Creating a culture for academic excellence

more able

In this week’s 15 minute forum, English teacher Andy Tharby discussed how we can create and sustain a fertile culture for academic excellence.


Our school is situated in a coastal town and has an intake that covers a large social demographic. We are currently asking an interesting question: how can we help students from all backgrounds and academic starting points achieve academic excellence? One small but significant group of students have been at the forefront of our attention – those who achieved highly at KS2, but are making less progress than those who arrived at lower starting points.

In The Hidden Lives of Learners (2007), the researcher Graham Nuthall (2007) theorised that there are three interlinked worlds that shape a student’s learning:

  • the public world of the teacher;
  • the highly influential world of peers;
  • the student’s own private world and experiences.

If we are to help more students achieve academic excellence and aspire to the top then we need to tap into each of these worlds. In an ideal school, these three worlds would work in tandem to reinforce and support each other. The curriculum would be challenging and coherent; the teaching would be inspiring and stretching; students would be influenced by each other to value academic learning; students would believe that they can and will become a success.

As we know, there are so many aspects to a student’s home life that can provide a barrier to success and aspiration. Ultimately, the best we can do is to get the school culture right. From the moment a child walks through the gates in the morning, until the moment he walks out, he should be immersed in a world that values and celebrates academic learning. This culture should infiltrate every nook and cranny of school life.

Teaching and curriculum

There have been plenty of books and courses written about how to get the most out of high-ability students in lessons. I would suggest that there should be three key principles: content, thinking and shaping. (See here for more details.) In other words:

Is the content of lessons and the curriculum sufficiently challenging?

Do students work from tasks and questions that ensure that they think deeply about this content?

Do students know how to shape their knowledge into successful work – such as extended writing and performances and products?

It is very important that we define high-level content very precisely. Have a look at the wonderful An Inspector Calls resource used in English lessons, for example. The challenging concepts and vocabulary are clearly labelled:


AIC resource


Another sensible approach is to teach sophisticated vocabulary explicitly and expect to students to use it in their written and oral work. Geography teacher Hannah Townsend does this from Year 7:


Self concept

‘… the effect of achievement on self-concept is stronger than the effect of self-concept on achievement’

Daniel Muijs and David Reynolds, Effective Teaching: Evidence and Practice, 3rd edn (London: Sage, 2011), p. 148

It is important that high-achieving students come to see themselves as high-achieving students. The answer to the question ‘Who am I?’ needs to be ‘Someone who is doing well at school, and wants to do even better’. Even though the best way to help students feel that they are doing well is to help them to achieve (as Muijs and Reynolds point out), our interactions with students can smooth the way for this process. A well-timed one-to-one discussion, a quick call to a parent or a touch of public praise at the right moment can make all the difference – especially with those who struggle to believe in themselves.

These questions are useful:

How can we help our high-starting students to see themselves as high-achievers?

What kind of conversations and interactions will have an impact on them?

How can we improve their confidence and sense of self-efficacy in the task at hand?

How can we tackle ‘imposter syndrome’?

How can we better help able, disadvantaged children to feel part of the ‘bright set’?

School and peer culture

School and peer culture are linked in complex ways. Peer culture is a mysterious thing; how we adults envisage our school might not be how many students see it when they are together. This division is likely to create unseen tensions, especially for those who have yet to decide whether to seek acceptance from the whole school academic culture or from the glamour of the rebellious peer group.

To tackle this we need to ensure our academic culture seeps into every crack – in the corridors, in lesson arrivals and departures, in assembly and in every interaction and conversation. School must be a safe, calm and happy place. Kindness and politeness must take precedence. If we want children to embrace the world of academia and knowledge, then this must be an easy choice – in every way, school must be more civil and civic than the streets. If we want our children to go on and succeed in the world, we also have a duty to teach our students the habits and behaviours that will help them to gain access to this world. These are interesting questions to ask:

How do we encourage students to aim for the top and support their wellbeing as they do so?

How do we make academic achievement and a love of learning even more socially desirable?

How should adults model language use and social interaction?

How well do we expect these behaviours in our students?

In all, if we are to encourage more and more students to aim for the very top, then we must all play our part in the wider school culture – however immeasurable these actions may be.

The first place to start, as always, is in the way that we model and encourage language use – both in and out of lessons.



Posted in General Teaching | 6 Comments

Five reasons I like this Post-It

My job requires me to spend a considerable amount of time in the classrooms of my colleagues.  Last week I saw this Post-It note stuck to the computer screen of one my colleagues.  This made me feel happy for a number of reasons.  As this weekend has seen a number of great posts with ‘five things’ included in the title (Carl Hendrick, James Theobald, Greg Ashman & David Didau) I thought I would pick five things I liked about this Post-It.

  1.  By reminding themselves to link back to topics they have taught in previous lessons through verbal questioning, or the written questions the students have to complete in this lesson, this teacher is demonstrating a good understanding of the importance of retrieval practice.  The ‘Learning Scientists’ offer a great explanation of what we mean by retrieval practice here:

“Retrieval practice involves recreating something you’ve learned in the past from your memory, and thinking about it right now. In other words, a while after you’ve learned something by reading it in a book or hearing it in a class or from a teacher, you need to bring it to mind (or “retrieve” it). The word after is really important; you need to forget the information at least a little in order for retrieval to be effective! You don’t want to just immediately recite what you see in the book or what the teacher told you, but rather you want to bring the information to mind on your own, once it starts to get a little more difficult to remember what you studied.”

2.  We know from the likes of Daniel Willingham that ‘we learn in the context of what we already know‘.  In ‘Making every lesson count’ we encourage teachers to use this in their explanations, by tethering their explanations to what students already know.  This Post-It is reminding the teacher to do just that – link back to what the students already know about the topic.  For example in science, ‘tell me what you already know about how the particles are arranged in a solid, liquid and a gas’. The responses that you get from students, will allow you to unpick misconceptions and build upon what they already know.

3.  The graphic above is from the excellent publication ‘Practice with Purpose’ by the Deans for Impact.   Essentially, it discusses a model of teacher CPD where teachers engage in deliberate practice, to improve their teaching.  An important part of this is to intensify the focus on a specific aspect of their teaching that they are trying to improve.

“Deliberate practice requires a
significant level of focus; the
practice involves conscious
effort on the part of the novice
in order to improve.”

This is really important advice, especially for new teachers.  All too often when trying to improve their teaching, they skip from one aspect of teaching to another – but end up never really doing a good job of anything, because their effort is too diluted.  This teacher is making a concerted effort to focus on one thing – linking back in their teaching.  A great example of purposeful practice.

4.  Very simply, it’s great to see teachers taking responsibility for their own CPD.  This doesn’t have to require going on a course or attending a lengthy meeting, it’s just about reminding yourself to focus on your own ongoing improvement as a teacher.  This teacher is an NQT, so I know that she will also get excellent feedback on her efforts from her mentor – an essential part of the process, as identified in the ‘Deans for Impact’ document above.  If you’re not an NQT though, who do you get your feedback from? A question worth considering.

5.  At Durrington, we have a ‘tight but loose’ approach to teaching.  Our teachers are expected to implement the six principles above, but in a way that suits them, their subject and the students they are teaching.  One of the advantages of this approach, is that it gives us a common language across the school when we are talking about what great teaching looks like.  This seems to be working with this teacher, who is thinking about how she implements the principles of explanation and practice in her classroom.

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Some tips for new teachers

Tonight’s 15 minute forum was led by third year teacher Jack Griffiths.  Jack shared some of the practical tips he has received over the last three years from colleagues, that have helped to make his life as a teacher smoother.

You get A LOT of feedback during your PGCE year and even more, potentially conflicting,  during your NQT year.  You need to recognise which pieces of feedback you are going to take forward into your teaching career, in order to make you more efficient.  For example, during my training year, one teacher told me how important it was to show students what you are like when you are angry, as this will make them not want to make you angry.  This didn’t seem to work for this teacher, as he seemed angry a lot.  It also didn’t seem very nice.  So I ignored this advice. Similarly, one person told me not to smile until Christmas, whilst somebody else said to smile on your first day.  Following a lesson observation I was told to spend more time explaining tasks to students.  The following lesson, another (different) observer, told me I should spend less time explaining tasks to students.

This can all get more than a little confusing.  Fortunately, I have been given some excellent advice from colleagues, that has made my life so much easier, reduced my workload and made me a better teacher.  This is what I wanted to share.

Focus on one thing you want to change

Amidst all the noise, you should try to focus on one area of your teaching that you want to improve, rather than skipping from one thing to another.  The focus of this is going to change over time and will depend on the classes you teach, but you cannot focus on everything at once.  It is better to spend your time focusing on the ‘purposeful practice’ of one aspect of your teaching and do a good job of that.  The most effective change might not even be directly related to our 6 teaching principles.  It might well relate to classroom management.

Come in at normal time on INSET days

Although it’s tempting to spend an extra 30 minutes in bed on INSET days, the time before an INSET day is one of the few times a year that you won’t be disturbed and you can actually focus on getting some of those ‘big jobs’ done.

It’s OK to like the students you teach

Relationships with the students that you teach, or who are in your form, are crucial.  If you engage students in conversation and are interested in them as people, you are naturally going to find things that you have in common and can talk about with them, that can help to build rapport with them.  It is OK to enjoy having a conversation with students, in fact I would encourage it!  You have to spend a great deal of time with your classes and form group, so why not make it pleasant?  More on relationships here.

Make spreadsheets work for you

Excel is more powerful that most of us use it for and can actually do most of your data analysis for you.  The best system will be able to tell you (when combined with your own knowledge of the students) who your underperforming students are, which groups of students are underperforming, and which grades to give them at tracking points.  Most importantly it should automate this process for you, so that you can use this information to inform your planning.

Record the marks that students get for individual questions on exam papers

I used to hate doing this because at the time you are doing it,  it is tedious and I never used to look at the marks after they had been recorded.  I couldn’t see the point in it.  I now realise that  it can make giving feedback on past papers simple, specifc, linked directly to the assessment and speedy.  I even coordinate this, so that the data from this spreadsheet automatically produces printed stickers that provide personalised feedback for students on the topics that they got wrong:

Most importantly, it tells me if there were particular questions that lots of students struggled with.  This informs my planning, as I know I need to go back and re-teach that topic – and find out why they did so poorly

Organise your parents evening data into the order you are going to see the parents

It takes a bit of time to set the spreadsheet up the first time but once you’ve done it once, it only takes 5 minutes to update each time.  Having the data you need, organised by how you are going to need the data saves time and makes you look more organised!

Bring your personality to the classroom

Students respond best to teachers who are enthusiastic nerds about their subject, because then hopefully your passion for your subject will become infectious.  Students also respond best when they feel safe.  A witty exchange has its place in the classroom, as long as your students are always very clear about the boundaries.








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In the news…

This week, Andy Tharby is launching something new at Durrington High School.   As we know, many of our students grow up in homes where national news and current affairs are not discussed regularly. This plays a part in forming a (largely invisible) general knowledge and vocabulary deficit that makes it harder for these students to access lessons and to understand the opportunities available in the world beyond the school and their local town.

In order to try to go some way to addressing this, every Monday Andy is going to send all form tutors a topical news link, with some questions, to show and discuss with their tutees during form time.  Hopefully, regular discussion of the news in form time like this, will go some small way towards bridging this gap.

For example:

Donald Trump – the first 100 days (4.00)

Further discussion:

From what you have seen in this video, do you think that Donald Trump is an good leader?Does this video portray Donald Trump unfairly?

Will circular runways ever take off? (3.00)

Further discussion:

What are the advantages of a circular runway?

If an international airport was built locally, what would be the advantages and disadvantages for the people of the Worthing area?

Mr Gorilla: How I crawled the London marathon (1.58)

What kind of training schedule do you think a (normal) marathon runner needs to undertake?

Why do you think that so many ordinary people choose to put themselves through such a challenging physical test?

We’ll keep you posted about how it goes…


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How to get the best from your TA

Tonight’s 15 Minute Forum was led by our SENCO, Carole Marsh

The Issue

In response to recent research into the role and work of teaching assistants by Rob Webster and others we have been changing the way TAs:

  • support SEND students in class
  • Work with teachers in class

Students with SEND who experience high amounts of teaching assistant (TA) support are at risk of developing learned helplessness.

  • none of this is a reflection on TAs
  • it is a recognition of how a core part of SEND provision has evolved, largely unchallenged.

What the research points to

The traditional deployment of TAs has been based on 2 untested assumptions …

  • support from TAs leads to positive outcomes for students … particularly low attaining and those with SEN … a natural assumption that if teaching assistants work alongside students with SEN there will be an increase in achievement
  • There are positive effects for teachers.

The evidence is much more complex.  It suggests that:

  • there is minimal impact on student achievement
  • there are benefits on behavioural, emotional and social development.

(Russell, A., Webster, R., & Blatchford, P. (2013) Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants. London, Routledge)

The EEF toolkit says the following:

“Research that examines the impact of TAs providing general classroom support suggests that students in a class with a teaching assistant present do not, on average, outperform those in one where only a teacher is present. This average finding covers a range of impacts. In some cases teachers and TAs work together effectively, leading to increases in attainment. In other cases pupils, particularly those who are low attaining or identified as having special educational needs, can perform worse in classes with teaching assistants.”

More on this here.

The big issue

One unintended consequence of the traditional way Teaching Assistants work is that it limits the interaction between the class teacher and the student(s) who need additional help and support.

In the traditional way of working there is an assumption in practice that when a TA is assigned to a student he / she will …

  • support that student through breaking the work down
  • give clarification and explanation
  • deal with student misconceptions.

By sitting with / next to a student a ‘barrier’ is inadvertently placed between teacher and student.  The teacher may think that there is less of a need to check the progress of these students, as they re being ‘looked after’ by the TA.  The consequence of this is that those students in most need of subject specific help are drawing most of their support from a non-specialist.

Hattie (2008) argues that the use of teaching assistants tended to “separate the teacher from the students,” becoming “an alternative rather than an addition to the teacher.” This could have a damaging effect on students because teaching assistants’ explanations of topics were “sometimes inaccurate or confusing” and they were more likely than teachers to “prompt pupils and provide them with answers”. Moreover he goes on to say, ‘Schools should stop placing students who need the most expertise with those who have the least – TAs’

Working with TAs – ways forward

At Durrington, based on these findings, we have adjusted the way in which we use TAs.  The TA circulates the room, instead of sitting with one student for the whole lesson.  This is to support the following:

  • keeping all students on task rather than single SEN focus
  • Still works with SEN students … but…
  • Has a wider classroom role
  • Opens greater opportunity for interaction between the teacher and SEN students

The TA also learns subject specific key knowledge, exam framework and command words.  This allows them to focus on:

  • what is required in the structure of answers
  • much more effective checking of student work

The teacher can then focus on explanations, clarifying misconceptions, re-explaining, to all students, including SEN students rather than relying on TA to do this.  This ensures:

  • more personalised time with SEN students
  • renewed expectations of what these students can achieve
  • increased their scaffolding of work

The diagram above describes ways in which TAs could be working with students in order to grow greater independence:

Self Scaffolding … TAs need to get comfortable with pupils struggling a bit and recognise this as an essential component of learning

Prompting … This is where TAs might intervene with a nudge: ‘What do you need to do first?’; ‘What’s your plan?’; ‘You can do this!’

Clueing … in problem-solving activities … Clues are a question or small piece of information to help pupils work out how to move forward. They should be drip-fed; always start with a small clue

Modelling … TAs, if confident and competent, can model while pupils actively watch and listen, then try the same step for themselves afterwards

Correcting … is where TAs provide answers and requires no independent thinking


  • While there is very little time for joint lesson planning (an ideal situation) … TAs are a very valuable resource
  • Learned dependence and the limiting of interaction between the teacher and SEN student can be minimised by:
    • Thinking again about the classroom roles of both teacher and TA
    • Working with the TA in supporting SEN students by creating a climate and experiences that promote greater independence
    • Using the TA’s increasing knowledge of particular learning difficulties presented by SEN students

The EEF suggests the following considerations:

  1. Have you identified the activities where TAs can support learning, rather than simply managing tasks?
  2. Have you provided support and training for teachers and TAs so that they understand how to work together effectively?
  3. How will you ensure that teachers do not reduce their support or input to the pupils supported by TAs?
  4. Have you considered how you will evaluate the impact of how you deploy your TAs?


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Now that’s what I call CPD

Today was the first day back after the spring break and we had one of our fortnightly ‘Subject Planning & Development Sessions’.  I have blogged about these before here.  The purpose of them is simple – for subject teams to work and plan collaboratively to address this simple question – what are we teaching over the next fortnight and how can we do it really well?

I was in one of these sessions tonight, led by our Director of Science, Steph Temple. It was fantastic and exemplified everything that effective CPD should be about – in my opinion.  The science team are just about to teach using moles to find the ratio of reactants and products and balancing symbol equations to year 10.  Quite a challenging topic, especially if you are not a chemistry specialist.  The session went something like this:

  • Steph modelled on the white board how she goes through the process of solving these equations, just as she does when she is teaching the class – stressing the importance of starting from the basics, to make sure they are secure and then working up.  Every step of the process was discussed and unpicked.  Staff felt comfortable to ask questions such as ‘why did you do that bit like that?‘ or to offer their own input.
  • By doing it like this, she was also stressing the importance of actually modelling the process live on the board with students, as opposed to simply showing them the solution as a powerpoint (more on this here).
  • As she went along, she pointed out the common mistakes that students make and how to avoid them.
  • She also pointed out some challenges to add in, especially when going through the basics e.g. adding in some (OH)2 when working out the relative formula mass.
  • Mark allocations were discussed, when it comes to exam questions on this topic, including why students often miss marks e.g. they don’t then re-write the balanced equation, once they have worked out the ratio of moles.
  • With a particularly tricky question, a mistake was made – which actually proved to be a good discussion point for the team i.e. what do they need to stress in their explanation/modelling to their students to ensure that their students don’t make similar mistakes?
  • The team were then given the opportunity to try out lots of similar problems for themselves, whilst discussing the possible sticky points with each question and how they would overcome it.

When done well, this really is proving to be the most effective form of CPD we have done for a long while. Why?

  • It’s within the context of the subject – modelling something effectively in PE is not the same as modelling something in science.
  • It’s within the context of what they are teaching now – the work that was done tonight, will directly impact the teaching that takes place in lessons over the next fortnight.
  • It encourages teachers to talk about their teaching and learn from others, especially when it comes to thinking about student misconceptions, mistakes and challenge.
  • It’s not a one off event – the work that has been done tonight, will be further developed in the next session in a fortnight, and then again in another two weeks and so on.
  • It reduces workload – rather than everybody having to struggle together to plan the same sequence of lessons, why not plan it and share resources together?
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Powerpoint – to use or not to use?

The educational twittershpere can be a very strange place.  Over the weekend there was a flurry of discussion about powerpoint – whether it was useful or not for teachers.  Who would have thought that powerpoint could bring about such a passionate response…especially on the first sun-filled weekend of the spring?  Interestingly though, it’s a discussion I’ve had at school on a number of occasions.  It certainly stirs people up!  Personally, I don’t think it’s as straightforward as whether we should use it or not.  I’ve seen powerpoint used really badly and I’ve also seen it used really effectively.  In the words of Bananarama and Fun Boy Three, ‘it aint what you do it’s the way that you do it’.  Here are my thoughts.

Used well….

  • Opening up the curiosity gap – we can support effective explanations by generating curiosity amongst students.  We can do this by presenting them with information that doesn’t tell the full story, intrigues students and makes them want to find out more.  For example, a powerpoint slide could contain images of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and World War 1, generating discussion and interest about the links between the two.
  • Useful visuals – again, explanations can be supported by showing students images that would be difficult to draw and explain accurately on the board.  This also brings the explanations alive.  For example, images of the human heart, with specific defects can be shown to students and discussed with them.
  • Comparative modelling – simply showing an exemplary piece of student work e.g. an extended response to a question,  on a powerpoint slide might not be useful, because if looked at in isolation, it would be hard for students to identify why it is a strong piece of work.  However, if it is shown alongside a weaker piece of work, it becomes more useful.  Why?  When students see a strong piece of work alongside a weaker piece of work (answering the same question) they can compare the two and pick out why one is better than the other.
  • Archiving excellence – whilst simply showing students exemplary work on a powerpoint does not equate to effective modelling, it can serve a purpose.  If we collect exemplary pieces of work and store them on a powerpoint, this can be used to show and discuss the standard expected of students and then challenge them to aspire to this – at the start of a course, or at the start of a new topic.
  • Peer critique – if a powerpoint slide containing a piece of student work is projected onto a normal white board, the teacher can initiate a student discussion that critiques the work and annotate it as the discussion goes on.  A great way of sharing feedback about a specific piece of work.
  • Low stakes quizzes – powerpoints can be used to prepare short, low stakes multiple choice quizzes, to use with students at the start of lessons to support retrieval practice.  Whilst these could just be read out without the use of a poerpoint, a powerpoint allows you to incorporate images into these quizzes which, when used with mini-whiteboards, can be used to effectively assess understanding.  Example below:




When used not so well…

  • Showing the finished product – sometimes teachers believe that they are modelling, when they show students a finished product on a powerpoint slide e.g. a paragraph of writing in response to a question.  The problem with this, is that you don’t model the process of getting there.  What were the thought processes involved in starting the piece of writing?  How did you decide what tier 2 and 3 language to use?  How did you ensure that the argument was balanced?  How did you summarise the key points?  The best way to do this effectively is to write it together, on the board, questioning students as you go – live modelling.  By doing this, you are modelling how you think, in order to get to the end product.
  • Worked examples – when maths and science teachers are doing a complex calculation, that they may not be completely confident about, the temptation is to have a prepared worked example on a powerpoint slide to go through with students.  As above, this doesn’t allow you to really unpick each of the steps involved in the process.  Similarly, you are not really modelling your thought processes.  Do it on the board, punctuated with questions and explain each step carefully.
  • Lots of notes – it’s pretty well accepted that a slide full of notes for students (or anyone for that matter) to copy down, is unlikely to generate much thinking (that’s not to say there isn’t always a place for this – sometimes they just need to copy down a full and accurate definition).  A small change could be to present them with a list of key words (or sentence starters) that they use, to construct their own paragraphs – and so generate thinking.  We need to guard against dependency though, so this should always be used as a way of moving towards writing for themselves independently.
  • Check the detail – google images is a great resource when producing powerpoints to use in lessons.  Take care though.  Just because an image is on the internet, it won’t necessarily be correct – in fact they can sometime contain some glaring errors.  Yesterday, I saw an image of a cell undergoing mitosis with the annotation – ‘cell undergoing division by osmosis’.
  • What’s behind you – some would argue that when modelling, it’s best to use a visualiser instead of a powerpoint and a whiteboard, as this allows you to face the class fully and monitor the class.  It’s a fair comment, but I think as long as you are aware of this, it doesn’t have to be a huge issue.

So is powerpoint a dreadful thing that should be banned?  No, I don’t think so.  It’s a tool for teachers and like any tool, it can be used really well, not so well or badly.

Here’s another post on the same topic by Dan Williams.

Posted by Shaun Allison


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