Monthly Archives: July 2017

This is one of several posts that I’ve started but never quite got round to hitting ‘publish’ on. Prompted by a tweet from Dawn Cox about the values we put onto children (and my recent thoughts about cultural capital) I thought it was a good opportunity. (Quick reminder that all our pupils are boys so when I refer to ‘the boys’ it’s because I naturally interchange ‘boys’ and ‘pupils’ when talking about work rather than me just stereotyping).

I started this post over a year ago in February 2016 after reading this Guardian article about white working class boys and university. I think by the time I came back to it the moment had gone and I never finished it. The article focuses on the aspirations of white working class boys and the role of universities in targeting underrepresented populations. One of the statements that caught my attention was “If these young men embrace academic success, they face entry into an unfamiliar and disconcerting world”. This is a theme I recognise regularly in our pupils.

I think for the majority of our pupils the experience they have of education is that it’s easier to fail than succeed. They know what to do when they fail – they know how to run off, know how to get told off, know how to respond in an aggressive manner, and know the sort of response they will get from adults. Quite often they find it very difficult to cope with praise (certainly open praise). If there’s a problem or issue at school or home, they will often try to get in a situation where they are stopped – physically or otherwise. It’s all about controlling a situation. They can deal with being picked on for not doing something right – can always fall back on kicking off.

As our school gets bigger there are more pupils that know each other, either from previous schools or their neighbourhoods (plus social media etc). I’ve noticed how this makes a difference to ‘showing face’ beyond what happens in school. We’re probably quite lucky in that it’s only fairly recently that the tentacles of social media have worked their way into our school – one of the benefits of having a couple of kids from each area of a whole city.

When it comes to aspirations though, why is university still seen as the be-all and end-all? There’s a massive rise in the number of apprenticeships – not just ‘trades’ now there are opportunities everywhere, but university’s seen as better. With rising fees and scrapping of grants, followed by questions about devaluation of degrees, there are legitimate reasons for not wanting to come out of university and be competing with those with three years experience for similar jobs (although I don’t believe fees and loans are any reason not to go and I do appreciate the earning potential stats). It’s not stereotyping to say that a high proportion of our boys will end up with a trade. We offer them vocational qualifications, and courses involving some sort of construction or motor engineering are pretty common next steps. It’s interesting that many of our pupils are likely to end up earning more in a trade professions than an NQT but are not likely to see themselves as our equals. So perhaps it really isn’t money that matters but education.

Something I’ve thought about is that despite the attitudes of our pupils, do the parents of these children – despite their background – aspire to university? Do these white working class boys that shun university for themselves want their own children to go to university? Anecdotally, I know of several people who I think feel they have to prove themselves to be just as good as someone who has been to university and it possibly gives them more drive, they’ve built up businesses and empires of their own, but they want for their children a ‘better’ life, and that includes university.

The discussion is one that has been played out before and will be again. The question of whether it is right for the educated, middle class to decide which values and experiences to pass on to white working class children is one that can be a minefield. Is it for us to decide what matters? Should we impose our own values on children? By thinking we’re aiding them are we curbing them? Either way, are we judging them and their backgrounds? We want them to study Shakespeare (the content of those final GCSE papers is class-blind) so taking them to see Shakespeare is part of that. Is Shakespeare OK but not opera? Is street-dance OK but not ballet? If we want them to learn languages is it OK if they go on an exchange trip? Not other foreign travel? Can we take them skiing at the Snowdome in Birmingham but maybe avoid the Alps? There’s never going to be an easy answer.

Part of our job is forcing our opinions on our pupils whether that’s the curriculum we teach or the language we use when we speak to them. I’m not going to oversimplify my vocabulary when I’m talking to the boys just because there’s the danger they’ve never come across a word before, I’ll explain it. I’m not going to apologise for wanting to build their ambitions – it’s a better place to start than not. Of course getting them reading and calculating (preferably maths, not crime) is the first step, but can’t we do a bit of both? I want us to open their worlds. I want them to ask questions and if nothing else, I want them to be really good at pub quizzes. I want them to know that whether they want to go into a trade or go to university, they are worthy of it. Some of them have dreams that we don’t think they’ll achieve and I want them to prove us wrong.

I’m not living in a fantasy world. I know what the future is likely to hold for some of them. At the moment I’m hoping that the future for some of them isn’t on the front of the Nottingham Post as they merrily go about their holidays, for others I’m hoping that come results day they get a couple of GCSEs. I suppose it’s not for us to decide where their limit is. We’ve just got to make sure we don’t judge them and do our best to get them to the next bit.


I asked Twitter for some holiday-read recommendations and all I offered was that I quite like murders. Twitter responded with force enough to mean Howard’ll be making more bookshelves in no time 😉

Some of them I’ve read, some of them I’ve got waiting, some of them I’ve not even heard of. It’s a pretty good list so whilst I try and decide which ones to start with, here they all are!

Murder on the Orient Express – Agatha Christie
Patricia Cornwell
Kate Atkinson (Brodie Series)
Batavia – Peter Fitzimmons
Trigger Warning – Neil Gaiman
Robert Galbraith
Angela Marsons
Harlan Corban
Dennis Lehane
Poppy Z Brite
Tony Hillerman
Chester Himes
Jo Nesbo
Adrian McKinty
John Connolly
Peter Temple
The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau – Graham Macrae Burnett
Tarquin Hall

(all the links are for Book Depository but you can buy them wherever you fancy or pop into your local library if you still have one, obvs)


I came to the realisation yesterday that our whole school is a bottom set.

I was very much looking forward to hearing Professor Becky Francis deliver her keynote at rEDYork yesterday. I’ve heard her speaking a few times, both as presenter and as questioning audience member, and I pretty much want to be Becky Francis when I grow up. This time the talk was about ‘The problematic interface between research, policy and practice: the case of attainment grouping’, with an overview of the general picture and an introduction the EEF-funded ‘Best Practice in Grouping Students’ study.

As our school works up to full 7-16 two-form entry we are finding ourselves in a position where we’re starting to allocate children to classes based partly on their attainment. There are other things we consider and sometimes there are still very different levels in the same class, but there’s a general move towards a ‘higher’ group and a ‘lower’ group. I don’t think the pupils are ever explicitly told this is the case – perhaps in KS2 where they switch up the classes for different subjects a bit more, but I’m not sure the pupils are particularly aware. Anyway, as we’re just starting to get on the ‘set’ bandwagon I was particularly interested in the presentation to see what I could take back to school.

What I found was something much more than a few take-away bits of feedback. I tweeted that I felt like I’d had an ‘epiphany’ and I’m still trying to work out what that is exactly, but as I sat scribbling my notes I pretty much worked out that our whole school is essentially a bottom set and there are probably other schools that are similar. I’m not sure how coherent I can be with what I’m thinking but I feel like there’s an answer to something here.

Our general school demographic matches Becky’s description of the make up of bottom sets – disproportionate representation of low socio-economic status, gender imbalance (we’re designated a mixed school but all 75 of our pupils are boys). All our pupils have been taken out of other schools, possibly after a few permanent exclusions and a stint at the PRU, normally for their behaviour (regardless of ‘ability’). With all of this they’re statistically likely to have already experienced being in a bottom set and many already have low self-confidence and feel like they’ve been written off. Add to this that for every one of our pupils they’ve got a bunch of similar friends back in mainstream, it’s probably not something that’s isolated to our school.

I’m still trying to write about my recent thoughts on cultural capital for a separate post and whilst this has thrown a bit of a spanner in things, I still think that as a staff team, and as a general school ethos, we recognise that we need to instill an attitude that they can achieve and be successful – providing them with opportunities and in many cases, a future. What we probably don’t admit, or perhaps recognise, is that the symbolic implications of segregation and the societal associations between setting and ‘high standards’ are probably so ingrained that we are still creating limits for them. Even without putting any of our pupils in sets, they come to us already matching the criteria for a bottom set and I’m wondering if our associations between the demographic and expectations are so deeply entrenched that we don’t even realise we’re doing it. If staff have these societal preconceptions, pupils have them and parents have them, what happens? Do we just accept it?

If we really tried to analyse our practice we could probably identify quite a few of the factors Becky mentioned – both ones we thought we were tackling and ones beyond our control. Lack of fluidity in groups – we’ve got two classes of c.8 pupils in each year; fluidity is tricky. Quality of teaching – we have a few specialist subject teachers but run a mostly primary model through to KS4 with class teacher to class group in all subjects. Teacher expectations and pedagogy – success is brilliant, but if we’re honest, we aren’t surprised if they don’t get straight A*s (or, for some, Ds). I worry that we become complacent and lower expectations are normal. This isn’t just staff as I said before, this is entrenched in staff, pupils, parents, society. It makes the successes we have stand out – even the small ones. And we celebrate them, and we should.

We are highly aware of the limitations that have already been put on our pupils but I realise now that it’s possibly the tip of an iceberg that doesn’t just impact our pupils and maybe the Bottom Set Effect has a wider, self-fulfilling reach. In more than one session yesterday I found myself coming back to the thought that ‘Does everything just work enough not to be seen as an urgent problem?’ Maybe this is one of those things too.

So what do you do when you realise your whole school is a bottom set? How do you go about changing these subconscious preconceptions? Even if they’ve turned into conscious preconceptions, can we change things? Change is hard and it’s risky.

I’ve still not quite formulated what my thoughts are but I have questions about whether as we expand into KS1 it’ll be better – getting them before the Bottom Set Effect hits – or as we get them earlier, does that ingrain the bottom-set-ness earlier? Are we actually just creaming off the bottom set early? Is that self-fulfilling? What happens when you put the bottom set in sets? How does it work with our small classes? I know when I’ve looked at setting in the past there’s been evidence that the impact is less on small groups due to the focussed attention etc. We’ve got 8 pupils and two staff in a class so maybe it’s not too bad?

Regardless of whether we set or not, I’m still struck by how closely we seem to fit the ‘criteria’ for a bottom set and I can’t help thinking that if we can apply some of the advice that comes from either the EEF trials or other investigation in this area, there’s an answer to something somewhere and I’m not even sure what the question should be, but we can make things better. We can always get better.