Author: untothebreachweb

On the Front Lines of Change

On the Front Lines of Change

In my previous two blogs about The Duston School I’ve discussed the context of my visit, the importance of overcommunication and the behaviour for learning policy of the school.  This blog will look at my impressions of the staff.

Impressions of the Staff

As I explained in the first blog, my visit took place on Year 6 into 7 transition day (the first of two days) and it would be expected that the Principal, as the figurehead of the school, would be very on-message and focused.  What impressed me, however, was how clearly on the ball the rest of the staff were as well.  As students filed into the main hall, the Director of Year was at the front, monitoring the expectation for silence, but around the hall, the main work was being carried out by the form tutors who were modelling the Lemov ‘Warm/Strict’ approach with tutees as they came in.  Smiles started brief conversations which generally concluded with imperatives, starting to lay the foundation for the expectations the students would be expected to meet over the next five to seven years.  Once the Principal started speaking, the core values of respect, aspiration and resilience had already been exemplified by his staff in the preceding ten minutes, contributing further to the overcommunication taking place.

From speaking to staff, this impressive unified approach was not always in evidence at the school and was arguably one of the factors that led to TDS going from ‘Outstanding’ to ‘Requires Improvement’ over only a few months before Sam started (the first monitoring visit after RI was only 5 days into his tenure – more on this in a later blog).

Unlike many other new Principals in post, Sam didn’t bring in his own SLT, but worked with many of the staff he inherited, avoiding a perception by the wider staff body that they were being done to instead of with: a crucial distinction to ensure staff buy-in.  Also, he did (next to) nothing new for the first hundred days or so as Principal (Headship: Doing NOTHING During the First 100 Days), enabling him to meet all staff and take on board their fears, hopes and aspirations for the school.  Therefore, when changes started to take place and Sam clearly stuck to his principles in terms of expectations of behaviour (see previous blog), staff were happy to be part of the journey with the end result being the sort of unity demonstrated in the transition day assembly.

An additional strategy that has led to enormous amounts of staff buy-in has been the use of faculty away days where whole faculties can develop their subject knowledge and expertise and really be part of a research culture to ensure that the lessons being delivered are as effective as possible.  When one faculty is on their away day, another faculty covers for them, reducing cover costs but also adding to the sense of a professional community working together for a common goal as, for example, the science faculty enables the English faculty to improve so has a small stake in the English outcomes too.  The teachers I spoke to were in agreement about how lucky they to have the opportunity and are aware of the investment the school has made in them so they were determined to maximise the gains that they receive.  The benefits were clear as it was only afterwards that I discovered both teachers were NQTs as from their subject knowledge and expertise (partly brought about from the away days) they seemed to be far more experienced.

The clearest proof of how happy the staff are at TDS is the staff turnover this year: two are leaving at the end of term and both of these are due to relocations and are sorry to leave.  With practically the same staff next year, The Duston School will continue to be able to go from strength to strength.

The stakeholders not mentioned so far are the parents of TDS children, who are the focus of my next blog.

High Expectations and Behaviour for Learning

High Expectations and Behaviour for Learning

Previously I explained the context to my visit of The Duston School and looked at the importance of overcommunication to enable Principal Sam Strickland’s vision for the school to come to fruition.  Despite the expectations for students being abundantly clear, not all students meet these and many students, particularly at the start of Sam’s tenure were actively resistant.

Behaviour for Learning

The system at TDS is very clear, with a structured set of sanctions that are put in place.  These start with form tutors, escalating to directors of year, then to an Assistant Principal and then finally the Principal.  At each stage, centralised detentions (20 minutes for making two wrong choices; 40 minutes for making three wrong choices; isolation for more than three) are in place and a student has ten days on report to show progress; if they don’t, it moves up to the next stage.  This is not rocket science, but the difference is that by the time a student gets to being on report to the Principal, they have failed to meet the school’s expectations for 30 days, i.e. an entire half term, and the next 10 days on report may well end up being the student’s last ten days at the school.

Sam has written about his views on exclusions in detail here (‘The Exclusion Exorcists’) so I won’t repeat them all here, but the one particular reason for exclusion at The Duston School that I want to pick up on is what the post describes as ‘persistent opposition defiance’.

Many other reasons for exclusion that are cited, most schools would agree with as they include physical and verbal abuse, but in several schools I’ve worked in, a student who says “no” repeatedly is generally not sanctioned further than the lunchtime or after school detention level.  When I’ve challenged this policy, the response has generally been that the student hasn’t done anything severe enough to warrant exclusion.  I would argue that weeks, months or years of oppositional defiance are much more worthy of an exclusion that a heat of the moment lashing out, either physically or verbally, due to frustration (though, to be clear, I feel that they both merit exclusion).

I see the outcome of this policy every results day when students leave school with next to nothing after twelve years of education because they’ve been saying “no” for good portions of the last five.  Refusing to exclude in such cases only massages the school’s exclusion figures for the benefit of the school or MAT and does absolutely nothing for the child whose self-destructive behaviour goes unchallenged at best, promoted at worst: you promote what you permit.

The other effect of the clear behaviour and, where necessary, exclusion policy of TDS is that the staff feel well supported, which is the subject of the next blog.

The Value of Overcommunication

The Value of Overcommunication

After reading several blogs and tweets from the Principal Sam Strickland and commenting on some of them, I was kindly invited to see The Duston School, Northants in person.  As luck would have it, my visit took place on the first of two transition days for Year 6 into Year 7 so their introduction to the school would also be mine.  Sam met me at the door, buzzing with energy it seemed from having so many new students and the chance to establish expectations right from the first moment.  In fact there were 240 students who were the lucky ones from over 440 applicants to a school that is, technically, still ‘Requires Improvement’, according to Ofsted: a clear testimony to the faith the local community has in TDS.


This phrase came up several times over the course of my visit and definitely seems to be a Strickland-ism and is clearly in evidence in every part of the school.  TDS chooses particular messages that are central to how they want to run their school and repeat these messages not so students (and staff) and remember, but that they cannot forget.

The overcommunication started with the Year 6 into 7 assembly with students being told explicitly what is expected of them, boiled down to three things linked to core values:

  • Respect – all students follow all instructions first time without question and never disturb the learning of others.
  • Aspiration – all students work to the best of their ability.
  • Resilience – all students attend lessons on time and with their equipment.

These messages will be overcommunicated to the students throughout their time at The Duston School but as soon as they got to their classrooms for their transition day activities the TDS mission statement could be found on the wall.  Having such statements on the wall is not uncommon, but at TDS an entire display board is given over to the core values of the school, preventing any student from ever saying they were unaware of the expectations.

The overcommunication is a strategy used effectively with the staff too as in my meetings with members of other members of SLT, who very generously gave up their time too, could repeat, without necessarily meaning to, several words and phrases that Sam had used with me in our initial meeting.  One of the elements that particularly stood out was the shared understanding that TDS’ focus in September would be curriculum now that behaviour, while not perfect, is effectively managed and is typically of a very high standard, allowing a high standard of teaching to take place.  The other was that TDS is “against fads” and wants to be “proactive and not reactive”.

The next blog will be looking at what happens next for those students who, despite the overcommunication of the expectations and core values, don’t make the right choices.

Daventry: Not as far away as you think (or why you should come and teach at Parker Academy)!

Daventry: Not as far away as you think (or why you should come and teach at Parker Academy)!

Let’s tackle the elephant in the room, or the elephant just off the M1 (J16/18): Daventry is much easier to get to than you might think, if, in fact you are fully aware of where it actually is – I wasn’t when I first applied to teach at the school!  So please take a look at Google maps to check how far away we are or use the table I have helpfully created below:

Northampton (Sixfields) 10 miles/18 mins
Northampton (Weston Favell) 20 miles/33 mins
Coventry 20 miles/31 mins
Wellingborough 29 miles/45 mins
Milton Keynes 30 miles/42 mins
Leicester 30 miles/44 mins

Right, so now we’ve established that Daventry is quite easy to get to and Parker is located on the outskirts, you need to know a bit more about us as a school and a faculty.

A lesser elephant in the room to deal with is our current Ofsted category: requires improvement.  While, of course, you would expect me to say this, it is just a matter of time before we receive a good rating or better and, as a staff body, we’re pretty desperate for Ofsted to come in and more accurately reflect where we are as a school.  Last year was our #BestEver results with 55% A*- C and the English Faculty weighed in with our highest ever (as an academy and before) English results of 70% A* – C.  What we’ll get this year, obviously no-one knows for sure but we have done a lot of work on training and moderation to make sure our marks are accurate and then done some relatively complex modelling using Exampro data to work out some grade boundaries that are as good, if not better, than anything anyone else has come up with.

It’s not only in trying to make some sense of the maelstrom of change we’re all fighting through at the moment that the English faculty is pretty much at the cutting edge of.  Despite our successes last year we are constantly looking to innovate and develop, for example, creating mini-textbooks and using knowledge organisers off the back of a visit to Michaela Community School, Brent last year.  While the level of challenge and expectations of our Year 7s has been considerably raised this year, there’s more that can be done.  So while we will be looking to apply many of the advances we have made with Year 7 to other year groups, we will be redesigning Year 7.  Several of the ideas for this (and the requirement for it) have come from ‘Making Good Progress’ by Daisy Christodoulou.

Hopefully what is coming across is that we are extremely committed to long-term CPD in terms of exam specifications and pedagogic approaches (we’re just about to start a 6-week CPD programme looking at cognitive science applications to the faculty) but, as a Head of Faculty, I’m extremely committed to trying to reduce the workload of the rest of the faculty.  One project that we are currently running in year 7 is looking at giving more frequent, whole-class verbal feedback as opposed to deep or triple marking that many English teachers up and down the country are saddled with by their SLT.

In terms of SLT, you’ll find them very approachable and very understanding with the issues and challenges we face…at least partly because the faculty includes two vice principals, an assistant vice principal and, technically, the principal himself!  The principal has completely turned around the culture of the school since he has arrived, to the massive benefit of staff and students and is very much committed to continuing this positive shift into the future.

So where might you fit in?  Well, the English faculty includes media, music and drama as well, so not only could you teach English from key stage 3 to 4 to 5, you could in these other subject areas too.  We teach both language and literature at key stage 5 as well, so if you want to develop your subject expertise within those areas then you would be very welcome to.  In terms of immediate responsibilities, if you had an interest in running a project, an extracurricular club (for example, being involved in one of our school productions – ‘Oliver’ is up next and we performed ‘Grease’ the previous year) or even Key Stage 3 English, that is definitely something we can accommodate.  Also, because so many of our faculty members are either SLT (or have other responsibilities), it is likely in a couple of years’ time for progression opportunities such as head of literacy and/or second in faculty to come along.

Ultimately though – get in touch!  You’d be more than welcome to have an email or twitter or even phone conversation with me about the faculty and where you might fit it.  Even better, come and see us and find out in person what we as an organisation are all about.  In the process, you’ll even come to realise that Daventry isn’t as far away as you think!


Kieron Bailey


AQA English Language Grade Boundaries, using Exampro’s Testbase Camp.

AQA English Language Grade Boundaries, using Exampro’s Testbase Camp.

We’re all in the very difficult position of on the one hand knowing that any grade boundaries we create are a fiction of some degree or another but on the other hand still being expected by our schools, academy chains and, ultimately, students to say where they are in relation to the new 9-1 grades.

My own academy chain has worked with several HoFs to devise grade boundaries, but these differ by as many as three grades from the grade boundaries provided by PIXL (ours are harsher).  To continue the fiction metaphor, it seems like it just depends whether we want a fairy story or a horror story depending on which grades we use.

However, AQA has offered a service where schools can upload their marks onto something called Testbase Camp and this has provided population data on the most recent sample assessment materials provided for the English Language exams.

Using these and a few other pieces of information from here and there I’ve put together the following:

Grade Boundary Rationale Using Testbase Camp 

This is the process that grade boundaries for AQA English Language were arrived at using the population data from Exampro Testbase Camp published 13th January 2017.

Data on for the national population distribution of each paper and combined can be provided, but it is accessible from Testbase Camp itself.

Guidance from “Setting the grade standards of new GCSEs in England – part 2”

“Calculating 1-7

  • Broadly the same proportion of students will achieve a grade 4 and above as currently achieve a grade C and above in the subject.
  • Broadly the same proportion of students will achieve a grade 7 and above as currently achieve a grade A and above in the subject.
  • Broadly the same proportion of students will achieve a grade 1 and above as currently achieve a grade G and above.
  • Grades 2, 3, 5 and 6 will be awarded arithmetically so that the grade boundaries are equally spaced in terms of marks from neighbouring grades. Grade 5 will be positioned in the top third of the marks for a current grade C and the bottom third of the marks for a current grade B. “

“Calculating 8-9

  • Across all subjects (as opposed to within each individual subject) close to 20 per cent of those awarded a grade 7 or above will be awarded a grade 9 (the ‘tailored approach’).
  • Under the tailored approach, grade 8 will still be awarded arithmetically so that the grade boundary is equally spaced in terms of marks from the grade 7 and 9 boundaries. “

JCQ Percentages 2016

Grade Cumulative Percentage 2016
A 11.9
B 33.3
C 63.4
D 84.6
E 93.5
F 97.5
G 99.1

Using “Setting the grade standards of new GCSEs in England – part 2” to transfer from letters to numbers. 

Grade Cumulative Percentage Comments
9 2% 20% of Grade 7
8 7% ‘Arithmetically equally spaced’ (7 and 9)
7 12% Grade A 2016 to integer
6 26% Grade B 2016 – ((Grade B 2016 – Grade A 2016)/3); 33.3 – ((33.3 – 11.9)/3)
5 43% Grade B 2016 + ((Grade C 2016 – Grade B 2016)/3); 33.3 + (63.4 – 33.3)/3)
4 63% Grade C 2016
3 75% ‘Arithmetically equally spaced’(1 and 4)
2 87% ‘Arithmetically equally spaced’ (1 and 4)
1 99% Grade G 2016

Comparative Raw Mark Grade Boundaries 

(Out of 80) Academy Chain PIXL TestbaseCamp
1 11 4 5
2 18 10 23
3 28 16 30
4 41 22 35
5 49 29 43
6 56 36 50
7 64 43 57
8 69 50 61
9 76 56 63

Ultimately we will only know in August how correct these are, but for the time being, as far as I’m aware, these are the best we have to go on.  It does, of course, assume that the marks provided to Testbase Camp are correct, as they would not be subject to external moderation.

I hope this is useful and if there are any flaws in my reasoning, logic or just maths, please let me know!

Sweating the Small Stuff

Sweating the Small Stuff

A few years ago I went to Bruges on Eurostar and was looking for something to read from St. Pancras, something relatively light that would while away the hours until I arrived.  My eye was caught by the sight of a Canadian astronaut skateboarding over an image of the Earth: ‘An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth’ by Chris Hadfield, Commander of ISS Expedition 35 but probably best known as the ‘Major Tom’ guy.

Several hours later, my other half was begging me to put the ‘damn astronaut book down’ and go out to see the city we had travelled so far to visit.  Eventually I did put the book down and we had very nice evening trying to spot places where ‘In Bruges’ was shot.  But when we got back, I had to finish the book: it turned out that while being incredibly enjoyable to read, it was not the ‘relatively light’ book that I had expected.

The book is, on one level, an autobiography that covers Chris Hadfield’s early years at school and in the Canadian Air Force through to the beginning of his NASA career and the culmination of it as Commander of the ISS.  However, it is also much more.  As the subtitle of the novel says, it really is a book about ‘life lessons from space’, useful for anyone to help understand what they want to do and who they want to be, but priceless for a relatively junior middle leader working out what culture he thinks that schools should have.

A couple of years on, the same, albeit slightly less junior, middle leader was reading Sarah Cullen’s chapter of ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers’ with the focus on details being crucial to Michaela’s success and the parallels between the philosophies were immediately clear.

Cullen gives an example of how a seemingly innocuous subject like ‘which year group should use which stairs’ was carefully and meticulously discussed until the best solution was decided on; Hadfield gives an example of a crucial spacewalk almost having to be cancelled because of a bead or two of irritant cleaning fluid wasn’t wiped from a visor.

The title of this particular chapter in ‘An Astronaut’s Guide’ is ‘Sweat the Small Stuff’ and this is exactly the idiom that Debra Kidd uses in part 2 of her review of ‘Battle Hymn’ when commenting on Cullen’s chapter.  Recently I’ve been sweating a lot of small stuff with my own year 7 group and year 7 as a whole, trying to ‘imitate the action of the tiger’ with knowledge organisers, frequent low-stakes testing and a very high set of expectations, both in terms of conduct and behaviour for learning.  They’ve recently completed their second assessment of the year and the standard set is giving our year 8s a run for their money and, in terms of progress, has the rest of the school beat hands down.

What’s great too is how the staff are raving about their year 7 lessons, going from being a bit dubious about introducing terms like anaphoric reference and juxtaposition to keenly discussing how best to introduce the next set of terms, in what order, with which texts and really focusing on the minutiae of how we are supporting the students: sweating the small stuff.

Chris Hadfield’s spacewalk had a happy ending – eventually his eyes’ natural defences diluted the irritant so that he could see again and ‘sweating the small stuff’ through training enabled Hadfield and NASA to manage the situation effectively.  Subsequent spacewalks used a different cleaning product and if an astronaut was affected, the solution to the problem was known, thanks again to sweating the small stuff.

I’ll leave the final comments to Commander Hadfield: “That’s why it’s so worth it to sweat the small stuff.  And even in my line of work, it’s all small stuff.”

Imitating the Action of the Tiger

Imitating the Action of the Tiger

I first visited Michaela in the summer of 2016 after year 11 and year 13 had gone on exam leave and I wanted to use some of the gained time to see how some other schools were approaching some of the same challenges my school has. I’m not going to write about how amazing I found it as others have done so at length and much better than I could (see @Samfr and @Doug_Lemov for just two examples). Instead I thought I would write about what I had seen and read and experienced and how it has changed my teaching practice: how I am “imitating the action of the tiger”.

Knowledge Organisers
I first became aware of something similar to knowledge organisers through Twitter, a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ version, I think, and looked to include it in the new schemes of work we were creating for the new English units being written at the time. The first versions were more like fact sheets, were far too wordy and I wasn’t really clear how I wanted students to use them. As a reference tool, something to make pretty with highlighters (and then ignore!), a checklist for staff?

After my visit to Michaela and with the help of @jo_facer who kindly looked at and gave me feedback on a few early drafts, I developed something I was happy with and will post later in the week.

I chose year 7 because I wanted to embed these terms very early and also so that year 7 would know nothing different. Throughout the year I had numerous conversations about ‘inverting the pyramid’ of throwing all resources into year 11 intervention, only having to do the same thing again and again and again, and focusing on year 7 was one of the strategies to break this paradigm.

Generally they’ve been used effectively across the faculty and I know my year 7 lower ability group take pride in knowing what verisimilitude means and what the difference between anaphoric and cataphoric reference is. They still need more practice applying these terms and not looking for ‘one size fits all’ analysis, but they now know these techniques exist which is the first step to being able to apply them.

A few students have struggled learning the words so for those students I have recently given them an A5 exercise book (we had some spare!) as a practice book to formally practice look-say-cover-write-check as per Michaela homework. One student who was convinced he could learn them has gone from 2/10 to 5/10 to 8/10 in just one week and four nights of 15-20 minutes of study.

It has probably been the most successful and impactful homework that I have set in my career to date!

Work Booklets
In January 2016, years 7-10 were all working on non-fiction for AQA English Language Paper 2 and while I was happy with the texts we had chosen and the tasks set, the amount of recopying we had to do drove me insane! Not only from the waste of money but, more importantly, the waste of learning time with so many loose pieces of paper. Seeing the fabulous ‘Julius Caesar’ booklet at Michaela made me change my approach.

Again with year 7 only to begin with, I devised a booklet to support imaginative writing. This is something that is not imitating the action of the tiger as Michaela don’t do writing units per se, but integrate writing skills through their study of literature. (Although this is something that they are looking at developing.) We would then follow this booklet with one that looked at prose extracts (vaguely linked to AQA English Language Paper 1).

While I’m happy in general with how the first two went there are a couple areas that didn’t go as well as planned. Firstly, I included good examples of several genres in the imaginative writing unit for students to imitate before moving on to structural elements of a story. We never finished this because of when we had to complete our first assessment and it was a bit too much like a reading unit…which was then followed by a reading unit! This isn’t necessarily bad, and students did make links between the extracts and the booklets, but I’m going to look to combine the two booklets into one for next year.

Secondly, I created the first two booklets on my own so while I was enthusiastic about the texts I had chosen, other faculty members were less keen on some of them and I’m pretty sure this came across in some of the lessons that were delivered.

For our next unit, everyone contributed a poem on society in the same format as the earlier two booklets and I modified the knowledge organiser to fit with what those poems required. Funnily enough the outcome turned out to mostly be a reprise of the old AQA Different Cultures anthology, but welcoming ‘Two Scavengers…’ back into the classroom has been like meeting up with an old friend from uni who hasn’t changed a bit.

Marking Trial
Apart from students’ results, my number one target for this year is to try and do something about my faculty’s workload. I’ll come back to Comparative Judgement another time, but I’ve been trialling ‘Giving Feedback the Michaela Way’, also being influenced by the work of @bennewmark and @MrThorntonTeach.

My plan is to demonstrate that my class have made at least as good, if not better, progress than other classes BUT in the extra time I have added significantly more value than the ‘hornet’ of extended written feedback would. Interestingly @learning_spy blogged exactly this suggestion this week! I’ll know by the middle of next week if I’ve achieved this and then my plan is to extend it to other English teachers who teach the same half of year 7 that I do and see if it works for them too. One of the teachers thinks it’s a great idea; one takes a huge amount of pride in their written feedback and prefers ‘deep’ marking; the third teacher is struggling with workload and is willing to try anything that may help!

In a couple more months, if the trial continues to be successful then I want to widen it to the whole faculty, leading to a change in the whole school marking policy for next September.

So, three ways in which I have been influenced and as I read ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers’ more and more ideas are occurring to me, which I’ll come back to in later blogs. But there’s one other way I’ve been influenced and you’re currently reading it!

I’ve always been a bit nervous sharing my ideas outside of my school after a quite unpleasant online experience in my training year, but no longer! So until we meet “once more”, take care, “dear friends”.