – including Bedford Free School when I visited in April – they use a card system for all minor transgressions. In every lesson, if students do everything they are meant to, they give themselves a tick; if not, the teacher marks their card. At the end of the week, students with 100% ticks get a reward – they go home earlier than those students with less than perfect cards who stay on for an additional study period. It was a powerful motivation to keep meeting expectations; a system students valued. And it worked incredibly well.
At another school, they had really cracked the issue of students missing central detentions after school. Anyone missing would have an internal exclusion the next day running 10am to 5.00pm – so the missed detention was wrapped in. Very well structured work was provided in the behaviour centre. They would not be allowed to attend lessons until this day was completed, however long it took. By sticking to this absolutely – even when students were absent for days avoiding the internal exclusion – they had brought numbers of detention-duckers down to a tiny handful. This meant that fewer students would then get detentions and everything was improving on a positive spiral.
Personal Development Programmes
Around the country schools are developing some superb programmes to incentivise students of all ages getting involved in character developing activities as part of the wider curriculum. The Ely College PLEDGES system is a brilliant example. It combines incentives around attendance and achievement with service, participation, leadership, diversity and giving. The Prior Academy Trust Baccalaureate developments in various schools are also excellent – as featured in this post – with programmes for KS3 students and Sixth Formers.
Specialist PSHE lessons
Generally speaking, PSHE is treated horribly badly across the system. I’m not a fan of drop-down days or of morning tutor slots being used to teach SRE, drugs, careers – and all of the other massively important areas that make up a good PSHE programme. Where it is done particularly well, PSHE is given a weekly lesson and teachers are divided up into rotating teams where they develop a degree of specialism in one area. This allows students to be taught a proper programme of SRE by people who have the confidence and knowledge to do it well. It’s a good model.
Thank you to all the schools for the great work you are doing!