Something that helped with killing the PRP Monster.

One of the biggest changes in the last few years in education is the abolition of national pay scales which teachers automatically progress through. As a result, and combined with government academy policy, schools across the country have vastly different methods, some of which require teachers to jump through crazy hoops for a minor salary increase. This can often mean that teachers are given numerical exam data targets to meet if they want to move up the scale, or it can mean lesson observations at a certain ‘grade’ – a practice which is vastly becoming outdated and generally accepted to show us very little about the quality of teaching, with observers often measuring poor proxies for learning rather than exploring learning over time.

In this context, then, I feel really fortunate to work in a school that is ahead of game in this respect. We dropped formal, graded lessons observations some time ago, and combined this change with a PPD (personal professional development) system of PRP (performance related pay). Our policy is project based, and asks that teachers identify, in around July time, an area of their teaching that they wish to improve, and to go off and try some things to see if they can improve it, followed by exploring the impact of said changes to see if they are worth implementing over time. It is as straightforward as that. In July, we hand in our ‘log’ of what we’ve been up to, which doesn’t have to be in a set format, just show what we’ve been doing. During the course of the academic year, we also check in with our line managers about what we’ve been doing and whether we need some support or guidance to help us move things forward. Throughout the year, we have calendared slots of 1hr 15 mins in which to work on our project. This is something that I think is crucial, to have that time earmarked for the work. There are 6 of these over the academic year. At the end of the cycle, in July, we share our ‘logs’ with SLT and governors and pay decisions are based on this. This year, my log was a purple and silver uniforn notepad, a folder with copies of the research papers I’d read and annotated, plus a copy of my blog post which I wrote following my talk at ResearchEd Oxford about the work I’d done in the last academic year for my PPD. I also included some copies of resources I had made.

Unicorn book ‘cos pedagogy is real and magic just like unicorns.

Although I jest about the unicorn book, it did enable me to work in the way I work best which is another huge positive for me. You can see here the kind of stuff I had inside:

Me using my note book to get my head around what my throughts were.
Some brain blobbing I did to help me move things forward
My notes from my speech at ResearchEd Oxford.

As well as the obvious love I have for the freedom of the log, there are plenty of other reasons this policy works so well.

First, the emphasis is firmly on teaching and learning, and creating some real, meaningful change to your practice. I remember the head talking when he first launched this policy and saying that having 100 teachers working on 1 improvement is far better than the same 100 working on a box ticking exercise; I couldn’t agree more. The PRP process can sometimes be completely devolved from your day to day teaching, whereas this method encourages us to try new things, read widely and experiment with confidence. For someone who like me, who lives and breathes this kind of thing, it’s heaven! Furthermore, the focus actually isn’t on whether or not the improvement actually works – that’s almost irrelevant in the wider picture. It is about the engagement with, and response to, pedagogy. As long as you’ve engaged with your idea, tried it and worked hard on it, if it doesn’t have an impact, then that’s fine so long as you learn from it.

Secondly, the timings of the policy are important in the wider culture shift. By having the deadline for submission in July, it prevents staff from using exam data and actively encourages us to evidence impact in other ways. This is a real stand out point for me in that it reflects that exam data isn’t always the best measure of teacher quality. The argument behind this is one I empathise with – improved teaching should, in turn, lead to improved learning over time, which will be reflected in whole data any way. It’s too early to tell this on a wider, whole school level, I suspect, but from my own practice, I know I have made some significant changes from which I see impact in the classroom regularly.

And finally, in terms of teacher retention, this policy is, for me, one of the best ways to keep your best teachers in your schools. I have found it completely reinvigorating and I wouldn’t ever now move to a school that did things differently, such as exam data targets and formal, grade lesson observations. The impact on my practice has been significant. For example, during the last academic year, I focussed my project on using cognitive science to address the challenges presented in the new, closed book, English Literature GCSEs. In the end, this became the topic for a talk that I did at ResearchEd Oxford (which I blogged about here), and now a number of colleagues elsewhere have benefitted from the work that I had done as part of my own PPD project. Isn’t that just brilliant? The impact of one decision made in school, to enable our teachers to be creative and free, has led to change for the better in a number of other schools – it makes the alternative, ticking a few boxes for a 4+ headline figure, seem laughable, frankly.

This year, I’ve been working on strategies to make marking more manageable whilst increasing impact and I have some great ideas that will hopefully also benefit colleagues both in school and in the wider teaching community.

I’ve been more than spoilt by seeing how good things can be when schools unleash their teachers in this kind of transformative way and I have no desire at all to return to uninspiring tick boxes which have little bearing on student outcomes.


Something that helps with managing workload.

Planning for low prior attainment classes can often present a number of challenges, especially in planning resources which fully target a range of different skills that learners are developing in an English curriculum. This can also present a significant challenge for secondary teachers when teaching students who are performing at lower primary levels. It can also be really hard to find quality resources instead of reinventing the wheel. Workload is higher than ever and finding things that help support staff on managing that is often a challenge of its own!

This is where Twinkl have come into their own. Recently, we’ve used their “Knights and Dragons” poster and prompt card back which you can find here

It worked really well for a number of reasons.

Firstly, we have a number of students in a nurture group who need to work on their fine motor skills and pencil control, and this resource is fantastic for that. It also helps them produce some beautiful work whilst developing these skills. Definitely a win for us on that point. But what was also fantastic about this resource is the slightly more challenging vocabulary such as “Knight”, “treasure” and “shield”. This has been really useful in teaching word patterns and spelling, as well as helping our students to have a growing vocabulary knowledge. They were able to use the words themselves having used this resource.

We’ve been really pleased with the resources that Twinkl offer in their website. In a profession where workload is at impossible levels, having a reliable and comprehensive website such as Twinkl at our disposal makes a huge difference in helping us plan quality learning in a time effective way. We’ve found having access to their primary and early years resources even more useful as it provides some inspiration and ideas for our lessons. It really is a fantastic service and if you are a HoD looking at ways to support your department and their workload, please do take a look at their offerings. We’re loving using their resources and look forward to exploring the rest of their site!


Disclaimer: Twinkl have provided access for me to use their resources. I am not obliged to provide a positive review in exchange – this is my own honest and personal view on their services.


Something that worked with AQA Language Paper 1 Question 3.

AQA Paper 1 Question 3
This seems to be the question that worries everyone. Except for the monster that is Question 4 on Paper 2, it seems to have baffled students and teachers alike. For one of my groups, nothing I tried was working. At the end of my tether with it, one day, as I was modelling for what felt like the six thousandth time, out of nowhere came an idea. Much like those that arrive in my brain in the shower, it seems to be one of my better ideas. It worked brilliantly. I’d like to thank my brain for being 18 months late to the party.

One of the areas that seemed to be problematic for mine was in contextualising their comments and showing a clear understanding of the extract as a whole. To address this, I asked them to look at the first sentence of each paragraph, not in terms of its structure, but in terms of its focus and content. I used this extract, Chapter 3 of The Great Gatsby:

Starting with the first sentence of the extract, we identified the focus as being on the character of Gatsby.
We carried on, with the focus of each of the paragraphs. The next one revealed a focus on fruit. The one after, caterers. Finally, I asked them to identify the content of the last sentence.

This particular extract, combined with this focus, worked brilliantly in moving students away from the “makes you want to read on” that I was frustratingly accustomed to seeing from answers on this question.

We looked at the chain of events: the neighbour, the fruit, the caterers and the guests. By looking at the content specifically, students were then able to draw out an answer to “why”.

Here are some of the points my group made, word for word:

• The focus on the neighbour at the start of the extract could imply that he is an important character to the narrator.

• The change of focus from the neighbour to the fruit could show the extravagance of the character because it’s the next thing that the narrator focuses on, it could be that as soon as you see the main character, it’s like their extravagance is the first thing you notice about them and it could be that the narrator is almost fascinated by this as well, which is why it’s positioned in this way.

• The focus then changes to the caterers and when they arrive, which is often “At least once a fortnight” which could show that the narrator is often watching these events as an outsider and because this is the third focus, it might be that the narrator is not involved.

• The final sentence ends with a focus on the guests. The focus is on his criticism of them, which could suggest that the extract is building up to this. The narrator mocks the people who are attending and by building up towards this, he emphasises he feelings towards them.

Now, I’m not saying these are perfect, but they are a great deal more contextualised than previous attempts they’d done. Time and time again, students weren’t contextualising their comments on the effects of the structural choices, and this really helped them to tweak this. Their marks were moving up, from Band 1 responses to some Band 3 responses. It also meant that students were able to comment more on the extract as a whole, summarising how it develops, alongside making analytical comments as to the effects.
From this, I’ve been better able to develop students’ answers more. They’re thinking less about how to make contextualised comments, because they have a clear model and process to follow. Having a process to follow has, I think, eased the cognitive load and allowed them to be able to focus more on their analysis. Previously, I’ve been guilty of bombarding them with structural terminology. A step back from this has renewed their focus on how they could approach it in the exam. I think AQA have been really clear, recently, that phrases like “focus” and “shift” can be used in answers that score highly. Their clarity on this has helped me strip back the approach – it’s about what’s said, where, and why. Using “What, where and why” is refreshingly simple and proving effective for my students on this question. I’m certainly seeing far less of the “the writer makes you interested so you read the next bit” comments. And that can only be a good thing, right?


Something that helped with learning quotations for the new GCSEs. 

At the ResearchEd English+MFL conference in April, I spoke about how I have used research based ideas to rise to the challenge of the new AQA Grade 9-1 GCSEs. I wrote about it for the fabulous #teamenglish blog and it seems right to use it now that I’ve created my own blog.

One of the main reasons I engage with research is to ensure that there’s evidence behind choices that I make in the classroom, and in my wider practice. For English teachers up and down the land, the new GCSEs have meant we are making more new decisions than even before, often where we don’t have any concrete evidence. Arguably, one of the biggest challenges many teachers have had to rise to is the closed book element of the English Literature GCSEs. Students have to study 3 texts, alongside a hefty anthology of poetry. And, if they want to do well, they need to learn many, many quotations to use in the exam this coming Summer.

As my year 11s progressed through the course, and sat their first formal mock exam in November, it became increasingly clear that a major factor in under performance was the lack of quotations some students had used in their exam answers. I knew I had to do something to fix it. I read around the research on memory and on retention. On David Didau’s blog (http://www.learningspy.co.uk/) , I saw he’d referenced a paper by Cepeda et al (2008) which proposed optimal intervals for retaining information. He shared this: 

This image is what lead me to the Cepeda paper, which is freely available here: http://laplab.ucsd.edu/articles/Cepeda%20et%20al%202008_psychsci.pdf

The paper suggests that in order to retain information for 6 months, which is what I needed for my GCSE groups, a study session for the information should take place every 3 weeks. From this, I devised a programme of study for my year 11s, all of which would be undertaken as homework. They would have 5 tasks a week for learning quotations for each of their literature texts, and, after 3 weeks, these would be gradually replaced with recap tasks each week. It looked a bit like this: 

In preparation for this, I spent some time explaining this to my groups, and talking through the methods to recap their work. All of this work would be done in “homework books”, which I would check weekly, to ensure students were learning high quality quotes. And so, in January, off they went.
I knew I needed to measure how well this was working. After all, the need for retaining quotations was high, and the impact of it not working was really quite risky. Still, I have faith that evidence based findings should, in theory, be replicable. By March, I had done a range of activities in lessons which showed some indication that it was working. Random recall starters and 5 a day starter activities (a frankly brilliant idea put forward by @TLPMsF https://thelearningprofession.wordpress.com/) suggested that students were retaining new quotations. However, I needed to test it out in more robust detail. 3 months after their mock exam, my groups sat another. Their initial mock was on Romeo and Juliet so I decided to use the same text, and only have 1 exam, rather than one on each text. The reason for this was to be able to measure the improvement in marks, specific to one text. They hadn’t sat a mock on the other texts, and so I didn’t have a reliable benchmark for these, despite their quote learning tasks being on all 4 literature texts.
The findings were surprising. In the initial mock exam, a total of 3 different quotes had been used. In the second, 40 different quotes were used. I was delighted by the increase, especially as it was a no notice mock. Not only had the variety of quotations increased, the amount they were using increased too. In their first mock, an average of 1.2 quotes were used. In the second, that went up to 3.0. Their marks went up, too. 96% increased their mark (on our internal grade boundaries). With this, 22% saw a 1 grade increase, 29% a 2 grade increase, 19% a 3 grade increase, and 6% a 4 grade increase. I was really very happy with their progress, especially in light of the fact that our curriculum plan meant that I hadn’t recapped or revised the text with them at all in the time between their first and second mock.
There were some other, more incidental things that I learnt from marking their second mocks. Earlier on, I mentioned that I’d used Rebecca Foster’s 5 a day starter idea. In students’ work, I saw that some of the quotes that they’d used best were those that had featured in one of these activities. When I do this as a starter, I follow it with modelling what I’d pick out of the quotes, what analyses I’d make, different interpretations, subject terminology and how I’d make contextual links. Students were transferring this very well. When I repeat this quote learning journey next year, one thing I will plan far more closely is that my staters follow up what students have done the previous week, to build their knowledge of the quotations in more depth.
I’ve also thought long and hard about the right time to start something like this with students. I think one of the reasons it worked as well as it did is down to it coming after the students’ first mock exam. Many were disappointed with their result. They needed some firm guidance with how to improve, and this provided just that. Rather than simply providing “Learn quotes” as their area for improvement, they had a simple programme to follow to achieve that. Equally, by using the 5 a day starters to test their recall, students could see that it was working, meaning they were more likely to buy into it as an idea. I think, had they not seen an improvement, their buy in might have weakened and it would have been less effective overall.
And so, my top tips for enabling students to adequately prepare for the English Literature exam would be:

• Design the programme for them.
• Make it compulsory

• Use starters and in class activities regularly to enable students to build their confidence

• Introduce it at the right time – they need a motivation for it

• Don’t leave it too late. Students have a lot to learn for this exam, alongside their other subjects.

I have uploaded all of the resources mentioned in my talk at ResearchEd into a Dropbox. You’ll find the PowerPoint slides from the talk, as well as research papers and the homework resources in here: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/wh7az8vp2kw88j9/AABt1Gw-_VyKXeotz1bLOhLua?dl=0

You can find me on twitter @amforrester1 where I’m more than happy to take questions you may have.

Northern Education Forum: You In?

Northern education is talked about frequently. Northern educators, on the other hand, are talked to rather less frequently. We are regularly told about the deficiencies of the education we offer; we are less regularly listened to about the challenges that shape the education we offer.

This is unjust.

We do not deny there are improvements to be made. We do not deny that change needs to happen. But we reasonably expect to have a voice of our own when discussing how these things might be achieved.

We are as skilled, as passionate, as well-informed as our colleagues in other areas of the country – we deserve to have our voice heard. And too often it feels as if it is not, with discussion and access always based far away from the villages, town and cities that we teach in.

This needs to change.

And so, we propose the creation of a Northern Education Forum. We’ve put together a Google Form for those who may wish to register their initial interest in being involved. The details of its remit, its membership, and its role will be fleshed out over the coming weeks.

But in the meantime, we have one simple question:

You in?


Sarah Ledger

Amy Forrester

Rebecca Stacey

Lisa Pettifer

Michael Merrick