Category Archives: Education

Working in a school makes you think about your own school days all the time – the subjects, the teachers, the classmates. Despite the fact it’s 20 years since I did my GCSEs I find lessons are frequently peppered with anecdotes from ‘when I was at school’. It’s not just working in schools of course, nostalgia’s big business and as I type this my Twitter feed’s exploding with suggestions for the best kids’ tv themes (this is what happens when Mr Bennett doesn’t have a researchED to get to of a weekend).

Last week I had an unexpected trip down memory lane as we were watching The Last Leg and all of a sudden I spotted one of my first year uni flatmates (the thrown together by luck-of-the-draw sort) appear in the audience. Right there, grinning with a Australian cork-hat plonked on her head. To be honest it was lovely to see her – and lovely to have the flurry of texting people to confirm it was her. Sometimes things hit you a little bit more than others though.

Michael was in my half of the year from year 7 and part of our friendship group. He went out with one of my best friends for a while, we had various lessons together, I have an official photo of us (and the rest of the Geology boys) at the 6th Form May Ball. In April, having not seen him for 18 years, his face was filling the television. He had been killed.

He was one of those people that is peppered throughout my whole school life. I don’t know what his politics were or where his life took him (apart from what’s been printed in newspapers). I don’t do Facebook or hunt people down and there are very few people I went to school with I’m still in touch with, but the constant little snippets of memories that come with working in a school mean that I realised I think about him a lot. I don’t know who he stayed in touch with but by the few people I’ve spoken to about this with I know there will have been ripples of contemplation and memories across the country – the globe even. But time passes.

Last week I had to cover in science for the morning and it sounds over the top but there was almost something emotional about it. The boys were doing an experiment I’ve done a thousand times using equipment and terminology that’s just ingrained. They needed to be reminded to do things that most of us would probably do automatically. For the rest of the day I was back to thinking about what was. Then this week it was in court and in the news again.

Of course, most of the time it’s little flicks of memory that attach themselves to a school day. I think this has a lot to do with the way we work – whether we want to give the pupils what we had or whether we want to ensure they get the opposite. In many ways working in schools means you don’t move on, but it also means memories are always close to the surface and sometimes they’re lovely.

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This was a juicy one. Our PE teacher Joe came to see me the other day to ask if I took requests for looking at research – Research Lead 101 says yes I do, so I did. Apparently PE Edutwitter has been talking about cooperative learning for teaching PE. He wanted to know if there’s anything specifically that supports cooperative learning for SEMH pupils.

Certainly in regards to more academic subjects (the cooperative learning literature seems to use ‘mainstream classroom’ a lot but I’m adding SEND to the mix so don’t want to confuse things) direct instruction with occasional support from a bit of group work is something I’m happy with. In PE there’s obviously a lot of group work going on so it seemed like something that was worth a look at, particularly the opportunity to look at it from an SEMH/SEBD (the literature hasn’t caught up with SEMH yet) point of view.

The other thing that intregued me was that a few times now (I’ve no references, just vague memories) I’ve heard sports instruction – direct instruction, drilling, practice of individual skills rather than whole-game – as examples for what we should be doing in other subjects. Here is PE looking at the alternatives to doing that.

I thought it was a good opportunity to try out something I’d been mulling over and create a single-subject add-on to Relay. I’ve ended up creating ‘Relay FOCUS’ which in this instance looks at the research surrounding PE and SEBD/cooperative learning more broadly and then explores how they might work together. I’m not sure whether Joe was quite after what I’ve ended up with but I’m pleased with how it’s turned out and hopefully there’s more individual requests that I can work on.

I know it’s not perfect and it won’t cover the whole topic nearly enough, but it’s not intended as a formal piece of literature research and hopefully it’s enough to help Joe decide whether he want to explore the approach or whether it’s something he wants to look into more.

If you fancy having a glance, the pdf’s here: http://westburyschool.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Relay-FOCUS-Cooperative-Learning-and-PE.pdf


I’m going to say it. rED17 was the best one yet. There have been researchED conferences that rival of course, and the light-up pens have reached legendary status, but the atmosphere at this one was something different. Whether it was the venue, Chobham Academy, with its circular building that forced delegates to cross paths and talk as they found their next session, or whether on a more personal level I felt like I knew more people there, there was a buzz I’ve not sensed in the same way before.

Despite recent naysaying (and outright attacks) around researchED there appeared to be lots of people who put their hand up to say it was their first time so the great conspiracy doesn’t seem to have put them off. A noticeable feature was the conversations going on. In previous years dining room chatter was filled with overhearing people talk about the speakers they’d seen, in awe at who they were, and this year people seemed to be discussing the session and the ideas. Instead of the queue in the loos being all “I saw X, I love him. I’ve read all his books.” there was a definite vibe of “I went to see X talk about Y. That really fits in with what we’re trying to do with year 9”.

That’s not to say there weren’t ‘big hitters’ – 2017 attracted speakers such as Minister of State for School Standards, Nick Gibb and Ofsted Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman; but I wonder if one of the achievements, and I really mean achievements, of researchED over the past few years is to make it normal to see and hear these people in person and it’s taken away some of that awe – allowing the debate to take hold. Nick Gibb tried (I think. I’ll be generous for a moment) to stick up for researchED and its contributors by talking about those academics who hadn’t engaged as being stuck in their ‘ivory towers’. I have to say, I think a considerable amount of ivory-tower-placing comes from us, not them, and the more we do engage and interact the further down the tower they come. It works both ways.

I did go and see Nick Gibb’s session. To be honest I wasn’t impressed. I wasn’t outraged either though and used it as a good opportunity to catch up on Twitter. I can be a crazy note-taker during these things but my word-for-word notes from this one read:

  • Telling us about rED
  • Embrace challenge and debate
  • Answering the h8ters
  • Ebacc, reading
  • Reporting G4+

Tell me what’s new with that? The most impassioned bit was the first bit and that was pretty much reading Tom’s blog out loud (we’re at rED, and whether we agree or not, we’ve probably read Tom’s blog haven’t we?). The Schools Week article made it all sound punchy – you can view it here and decide for yourself.

So. To the good stuff!

My second session was Sam Sims with Katie Magee and Dhana Gorasia talking about Journal Clubs. Now, I do like a journal club and this was brilliant to go to as it was Sam’s 2014 session that boosted my explorations into journal clubs to what I’m doing now. The session explored a pilot study of journal clubs as a way to break behavioural habits around teaching and the theory behind this. The second half featured examples of how it had worked at Canons High School.  I always make a point to stress that journal clubs aren’t a policy meeting and to avoid getting bogged down in how one paper could be used in school; Katie and Dhana showed how the two can work together with requests for papers on specific strategies and discussions that lead to implementation in practice. I liked the advice that journal clubs can be used to spot positive strategies and behaviours that are already happening in schools and enable these to be shared more widely. There seems to be a few exciting journal clubby things on the horizon, particularly with the Chartered College of Teaching, so I’m looking forward to seeing what happens and getting involved where I can.

Session 3 found me in the Britney-infused sardine can* that was David Weston’s session on Toxic schools. David explored how the school environment impacts on outcomes, looking a lot of things that Kev Bartle had talked about in York last summer. Coming from a school that has historically had a small number of staff with close relationships that is now expanding hugely, I’ve thought about this idea of trust and leadership a lot recently as the dynamics are being forced to shift. David took us through various biases to recognise and avoid (aided by occasional Britney) with some pointers to take back. His presentation’s here if you fancy it and I’m looking forward to any follow up sessions involving late nineties/early noughties classics with a dance routine.

*sorry Britney

It was me after lunch – good turn out, Journal Club info here – www.edujournalclub.com

I always find that once my own session is done I can sort of float through the rest of the day without the weight of it (literally, lugging biscuits is HARD) but it does make my notes a bit more relaxed. I went to see Martin Robinson give a warning about Growth Mindset. It does concern me that this is a bit of a bandwagon that looks fancy and evidence informed so it was good to pick up some ammunition for the time it descends on us here (and Martin was lovely, obvs). I went to an Institute of Ideas conversation about Mental Health in schools that was interesting. I agree with points that if we are over-cautious we risk medicalising ‘normal’ responses from pupils and found this idea that we have a ‘cultural script of fragility’ hit a point too. However I’m in a school where our pupils have (by definition) a range of mental health issues and I can see the problems of under-diagnosis and lack of intervention too. A teacher’s job is to teach but they’re with us a considerable amount of time – quite often the only stable time they have, and we have a role in safeguarding them too.

As has become normal at these things one of the best sessions was hosted by a local boozer (and a proper boozer it was too) where I had some great conversations with lovely people. Some about education, some about shoes, some about the Midsomer Murders Tour… I’ve stepped in to defend researchED a couple of times recently and I think we all know there are people who aren’t going to be swayed either way. It was, as always, a diverse day with rushing round behind the scenes that looked ripple-free from the outside. The familiar company was great, the new faces were also great, and I was left feeling overwhelmingly positive (even after the karaoke) about all the opportunities we have to do great things. If people choose not to engage with researchED then I really hope they find something they do like because it’s a shame to miss out.


I’m not too enthusiastic about ‘teachers doing research’; I am more enthusiastic about the opportunities for schools to take part in larger, more formal research trials and partnerships with higher education. My position set out, I think that what school staff can do is question things.

The staggered start to the new academic year for schools has caused my timeline to be peppered with INSET tweets throughout the week. A few have caught my eye and one particularly seemed to connect with last night’s #UKEdResChat which asked “Are we in a research bubble? Is so how can we pop it?”. The tweet’s from a locked account so I won’t embed it but it read:

“Really pleased how positively staff took on board our drive to embed a #GrowthMindset across school! #ThePowerOfYet”

This tweet was from a primary school colleague in our TSA Innovation Hub – a follow on from the Evidence Based Teaching Group we had, and shows engagement and dissemination of research we have touched on within the group and whilst it’s not bursting the bubble it is perhaps stretching it a bit.

It strikes me though that if research informed staff, including research leads, are striving to build research literacy in schools, is the ultimate goal not to have everyone on board, but to have them questioning? I appreciate that this single tweet doesn’t have a lot of information in it and there may have been a discussion around the approach – it’s just 140 characters. However, if we are to break out of the cycle of the same people driving the research-informed agenda in the same schools I think we need to be looking to encourage the critical eye rather than introducing top-down initiatives. It’s almost a cliché.

Taking the example of Growth Mindset, I know from my own reading that there has been a lot of debate around implementation in the classroom and my basic understanding is that it’s questionable as to whether there’s an impact and to be implemented properly staff need formal training.  I don’t know how this school is approaching it (hopefully it’ll crop up at our next Innovation Hub meeting) and I feel uncomfortable using them as an example when I don’t know any detail about their method so putting that to one side, I think introducing something like this is an opportunity for the type of enquiry that should be encouraged in schools.

Questioning things isn’t the same as resisting change but about exploring initiatives and measuring the impact. Introducing school-wide initiatives should involve reading around the subject both for those driving the programme and those who are taking it on. When new ideas are put to staff it should be a positive thing to be met with questions and leaders should be able to answer those questions – either having read around the topic and predicted them, or by offering the opportunity for staff to answer the questions within an implementation and review process. We don’t need to be doing big research projects but at least exploring evidence for and against and looking for change if you do do it. And leaders shouldn’t be afraid to say that something hasn’t worked.

We need the rhetoric to move from ‘we’re going to do this’ to ‘we’re going to find out if this can work for us’. Doing with, not to. This isn’t something that should threaten leaders but that they should embrace. It can be difficult to accept if you have spent a lot of time in preparation but when changes are met with constructive questions that are taken on board and incorporated into the way we work, I think it will be an indication that the research bubble is at least expanding and we are truly embedding research in everyday practice.


Yesterday evening’s asked what aspect of teaching, learning, school systems or government policy etc, what would we commission research in should we have the opportunity. It took me a while to think of anything at first as it’s quite an overwhelming brief but I jumped in with the suggestion that I would like to see some proper investigation into unqualified teachers.

Replies to my choice varied from “I don’t get the fuss” to “it undermines the professional aspect of teaching” – which mirrors wider twitter discussions I’ve seen over the past few years, but what I haven’t seen is anything beyond perhaps stats of how many people are being paid as unqualified teachers. Last night’s brief discussion offered solutions to the problem and mooted reasons for individuals choosing to qualify or not but the general vibe was that (even if the idea of unqualified teachers didn’t offend) qualifying was best. I found points on professionalism interesting as I wondered whether that was more important to people who have completed training than a reason to qualify – does it de-value the qualification in the eyes of some? The point of my original question though was to work this out. Where is the evidence that qualified status is best?

A quick search on Schools Week (a good font of knowledge) throws up a couple of recent stories that offer some figures and concerns. In July this year they had a piece on a Labour Party report that

The number of teachers in state-funded English schools without QTS rose to 24,000 in 2016, a figure that has grown by 62 per cent since the rules around unqualified teachers were relaxed in 2012.

I won’t regurgitate all the stats but they’re in there so have a look. The points made echo other comments I’ve seen though which is pretty much – standards will decline vs schools can hire on the basis of ‘skills and experience’. Another story from July reports on a school rehiring (not quite all) its teaching assistants as ‘Teaching Fellows’ to work towards a teaching qualification and the points raised by this story surround the exploitation of the sort of teacher-on-the-cheap argument to stretch budgets further. It’s only a little look but I think the two main worries about unqualified teachers – ‘standards’ and ‘exploitation’ are pretty much covered by these. Thing is though, there’s a lot of opinion on how it ‘might’ affect pupils or the ‘potential to…’. Do we not need to look at whether it is or not?

My personal opinion is mixed. On the surface it seems reasonable to want all teachers to be trained, but my experience tells me there are some awesome unqualified teachers that get great results – both in terms of qualifications and on a more general level with pupils. Off the top of my head, reasons for me working with unqualified teachers include: staff cover where TAs have taken a class for an extended period and been able to have an uplift in pay to do it; vocational teacher with years of college and industry experience; art teacher with 20+ years experience as SEND TA, a fine art degree and work as an artist. Reasons for them not wanting to qualify include it being a temporary role; nearing retirement and not thinking the extra work’s worth it; not wanting a whole-school responsibility for the subject. There’ll be other reasons but you’d have to ask them. What I do know is that they were/are all brilliant at their jobs and it works for our setting really well. Different situations will appear in other schools where it does and doesn’t work as well but even though gut-instinct is useful, I think there’s an opportunity to explore it more formally.

So what do I think needs to be looked at? I don’t have an idea for a specific research question yet – more ideas of the data that needs to be gathered in order to prompt research questions. As a starting point, things I think we need to know include:

Where are they teaching and how many?

  • In independent schools, state schools, and separate figures special schools/alternative provision settings. This needs to be gathered for each key stage.
  • Data on the social demographics of schools and OfSTED grades.

What are they teaching?

  • Which subjects are unqualified teachers working in?
  • External test/exam data
  • Primary – likely to be teaching a range of subjects; Secondary – more subject specific?

Who are they?

  • What is their experience – as TAs/other school roles; college/higher education; teaching abroad.
  • Qualifications – subject specific; ‘teaching’; training in specific programmes.
  • Other responsibilities held in organisation.

Reasons for not qualifying

  • Personal – happy in role; lack of entry qualifications; financial costs of training etc
  • Institutional – school not willing to enable; not able to fund

Perceived gains of qualifying

  • From both unqualified teachers and the wider teaching community. Issues such as pay and professionalism seem to be top of the list.

Some of the data for these points will already exist and may already have been collated, but other bits require going a bit deeper and finding out what’s happening at school level. I’m happy to offer my opinions whenever this comes up as a topic and there are some interesting ideas for how to qualify the unqualified, but we can’t do that well without looking at the current picture and working out what schools, pupils, and staff, need.


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 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.


Enquiry isn’t a specialist activity. It is something we all do regularly – making a mental note of something that went well or how we could change things for next time. As easy as it seems to reflect on what we do day-to-day, the starting point for deliberate enquiry can be difficult. Key to engaging with research in a genuine, long-term way as a practitioner is to start with reflection – reflection on practice and reflection of practice.Reflective-practice is sometimes presented as the opposite to evidence based practice; the qualitative vs the quantitative. Quantitative research is held up as the best research can be, whether that’s the EEF toolkit and trials or the What Work Clearinghouse measures. One argument for evidence based practice over reflective practice is that the latter risks pathologising the practitioner and finds fault with the teacher or student rather than the wider environment.

Action research (or at least the term) is gaining popularity and the close link between action research and reflective practice leads to arguments that they lacks value and relevance between settings. Cautious voices remind that quantitative studies don’t necessarily provide the answers, as Dylan Wiliam says, “[In education] everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere. The interesting question is ‘under what conditions does this work?”

It’s not realistic for everyone to be part of large-scale RCTs, particularly in settings that regularly don’t fit selection criteria like small or special schools. This can feel isolating and make research engagement seem irrelevant. Reflective practice is one way to get going and can take many forms, from keeping a diary to working in pairs or triads or developing cyclical action research projects, so where do we start and how can we incorporate research into what we do?

The Project

It’s frequently repeated that teachers don’t have time to trawl through and decipher research so I decided to have a bit of an experiment with taking a single research paper and setting it out in a way that can be used in the classroom. This is a paper I have used myself on several occasions to provide a framework to identify an area of focus and use as a starting point for enquiry.

The suggestions of how to use the document I’ve created are just that, suggestions. It doesn’t give instructions or solutions for practice and it doesn’t use multiple sources of evidence – the intention is that once a focus is identified, more refined research can take place if necessary around that area.

Whether it’s used for enquiry in the closed classroom or over a wider group; as a starting point for a whole school focus or simply to monitor the classroom over time, I hope it shows how research can be used in the classroom and it provides encouragement for more people to bring evidence into their practice.

So here it is in glorious pdf form. Let me know what you think.

A guide to ‘Evaluating the Learning Environment’ adapted from Ysseldyke, J. E. and Christenson, S. L. (1987) ‘Evaluating students’ instructional environments’, Remedial and Special Education, 8(3), pp. 17–24.


I’ve had a couple of interesting conversations recently about the reliability of ‘old’ research and whether it has some sort of ‘use by date’.

It is of course reasonable to be wary of over-relying on research that was published decades ago, and taking note of age when reviewing evidence is important, but it shouldn’t be a case of dismissing something because it’s been around for a long time if the points are still relevant. Fads come and go but that’s perhaps even more reason to look back at older research – new ideas quite often aren’t new at all. People use examples like ‘Would you trust your doctor if they prescribed using leeches?’ – maybe not for everything, but there are quite a few situations where leeches are still used in medicine today.

Should ‘good’ research be repeated to keep it fresh? Even if nothing new is being done? When this does happen, a quick look at the references and all the previous papers by the author/s are usually still there – of course there are likely to be a few changes but the general take-away messages remain the same and then the work is criticised for re-hashing the old stuff for the sake of it. We hear arguments that research needs to be repeated and ideas challenged as we learn more about how we can improve teaching but as soon as someone writes about a ‘debunked’ idea there are criticisms in the opposite direction.

For example, I’ve seen enough evidence from people I respect to believe that there is no mileage in the concept of individual learning styles but if those same people present evidence that has changed their minds (as solid as that would have to be) I would of course have to reconsider my own position. That’s a provocative example of course but my point is there – we can’t criticise research simply because it’s testing something we think is long-disproved – we need to criticise the research itself.

As research increasingly finds its place in schools, with different staff at different levels of engagement, it’s important to stress the need to develop critical evaluation skills. The role of research lead includes helping people to come at research from all angles – treading round popular ideas of the moment, being critical but not dismissive in the face personal bias. We need to be careful with new research that simply repeats itself rather than challenging ideas and be aware that not everyone has heard all the evidence around each theory –  however much we think it’s been discussed to death.

Those of us who have heard all the arguments to the point of fatigue need to make sure we use and develop our own critical eyes too and remember how easy it is to run about in the echo-chamber. As we focus on how we help our colleagues we can’t forget to challenge ourselves. As long as we are aware that the age of a piece of research may limit its value to our work then we’re a step ahead, but maybe it’s more ‘best before’ than ‘use by’. When it comes to it, we don’t have access to everything we need to make a fully informed decision and we need to trust what experts say. If I’m honest, whilst it doesn’t sound overly pleasant to be treated by leech I would have to trust that the doctor knew what they were on about,  and that some older ideas have a place.


The role for technology in education, and the impact technology has on children generally, is a thoroughly embedded topic for debate. I’m sure if twitter had been around at its inception, the Casio Databank would’ve been the topic for a whole half-term’s Edutwitter ‘civilised’ discussion but there is an understandable increase in these sorts of conversations as we try to keep up.

Casio DATA BANK watch

The latest story to hit the tech-debate radar is this one in the Toronto Star reporting that grade 7 and 8 students at Earl Grey Senior Public School are to have restricted access to their mobile phones during lessons. Now, I work in a school where the pupils have always handed everything in when they get to school – even before mobile phones were commonplace – so I’ve not really noticed the rise in personal tech use in classroom in perhaps the same way as other schools, but it still seems odd that this sort of ban (and not even for all year groups) would be newsworthy.

Screen-use in the classroom is becoming increasingly ubiquitous, so what concerns should we have with this? Carl Hendrick recently blogged about why the Internet should be kept out of the classroom, citing a 2016 study (Ravizza et al) looking at how university students use laptops in class reported the relationship between classroom performance and internet usage. They found that ‘nonacademic Internet use was common among students who brought laptops to class and was inversely related to class performance’.  A recently published Japanese study (Kawahara and Ito, 2017) looked at the ‘Effect of the Presence of a Mobile Phone during a Spatial Visual Search’ and found that even without using it, the mere presence of a mobile phone can adversely affect cognitive performance. This offers an opportunity for us to look at the impact of classroom technology and how schools can use classroom technology in a balanced way.

In response to an open letter published in December 2016 over concerns about children’s ‘screen-based’ lifestyles, a second letter quickly responded, calling for ‘quality research and evidence to support these claims and inform any policy discussion’. Whilst worries over increasingly sedentary lifestyles and mental health issues are understandable, the letter argues that there is little evidence to support the concerns in the initial letter and encourages the government and research bodies to invest in well-founded guidelines.

The evidence around the benefits and disadvantages of technology for children is ever-changing. In 2015 the American Academy of Paediatrics reviewed their guidelines for early childhood screen time, mostly based on old research into television time, which previously recommended that children under two should stay away from screen media. They have now provided more evidence-based guidance as to how children should use screens, including for unstructured play and the positives of video chatting with distant relatives.

At our school a decision was reached several years ago to provide each pupil with their own laptop to use in school. As we started to expand we found our ICT suite with 6 laptops wasn’t enough for 30 pupils and they were getting damaged etc so we started to roll out laptops and now we have 1:1 from KS2-4. Pupils use these within all lessons – we run KS2/3 on a mostly primary model of class teacher teaching most subjects with some specialist teachers/swapping (KS4 is more specialist). Laptops move with the pupil throughout day/years – it’s easier to track use and damage etc. Obviously (perhaps) laptops aren’t used in every lesson but they are used a lot. They are also used during some reward times and some break times (probably why online games are still accessible).

Certain websites are blocked from use like social media/YouTube/keywords and as websites appear that we want to block (YTPak as a YouTube substitute for instance) we can inform our blocking people (although I did find recently that I wasn’t able to access websites using the word ‘edge’ in the URL. This was an issue as I was trying to look at the knowledge organiser blogs and ‘knowledge’ was banned). We also use software for managing and monitoring what the pupils are using live. Teachers can view (and control) pupil laptops which is useful for both instances of inappropriate pupil activity and in-lesson sharing of work on the IWB. If pupils are using the computers inappropriately then we have reward/sanction systems that are used.

Clearly this is different to other types of screen use in the classroom but I do have concerns that we, staff and pupils, can be over-reliant on the laptops. Whether that means a reduction in the amount of handwriting pupils do, ‘lazy’ internet research (we’ve all heard amusing tales of Wikipedia regurgitation), or a slightly more concerning impact on processing information as described by Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014) looking at laptop vs written note-taking by university students. Our pupils don’t take a huge amount of notes in lessons, but if we over rely on using the laptops when they do, the chances are we’re denying them the opportunity to process the information in a meaningful way.

Even if we can’t do much about what they do at home, we have a lot of control over how much technology pupils use in the classroom. There are some great resources out there and the deeper debate over this is perhaps for another day, but how much of school-tech is driven by what staff quite fancy having a play around with over the genuine benefits in the classroom? It’s almost becoming a cliché to ask whether the 1:1 iPads are essential or could you do it another way and save thousands of pounds (seems old but I had this conversation a fortnight ago). In a desire for an easy ride, doing something different’, squeezing in some of those illusive ’21st Century Skills’, is it actually more revolutionary to go without?

More robust research will hopefully lead to better guidelines, but we need to use our professional common sense as well. We’ll never be completely on top of it but we do have some control over our classrooms and probably just as well because with last month’s speculation that Apple are set to introduce a ‘cinema mode’ for iPhones, it seems like it soon won’t be single screen-use we’ll be discussing, but perhaps multi-screen use as well.