‘Architects of the Extraordinary’

“I am always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught” Winston Churchill

This quotation from Churchill seemed particularly relevant this week, as teachers across the country began the new academic year with at least one INSET day. As teachers, it is hopefully fair to make the assumption that we appreciate and have enjoyed learning.  For many, it’s our passion and increasingly, teachers engage in their own professional learning throughout their career. However, INSET days as a learning opportunity are not always received or perceived as truly developmental or enriching. Why is that? Is it because at the start of the term our brains are occupied with the apprehension, possibly anxiety of those first few moments, hours, days in the classroom? Is it because after a restful summer, it is difficult to shift gears back into our learning zone? Or is it because our experience of INSET may not have offered us a chance to think hard or reflect in a way that moves our own professional practice forward?

Whatever the reason, it poses a challenge for those of us who lead on CPD in our schools and spend months designing, planning and preparing to deliver INSET days. How do we set the tone for the coming year and meet the learning needs of a large and diverse group of professionals? That’s not to say we don’t revel in the challenge!

At Manchester Communication Academy, we have two INSET days at the start of the new year before the students arrive. This year, our theme was ‘Architects of the Extraordinary’. We themed our table plans around extraordinary Mancunians; we shared stories of our extraordinary students who had achieved against the odds; we celebrated our extraordinary teams with a ‘Watch this Space’ showcase from each department, and we focused on how we become architects of the extraordinary through our application of some key principles of cognitive science and our understanding of memory. Teachers and TAs attended workshops that were bespoke to their own misconceptions and with deliberate practice and peer feedback, they hoped to create extraordinary lessons.

It’s important to say that as a school and a Research School we have spent a lot of staff training time on developing our understanding of how learning happens and cognitive science. At the beginning of our planning for these days, we were concerned that for our more experienced staff, they may see this as repetition and not a chance to learn something new. We hoped to address this with the inclusion of deliberate practice and the increase in complexity of knowledge and research. Also with the explicit acknowledgement that some of this we have covered before, but this doesn’t necessarily account for long term learning.

Evaluation of CPD is difficult and as a Research School, it is a big focus for us this year: How do we know that any training and development opportunities that we offer leads to a change in learning that leads to a change in practice that ultimately leads to an improvement of student outcomes? Evaluation of CPD is not about how good the lunch was or how much you liked the presenter-although these things are important!

So as a starting point, I asked some of our teachers to reflect on their learning from our INSET days. What new learning did they acquire? What misconceptions were corrected? What difference will this make? Some of these reflections are below:

  • I always thought having a good memory was something you either had or didn’t have – you were either good at recalling information or you weren’t. Paradoxically, it’s the act of recalling the information that gives you a ‘good memory’
  • It is important to make meaningful connections to new and existing information and make this connection explicit to move learning forward and create a deep and meaningful schema that will continue to grow and evolve.
  • Students often already know a large amount of the content they’re being taught (estimated by Nuthall to be  as much as 50%). This means that sometimes what we think is a link to prior knowledge is really repetition. Therefore, we must carefully consider how to build on the existing knowledge. What we sometimes mistake for good learning e.g quick responses, tasks being begun immediately etc. often indicates that the student doesn’t need to think hard enough to complete the work. Students should have to pause and deliberate.
  • Selecting the most important knowledge to practice is key when thinking about retrieval practice. This will allow the practice to be most effective and have the biggest impact. This is also key when we are thinking about students’ cognitive load on the working memory. We do not want this to be overloaded with information that won’t have a big impact. Think about the highest leverage knowledge (Most important). 

Alongside these, I asked some of the Teaching and Learning team to reflect on the process of designing and delivering effective professional development and the experience of being a delegate. These reflections included:

  •  It was great to be given time to refine an upcoming lesson during our ‘How learning happens’ breakout session. This allowed us to apply the training delivered to ensure our upcoming lesson effectively managed student’s attention effectively with clear and concise instructions. Using feedback, it changed my approach of delivering an aspect of this lesson to ensure the student’s attention was directed at the key information delivered.  
  • Multiple choice questions for staff are a great way to pull out nuances in misconceptions.
  • Pairing staff for practice from different subjects helps make the feedback less threatening – non-specialists are great proxies for novice students.

The next stage for evaluation is linked to our quality assurance processes-what do we see in the classroom and how does this impact on student learning? Watch this space.

Teaching and Professional Development during a pandemic

Louise Stubbs, ELE

Back in March 2020 when Boris Johnson announced that schools would be closing I never imagined that 15 months later I would be still delivering remote lessons to students who were having to isolate due to bubbles closing – come to think about it in March 2020 the only bubbles I thought about were in a well-deserved glass of prosecco on a Friday night!

Back then none of us really knew what we were doing and fortunately the EEF published their “Remote learning: Rapid Assessment” report in April 2020 (https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Publications/Covid-19_Resources/Remote_learning_evidence_review/Remote_Learning_Rapid_Evidence_Assessment.pdf)  MCA held a google meet as soon as it was published led by Susie Fraser to discuss the findings.  Back then that was my first CPD through MCA and my first google meet!

That report was a breakthrough moment for me, firstly as a teacher battling against a lack of skills (my own and my students) the lack of devices and access to broadband for the children I was trying to teach and by my own issues with intermittent Wi-Fi the knowledge that “Teaching quality is more important than how lessons are delivered” meant that children in my classes who were having to share a device and were unable to attend a live lesson would not be hindered; synchronous teaching was not the magic key! 

I also lead our SCITT programme and as all delivery for our ITTs went online I switched to zoom for their training and found that point 3 in the report “Peer interactions can provide motivation and improve learning outcomes” also rang true and that breakout rooms increased engagement and motivation in our ITT cohort. 

The pandemic has meant new challenges to overcome as an ELE and the practices I had embedded from attending that first CPD have become more refined.  I co-delivered the “Making the Difference to Disadvantaged Learners” (MDDL) programme to Lancashire Schools, this was entirely facilitated through zoom and my co-host and I have never met in person, how could we recreate the feeling of a face to face course through zoom?  All of us have spent much of the last year online and know how easy it is to be distracted.  I wouldn’t dream of answering emails in a real conference but have been known to during some online cpd.  Equally I have been a consumer of online cpd where a presenter has just shared a PowerPoint and talked at me when really asynchronous teaching would have been better as I could have watched the training when I had the time rather than a synchronous session in the middle of a hectic day.  One of the most important aspects of teacher cpd for me is always the networking, that lightbulb moment when you chat to another colleague who has a similar issue to you so how could we create that opportunity online?  

The MDDL programme did fully embrace the guidance for the EEF report about Remote Learning with live events and self -directed study.  We made full use of all that zoom had to offer – break out rooms with small groups, sometimes randomly generated, sometimes by focus and sometimes we named them by intervention so participants could self-select.  This maximised peer interaction and was an attempt to recreate the “coffee break” moments.  We used the chat function and polls.   Time is built into the programme for independent tasks to give delegates time for their planning and we were both on hand for any support.  Finally, the fifth consideration from the EEF “Different approaches to remote learning suit different tasks and types of content” was achieved as the programme uses video, quizzes, group tasks, independent tasks and we used woo-clap to capture the results of group work, this allowed more interaction from delegates and was a good way to share each groups ideas.   Planning for these sessions was again completed on zoom and we made sure we allocated plenty of time to plan it carefully to consider how we could create that face to face experience virtually.

I have come a long way from where I was in March 2020!  My IT skills are much improved.   My ITT trainees have mostly been online for their professional studies programme all year and next year we are planning a blended curriculum with some of the content still delivered online due to the flexibility this gives us.  The EEF guidance has been updated with practical examples of how schools have implemented the 5 key considerations to support schools further and the pandemic has given us an army of early career teachers who have spent three months of their training teaching remotely applying this evidence based practice, we have never had a more resilient and skilled set of new entrants to the profession. 

Unprecedented times but our response should be predictable.

Susie Fraser: Vice Principal and Director of Research School

We have all heard and seen the phrase ‘unprecedented times’ in recent months more than anyone could have predicted a little over a year ago. As with any phrase that is overused, it can become tinged with irony, sometimes humour, often losing its truest meaning and sentiment. Whilst that may still be the case in this instance, for many, this phrase will continue to be loaded with emotion, perhaps a sense of loss, fear and risk, anxiety and uncertainty. Add on top of that the use of the term ‘recovery’ in its many different contexts, not least in relation to our young people and their future, and it can feel a little like we are drowning, not waving. 

As school leaders, we have a responsibility to buffer and protect our young people from this deficit narrative. However, with the looming awareness of the changes and the uncertainty about what is ahead, not least for GCSE and A-Level students, we too can feel at a loss as to what to do to best respond.

At MCA, there are two fundamental ways in which we are tackling these challenges. Firstly, we will be actively and consciously avoiding any deficit language. Ours is not a recovery strategy but a growth strategy. This reflects the opportunity for growth for our students, our teachers, our leaders and our community. There is no limit to the potential for growth and we are all able to grow no matter what our experiences. Secondly, we will be informed by the evidence of what works, placing our best bets where the research is encouraging and using our knowledge of our context to know we are best placed to make evidence-informed decisions about what will be most beneficial for our students and our families. Whilst these times are indeed unprecedented, our response does not need to be. This is not the time for inventing brand new, shiny ideas or for coming up with a lengthy document that creates new and additional priorities. Good implementation relies on identifying fewer priorities that address the right problems. It can undoubtedly be tempting to identify long lists of interventions, actions and responses – I have grappled with that temptation myself – but it is important to come back to what we know works based on the reliable evidence we have. More support for effective Implementation can be found here: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Publications/Implementation/EEF_Implementation_Guidance_Report_2019.pdf

At MCA, we have revisited the Improving Behaviour in Schools guidance. Not because we are anticipating a decline in student behaviour but the first four recommendations are centred around culture and routines. Whilst leaders will be adjusting the curriculum, our guidance for teachers will be a reminder of the principles we have previously focused on. Those principles have been borne out of our understanding of the guidance report on Metacognition and Self-regulated Learning and informed by the dimensions in The Great Teaching Toolkit (https://www.greatteaching.com/). Teachers should be empowered in their knowledge that it is in their classrooms, as a result of the relationships they nurture and the decisions they make that they will give our students the best chance to grow.

Undoubtedly we are living in unprecedented times. However, our response as teachers and leaders should be quite predictable in that we make evidence-informed decisions and place our best bets for our individual students and communities.

Prioritising Priorities…

As we prepare for the full re-opening of schools on 8th March, Rebekah Hawthornthwaite shares her thoughts about the challenges we face and the comfort we can take in the familiar.

‘We NEED  to make reading and literacy a priority; it’s crucial to closing that growing disadvantage gap.’ 

‘Really, it’s all about curriculum: we NEED to prioritise adapting the curriculum when we return so that no students are missing core concepts.’ 

‘Assessment is key. We NEED to prioritise assessment when we return otherwise we won’t know how best to respond to the gaps that have emerged.’ 

‘We musn’t forget that our pupils with SEND are some of our most vulnerable. We NEED to prioritise practice that will support them when we return.’ 

‘Student and staff wellbeing is fragile at the moment. We NEED to prioritise supporting both to feel safe and comfortable coming back.’

Here is just a snapshot of the conversations I have had with my colleagues and with myself in recent weeks. Round and round we go, cataloguing all of the things we need to prioritise when we return. All of these things (and many more) are vitally important. But when does having so many priorities lead to actually having no priorities at all? And if this is happening at a senior leadership level, I can only imagine how overwhelming it seems to the middle leaders, teachers and support staff on the receiving end of our directives and closest to the action on the ground.

Back in September, rhetoric within the education community around returning to school was full of new-school-year optimism and plenty of wisdom was shared amongst us about how best to welcome students back and support their reintegration into classroom learning. Unfortunately, much of this wisdom had to be shelved when different regions found themselves returning to remote learning during local lockdowns, and then the third national lockdown saw us all back to teaching at our laptops into the new year. With everything that has happened in recent months – and with the prospect of schools opening to new routines of Covid testing and safety measures – it’s easy to feel swept up and overwhelmed. Amidst all of this, I have found it particularly helpful to return to the resources that I found useful back in September: the evidence-informed, common-sense voices reassuring me that we do know what we’re doing and it’s going to be ok.

One such example is this blog by Kirsten Mould. As the EEF’s Learning Behaviours specialist, a serving secondary school teacher, and a Head of Personalised Learning/Transition and SENCo, Kirsten brings invaluable experience and perspective. This has really helped me to define priorities as a senior leader for Teaching and Learning at a time when everything seems like a priority. Most helpfully, it has helped me to orientate the decision making with the students’ needs at the centre. 

This week’s announcement that all students will be returning to school on 8th March has certainly prompted a range of reactions from teachers, students, parents and the wider public. In what has been a most tumultuous year for education, it is unsurprising that people are experiencing a full range of emotions and considerations. Nevertheless, I am yet to come across a teacher or student who isn’t at least cautiously excited at the prospect of a return to the classroom. Whilst people might disagree about timings and logistics, it is testament to the resilience of our profession that teachers have emerged from this year with even more passion, creativity and determination to face the next stage of this journey. 

Best of luck to all schools opening their doors for a full return in the coming weeks!

Closing the Language Gap Remotely: Why oracy is more important than ever

Sarah Green is an ELE with Manchester Communication Academy and Assistant Headteacher at The Prospere Learning Trust. She is also a Voice21 National Oracy Leader. Here, she explores why oracy cannot wait until coronavirus is over and how schools can elevate its status through their remote learning curriculum.

What is oracy and why does it matter?

First coined by Andrew Wilkinson in 1965, the noun ‘oracy’ came into being to recognise the importance of spoken language development – the poor relation to reading and writing. Put simply, ‘Oracy is the ability to articulate ideas, develop understanding and engage with others through spoken language’ (Voice21, 2021). It is both a learning process and an outcome of learning.

The EEF’s evaluation of oral language interventions  shows that they have a consistently ‘positive impact’ on learning, including on oral language skills and reading comprehension, at a very low cost.  On average, pupils who participate in oral language interventions make approximately five months’ additional progress over the course of a year.

Voice 21 has run two pilot studies with the EEF on development of an ‘Oracy Framework’ (with the University of Cambridge) and an evaluation of their Oracy Improvement Programme  with 12 schools in 2017. Their Oracy Framework sets out the physical, linguistic, cognitive and socio-emotional oracy skills required by pupils for education and life; it is the foundation in which their oracy curriculum is built upon.

We know that communication and language provide the foundations for learning, thinking, and wellbeing. But, we also know that the complex relationship between oral language, reading, and writing can contribute to the cause and widening of gaps between from disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers as they move through school (Breadmore, H. L., Vardy, E. J., Cunningham, A. J., Kwok, R. K. W. and Carroll, J. M., 2019).

Last August, The Education Policy Institute (EPI) reported that for the first time in a decade the disadvantage gap in England had stopped closing, and that there were strong signs that it had started to widen again. Whilst the gap in the Early Years had stagnated at 4.6 months (largely the same since 2013), the gap between poorer primary-aged pupils and their peers was 9.3 months – the first increase since 2007. At secondary school, they found that a gap of 18.1 months of learning between disadvantaged pupils and their more advantaged peers (Hutchinson, J., Reader, M. and Akhal, A., 2020). The stark reality is that the disadvantage gap had stopped closing pre-pandemic and, worryingly, it is likely the progress made over the past decade will be lost. However, by prioritising the improvement of our pupils’ literacy and oracy skills, we have a chance of improving this bleak picture.

A visualisation of the key findings from the report taken from EPI’s Education in England: Annual Report 2020

What does the guidance say?

The EEF’s Literacy Guidance Reports all share a common thread: they recommend that pupils from EYFS through to KS4 need to be provided with opportunities to develop their spoken language skills because there is a strong evidence base which proves this has a positive impact on attainment. Some of the recommendations include:

  • The development of language and communication across the curriculum should be prioritised.
  • High-quality adult-child interactions are important and should include talking with children as well as to children.
  • Explicit and implicit approaches for teaching of vocabulary should be incorporated into learning, including through strategies such as modelling, shared reading and storytelling.
  • Pupils should be given opportunities to collaborative with their peers, developing wider skills such as social awareness, relationship building, problem-solving and knowledge acquisition.
  • Pupils should be given purposeful opportunities to develop their thinking and communication, which in turn will support their reading and writing.
  • There should be opportunities for structured high-quality talk, accountable talk and metacognitive reflection to support pupils’ language development.

What could an oracy-rich remote offer look like?

Despite conflicting opinion in the media recently about which approach works best for remote learning, we know from the EEF’s rapid evidence review on remote learning that teaching quality is more important than the medium in which schools choose to use.

Whether your school’s remote learning format is synchronous or asynchronous, or a hybrid model, there are many ways you can look to incorporate oracy opportunities, which will in turn improve engagement during remote learning.

Oracy Toolkit for Synchronous Learning

We all have RHINOS (Really Here in Name Only Students) in our classrooms (Oakley. J., 2002). RHINOS are the invisible students who find that they can get away with not being fully engaged in their learning by being inoffensively passive. Tackling this requires us to carefully consider when it is most appropriate to use a monologic vs. dialogic teaching approach and how we can create an inclusive oracy culture.

Here are some take-away strategies to help develop a balanced approach, fostering an oracy culture of high-expectations, and to develop the cognitive and socio-emotional strands of the Oracy Framework:  

Image taken from Some Handy Tools for Building Student Engagement in Online Classes – Teach Like a Champion

Oracy Inspiration for Asynchronous Learning

If you are delivering asynchronous lessons, this could be a great opportunity to develop your pupils’ knowledge of the linguistic and cognitive strands of oracy. But, you don’t need to re-invent the wheel! Instead, take a look at Oak National Academy’s resources for inspiration and look for opportunities to develop your pupils’ wider oracy skills.

Here are some approaches to help develop the linguistic and cognitive strands of oracy: 

The moral imperative for oracy is clear: it is one of our ‘best bets’ to help minimise the effects of the pandemic on the social, emotional and academic development of our pupils and to help the disadvantage gap to narrow. It should not be reserved for another ‘recovery’ curriculum once all pupils have returned to school; it is much more than just a re-integration strategy. Our pupils still need to be immersed in language-rich interactions so they can develop essential knowledge and vocabulary, and so they continue to develop communication skills for life.

Further Reading & Links:




Some Handy Tools for Building Student Engagement in Online Classes – Teach Like a Champion

The Education Policy Institute (epi.org.uk)

Home – Oak National Academy (thenational.academy)


Breadmore, H. L., Vardy, E. J., Cunningham, A. J., Kwok, R. K. W. and Carroll, J. M. (2019). Literacy Development: Evidence Review. London: Education Endowment Foundation.

Education Endowment Foundation. (2020). Retrieved from Covid-19 Resources: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Publications/Covid-19_Resources/Resources_for_schools/Reading_with_TRUST_comic.pdf

Hutchinson, J., Reader, M. and Akhal, A. (2020). Education in England Annual Report. Education Policy Institute.

Oakley. J., W. C. (2002). RHINOs: a research project about the quietly. Pedagogy, Culture & Society, pp. 10:2, 193-208.

Voice21. (2021, January 19). Voice 21. Retrieved from https://voice21.org/oracy/

CPD: How the blended model is working for us.

by Rebekah Hawthornthwaite, Assistant Principal and Assistant Director of Manchester Communication Research School.

One of the many implications of the global pandemic has been the impact it has had on schools’ capacity to implement and facilitate high-quality professional development. Not only are we juggling staggered timetables and social distancing, but the impact of school closures and the need for quality remote learning provision has also changed the nature of what professional development might need to include.

  • What do our teachers most need to know and be able to do at this time that we haven’t done before?
  • How is this different to the knowledge and skills in previous professional development and what remains the same?
  • How can PD be effectively facilitated in the ever-changing landscape of localised and national lockdowns, and with staff sometimes needing to self-isolate at a moment’s notice?

These are just some of the many, many questions that buzzed around my head as I took my first steps into MCA this September. Newly appointed to senior leadership, in a new school, and facing the challenges we all face as teachers during this pandemic, I certainly felt that I had more questions than answers.

More importantly, with the EEF’s rapid evidence assessment into the potential impact of school closures suggesting that the disadvantaged gap would have widened by a median estimate of 36%, I knew that the stakes were high. The evidence suggests that good teaching is the most important lever schools have to improve outcomes for disadvantaged pupils. (EEF’s Pupil Premium Guide, p.5) so ensuring that PD effectively addressed elements of good teaching was crucial. Clear explanations, scaffolding, guided practice and feedback need to be secure in both classroom and remote provision. It sounds obvious, really. But with so much noise around schools re-opening, it is easy to see how school leaders have to struggle to keep teaching and learning at the forefront of the conversation.

During the first lockdown, I was aware of the many examples of excellent remote PD that had risen to the challenge. Twitter was alive with inspiring examples of everything from learning to optimise the use of new technology to developing subject-specific communities. Now that we were back in school, how could we maintain this momentum? Being back meant that people’s time was less flexible and that all of the other day-to-day priorities (not least the lingering anticipation of a positive case) would impact on our capacity to deliver. Luckily, the EEF’s rapid evidence assessment of remote professional development was hot off the press as I began my new role.

You can read the report here:https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Publications/Remote_PD_Evidence_Assessment.pdf

Finding 1 in the report was especially reassuring. Whilst I had worried about finding a space big enough to get everyone together but socially-distanced, the report found that the evidence was mixed as to whether remotely delivered PD is more or less effective than face-to-face. Crucially, it found that other design features are likely to be more important to PD outcomes than whether the delivery is undertaken face-to-face or remotely. As a key priority, I was grateful to see that the hour-long slot on a Friday had been protected for PD, which meant that all teachers can access pre-recorded videos, virtual meetings and reading at the same time without being in the same room.

Whilst the findings indicate that synchronous and asynchronous PD can both be effective for different reasons, I have found that synchronous has generally worked for us – not because it is synchronous per ser, but because it has carved-out time within the school day to enable staff to participate whilst balancing the rest of their workload. I can certainly see the benefit of asynchronous sessions but, as Finding 6 of the report advocates, school leaders need to support staff to prioritise their PD and providing protected time for this is one of the ways they can do this effectively.

The other findings in the report have also informed the development of our PD model, as well as the training we offer as a Research School. Notably, Finding 4 of the report: providing opportunities for collaboration has been important to us. We have continued to operate learning communities that are focused on our teaching and learning priorities and these provide colleagues with rich opportunities to share good practice. Likewise, we are expanding our capacity for coaching and increasingly using IRIS as a means to collect classroom examples without breaching restrictions.

So, whilst questions still buzz around my head, I can reassure them with evidence-informed responses and the inspiring enthusiasm of a teaching community that never gives up on getting better.

Could one-to-one teaching be transformational? Not necessarily

During the Conservative Party Conference earlier in October, Boris Johnson stated that he wanted to ‘explore the value of one-to-one teaching, both for pupils who are falling behind and for those who are of exceptional abilities’. The Prime Minister’s belief that such ‘intensive teaching could be transformational and of massive reassurance to parents’ was a head-dropping and heart-sinking moment. I’m sure this was the same for many teachers and school leaders. That is not because we don’t want transformational education, but is because this isn’t the way to achieve it.

Sweeping statements like this have far-reaching implications, not least being the suggestion that teaching and learning in classrooms, with full-class sizes, in schools up and down the county, is not transformational.

That is not to say that one-to-one teaching does not have its value and its place. The National Tutoring Programme is a welcome investment. With the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) leading the delivery of part of this programme, we can be sure that the evidence of the impact of one-to-one and small-group tuition, is enough to assure us that these approaches can be beneficial. At MCA, we are under way with our plans to work with Tutor Trust. We are confident in the outcomes that can be achieved, with some careful planning and from our previous experience.

However, we also know that interventions generally, must come with a word of caution and a potential risk. As we move into the delivery of this programme we should be cautious that tuition, and other interventions, are not seen to be the answer to closing the gap or aiding recovery. This is only part of the answer.

There is a wealth of evidence, captured in a number of the EEF Guidance Reports that our priority for providing the best quality educational experience (let’s avoid the language of recovery) is to prioritise high-quality teaching and learning. In a time where the national conversation is about the impact of the pandemic on education, and the genuine fears about the attainment gap widening alongside an ever-growing concern about the particular impact on students who experience disadvantage, there is a pressure to respond. Respond we should but we have to be careful about the nature of the response and the implementation. By just simply using a one-to-one or small-group model, there is a risk of adding to the potential impact of the pandemic. It is important to note here that there is yet to be any evidence of any long-term impact but understandably and rightly, school leaders are now working on mitigation.

When considering the use of any intervention, it is worth considering the following questions:

  • Is the intervention selected a proven programme? If not, how do you know it will have the desired impact?
  • Have the right students been selected for the right intervention? What data was used and how robust and reliable is that?
  • Who will deliver the intervention? Have they received sufficient training?
  • Do the conditions for the intervention allow for fidelity to the programme? If not, could any adaptations affect the impact?

For many schools, Teaching Assistants are an incredibly valuable resource. I don’t need to say here all of the benefits that effective TAs bring to our school communities. But again, the deployment of TAs at a time when there is an increasing perception that interventions provide a solution, is also worth careful consideration. Recommendation 4 of the EEF SEN Guidance Report states:  Complement high-quality teaching with carefully selected small-group and one-to-one interventions reminding us that expert teaching from subject specialists in highly effective learning environments is our most powerful tool.  Whilst recommendation 5 states: Use TAs to deliver high quality one-to-one and small-group support using structured interventions, highlighting the importance of the questions listed above.

We all know that the logistical challenges of keeping schools open in the current climate, and the guidelines around bubbles and student movement, make the deployment even more challenging. That’s not to say that TAs cannot continue to be highly effective within classrooms. At MCA, we are using the guidelines below to support TAs in still supporting the learning of students in the classroom:

  • Be the eyes and ears – scan the room and use non-verbal gestures to ensure students are sat up straight and focused on instruction. Students can’t learn that they are not attending to what they should be learning
  • Use retrieval questions and open-ended questions (how do you know? Where else have you used that?) – take notes from the starter recall and retrieval task and revisit with targeted students. You can use post-it notes/mini whiteboards to do this
  • Also use post-it notes/mini whiteboards to provide scaffolds and prompts –  vocabulary/model sentences/success criteria
  • Use targeted positive praise

Sweeping statements and simplified soundbites might grab attention, but to be truly transformational we must keep our confidence in what we know works in the classroom.

Reading is Rebellion by Emma Stott

Emma is an English teacher and Evidence Lead in Education at Manchester Communication Research School. She is author of the book Speedy Reading: Fast Strategies for Teaching GCSE English Literature Post Lock-down

Teachers are not supposed to voice their political opinions, yet we’re constantly engaged with that most political of acts – reading. Political enfranchisement developed alongside literacy; making reading illegal has been a means of keeping subjugated groups ‘in their place.’.

So if you teach any text at all, then you are in effect teaching protest – texts explore, illumine or criticise the status quo. All text is a political statement: sometimes simply by existing; others times simply by being read, regardless of content. That cosy, quiet activity that your students often reluctantly engage in is one of the most potentially seditious acts they can (legally!) be part of. So why don’t our students know this?

At first, I was going to write this blog on the importance of reading and some cross-curricular strategies, but really, that’s not the problem. Indeed, we have robust and reliable guidance from the EEF (Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools) on this already. I don’t doubt that reading instruction is improving in schools, but I doubt if students really understand why reading is at the forefront of their education. When I ask students why we’re spending so much time on reading the answers are mostly, ‘To pass the exam’ or ‘To get a job.’ We need to look at something harder to research and rectify: the image of reading that schools have been projecting. We’ve billed reading as The Carpenters when we should have been proclaiming it as The Sex Pistols!

If your students don’t want to read, and don’t want to read well, they need to know that what they’re really saying is that they never, ever want to either test, protest, ingest or manifest any idea at all! They are slamming shut a door that successive governments have only nudged ajar for them as it is. Reading proficiency is going to boot the damn thing open!

But what to do with ‘dangerous’ text? Often, we lie it down ‘like a patient etherised upon a table’ and make it safe, controllable. Peps McCrea’s Learning: What it Is and How We Might catalyse It says students ‘attend best to what they value.’ If we only say text should be valued because we can dredge it for basic information or so that we can fillet it into adjectives and metaphors, then there’s absolutely no reason why they should care about it. Frankly, it’s hard to get teachers to promote literacy too if we think this is what makes it valuable.

If we want students to take ownership of their literacy and meaningfully apply the strategies we teach, then they need to know that text is radical. In my book Speedy Reading: Fast Strategies for Teaching GCSE English Literature Post Lock-down, I begin with a chapter entitled Reading is Rebellion. Students shouldn’t arrive at this epiphany in KS4 but should be primed all the way through school in the power of text. But how?

A very simple way of illustrating the importance of reading is to teach the history of outlawing literacy. Frederick Douglass’s autobiography worked really well with Y7 – they simply couldn’t imagine being punished for reading as many had had the opposite experience! But we can also be brave and make students aware of the Chatterley trial, the ban on Letters from Burma, the resurgent satanic panics in the US around J.K Rowling, Not Without My daughter, The God Delusion, Married Love, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, and the self-censorship of writers like Stephen King who allowed one of his own books to go out of print: King’s Rage scared and worried even its own author! Why are we putting reading into woolly socks and a knitted cardigan? Books are hard-edged inside and out. Let’s make that clear to students.

Reading is a thought process, so by increasing reading we increase thought. A student might eventually represent an idea in paint or music rather than print, but the ideas will have arrived through language. Reading is thought and thought is exciting. Therefore, I’m not keen on the idea of cosy and calming reads. There are many books that I will not read in bed because it would be like inviting a tiger to prowl around my head all night! Bedtime stories have their place, but for most students, reading at the end to ‘relax’ or at the start to ‘calm’ is, from their point of view, ‘middle aged’, and something that happens at them. How many times have students shouted out about the text whilst ‘having a quiet read’ and then been told to stay silent? We’ve just advised them to not care. No wonder some students find reading tiresome.

 I also take exception to some schools’ ethos that students should ‘love’ reading. They should love certain texts yes, and simply feel the author is a friend. But we also need authors as edgy and slightly intimidating older brothers and sisters. I love Terry Pratchett; I’d holiday on the Discworld, but I dread George Orwell; and yet both writers are my heroes. I understand the appeal of World Book Day, but it’s really making cute an act that should be acute. Isn’t it better if students value reading as a potentially transformative act, not as a hug in a dust jacket? I probably read more during lockdown than possibly any other time than being a student, and most of what I read was troubling at best, outrageous at worst. I love that I can read, I often loathe what I do read.

I’m not saying explicit readings strategies are unnecessary (indeed I spend most of the book outlining them) but they’re facile if students only apply these to ‘neutered’ texts; even worse, if they only apply them in school.  Approximately, a sixth of England’s population can’t read, yet almost two thirds voted. This tells me, we want to be politicised – our students are not naturally uninterested in ideas – but perhaps we’re often the cause of their apathy.

If we want to increase literacy, we must increase literacy’s worth. We can achieve this by:

1/ Discussing the ‘taboo’ parts of texts first. I’m not just talking English teachers diving into Macbeth’s porter scene but all subjects have their ‘no go’ areas. Go there!

2/ You can be coy; the text shouldn’t be. Say, ‘I’m not sure if you’re ready for this…’ ‘I once got complaints because of this reading…’ This builds a buzz.

3/ Make clear the text is not the author – problematic writers (or indeed any thinkers) can still articulate valuable ideas. Draw attention to these paradoxes.  Writers can be amazingly perceptive and empathetic about one topic, whilst being ignorant and short-sighted in another. After all, text and ideas remain but the author doesn’t. Again, this makes text thrilling! Essentially, centuries old messages are made present in our classrooms. Text is a time machine.

4/ Be humble – the text itself is always a greater teacher than me. The text should ‘talk’ more; I should talk less. I can orientate my students and help them navigate the piece, but the ideas are not mine. I regularly tell my students that texts are the best teachers…

5/ As much as the text is the teacher, we’re not going to venerate it. The text is a series of thoughts, a process of ideas, not a definitive, finished product. We should respect that the ideas have been expressed, but ultimately be able to reject them.

6/ At the same time, don’t make value judgements on students’ personal reading choices. I’ve seen teachers actually sneer at students reading ‘Dork’s Diary.’ Let’s be honest: many of us are probably going home and watching Love Island not La Boheme, so we have no right to make students feel guilty about reading for pleasure, and pleasure is personal. If we keep showing them the ‘dangerous’ texts, then this is no consequence.

7/ An obvious one, but appear excited. It’s great if your students walk in as you’re reading and it seems as if you don’t want to put it down. It can work really well to begin reading immediately. ‘Hi everyone, quick, sit down, I really have to share this with you.’

All teachers need students to read better; society needs students to read better, and it really begins with a new image for reading.

So I’m off now to stick safety pins through a copy of Crime and Punishment…

Motivating students to think hard and challenge themselves whilst learning away from school

‘If you believe with absolute honesty that you are doing everything you can, -do more.’ Shane Koyczan

It’s a busy and exciting week at MCA. Not only have staff and students been participating in challenges as part of National Schools Sports Week, we have also seen the launch of the Creative Arts Festival of Diversity. Throughout the festival – which is all virtual, of course – our community is challenged to engage in a number of Arts activities. These include photography projects of an arrangement of objects that reflect your identity to performing spoken word. One example of this was the poem by Shane Kyczan that was shared by our Performing Arts Department on social media this week, from which the quotation in the title of this blog was sourced.

This is an inspiring sentiment and could be highly motivational for many people – myself included. Reading this also made me think and reflect on the idea of motivation in a wider sense. As has been previously written about in our blogs, the focus of developing metacognition and the skills of self-regulation for our students is the focus of our professional development programme this year. Key characteristics of those students who are able to self-regulate and achieve more success as learners, are motivation towards a specific goal while monitoring and evaluating the progress towards this goal in a non-linear and flexible way. If we look a little closer at motivation, we can distinguish between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Those who are able to be influenced by intrinsic motivating factors are likely to be more autonomous and therefore potentially more successful over time.

There is no doubt that many young people rely on the influence from extrinsic motivational factors – such as rewards from teachers, peer comparisons and school-based routines and expectations. However, during a global pandemic where students are learning remotely, these extrinsic motivational factors can be much more difficult to establish.

Like many schools, MCA teachers and support colleagues have been working incredibly hard to engage students in learning.  At the start, this was our number one priority – let’s get students online or completing workbooks as much as possible. We need to engage them first and foremost.

Using the EEF guidance on remote learning, we adapted a teaching model that incorporated many of the elements that would provide high-quality learning and encourage students to engage in learning, whether that be online or with our structured subject specific workbooks. Features included facilitating peer collaboration through deconstructing model answers; using Google forms for low stakes quizzes of prior learning; supporting parents in establishing routines and maintaining our focus on reading and literacy development. This has been hugely successful and we are so proud of our students who have maintained an exceptional level of remote learning.

As time passed, it became clear that students would be learning from home for a sustained and significant time. We knew that students were engaging with learning in a number of different ways but our next challenge was to provide challenge and opportunities for deep thinking whilst still maintaining their interest. If it was too hard we could lose their engagement but if it was not challenging enough then we would effectively be wasting time and ultimately influencing their levels of motivation. We return to Bjork’s concept of desirable difficulty! We were clear that challenge is not more of the same and if this was considered, then this could have a detrimental effect on engagement and motivation.

Here are some of the ways that teachers are now providing opportunities for challenge whilst still engaging students in learning and providing some extrinsic influences of motivation:

  • Flipped learning – students arrive to the lesson with their own questions.  this provides pre-reading and then Google forms is used provide multiple choice questions for students to explore an idea independently, before arriving at the lesson. This means the online lessons can then stretch individual initial ideas and responses
  • Use Google forms to provide some options for an interpretation to a text that has not yet been addressed in lesson, to prompt individual responses ready for greater in-depth discussions
  • Use diagnostic questions in multiple choice quizzes that include ore nuanced misconceptions and using these to probe and further develop understanding
  • Use ‘Wait questions’ via the chat function on online lessons – everyone has to prepare an answer and can only post when told to do so, providing wait time and a no-opt-out structure
  • Use 1-1 or small group tutorials to provide feedback whilst the rest of the class work independently through a task
  • Use shared documents to collaborate on a response as a class to create a ‘perfect’ response with prompting and immediate feedback from the teacher

With these activities, we have endeavoured to combine the guidance on motivation and metacognition, along with our understanding of activities that promote deeper thinking. We are excited to see how we can incorporate these, perhaps using technology more as we welcome more and more students back to school.



What has the Coronavirus taught us about physical school communities?

Across the country, and indeed the world, teachers are adapting to new ways of teaching their students. Many are developing their confidence and expertise in IT as they navigate through virtual worlds of Google, Zoom, Skype and other similar platforms. At the same time, non-teaching teams are working so hard to ensure that we maintain our duty of care and our moral duty to keep children safe, to make sure they are accessing food, to continue with essential services. Also ensuring that staff, students and their families stay protected, remain healthy and follow government advice.

At MCA, we have been overwhelmed by the efforts of staff and students to adapt to these new ways of working. Google Meet is now where we see our KS4 classes in line with a learning schedule. KS3 classes are set regular assignments on Google classroom, receiving frequent feedback and support. Our SEN team have joined the classrooms of our SEND students and are making contact with them to see if they need any additional support to access the learning. Some teachers have scheduled reading time with their classes in line with our daily reading time, emphasising the shared value we have on reading together. Students are filling teacher inboxes with questions and completed assignments. Our Year 11 students, who have been left in a state of uncertainty about their future, are still logging into the Google Meets and accessing learning. Staff are volunteering to support in school where necessary, offering to help with distributing food to our most vulnerable and generally coming together in a way that only continues to make us proud of the very special school we work in.

All of this is truly fantastic. I feel confident that for as long as this situation continues, we will continue to come together as a community and make sure our students get the very best we can offer. It has, however, made me think about why this has worked so well. If online working can be successful, is this the future of education? Is there a possibility that IT could replace teachers and classrooms? Can we possibly move to a paperless education system?

Personally, I think this works only because of the foundations that have already been put in place; the leadership of these projects which has provided staff with training, communicated regularly, offered support, and the means to do the job well; the culture of a school that has been created and nurtured to ensure that everyone is genuinely committed to always improving and continually developing. Perhaps most interestingly it works because of the foundations we have built as a result of being a physical school community.

Here are the elements that I believe have been essential to the effectiveness we have seen as our school closed down last week:

1. Relationships are the bedrock to essential learning

Students are logging in to Google Meets and Classrooms because they trust that they are going to get high quality learning. They have a relationship with their teacher that means they value that contact. There has been laughter, concern, sharing worries that can only be done once a relationship has been established. These relationships can’t be replicated virtually.

2.Effective students are motivated to learn and can therefore adapt to new ways of learning.

The EEF Guidance on effective learners as outlined in the Metacognition and Self-regulated Learners guidance report is that students who are most successful are able to set goals and are motivated to achieve them. A common misconception around motivation is that it is somehow innate; you either have it or you don’t. The reality is that we can provide the conditions and opportunities to help develop motivation in our young people. Whilst I’m not saying this can’t possibly be done virtually, it is much easier and more valuable for young people-especially our most disadvantaged-to do this in person, with daily reminders and genuine praise that relies on body language and gestures.

3.Schools are about more than learning for exams

In this current climate, I know that our students are being offered quality learning experiences, in line with a timetable and with regular tracking and follow up. However, what we cannot offer online is the opportunity to develop skills of listening and responding, the hands on enrichment activities that we offer every day, the chance for students to demonstrate leadership skills, assemblies that explore values and morals but also provide a sense of community as we come together, formally. We are finding new ways to show them we care, but nothing replaces a warm, in person ‘hello’ every morning when you walk into school.

Ultimately, what has become even clearer during these times, is that human connection cannot and never will be replaced by technology. Technology has its place and thank goodness we live in a world that means we are able to continue to teach remotely. I know I’m not alone in hoping we can get back to school soon. I can’t wait to greet them on their first morning back and every day thereafter. Teachers everywhere should know that just that sense of truly belonging to a school community, in person, is one of the greatest things we can offer to our young people.

Everyone at MCA wishes you are your family well in these challenging times.

Susie Fraser

Vice Principal and Director of Manchester Communication Research School