Author Archives: robinmacp

UnsustainED? Why ESD isn’t working.⤴

from @ robin_macp

“Why should I be studying for a future that soon may be no more, when no one is doing anything to save that future? And what is the point of learning facts when the most important facts clearly mean nothing to our society?” – Greta Thunberg

2019 has seen millions of schoolchildren across the world strike on Fridays because of inaction on climate change. As a teacher, this poses an ethical dilemma. We want our pupils to show exactly the kind of intelligence and integrity that Thunberg does, but we don’t want to see formal education being excluded from the solution. It’s a damning indictment of our profession if pupil empowerment comes from skipping school rather than being in lessons. 

At the heart of this is a significant issue that isn’t widely enough acknowledged; the drive for Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) has singularly failed to improve the sustainability consciousness (SC) of young people. This is despite UNESCO organising an entire decade (the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, or DESD) from 2005 to 2014 on the issue. National programmes of certification of eco schools have been rolled out on different continents, but the research done so far on their efficacy all points to one uncomfortable truth; its impact has been negligible. 

There are big questions to answer here. What problems has research into the approach revealed? Why has the approach largely failed?  And, crucially, can it be rescued? Let’s begin with the issues that have been thrown up by schools that have followed some form of certified approach which requires standard practices like audits of the curriculum and basic operations. Different research papers have focused on Belgium (Boeve-de Pauw and Van Petegem 2013), Sweden (Olsson et al, 2015), Taiwan (Olsson et al, 2018) and America (Higgs and McMillan, 2006), to name but a few. There are some common themes that emerge:

  1. Gender gap: girls are more likely to exhibit behaviours and attitudes that show sustainability consciousness than boys. This may even be due to implicit gender stereotyping in how programmes are constructed. 
  2. Age fluctuation: young children (typically up to age 12) show genuine interest in ESD programmes, but by age 14-15 this actually becomes negative – what Olsson calls the ‘adolescent dip’. There is an improvement by age 18, assuming the programmes are continued to that age.
  3. Socio-economic background: schools in areas with higher levels of income struggle to make any inroads on SC, and in fact the overall effect may be negative. 
  4. Death by Certification: schools that have followed certified programmes show little if any improvements over schools that do not, in terms of the SC of their pupils. Effect sizes where eco programmes are adopted are 0.2 at best. Worryingly, many of these schools think they are making a difference when they are not.

Much of this is due to the limited interpretation of what sustainability really is. When the focus is restricted to environmental issues only, the knowingness, behaviours and attitudes of pupils shows little change. What schools are failing to emphasise are the social and economic dimensions. In his PhD thesis (2018), Olsson goes into depth on his development of this model:

Olsson diagram

In this context, ‘knowingness’ is defined as a “theory of knowing” about the fundamentals of sustainable development, where critical thinking is an essential component. This addresses a core issue: much of what is going on in ESD-focused classrooms is about imparting knowledge without understanding. For example, pupils may know that eating less meat is good for the environment. Do they know why? And are they able to critically debate the dissonance about environmental sustainability (reduced water consumption) and economic sustainability (the impact on farmers)? This is where ESD is currently falling down: there is an absence of both breadth of the concept and critical thinking about it.

What is emphasised as making a difference is the need for pluralism and holism in teaching methods. What this means is teaching the full range of ESD concepts (not just environmental) from multiple disciplines and angles. This leads to ‘action competence’ in pupils, which means they understand a range of possible options, have confidence that they have agency, and then show willingness to turn this into concrete actions. Research conducted so far suggests that ESD can have an impact if it leads to this, but all too often it is ideologically driven, lacking in solid pedagogy, confined to environmental issues, and the agenda is driven by agencies outside of education. 

Back in 2007, Vare and Scott made an important distinction between ESD 1 (education for sustainable development) and ESD 2 (education as sustainable development). ESD 2 offers much more promise, as it focuses on critical thinking (which the authors emphasise is domain specific) and metacognition. This approach appeals to me and I hope that it will be the basis of ESD going forward.

There is no doubt that making all systems that support human life more sustainable is ethical and desirable. What we need to do is make sure that education about these issues is itself sustainable, and that is what bodies like UNESCO and the OECD have yet to get right. The Incheon Declaration of 2015 and the laudable goals it sets out have 15 years to deliver. Four years in, the Greta Thunberg effect suggests that a lot will need to be done in the next 11 years if this is going to make a difference.  


Lyons Higgs, A., and McMillan, (2006) V.,‘Teaching Through Modeling: Four Schools’ Experiences in Sustainability Education’, Journal of Environmental Education, Vol. 38, No1

Olsson, D (2018) ‘Student Sustainability Consciousness: Investigating Effects of Education for Sustainable Development in Sweden and Beyond’ Doctoral Thesis, Karlstad University Studies

Olsson, D., N. Gericke, and Chang Rundgren, S.-N. (2016) ‘The effect of implementation of education for sustainable development in Swedish compulsory schools assessing pupilssustainability consciousness’, Environmental Education Research, Vol. 22, No. 2, 176202,

Olsson, D., Gericke, N., Boeve-de Pauw, J., Berglund T., Chang, T., (2019) ‘Green schools in Taiwan – Effects on student sustainability consciousness’, Global Environmental Change 54, 184–194 

Vare, P. and Scott, W. (2007) ‘Learning for a Change: Exploring the Relationship Between Education and Sustainable Development’, Journal of Education for Sustainable Development 1:2, 191–198

COBIS and researchED Dubai: takeaways⤴

from @ robin_macp

I spoke at the Innovation in Education conference last week at Dubai College for COBIS and researchED, which was a great chance to catch up with friends and meet new people working in the Middle East. Here are a few thoughts based on the sessions I saw.

Becky Allen – @profbeckyallen

This is always a pleasure, because Becky’s book with Sam Sims ‘The Teacher Gap’ is excellent and takes to task the poor policies and practices that have beset the profession in recent years. There are massive crises in terms of recruitment and retention (with 20% the typical turnover figure per school per annum), but few people are doing something about it. Becky is. She’s also responsible for Teacher TAPP, which, if you haven’t downloaded it, do. It’s nicely addictive and is the best opinion poll on teaching out there: weapons-grade data, served daily.

Becky A

David Bott

Positive education is getting a lot of traction internationally and David taught at Geelong Grammar School in Australia, which has been a pioneer in the field. They send all Year 9 pupils to a remote campus at Timbertop for a year (without any tech or much comfort) to develop resilience and coping skills, and established the Institute of Positive Education. There was definitely an evangelical feel to the room and David’s charisma fueled this, and I liked the discussion that followed from his simple question of ‘what do you most want for your students?’ This said, I’m not convinced about this approach and want to see that it means more than virtue signalling. Wellbeing is important and young people do need support, but at the moment I see more style than substance here. I’d be happy to be proved wrong, but the evidence base looks shaky to me.

David Didau – @DavidDidau

A double dose of Didau, covering his two books ‘What if everything you knew about education was wrong?’ and ‘Making Kids Cleverer’. What I like about David is that he always challenges established norms and makes you reconsider everything you think you know. I don’t always agree with him, but you can’t deny the breadth of his knowledge in terms of research. What caused a storm on edutwitter was my support for this slide:

I have a lot of issues with the 21st century skills narrative because it is misleading and may even detract from skills that are more recent and need sharper focus for students (networking, for example). Is creativity a skill? No, it is a characteristic. Is it 21st century? No, it is as old as the human race. Can it be taught? I don’t think it can be taught explicitly, but can be nurtured in the right environment. In this respect, it is the product of a good education rather than a subset of a curriculum. It is the sum of the whole school experience. Needless to say, the jury is still out on this though.

Kate Jones – @87History

No one has done more to promote effective teaching and learning in the Middle Eastern classroom than Kate Jones (not least because she runs @teachuaechat) and her book ‘Love to Teach’ is a modern classic. She offers a wealth of practical strategies to try in the classroom and has read pretty much every edubook moving. In particular I liked her own version of the TPACCK model, which looks like this:


Kate’s addition is cognitive knowledge and it’s fair to argue that the sweet spot in the middle of this leads to great teaching and learning. The best way to find out more is to follow her blog here.

Mike Lambert – @DCol_Head

Mike is the headteacher at Dubai College and from what I have heard (and now seen) he is doing a great job. He has been a key figure in bringing  UAE schools together to form a strategic alliance which will bring huge benefit to pupils in the country. This isn’t easy – competition for pupils means that schools here have not cooperated a great deal in the past because they are rivals more than allies. This seems to be changing and the culture now is very different to the one I experienced in the UAE a decade ago. Mike elaborated on the efficacy of systems leadership and the extent of his knowledge on the evidence base is really robust. Definitely one to follow on Twitter.


Olly Lewis – @OLewis_coaching

This was really impressive. Olly is doing great work in ed-tech and recommended (and demonstrated successfully) a number of websites and apps that I haven’t come across, like Mentimeter. There was also a great discussion at the end about the level of engagement between teachers and ed-tech companies, sparked by the presence of an ed-tech rep in the room who spoke up for the companies that often get slated for failing to listen to teachers or be familiar with the needs of schools. I’ve got a long list of things to look at from this, so tweet Olly for more recommendations.

Rose Luckin – @Knowldgillusion

Artificial Intelligence is the Fourth Education Revolution, but what impact will it have on education? Rose Luckin is a Professor at UCL IoE and helped to establish the Institute for Ethical Artificial Intelligence in Education. She tackled some of the standard claims about AI, such as the extent to which it will consume jobs. Crucially, she pointed out that machine learning cannot understand everything, including itself, and also asserted that AI will mean a need for more teachers, not fewer. This field continues to be contentious, and although I missed the panel debate afterwards I gather it got a bit heated. It’s an area we’ll all be hearing more about, but I would like to see more people challenging the assumption that AI will be the end of us all; I want more hard evidence, less Terminator-style narratives.

Rose L


I did two sessions, one (happily) titled ‘death to CPD’, and the second on the reasons for the rise of cognitive psychology principles in teaching over the past decade. In short, I find the old model of CPD (one-size fits all, one day courses and little impact for high cost) infuriating. I’ve written about this here, and argued that we need to look at under-used resources that have greater benefit and cost less.  Above all, good professional learning takes time and needs to be stretched over a year. The Teacher Development Trust is a great place to look for more on this, as is ‘Unleashing Great Teaching’ by Bridget Clay and David Weston.


On cog-sci, I am a big fan but I think it’s important that we stop to consider some of the issues that arise from its sudden and widespread adoption.  The field goes back to when Hermann Ebbinghaus started his groundbreaking research into memory in 1879, and spread further when the ‘father of cognitive psychology’ Ulric Neisser published his seminal book in 1967. This raises various questions. What caused the shift towards cog-sci, and why is it only relatively recently that it has grown in popularity? Secondly, are we sufficiently skilled as a profession to practise this? After all, how many of us had proper training in this field during ITT? Are we just an army of enthusiastic amateurs? If we embrace interleaving fully, what are the implications for the curriculum? Mark Healy (@cijane02), a graduate and teacher of psychology for 25 years, tells me that even now he struggles to understand some of the nuances of working memory – yet everyone on Twitter is apparently an expert. These are all valid concerns so I will continue to a) use cog-sci in the classroom but b) critically scrutinise whether I am getting it right. As is often the case with research, the evidence base and theory are solid, but application can be awry. To be continued…

And finally…

A huge thanks to Annie Kirkaldy, Dee Saran, Sarah Lambert and all the other Dubai College staff who hosted and ran the events over two days superbly. Let’s hope it becomes a staple of the Middle Eastern education calendar.

The Ship of Theseus: the Nature of Change in Schools⤴

from @ robin_macp

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” – Heraclitus

This is about a philosophical thinking problem, and the messages that emerge for teachers and school leaders. If you know your philosophy, you can skip to the second half. If you don’t, read on…

A philosophical dilemma: the Ship of Theseus

Plutarch highlighted this problem and it has been developed and debated for centuries. In the dilemma, the ship of Theseus returns after a long period of voyaging (aided by the youth of Athens, he slew the Minotaur). When his voyage ends his ship is maintained for posterity, so when any part of it decays it is replaced. In the fullness of time, none of the original ship is left, but it still looks exactly like the ship of Theseus. This raises a question: is it still the same ship?

There are various riffs on this dilemma. A popular one is Washington’s axe, but you can also use Trigger’s broom. Washington’s axe resides in a museum, but the handle becomes rotten and is replaced. Then the blade becomes rusted, so it is also replaced. Same axe? Not the same axe? Personally I prefer Trigger’s broom (from Only Fools and Horses). Trigger wins an award for using the same broom for twenty years. He then reveals he’s changed the head seventeen times and the handle fourteen times. If you ask Trigger though, it’s the same broom – it looks the same and does the same job. No doubt he would agree that it’s the same axe wielded by George Washington.

You may be unconvinced by the ship, and the axe/broom examples seem trite. But how about Shinto temples? Their wood is replaced every 20 years. In one temple, the wood always comes from the same nearby forest because the trees are held to be sacred. Is this still the same temple?

And finally – to really mess with your mind – no cell in the human body lives longer than seven years. If you’ve done the ten year challenge, then consider this: not a single physical shred of that person exists anymore. Is it the same ship/axe/broom/temple/you?

What does this mean for teachers?

“Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.” – Daniel Gilbert, Harvard psychologist

Education has never been, nor ever will be, static. Pedagogy changes, policy changes, culture changes – children change. We can never stay still as we constantly need to be up to speed with our professional practice. However, we all know people who teach exactly the same way in 2019 that they did back in 2009. They think they’ve cracked teaching and that what they do ‘works’, but how do we define what ‘works’ and how can teachers know if their practice is effective? Something to consider is that we have learned a great deal from cognitive psychology in the last decade. The quest for a better understanding about how we learn and how our memories work will take decades yet. Teaching will change in line with our collective knowledge.

I accept that lessons I taught that I thought were great a decade ago won’t pass muster now. I accept this, and I welcome it as a challenge of my job. My father decided to quit teaching (at age 71, incidentally) when he felt he had run his course in the classroom. He probably hadn’t, but he I admire him for having such self-awareness and being so honest with himself. It’s what we now call being a reflective practitioner, and good teachers have always done this. Therefore what we do can change, but there is also consistency in what it is to be a true professional.

This is where meaningful professional learning comes in. We, as teachers, need to stay current in our practice the same way that medics need to keep on top of new developments in treatment and pharmacology. Evidence is key. Here are three things that I’ve changed about my craft that came after serious reflection and engagement with educational research:

  • Marking: I loved (and I choose that word deliberately) forensic marking. It made me feel that I was doing my job well, and that my pupils respected me for my work ethic and commitment to them. It gave me lots of lovely data and – I mistakenly believed – made them better at what they do. Now I have read more, I realise that written feedback is limited and my lessons could have been better if I’d planned (and read) more, rather than dedicating too much of my time to marking. I now follow Dylan Wiliam’s ‘four quarters marking’ regime and everyone is better off for it.
  • Feedback: related to the above, my feedback came mainly through my pen. I was fast at turning around essays (always back the next lesson) but I now see that live feedback is much better. I am seeing more tangible learning gains by oral feedback on the spot than I am from my trusty red pen. Whole class feedback has been a revelation to me and I strongly recommend it.
  • Peer and self-assessment: again, related to the above, I was always distrustful of these practices as I thought they were for show and were actually treated with disdain by pupils. That’s probably true if they are done badly (as always happens when you do things in a tokenistic way). However, training pupils to be discerning critics of their work can come through practice of evaluating their peers’ work. Done well, it can lead to greater insight and progress than having yet another piece of work marked by me. Without it, four quarters marking falls down.

So am I the same teacher? I certainly hope not. I also hope I won’t be doing things the same way in ten years’ time. Great teaching is about evolving your practice. It terrifies me to think that teachers plateau after only three years, as David Weston’s work with the Teacher Development Trust shows. Don’t let that happen to you.

What does this mean for school leaders?

Change is an ever-present word in leadership conversations. In fact, the Standards for Leadership and Management in Scottish education put change right at the heart of it:

“Leadership is central to educational quality. Leadership is the ability to: develop a vision for change, which leads to improvements in outcomes for learners and is based on shared values and robust evaluation of evidence of current practice and outcomes; mobilise, enable and support others to develop and follow through on strategies for achieving that change; Management is the operational implementation and maintenance of the practices and systems required to achieve this change.”

Therefore the same golden rule applies to schools as well as teachers: change comes from knowing that we can always be better, and must move in that direction. Bill Clinton once said that you can have good politics, or good policy, but without both you can’t have good government. The same is true for school leaders. What you do and how you do it are equally important.

Some key points:

  1. Accept that change is inevitable, but aim to control the extent, pace and timing. Too little leads to stagnation, too much leads to chaos. You will see things that you need to change, but you will probably also have to change things that you like too. The key is to recognise the need, choose the moment, and don’t break the speed limit.
  2. Develop a culture of professional learning that embraces change. The teachers in your school need a mindset where they recognise that their practice needs to evolve. The Wiliam mantra is invaluable: improvement doesn’t come from inadequacy, but from the certain knowledge that we can always be better at what we do. So be very careful about how you use the word ‘improvement’ – never make your staff feel that it is motivated by a feeling that they are not good enough.
  3. Are you still the same teacher? I hope not – but how do you know? Do you remember what it’s like to teach a full timetable? If you’re asking teachers to mark a lot of books, ask yourself when you last marked a set of books? I have yet to come across a teacher who didn’t value a senior leader who led by example. What example are you setting?

So is it still the same ship?

The ship has changed in its constituent parts, but its core purpose and overall identity are the same. This is how I view teachers and schools. Throughout their lifespan, a teacher and a school will have the same overarching purpose. Yet how they achieve this will be in a state of constant evolution, and at times it may need revolution. Change fatigue is a serious issue for teachers, but so too is stagnation. Deng Xiaoping tried to bring order to China after the ideological upheaval of Mao’s long tenure, and his maxim was “it doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches the mouse.” I don’t mind what the answer is to the Ship of Theseus dilemma, but if it still sails well then I’m fine with that.

Further reading

Five great books on school leadership:

Scottish EduTwitter⤴

from @ robin_macp

At the start of 2019, published a lengthy list of educators to follow in both the UK and abroad. Without wishing to sound parochial, I was frustrated at the presence of just a couple of people based in Scotland. The list is made up by nominations, so it’s not necessarily anyone’s fault. However, I know from personal experience just how many people I’m in contact with in Scottish education who have invaluable experience and knowledge that can benefit teachers around the world. After a couple of #FF tweets, I was inundated with many more Twitter handles to add to my list. What follows below is therefore a team effort and one that I hope proves useful to many others.

I’m a big believer in using Twitter as professional (as distinct from social or personal) media. It provides a voice for teachers that allows them to share ideas and blogs, or challenge poor policies and practice. This grassroots community is an essential counterpoise to officialdom that enables us to discuss education in a democratic fashion. Yes, there can be disputes and even abuse, but you can always block or report. I also know from working abroad that keeping in touch with what’s happening back at home is essential, especially if you are looking to return to Scottish education. Thankfully, moving abroad for a spell isn’t the career suicide that I was warned it was when I left in 2008.

So I hope this helps to build Scottish EduTwitter, and gets our fantastic talent in the sector the wider recognition that their work deserves.

NB: if you want to be removed from this list, or your details need to be changed, drop me a line. And finally, there are over 100 individuals on the list, with no rationale to that other than I ran out of steam. It is NOT comprehensive, nor final…

Twitter Handle
@amweston ‏
@don_iain ‏
@eLearnMissKelly ‏
@Glazgow ‏
@KCrommie ‏
@Kenny73 ‏
@MissAHolmes ‏ 
@MrsRSeaview ‏
@owexelstein ‏
@richardjholme ‏
@sdisbury ‏

The Effect Size Effect⤴

from @ robin_macp

There’s nothing more satisfying than winning a staff-room or pub argument about what works and what doesn’t by quoting effect sizes. There they are, in black and white: stats that show you are right. Homework is rubbish, class sizes don’t matter, feedback is king. However, my concern is that effect sizes in the hands of uninitiated are like matches in the hands of toddlers. There are a few things to take into account before you swallow the evidence…

What are effect sizes and why are they useful?
Effect sizes are a way of showing the statistical significance of a data set. Put simply, they are useful because they show the difference in outcomes between a test group (which has been given a specific intervention) and a control group (which has had no change to their teaching). The reason they are useful is that they can show the size of the difference between two groups.
For example, imagine an experiment where two groups of 30 pupils had been taught using different strategies and showed a gap in test results of 10%. It seems logical to say that this intervention has been worthwhile. However, what if all 30 of the pupils who received the intervention scored above all the ones in the control group? This would make it even more significant, because it worked for everyone. On the contrary, if the 10% difference came from only 5 pupils who did incredibly well, but the other 25 were pretty much the same as the 30 in the control group, it wouldn’t seem so earth-shattering.
This is where effect sizes come in. If you want to get chapter and verse on how they’re calculated then read Rob Coe’s ‘It’s the Effect Size, Stupid!’ What the effect size does is takes into account the spread of results (the standard deviation). This means that you get a deeper understanding through the context of the results.

Unpacking effect sizes
However, there are a lot of teachers (and school leaders) who bang on about effect sizes as if they are the only thing that matters. According to John Hattie, anything with an effect size of 0.4 or above is meaningful, and above 0.6 has high impact. This has led to lots of stats being parroted in teacher discussions to show which strategies and interventions are the most effective and should therefore be followed without hesitation. Looking at lengthy tables like this would seem to spell out with great clarity what works and what doesn’t:


Sadly, it isn’t that simple. Within these stats lie substantial variation. The classic example is homework – quoted here at a modest 0.29. However as various blogs and authors have pointed out (most effectively Tom Sherrington in the Learning Rainforest), the picture changes when we look at primary homework (a paltry 0.15) and secondary (a game-changing 0.64). The older the pupil, the more valuable homework is. Hattie has also pointed out that research is based on what has been done up to now. It may be that primary homework can be set in the future which has greater efficacy, and could change the numbers up the way.

A shift in thinking
What interested me this week was listening to Ollie Lovell’s (@ollie_lovell) thoughts on Craig Barton’s podcast episode ‘A Slice of Advice’. He subsequently wrote this blog post in which he uses his interviews with Adrian Simpson and John Hattie to explain his thinking. What emerges is the problem that an effect size can vary depending on how the experiment is designed, rather than the impact of the intervention. Based on this, Ollie rejects the use of effect sizes and calls them a ‘category error’.
I’m intrigued by this and it represents a significant shift in thinking if we’re going to abandon effect sizes (and the ranking of them) as a meaningful way of evaluating strategies and interventions. I suspect this is a debate that is about to explode, and in all honesty I don’t yet know where I stand on it. I did think the most persuasive point Ollie makes is this:
“Has an effect size ever made me a better teacher? I honestly couldn’t think of an example that would enable me to answer ‘yes’ to this question.”
With that, I have to agree. I also give a lot of respect to Ollie for tackling this head on. He’s ventured into a field that few would have ever considered to question.

Baby and bathwater?
We all know that there are lies, damned lies and statistics. However, Hattie makes a good point: what else are we going to use? I’m not a researcher but a teacher (and not a Maths one at that too), so what I say next should be taken in that context. At present I kick against the trend of effect sizes being quoted haphazardly by teachers in debates as I usually find this reductive. However, until there is a better method of expressing the value of an intervention I think we need to train teachers to be able to reach the story behind the numbers (as Hattie says) or understand the mechanisms (as Simpson says). If the numbers are less reliable than we thought, imagine how much distortion in practice is caused by their blind application in classrooms. While the debate rages effect sizes will continue to be used, so let’s do so with more care than before. Remember, the effect size is the headline, not the article. You need to read on…

The Vantage Point: Lessons of a First Year in Leadership⤴

from @ robin_macp

The Vantage Point: Things I’ve Learned this Year

I’ve just finished my first year in a senior leadership role at a new school and wanted to get across some thoughts about what I’ve learned. A version of this will feature on Craig Barton’s podcast so if you’d rather listen to that (and hear from much smarter people into the bargain) then I won’t be offended…

The Vantage Point of Leadership

I’ve read a lot and heard a lot of presentations about leadership, and much of it is common knowledge and/or common sense. If you work hard, show honesty and care about the people in your school you’ll have integrity. Be lazy, mendacious and heartless and you won’t. However, this tweet from Amy Fast expressed something I had been aware of but hadn’t yet found a way to articulate:


This is spot on. You can (or should) see the whole of the playing field but you carry no other special powers by dint of your title. I’d like to think the majority of school leaders understand this intuitively, but I suspect they don’t.

On Amy’s point about needing to learn more, I’m about to read Tom Ree’s ‘Wholesome Leadership: the heart, head, hands and health of school leaders’ and love the fact that he has a chapter on staff wellbeing. It should be a good read.


The GP-Consultant Model of Leading on Research

I previously worked alongside Carl Hendrick where he was the school’s research lead and I headed up professional learning. I relied on Carl’s expertise when shaping things like INSET days and Initial Teacher Training as his job was to act as a filter for research evidence. Moving to a new school meant that it’s the first time I’ve found myself in this role. I thoroughly enjoy it and have introduced a Professional Learning Reading Group and a monthly Education Research Bulletin. These have had a good response and I’ll look to develop them next year.

However, the more I think about being a research lead the more I realise that, in medical terms, I’m essentially a general practitioner (GP). This is fine – in fact, it’s probably essential – but if you’re going to become a fully research-informed school then you need to extend your capacity. What you need is a team of consultants. To give a specific example, I’ve always taught secondary but now I’m in a 5-18 all-through school I need help from colleagues who are experts in primary pedagogy. I’ve put in place a core team for next year to help me develop evidence-informed practice and am looking to grow this in the long term. A key message here is that this change won’t take place overnight, and you need people who are committed to making the vision a reality.

Directing the Flow of Information

A former colleague of mine used to say ‘know everything, correct enough’ and I think that mantra works for a lot of education. The trick is learning how to know everything. So how do you improve your intelligence gathering and networks?

As a new leader there are people who will challenge you early on, and then there are others who will tell you things quite openly (and perhaps bluntly). However, the silent majority probably won’t tell you important things because they don’t want to burden you, or be seen as someone who is negative or disgruntled. Actually, they need to tell you things that matter. Being approachable does not mean people will approach you.

What you need to do is get your colleagues to tell you what you need to know, as opposed to what you want to know. This will only happen if you build trust and a culture of undefended leadership. It takes time, and a lot of conversations, to get people to this point. However, the more information you have, the clearer your view is from the vantage point.

Visibility versus Priority

It is patently obvious that good leaders need to be visible. However, you can start your day planning to get around and be visible but as things unfold you can find yourself having to work behind closed doors as crises crop up. This also means that much of your work goes uncredited because it’s done covertly, so if you went into a leadership role to get credit, it’s probably best to leave. Now.    

You can also get dragged down by major projects, so for example this year I was responsible for getting us to be GDPR compliant (I can sense your jealousy from here). This meant a long slog at the desk which only got heavier as the May 25th deadline loomed. It also meant that when I walked around in June, people often said ‘I haven’t seen you for a while, how are things?’ That’s a clear sign that you haven’t been visible enough: being a keyboard warrior does not make you a leader. Therefore a key focus for me next year is to assess priorities more carefully and budget time more effectively to make sure that I don’t disappear into a bunker, however necessary that may seem.Coming up for air is good, and classroom air is the best kind.

Learn First, Act Second

I made a decision before I started at a new school that I had to spend time learning about the culture and ethos of the place before I weighed in with any new initiatives. In hindsight, this was perhaps my best decision of the year. It’s tempting to come in all guns blazing to put your stamp on your role, but I think it’s ill-advised (though obviously context is key). I spent about 50-60 hours in lesson observations throughout the first term and then gave feedback to the whole staff in the January INSET day. This was well received and also meant that that when I did launch new ideas (like the PL Book Group) it was based on genuine need.

This comes back to a truism of education: not everything works everywhere. Whatever your prior experience and knowledge base is, it won’t bulletproof you when you walk into a new school. In fact, the skills that you got you the job are likely to be inadequate for successfully doing the job. You are not now, nor will ever be, the finished article as a leader. That’s why the tweet by Amy Fast resonated with me so much.

So, Was It Worth It?

Of course it was, and I’ve learned more this year than I have in any other of the 16 years I’ve been in education. Yes, leadership is tough and a lot of stress follows you home. It is also hard spending less time in the classroom as this is the thing that made me love teaching in the first place. However, I’m one of those people who need a new challenge the instant they feel that they’ve cracked something. I spent 8 years in middle leadership roles so the time was right to make the step up. That’s the final thought: getting your timing right is key. Don’t go in too early, as you’ll be at risk of sinking.

LGBT History Month: Tales of an Orange Juice Boycott⤴

from @ robin_macp

This article is an adaptation of an assembly I gave recently to mark LGBT History Month.

1969 was a landmark year for LGBT rights with the Stonewall riots in the USA. As a consequence, the 1970s saw a dramatic level of engagement and activism, but the history of this period is far less well known than the campaigns for civil rights led by Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and others. This is a fascinating – and ongoing – period of history and deserves a much greater spotlight from educators. This article will highlight one aspect of the campaign that shows how the boycott strategy was not just about buses in Montgomery, but also orange juice…

1977 was a wateshed year for the campaign for equal rights for LGBT groups. This was because a famous American singer called Anita Bryant launched the ‘Save Our Children’ campaign. She was a big name in America: she sang at the Superbowl, she advertised Coca Cola, and at this time was the prominent face of Florida Orange Juice. In 1977, Dade County in Florida passed a law that prevented discrimination on the grounds of sexuality. Bryant – a committed Christian – was furious. In her campaign against gay rights she argued that because homosexuals can’t have their own children, they recruit and groom other people’s children and abuse them. She succeeded in overturning Dade County’s reform.

This campaign gripped America – and it mobilized the gay community. They launched a boycott of orange juice which meant that something as simple as doing your grocery shopping became a political act. If you bought orange juice it could be implied that you were homophobic. If you didn’t, it could be inferred that you were pro-gay rights. The orange juice boycott meant that it wasn’t used in drinks in gay bars, and instead people ordered an ‘Anita Bryant’ cocktail (vodka and apple juice) which meant the money went to the campaign to fight back. Bryant ultimately lost. She was criticized by leading public figures such as President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan – soon to be President of the USA and also a man who emphasised his Christianity in his politics.

The events of this period are captured brilliantly in the novel Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin. This novel was serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle, which meant that Maupin could react to events as they happened in each instalment of the book. One of the most powerful pieces of modern American literature comes when a leading character, Michael, writes to his parents about the Bryant campaign. Michael has moved to San Francisco and his parents have no idea that he is gay. When he discovers that they support Anita Bryant, he writes to them to tell them the truth about his sexuality. This letter has since been used by countless thousands of young gay people (male and female) as a template for telling their own parents about their true selves. It goes like this:

Dear Mama,

I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to write. Every time I try to write you and Papa I realize I’m not saying the things that are in my heart. That would be OK, if I loved you any less than I do, but you are still my parents and I am still your child.

I have friends who think I’m foolish to write this letter. I hope they’re wrong. I hope their doubts are based on parents who love and trust them less than mine do. I hope especially that you’ll see this as an act of love on my part, a sign of my continuing need to share my life with you. I wouldn’t have written, I guess, if you hadn’t told me about your involvement in the Save Our Children campaign. That, more than anything, made it clear that my responsibility was to tell you the truth, that your own child is homosexual, and that I never needed saving from anything except the cruel and ignorant piety of people like Anita Bryant .

I’m sorry, Mama. Not for what I am, but for how you must feel at this moment. I know what that feeling is, for I felt it for most of my life. Revulsion, shame, disbelief – rejection through fear of something I knew, even as a child, was as basic to my nature as the colour of my eyes.

No, Mama, I wasn’t “recruited.” No seasoned homosexual ever served as my mentor. But you know what? I wish someone had. I wish someone older than me and wiser than the people in Orlando had taken me aside and said, “You’re all right, kid. You can grow up to be a doctor or a teacher just like anyone else. You’re not crazy or sick or evil. You can succeed and be happy and find peace with friends – all kinds of friends – who don’t give a damn who you go to bed with. Most of all, though, you can love and be loved, without hating yourself for it.”

But no one ever said that to me, Mama. I had to find it out on my own, with the help of the city that has become my home. I know this may be hard for you to believe, but San Francisco is full of men and women, both straight and gay, who don’t consider sexuality in measuring the worth of another human being.

These aren’t radicals or weirdos, Mama. They are shop clerks and bankers and little old ladies and people who nod and smile to you when you meet them on the bus. Their attitude is neither patronizing nor pitying. And their message is so simple: Yes, you are a person. Yes, I like you. Yes, it’s all right for you to like me, too.

I know what you must be thinking now. You’re asking yourself: What did we do wrong? How did we let this happen? Which one of us made him that way?

I can’t answer that, Mama. In the long run, I guess I really don’t care. All I know is this: If you and Papa are responsible for the way I am, then I thank you with all my heart, for it’s the light and the joy of my life.

I know I can’t tell you what it is to be gay. But I can tell you what it’s not.

It’s not hiding behind words, Mama. Like family and decency and Christianity. It’s not fearing your body, or the pleasures that God made for it. It’s not judging your neighbour, except when he’s crass or unkind.

Being gay has taught me tolerance, compassion and humility. It has shown me the limitless possibilities of living. It has given me people whose passion and kindness and sensitivity have provided a constant source of strength.

It has brought me into the family of man, Mama, and I like it here. I like it.

There’s not much else I can say, except that I’m the same Michael you’ve always known. You just know me better now. I have never consciously done anything to hurt you. I never will.

Please don’t feel you have to answer this right away. It’s enough for me to know that I no longer have to lie to the people who taught me to value truth.

Your loving son,


The first time I heard this letter was in 2005, when my older cousin Dugald registered his civil partnership with his long-time partner Gerald. They were one of the first couples in the UK to take advantage of this change in the law and Gerald read the letter at the ceremony. It was one of the proudest days of my life.

My simple message to my pupils is this. Your sexuality is an intrinsic part of who you are; as Michael says it is as basic to your nature as the colour of your eyes. It is a huge part of your identity. I hope that any member of a school community who has the bravery to come out as being gay is treated with the utmost kindness. It is an act that takes a lot of courage and is worthy of respect. I also passionately believe that any community is made stronger by diversity. Imagine how boring the world would be if we were all the same.

The self-evident truths of staff wellbeing⤴

from @ robin_macp

A recent blog post by Kevin McLaughlin prompted me to write this piece. His heart-felt article, entitled ‘The Depressed Teacher’, outlines his journey from being rated as an ‘outstanding’ teacher by Ofsted to being evaluated as ‘requires improvement’ by the new headteacher only one month later. From 2012 to 2016 his health suffered so badly he was admitted to A&E twice with suspected heart attacks, which turned out to be stressed-induced physical symptoms. He finally left the school.

This resonated with me on a personal level as two of my close family members left the profession due to stress-related health problems, and another ended his career feeling very undervalued and depressed. Given the current issues with recruitment and retention of staff, this issue is of paramount importance now more than ever. This article outlines some thoughts and offers practical suggestions, but its main purpose is to further the discussion so that positive change takes place. The current situation is untenable and school leaders must act to improve the wellbeing of all staff. A child’s education depends on their teachers being happy, valued and highly motivated. Without the right conditions to be successful as a teacher, everyone loses out.

The extent of the problem

In May 2017, CUREE launched a study on teachers’ professional identities, looking specifically at how they are impacted by policy making and cultural factors. There are some positive findings. Over 90% of teachers are actively trying to develop their teaching and better than 7 in 10 believe that evidence-based practice is important. Yet at the other end of the scale, 77% of teachers in Scotland (where I work) feel unable to have a good work-life balance. 72% feel they have no control over how they are assessed as teachers. Finding reliable statistics on recruitment and retention is frustrating but it seems clear enough that teachers feel overworked and the processes that evaluate them are beyond their control.

No wonder then that wellbeing is such a major issue. One thing I would like to make clear is that wellbeing is not a new, trendy thing – you just have to read the 1776 Declaration of Independence where Jefferson calls ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ a self-evident truth. What, then, are the self-evident truths of teacher wellbeing?

The causes of pressure

Broadly speaking, I think there are three sources of pressure on teachers.

  1. Outwith school: national policies which impact on workload, such as curriculum change and assessment reform.
  2. Within school: leadership teams and line-managers that make demands of teachers and evaluate their performance, difficult colleagues, or dealing with difficult pupils/parents.
  3. Personal: the pressure we put on ourselves to excel at our jobs.

The people with the most significant ability to influence levels of pressure are school leaders. They do have to respond to external edicts that are mandatory, but the way in which policy is implemented can be controlled or ameliorated to an extent. Leaders clearly set the conditions in which teachers work, and they also hold responsibility for ensuring that staff don’t overload themselves. One uncomfortable truth here is that teachers can can be mental self-harmers: we push ourselves past breaking point because we know the importance of what we do. In doing so we don’t fully recognise the damage that we do to ourselves. Kevin even goes so far in his article to say that “now I point the finger of blame at myself”. Finally, school leaders have most influence over the nature of the relationship between teachers, pupils and parents. They can either support their staff and back them in times of difficulty, or throw them to the wolves.  

What can be done?

This means that effective change is most likely to come from leadership teams. A starting point is to make wellbeing a priority for all. I firmly believe that a school is a community and that provision for wellbeing must cover all staff – teaching and non-teaching – as well as all pupils. An  excellent response to Kevin’s article came from Naureen Afzal who set out a list of key questions for school governors, which puts staff wellbeing firmly within view of people who have significant authority over decision-making.

There is no silver bullet to the problem of workload, but all decisions taken need to consider the impact they will have on how many hours teachers will be working as a consequence. Carl Hendrick and I have argued that being research-informed as a school will reduce workload by cutting out the fads and fluff that increase teacher workload without improving pupil learning. For a concrete example, have a look at Dylan Wiliam’s ‘four-quarters marking’.

One truth here is that capacity for work is not a uniform thing: it varies for each teacher. It also depends on what pressures we’re under outside of our job. Understanding the personal situation of each teacher is therefore important and requires leaders who take an interest in their staff, i.e. a human touch. It also depends on what work is being done. Reading to improve subject knowledge is something I do happily during term time and in the holidays. Knocking out spreadsheets isn’t.

I’ve come to realise that my capacity for work increases if what I’m doing fulfils three criteria: it is stimulating, rewarding and valued. When this is the case, I can work very hard and feel that my wellbeing is not under threat. I don’t actually know how many hours I work as I’ve never counted, but my workload has never bothered me. That’s because I enjoy what I do, but if I didn’t I’m sure I would start to resent the late night/early morning/weekend session where I could be doing something different. Essentially, a 50-hour week of stress-inducing work is far worse than a 60-hour week of work that is intrinsically motivating.

On this point, another truth is that it’s not about the money. I definitely agree that teachers in Scotland are due a salary increase after a decade of erosion, but this alone will not resolve the issue of wellbeing.  There will still be a major problem with work-life balance and impact on health. For me, provision of staff wellbeing should be centred around enhancing those things that speak to our intrinsic motivation. This means looking after our mental and physical health.

Practical steps

This week I added something new to our inset day: a voluntary wellbeing hour. I asked staff to suggest activities, and we ended up with a menu of eight options. Some of these were physical like spinning, aquafit and walking (I run 5-a-side football, which is all the wellbeing I personally need). Others were geared at mental health, so yoga, pilates, knitting and reading were options too. We are lucky to have an amazing school library right at the heart of the main building, so I loved what one colleague said when she suggested reading. She pointed out that the library is often a thoroughfare as we run from one place to another on a mission, so we rarely get a chance to sit down and use it for its true purpose. A quiet reading hour with a good book is bliss. The point of all these activities is to start the term on a positive note and to allow staff to get to know each other a bit better. It builds mutual respect and enhances the sense of goodwill and strong relationships that are the foundations of a great community.

Another task I’m working on is writing a guide that covers our wellbeing ethos and provision. Sometimes awareness of what is available is a problem, such as access to a counsellor. I’m very keen to hear from other school leaders who have done a similar thing as we need to share as many ideas on this as possible.

Getting in the right people

One thing I loved was a recent job advert posted on Twitter by @jon_brunskill:

Jon Brunskill

There is also a lesson here on recruitment. I did Values, Behaviours and Attitude training last year and found it to be immensely useful. A VBA is an additional interview to the standard competence one, and the aim is to see if a prospective candidate shares the values and ethos of the school. It’s a good way to identify staff who are supportive and caring, rather than arrogant, egotistical bullies. Whenever you recruit new staff, see it as a chance to add to the wellbeing wealth of your community. Also, if you are the teacher going to interview then ask searching questions about the school’s provision for wellbeing. If you’re not impressed walk away – and tell them why.

The most self-evident truth of all

I’ll leave the final word to Kevin, who concluded his article with this message:

“Too many schools are putting too much pressure on their staff. Too many schools are ignoring common sense. Recognise the signs and act upon them. Your good health is more important than turning up for work as a quivering wreck. Your school needs to understand this. If your school doesn’t, resign. No school is worth ill health.”

Amen to that.


Harnessing the power of the testing effect⤴

from @ robin_macp

The power of the testing effect has wide currency and is identified by Dunlosky et al as the most effective method that pupils can use in order to build long term memory. This sounds wonderful, but there’s a problem. Does telling a pupil to self-test actually lead to them self-testing? And if they do, are they actually doing it in the right way? To become good at this is actually quite difficult so it needs to be modelled in the classroom first. What follows is a process I used this term with my National 5 history class (the Scottish equivalent to GCSE), so I hope it provides a practical case study that others find useful.

Step 1: calibrating the knowledge base

The most difficult thing for pupils to become familiar with at the start of this particular history course is the standard of the knowledge they need to learn (and be able to recall). The content we covered is a unit called ‘Migration and Empire’ that addresses which groups came to Scotland, as well as where Scots emigrated to, in the period from c.1830 to 1939. The first section looks at Irish immigration after the famine of the 1840s, so pupils need to know technical terms like ‘potato blight’, statistical information (the population of Ireland decreased from 8 million to 5 million), facts about where Irish people settled in Scotland (e.g. areas of Glasgow like the Saltmarket) and concepts like ‘strike-breaking’. They need to be able to recall some fairly precise information and the standard is higher than they are used to.

Having taught the content, the first factual test consisted of 30 questions divided into 6 sections, half of which were multiple choice. The class were given some instruction in metacognition and advised on how to self-test, but this was little more than an introduction. Until they’ve actually tried putting theory into practice, it won’t mean much. The first test was therefore tough and the average mark was just 16.2 out of 30. Pupils marked it immediately (Dylan Wiliam’s advice is that the best person to mark a test is the one who just sat it) and I took in the scripts to do some (swift) number crunching to give whole class feedback. The final section of the test on Irish occupations scored the lowest and needed some reteaching to correct misconceptions.

Step 2: applying metacognition

The second section of the course looks at other immigration groups to Scotland – Lithuanians, Jews and Italians. This time we could prepare for the test using a scaffold of types of knowledge, which we identified by looking back at the last test (the recipients were definitely doing more work than the donor at this stage). They had to go over previous questions and answers to think about knowledge types and we set up this framework:

  1. Key terms and concepts
  2. Events and processes
  3. Key individuals and groups
  4. Statistics/facts

This allowed pupils to categorise information using knowledge organisers I made, but they populated. The second test used the same structure as the first, and the average mark rose to 22.6 out of 30. Number crunching afterwards showed no particular section was weak, so no reteaching was needed.

Step 3: teaching to self-test

The third part of the course is on reasons why Scots emigrated and has some tricky knowledge on the Highland Clearances, poverty in the Lowlands, and incentives like government-sponsored emigration schemes. The knowledge for this is the hardest to break down and organise logically.

This time, once we’d covered the content we did a lesson on how to construct a test. Homework beforehand was for each pupil to come up with 10 questions and answers on the material we’d covered. In class, they worked in pairs on a combined list of 10 questions based on comparing their efforts. They then doubled up with another pair and refined this further. We then came together as a whole class and, with a scribe typing things up on a computer and projected on the screen, we took the best questions and answers and wrote a 30 question test.

This exercise allowed us to stop and think about what knowledge we need to recall, and how best to frame a question that would test our ability to recall that. This led to lively discussion about the wording of specific questions, as the main problem pupils have with history self-testing is they ask open questions that are more like essay titles. For example, instead of asking ‘when was the depression in the fishing industry?’ (answer: 1884-1894) they ask ‘why was there a depression in the fishing industry?’ It’s a valid question, but it’s for full written practice, not a low stakes test. When we had written up 30 questions, we worked on turning half of them into multiple choice (which is trickier than they realise – they need 3 credible wrong answers for every question). I then took the document we drafted and edited/formatted it, with only one question needing a rewrite by me before pupils took the test in the next lesson.

So what was the outcome? The class average was 27.2 out of 30 (so over 90%), and the pupil with the lowest score in round one achieved 100%. You may well say ‘of course they did so well, they knew the questions in advance.’ Yes. That’s the whole point. The assessment here wasn’t so much about answering factual questions but how to make them. In giving feedback I focused on the fact that some pupils had contributed more questions than others to the test, so some still have to practise how to make a good test. However, we’ll keep working on this so it becomes easy – and, hopefully, transferable to other subjects.

Step 4: the forgetting curve and self-regulation

I observed a lesson once where a Year 11 pupil couldn’t remember a piece of information from the year before, and when the teacher followed this up it turned out they couldn’t remember even having learned the entire topic. This shows the half-life of knowledge, so the forgetting curve needs to be defeated with spaced practice.

Forgetting Curve

So what I did with each of these tests was turn them into a Kahoot. We allowed enough time (at least one week) after each test before doing it again as a Kahoot, and this showed that some information types were harder to retain than others (no prize for guessing the chief culprit – statistics).  Over time we’ll build up a bank of these which pupils can use for self-testing and will return to them periodically in lessons. When we’re midway through the Transatlantic Slave Trade next term we’ll still spend 10 minutes doing an old Kahoot on Irish immigration to Scotland. This means I can have a weekly test with much less effort, so my jealousy of maths teachers who seem to test with ease might finally subside…

Making effective use of the forgetting curve works wonders for long term memory, but it also shows pupils how easy it is to self-test. I estimate that we’ll have about 15 such tests by the end of the course which means they will have at least 450 pieces of precise knowledge on entering the exam room, so the ammunition will be there to provide evidence in all essay questions.

The crucial final ingredient is taking the pressure out of the testing in this process. The last test was both the least stressful and the most successful. The message here is that to get pupils to want to self-regulate by testing themselves you need to reduce the stakes first. Emphasise that a test isn’t about data collection (though I obviously did that in this example, as a diagnostic), or reporting. The crucial message is that tests are about practice. The first mark you get is far less important than the last mark you get. The more you self-test, the better your recall, and the more you build confidence. Once they experience this process so it feels real rather than abstract, they will be far more likely to do what we want them to do: take up the challenge of learning for themselves.

Designing a Supercurriculum⤴

from @ robin_macp

This is an old post previously published on the Wellington College Learning and Research Centre website, but I’m reposting it here in light of a recent conversation about the need to go and above and beyond what a national curriculum can offer.

This blog is based on a talk given at the Wellington MAT inset day on February 10th, 2017, at The Wellington Academy. Robin Macpherson (@robin_macp) uses the experiences of the Wellington College Peace and Conflict Institute to explain what the value of a super-curriculum is, and how to construct one.

Wellington, like many other schools, puts a lot of emphasis on extension, enrichment, societies and guest lectures. This is intended to add intellectual value, and provide additional stretch beyond the regular curriculum. The fact that most schools feel the need to provide this – thus demanding a lot of teacher time and effort – says a lot about the limitations of the regular curriculum.

However, providing multiple additional sessions doesn’t necessarily add up to a coherent whole. In fact, it may even confuse and demotivate if pitched at too high a level. We can also learn a lesson from our professional learning philosophy here: one-off, centralised sessions do very little to change practice or enhance skills. What does make a difference is an extended period of learning with a specific focus and outcome in mind. Take the analogy of learning to drive a car. You wouldn’t expect to be a safe driver after a one hour lecture, or a one day course. You would practice for around 40 to 50 hours for several weeks before even thinking of taking the test. If we want to learn something of meaning and worth, we need to commit to it over time and tackle it in depth.

This is where I question the value of a scatter-gun approach to extension. Can we expect pupils to learn something of meaning from ad hoc talks and seminars? Looking at school websites that boast of guest lectures and one-off events, I sometimes wonder whether these are designed more with marketing and a prospectus in mind, or perhaps as a way of filling up their pupils’ UCAS personal statements. Extension should mean a lot more than boosting a school’s university entry stats.

This even applies to school trips. Fun as they are, do children learn a lot if they have little prior knowledge of where they’re going or what they’re doing? A colleague in the History Department, Jamie Bough, did a lot of research on the value and purpose of trips and her thinking led us to reshape how we approach them. Much like a good Harkness lesson, you need to know something first, otherwise you end up a passenger. Preparing the groundwork is essential, as is the follow up on return to check pupil progress. After all, a trip is a series of lessons – just in a different location.

This is where developing a purposeful super-curriculum comes into play. Real stretch and learning can be provided if we prepare extension the way we plan and deliver a scheme of work. Importantly, stretch and challenge also applies to teachers. I firmly believe that for pupils to be inspired, teachers need to be inspired first. This is a great opportunity to teach something that you are passionate about and perhaps don’t get the chance to address in your regular teaching. It also taps into a school’s greatest resource: the collective subject knowledge of all the teaching staff. How much of what we collectively know, as educated and skilled professionals, goes into the delivery of the regular curriculum? This leads to another consideration, which is the opportunity to wrest back control of what is taught in schools from politicians and universities. This is a great opportunity to develop teacher autonomy.

My final axe to grind here is that most schools speak of holistic education in the sense of creating rounded individuals, and imply that this means more than a narrow focus on academia. We then tend to see lots of pictures of pupils engaged in non-academic activities to underscore this point – here they are, becoming better human beings. I argue that academic and holistic are not antithetical. If we want rounded people, we need to start in the classroom, and we need to consider what values we put into the curriculum. This is not considered enough in my subject, history, and I doubt whether other subjects like science and maths cover values and decision-making much either.

So how to do it? The first important question to ask is this: in your area of expertise, what does the regular curriculum not cover that it should? If you can identify an obvious need, then start with that as your focus. Secondly, how can you turn this into a programme of study that will lead to deep-seated understanding of concepts, content and skills? Finally, how does this fit in with the context of your school? What ethos and values do you espouse that can be strengthened in your bespoke programme of study?

The problems you face are usually two-fold: time and resources. Of these, time is the bigger issue. Your working week will already be packed, as will that of your students. However, if you’re asked to lead a co-curricular activity, seize this as an opportunity. Also, most resources are free and it’s amazing how people outside of your school community will gladly give of their time if you are promoting something which they consider vital, and have never been asked to come into a school to help with. There are also a lot of educational charities with outreach programmes that are ready to support you. To give two examples, I have worked with Facing History and Remembering Srebrenica and have found them to be outstanding.

The experience I’ve had with the WCPCI has been superb. I set this up with two colleagues, Tim Novis and Rob Murphy, after a Holocaust Memorial Day talk a couple of years ago. We realised that trying to teach a massive and important concept like genocide by a one-off event each year was ineffective. In fact, by giving it such limited treatment it may even be damaging by downplaying its significance in the minds of pupils. Our discussion moved on to the absence of peace studies in the curriculum. It’s easy to look at the causes and impact of war, but what of peace processes? We only tend to look at these when they fail – see the ad nauseam teaching of the Treaty of Versailles. We therefore decided to set up an institute which would study a conflict and subsequent peace process in depth, and then visit that place to apply what we had learned in the classroom.

In 2015-16 our focus was the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which culminated with a visit to Belfast. There we met with former terrorists from both republican and unionist sides, and also spoke with people who had lost loved ones to terrorism. We visited Stormont and various museums (such as the Crumlin Road jail), and took a walking tour of Belfast to look at the memorials and murals that mark the city. A particular highlight was observing an Orange Order parade that was refused entry to a Catholic area by riot police. After returning, we spent time with pupils reflecting on the process and they presented at the Telegraph Festival of Education. Overall it was a powerful experience, and seeing pupils put difficult questions to people who had killed for a cause was something new for me. It resonated on a level that told us we were doing something right.


This said, we made several mistakes. There were two main ones. Firstly, we forgot to set up meetings for our pupils with people their own age. The Good Friday Agreement brought an end to the Troubles, but the future is problematic as most of Belfast’s schools are de facto segregated by religion. How do young people, who grew up after 1998, see their future? Secondly, we realised that we had spread the learning element too thinly across the year, with sessions every two or three weeks. This meant some pupils, who attended all sessions, were very well versed in the Troubles and Good Friday. Others, who missed one or two sessions, had long gaps without focusing on the major concepts. Some were therefore less secure in their understanding and found it too challenging.

This year we have been studying Bosnia and will visit Sarajevo and Srebrenica in March. The charity Remembering Srebrenica is helping us with the trip, and I went on their educators’ tour last year, which means I know the trip logistics and risk assessment side of things very well. To address our mistakes we condensed the programme of study, with some reading and viewing materials given in Michaelmas and then weekly sessions in Lent. On the trip our pupils will spend time at the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology to meet with Bosnian teenagers to see what life has been like for them growing up in the post-Dayton world. We also hope to be able to film our experiences in a video essay, which will enhance the presentation at Ed Fest.


In 2018, we are looking to work with Sandhurst School to take a joint trip to Rwanda. They are experts at this and very far ahead of where we are in terms of a whole-school approach to a super-curriculum and ethos. Working with them will be an education in itself for our staff, as well as the pupils. The future is very exciting and will, I hope, give our WCPCI pupils the best experience of their educational career.

I hope this has given food for thought. We do need to add value and enrichment beyond the curriculum, but how we do this matters a great deal. As teachers we don’t have time to expend on preparing things that have minimal impact. If we structure what we offer it will make a massive difference, to both ourselves and our pupils.