Saturday period 4 – #Learningfirst conference @beyondlevels

So thought it might be appropriate for a small reflection on the rather excellent #learnfirst conference that I have been to today. There photo-1421749810611-438cc492b581were a couple of profound moments the second one was when was when Mick Walker (he the wise owl of QCA and curriculum) reminded us that the average age of teachers in the profession is 42. Though great to see so many today well under that age today. Hence his point that very few of them have taught without there being a national curriculum and an assessment system. They are ‘ after or during levels’ teachers  not ‘life before levels’ teachers. So for a very experienced (ie old teacher) like me who started teaching in 1981 we were reminded of the more creative ( frankly happier) days before the NC when it was up to us to choose what to teach ( how to teach) and what to assess although in secondary schools we still had to prep for O Level or CSE etc. A second moment came from a tweet from a  valued colleague who tweeted me in the middle of the afternoon “I hope you get time in the next few weeks to separate the lessons from the hollow truisms” it was a very important tweet and I think it’s a good reminder that some of the things we hear as teachers we know very well are true and in the twitter tweacher sphere can sound and probably are a bit trite especially to those not with you on a conference.

But there was inside that bubble a little key to a profound truth mentioned by Sean Harford and John Tomsett a reminder of what we came in the job to do and well worth us reminding those of us who are leaders why we still love the classroom. Shedding a light into the heart and soul of teaching, compared to “understanding employment law and cutting budgets”. But also a reminder to step back into the shoes of the teacher in the classroom. I did find myself feeling fairly optimistic in the morning because a number of comments and sessions just reminded us of the true purposes of being in a school and I think that was heartening mainly because so much of what I read and bother about even pick up from the odd conferences I go to, are focused on imposed “Stuff” appraisal, Safeguarding changes, OFSTED inspection frameworks, governance changes and yes budgets and employment law. I always try and talk with teachers and children every session every day to remind myself of our moral purpose. But hey ho  such is the nature of being a school leader there are a lot of sideline issues, so I was glad to just clarify my head space and start to think again about issues like the differences between marking, feedback tracking and progress. I am as committed as anyone to ensuring we minimise overload but t’s worth a fresh visit to the topic from a big vista not just the finer details, as we do need a system but no system should overburden classroom teachers. However teachers will need to record something after all. JT gave another great story to say he likes to ‘break the rules’ and that’s OK because he is the head and I am totally with him, as leaders we need to be able to say to a parent or even a child ‘we do have data but let me tell you a bigger story’. it is really bad that we ever let education get to become well this child is – actually we didn’t but it sure let like that.  SH also made me think again about KS3 something I have done since publication of the Ofsted “wasted years” as to how we use KS3, and with every dept wanting more time for their KS4 we do need to look carefully. But Sean reminded us that there is no assessment at KS3 and thus KS3 should be more of an amazing curriculum adventure and not just the build up to KS4 I think that was a very helpful. I want our pupils to be inspired by passionate teachers in those three years between year 7 and year 10 and although I appreciate Shaw’s comments I do think we would need to start getting things prepared for KS4 because there’s just not enough time.image2




The final summary of this seemed to be that we should spend more time collaborating (agree) that we have to think how to engage those people that were unable to get to the conference ( agree – twitter is only a small world still for teachers, influential, growing arguably committed (Saturday conference!)) but we need to spread the story. Also that we should look to see if College of teachers would spur us all in the right direction ( again is the COT an issue dominated by twitter teachers?)

imageMost important I think to say that assessment has  got to put children first and children’s learning and if we get that bit of assessment right then it doesn’t matter on systems. That assessment helps us in classrooms and in pastoral work to show our children what to do next and as Mary Myatt reminded us to set high challenges. However at the other end of the school someone like me is going to have to be answerable to governors and to inspectors and perhaps others and then there is appraisal….So it’s worth just thinking what sort of system you set up in order to deliver those requirements. At least in school we can make our internal assessments suit our children and even if SATs or GCSE still feel like they are designed as something for measuring schools or measuring teachers we can grab back some control.


I think it was very good to see so many governor colleagues there to hear the same messages and help us as school leaders to think about what information they need but also for them to see that some of the information we used to produce is unnecessary. I gave in and bought Marie Myatt’s book ‘High challenge low threat” and will resist the temptation to pass it on before I have read it thoroughly.  I love Mary’s commentaries and look forward to reading that and we’ll see if it makes any difference in our school. PS no reflection on Mary but I still have so much to read, dare I buy another without having applied all the ideas from the stack on my shelf?

As Mick Walker concluded,  we need to face up to the fact that assessment isn’t a bad thing it has to happen, we have to see where children are and help them move on and when they can’t we need our creative minds and pedagogy, and we have to do a bit more formally at certain punctuated times in the year. The purpose should not be lost to help pupils as they make progress and therefore more important than assessment is what marking we do and what feedback we give but actually it doesn’t have to be onerous long written comments or elaborate : blue penguin 3.6, in red or purple pen kind of stuff. We do assessment all the time back in the lesson when we noticed a child not really listening that’s really assessment isn’t it and we challenge them and got them back on task to help make progress. It’s just we don’t record all that and put it in a spreadsheet and email  for the head of department or the head teacher or the governors  who then pour over it and comments come back down the chain but make no difference to learning.

As a teacher born of the 80’s and a trad kind of person it’s all a bit back to basics: spend time preparing, teaching, assessing and helping pupils learning by interventions from that assessing – record what you have to but use that to drive your planning, and in the middle talk to colleagues to find creative solution cause talking teaching and learning with colleagues is one of the best bits of the job.

no teacher ever




Few thanks

Dame Alison Peacock for organising and inspiring

Prof Sam Twisleton for letting us into Sheffield Hallam

Teresa Roche who sent me a ticket when I nearly missed out

All the speakers and those who prepped stuff and the loads of enthusiastic teachers and Ed people who continue to remind me the Ed future might actually be safe.

oh and twitter people, some of whom came to life!

Oh and two of  my favourite quotes

Ros Wilson – What you doing? Why you doing it? What will you do with it? If the answer is you don’t know -don’t do it.

Mary Myatt – “The word assess comes from the Latin assidere, which means to sit beside. Literally then, to assess means to sit beside the learner.” 



Chemistry Practicals in the new world

There has been an interesting debate on the MyRSC  “Talk Chemistry” and twitter and various blogs which raise an important question for the RSC, for academics teaching and designing courses for Undergraduate Chemists and for schools and teachers.

There is always change – I’m only in touch with the changes to A Level Chemistry, AS Level Chemistry, and around the corner GCSE Chemistry; the profound changes over practical work.

Universities will have changed too, new techniques, scrapping old pracs, developing new skills – I am slightly guessing at this though.

So will new and young teachers in school have the skills to deliver practical work and perhaps more broadly motivate pupils as they once had or actually need in this “new world”? Can they do a good demo? Can they deliver the organic prep the new spec demands? Have they even used the kit they find in a school under financial pressure where Chemistry puts most of its capitation down a drain? Seeing some of the nonsensical practicals suggested for AS and A or at least the slightly odd quantities will teachers (old and new) know where to turn for proper advice – CLEAPSS, RSC, ASE – sure but exactly WHERE – they are busy people?
Is it time for the RSC to take a snapshot of practical work at UG level and bring together the skills developed in UG courses and design any necessary training courses for potential and actual teachers in secondary. What role “old hands” like me who should be able to help show how show a good demo ( patter and all) or point out the pitfalls.

Over my career of 34 years in comprehensive school classrooms – the magic, the mystery of Chemistry is delivered through a range of activity but practical activity caught me in school and I daresay caught you – is anyone making sure practical work isn’t sidelined to the side bench?

We know sometimes physics or biology colleagues struggle with doing some of our Chemistry practicals – probably easier and more comfortable to hit youtube – so Chemists let’s stand up and be counted and ensure whether it is assessed, sidelined by exam boards or rubbished – that we maintain experimental Chemistry at the heart of our lessons, our teaching and our future workforce of Chemists.

Meanwhile let’s see just what the score is!

How to succeed in post 16 Chemistry exams *maybe not*


Just to be clear, these are the top tips for doing badly in your Chemistry exams. Badly – yes that’s right.

Ignore the information in the stem of the question…head straight for (a) part i.

image1Show how expensive your calculator cost you by giving all answers to at least 9 decimal places, and preferably put the decimal point in the wrong place too. This also leaves no room on the page for units.


Units – forget them after all surely an examiner knows that most of the time it is KJmol-1 except when it’s moldm-3 and aren’t they a chemistry graduate, surely they can work it out.

Forget this is an A-Level Chemistry exam and keep answers superficial. At any hint of ozone/greenhouse effect, or those tricky application questions “suggest one other consideration…” This is your chance to waffle about needing a greener world/being environmentally friendly, or even the ubiquitous “might I suggest a quick google of the problem”

Adopt a sloppy use of language, especially those pesky technical words which no one else in the sixth form even has to bother with. It’s really best if you can muddle up the terms atom, molecule, element and compound because these are basic. However the real test is using words like electrophillic in the wrong place.Hey and if you get really stuck use electronegativity.

Past papers show you ideas in Chemistry which are often raised in exams. Hence it’s better not to look over past papers, and neither should you read those examiners reports because they say stuff like ” Few students know the reagents for synthesic organic  reactions” You will do much worse in the exam if these type of questions come as a complete surprise. Of course the worst thing you could do is practise those past papers.

Here is a great trick when answering really tricky questions – rearrange the words from the original question. eg

Q Describe and explain the effect of increasing the pressure on the Haber process?
A The Haber process makes ammonia and when changes are made like pressure it will change the amount of ammonia and the other chemicals. This can be explained by a Frenchman better than me.

Understanding Chemistry. I think a lot of students wishing to fail make this mistake. So forget about trying to understand concepts and key chemical ideas. Just head to one past paper, preferably from a different spec and preferably one you can do so badly on you are convinced you are useless. This will boost your confidence that you will do really badly.

Reading – I did mention it, don’t do it. The school really want those text books back in pristine condition ( they are only used once more) but stick to your games web sites, gambling sites and Facebook.

Talking to other students – this is another dangerous game. Sharing what you can and cannot do, could lead to you helping each other, you might discover trying to explain to a peer helps improve your explanations – avoid it

Faced with those longer parts to questions with half a page and 5 marks, do not bother to review your knowledge and select key points. Instead ramble on and on, jump from one idea to another. In fact the more chemical words mentioned the better. (A-Level equivalent to indicator goes bluey reddy yellowy greeny orangey colourlessly clear.)

Likewise with practise  and you reall will need practise the + can look like – for ΔH calc’s; Better still ink spots and extra dots on dot cross diagrams. There is also a knack to writing the fourth letter in alkane like alkene try alkøne or alkæne

On the subject of organic reactions you will probably get a mechanism, you can lose a lot of marks by random use of curly arrows – pretend they show where to attack, not where electrons move from. It’s also better to target atoms than bonds – after all bonds already have enough electrons, rather delicately shared.

Overlook the advice given in the question to help you. It is preferable to answer your own question NOT that set by the Board. A favourite here should be answering about kinetics, how fast etc when the examiner asks about equilibrium and how much . I suggest you write Le Chatelier in the original French just to show off. “Quand un système à l’équilibre est soumis à une variation de la concentration , de la température , le volume ou la pression, puis le système se réajuste à ( partiellement ) neutraliser l’effet de la variation appliquée et qu’un nouvel équilibre soit établi.” Eh voila mes amis

imageDiagrams, here you can lose a lot of marks. Make sure glassware does not connect properly, leave gaps for gases to escape edge between condenser and flask. also do like you did in the lesson and pop a stopper in the top. Remember no one does these experiments from your exam answer so the explosion will be a bit lost

Excuses – examiners love excuses to write in a friendly style to them preferably in red ink ” Dear examiner we had a useless teacher who could not explain Hess’s law” or “I had very bad toothache the day this lesson was introduced and my teacher refused to help me.”

Make sure you switch off your common sense. Some of the best answers I have seen proved you could extract 1000 tonnes of copper from 1 tonne of copper ore and who knew blood had a pH of less than 1. ( well after all it is red). With luck you can get a reaction to give a yield well over 100%.

Space – exams board work hard to leave you the right amount of space to write in, so best then to try and use just a few lines if they leave a large space and maybe make one point (when there are 6 marks available) or else write loads, round the margins and up the sides.

Some exam boards try and trick you by giving a choice of questions.So a good plan here is to do more questions than asked or do fewer than asked. If you would like some fun, don’t read the rubric at the start of the paper just guess how many questions they might expect you to do.

Timing – most students struggle with timing here is a big tip to cause major mark losses. Some students look at the mimage2arks available and the time e.g. 120 marks in 2 hours. They then spend time just short of the mark allocation e.g. Q1 is 25 maks therefore spend 20 minutes no more no less. Here is my tip – rush through the whole paper doing all the bits you find easy – shouldn’t take long! the go back and guess the next bits then go back and fill in remaining gaps just using random big chemical words (see above). Finally colour in your data sheet – as you know this is why the exam board gave it out – see it as extension work.