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.” 



Tuesday period 2 – #LoveChemistry, #LoveSalters’, Love Investigations

imageSo this post is about practical work in science, it’s not a review of the proposed changes to GCSE practical or those already in hand for A Level. It’s just my little world of practical work as a Chemistry teacher, and it is what I will be doing on Tuesday’s period 2 for a few weeks.

There are different types of practical work in science. When I used to plan on a scheme of work, we had various codes : PP pupil class practical; PD Pupils help in a demonstration.TD Teacher demonstration. AP assessed practical. I am so old that when I did my A levels we had science practical exams. In Chemistry this was usually a titration and mostly oxalate /permanganate ( ethanodioate/Manganate VII for the younger reader). We knew what to do, I had after all done one about a dozen times. We also had some analysis to do, a so called unknown and a few simple tests, flame tests and maybe some solubility tests to show this was Potassium Sulphate ( lilac flame, ppt with Barium Chloride). BUT oh how far we have come.

Let me tell you about my Yr 13 who have done practical Investigations now since 1994 and for a good few years of them I was also a moderator for Salters’ Chemistry. They have to choose their investigation, describe it including relevant chemical ideas and then plan the methods. In recent years we have had a new mark her for the difficulty and challenge of the topic, so if they choose an experiment we have done as an activity it scores low down. Modify the practical, use ideas beyond A Level and bring in a series of other skills and you might move to 4/5. Once planned we teachers have to mark the first sets of skills: planning, communicating, researching, risk assessments, references etc. The students work very hard, they score a full range of marks but maybe at the higher end of their grades. Why? Because they are A level chemists and quite good at this. However an Investigation means testing skills they don’t otherwise have

Mr Dexter at the RSC EIC 50th. School chemistry over 50 years

image Mr Dexter at the RSC EIC 50th sharing some differences between Chemistry in 1963 vs 3013 photographs from (c) Royal Society of Chemistry

So then we get going, usually three weeks of lessons and plenty of extra time. Students pop in during their free if staff allow, they come down at lunch or after school and we sometimes do a long twilight and Pizza. They start slowly in fact the first week I always wonder if they will make it but week two sees much progress and week three I see…experts! So now they have some results and observations to report ( and score) and they can analyse them (and score) and finally they do a decent job on what I usually think is the hardest area, evaluating what they have been through – scientifically evaluating that is, not a series of moans!imageBefore you say it cannot be assessed, I disagree the Salters’ mark schemes work. They work because back in the early 90’s teachers and boards worked together. They work because there were trials and developments. They work because there were good Chemistry teachers (who will remain nameless but you know who you are, ensuring marking and moderation worked.) but mostly they worked for being well designed, well thought out and because of the reactions we saw in our students ( not chemical reactions!!)
Why do I like Investigations?

  • It does feel as if this is what proper chemists and maybe research chemists actually do. A mix of researching methods, designing an investigation, carrying it out and persevering when it doesn’t quite do as it’s told.
  • We all learn lots of Chemistry, the students, the staff, the lab technicians but most of all the students. Even those who can just about understand concentration, dissolving, diluting etc get a much clearer understanding by doing it and by doing it AND being assessed.
  • The quality of work can be amazing. I recall in the early days of moderating seeing some truly wonderful investigations, given a relatively free rein it showed just what A level Chemists could do. they were ambitious, clever and often original. I even recall showing Professor David Waddington a project he diligently read it.’ What do you think?’ I hoped he would say it was ‘very interesting’ or’ innovative’, his reply: “probably worth a first”.
  • It’s one of the few bits of assessed work students enjoy. I know they also get stressed about the marks but if they plod on they usually enjoy the experience, usually do quite well and genuinely understand chemistry better.
  • They become mini experts. When we resume ‘normal work’ and revision they can teach their peers on kinetics, on errors, on calculations etc. I often turn to them ” tell us how you solved that”, explain how you worked ‘that’out.
  • It can inspire and motivate. In my day whenever did an A Level practical, let alone an assessed one, persuade me that Chemistry was exciting or innovative or frontier, though to be fair it showed me it was very useful. I have seen young people carry out their practical project and want a rethink on their HE choices. See n many of them get to grips with this fascinating subject in new ways.
  • It builds skills, all sorts from the practicalities of problem solving through to the softer skills of perseverance (though maybe if I say ‘Character building ‘ the politicians will listen). They also work on their own not in a pair or a group but independently – hey a bit like real Chemists?
  • It is perfectly assessable. Our students get a range of marks, from many 4/5 or 5/6 right down to 2 or 3/6. That’s a tribute to a good mark scheme, fairly properly applied, internally moderated and externally moderated. Practical work vital to my subject, should and can be assessed.
  • The hardest aspect back in the early days was researching ideas and practicals, it so often depended on getting the right books or articles, but what a great opportunity to raid the ASE and RSC cupboards. Now of course we can go on the internet. AND sure I know that’s why some people feel the whole of practical work can be cheating but really – have you ever met Chemicals?
  • No one gets a practice. You can’t do a four week project twice, you can’t rehearse, you can’t spend weeks researching and planning and then change your mind. It’s a good test!

imageAnd if Investigations ( let alone practical work) disappear?

I, for one , will be sad, I can’t think any other assessment building skills, showing off Chemistry, motivating and contributing to the student learning experience. ( although I do know learning for an ordinary test or exam does concentrate the mind). Maybe we can still do them, say the end of Y12 (Oh No) the skills won’t be quite so well developed and hey the AS is gone or going or something. Maybe we can do a mini project (Oh No)– you need four weeks, is there really that much spare time or are we refilled with extra content in the new world? Maybe there is after school, the Chemistry club – Oh No – how disappointing that something which should be done in lessons is reduced to ‘after school’ or ‘ in the holidays’.

If you are an examiner, assesor, moderator reading this, don’t worry we Chemistry teachers will make whatever yuou give us work, its what we do, but me, I am still allowed to mourn.

I never did an Investigation when I was at school, and it never did me any harm. I didn’t do one in my three years as an undergraduate maybe that didn’t do me any harm, but I did a part II whole year of research which I adored. That was back in the day without the resources we have now, I think I’ll just be that sad old Chemistry teacher…..”oh in my day”

My plea, please don’t throw out the baby with the waterbathimage

You might like to read other posts from my timetable of teaching – each is set out from lesson in the school week, before or after school or at the weekends, appropriate to the time of day. I have also started a  class lists or “set lists” which was to answer the questions: “why be a teacher?”or “why have other responsibilities in a school?” Shortly I am starting a new area about progress from one role or experience in teaching to another with hints and tips about successfully moving on in the job and your teaching career.