Welcome, Year 7

My first act as Head of Maths was to ensure that the new Year 7’s first lesson was a consistent introduction to secondary Maths, and we have done this every year since. It’s a kind of “induction” that sets the tone for the next five years. I book the hall and they file in: the Empty Vessels, the Anxious, the Rapid Graspers, the I Hate Fractions all sit there, silently, waiting.

Here are the main elements:

The Ridge

I play them this video, from Danny McGaskill’s “The Ridge”. We’ll come back to this later.


I talk about self-belief, how anyone can learn well, regardless of their current Maths attainment. This year I’m thinking of including @emathsuk‘s promise, to guarantee to teach them all of school-level Maths, provided they put in the effort. The students need to know that we, as teachers, believe in this entirely. I also want my teachers to believe that we all believe this.


We discuss Danny’s video. How is it even possible for someone to perform that well? What did he need to do before that final journey? How many times did he fail? It’s then easy to make the link to their Maths journey through school; we prioritise learning over performance, and so should they.


I play this clip from the making of the video. We discuss trying, failing, and learning from it, adjusting our next approach accordingly. We discuss practice and prior knowledge, and all the support devices he uses.

I talk about the crash mats. The bit that still gives me a lump in my throat (even today!) is the line “Eventually I had the confidence to take the mats away”. This is our invitation to the students, where we say to them, “We’re here for you. We will teach you well. We will support you. The mats? You will need them at times, but it’s up to you to know when to take the mats away”.

Setting the tone

We do some Maths. This activity is scaleable to a hall full of people and helps them to understand that we all see things differently. There are many ways to perceive a Maths problem and all opinions are valid. Students all have a Maths toolbox and their favourite tools, and we need to respect everyone’s method selection and all the opinions in the room. We can all learn from each others’ interpretations.

All classes will then spend the first week engaging in open-ended tasks which all support the idea that our classrooms are inclusive, safe places to ask questions and that Maths is an infintely rich, deep and challenging subject that no-one will ever master, unless you view mastery as the ever-increasing understanding of the complexity of a subject.

And finally

Neil deGrasse Tyson has this perfect retort to the question “When will I ever use Maths in real life” and it’s important that students know that all their teachers believe this to be the case. This year I’m also going to include my mysterious analogy of the apple, but more on that later!

Go on, book the hall. They’re worth it.



I’m supposed to be working on a private curriculum project and preparing for my mathsconf25 talk, so naturally I had an idea about something completely unrelated and I’m running with it. Call it organic interleaving.

So, a very brief summary follows.


The research into retrieval and spaced interleaving is out there and will justify why this might work somewhere.

All subjects will have a record of the key knowledge that they expect students to have secured, and when.

Store these in quiz form, centrally, and select five questions (the original ten is too many) from five subjects each day, week, lesson etc.

In tutor time, display, answer and then discuss these questions.

In lessons, drop questions from other subjects into your retrieval session

In Key Stage 4, students of a particular subject can explain the concepts to those who aren’t.


Students benefit from the retrieval effect and from the interleaving: an unexpected change in concept rather than interleaving in its truest sense (discovering and connecting links to other areas).

Students benefit from living the idea that “revision” is something you do as you go along.

Students realise that the disciplines do not exist in isolation.

Tutors benefit from a better idea of what their students are studying and where their difficulties lie.

Subjects benefit from better retrieval of key ideas.


Giant shared spreadsheet. Drop questions in tagged with Subject, Year group, Week, Month, Answer.

Turns out people are already doing this, of a sort. Mechanisms such as Carousel Learn from @adamboxer1 and others can be adjusted to achieve this, or Tom Riley @riley_ed does this in his school using Google Sheets.

I’m going to investigate further. Just not right now!

Making up for lost time


As teachers we plan ahead. The rhythms and cycles of school life are the template over which we lay our own lives, and I think this is why the current hiatus has hit many of us hard. Like a bereavement, that which we have built our life around has suddenly disappeared.

So what do we do? Of course, we revert to type and start planning ahead, considering what we might face when students return to “normality”. Regardless of when that might happen, the principal concern among many teachers is, of course, that the gap has widened.

But what gap? Between whom? And how do we close it? I share a few thoughts in this blog.

Falling Back

Those hardest to reach in school will have done even less at home, and those hardest working may have done even more work, but it’s unlikely that they would have learned any more at home than they would have with a teacher present. They haven’t necessarily gained. But we will have a gap in work done, and ultimately a gap in learning between these two extremes. It’s vital that we properly diagnose these gaps in the entire student body, and then begin to teach them properly from a developmentally appropriate point?


Thoughtful assessment, and the flexibility of both our curriculum and our teachers will play an important part here. We’ll probably need to design these assessments ourselves for two reasons;

    1. to allow for the lockdown learning to be given proper attention based on our context, and
    2. because it must feed in to what we do next

The assessment and the next curriculum steps need to be planned together. Fortunately we’ll probably have months to get it right. There’s even time for a training course.


Remember all that work and thinking you did on the curriculum? You might end up putting aside the work for a while, but keeping the thinking. What would you expect students to know on their return? How will you support those who haven’t worked at home (they’re children – it’s not their fault) whilst making sure those who worked hard are rewarded and extended? Importantly, how will you get everyone (students and teachers) to buy in to your plans?


Are you planning the timetable, or appraisals for next year? Keeping teachers in their comfort zone for the year is no bad thing – they’ll have enough other stuff to deal with that is more important.

Motivation to Improve

And when the children return, we will also need to be mindful of a gap in attitude, and please indulge me for why. Before I was a teacher I worked as a consultant for a software company. Businesses would pay up to £1000 a day for my visits (I know! And this was the 90s!) and so the stakes were high. But being young and slack, I admit, I sometimes saw a technical fault or a lack of preparation on their part as a positive. What luck! Those expectations were now diminished, and I didn’t have to perform at my best because other factors were at play which weren’t my fault.

So, imagine a typical student in Year 10. Like me, out for an easy life. Why should he bother now? It’s not fair, it wasn’t his fault. Can’t they just give him his FFT grade like they did last year? For me, this issue will be critical in September and we’ll end up fighting too many fires unless we plan carefully for it now. Caroline Spalding described some excellent sociological strategies for getting everyone pulling in the same direction and feeling part of something bigger in her #REdDurringtonLoom presentation here.

Forging Ahead

Mark McCourt has said that this will be the most important school year in generations. This means that as a profession and in our own schools we need to plan wherever we can for their return, from the known-knowns right through to the unknown-unknowns.

Much has been said of the extra things we could do to make up for the lost time. Interventions, priority opening, extra lessons, devices, extra homework. This is where I think we are only tinkering at the edges – students still only have a finite amount of time in their lives, and we need to be ever more mindful of the penalty paradox and the welfare of our staff.

My view is that our greatest gains can still be made in lessons. Every minute counts. While things may have improved in some schools since this study from 2010, an analysis of the effective use lesson time in the average school is shocking:

Effective lesson time

I know what you’re thinking, so let me explain. Here, a “non-gain starter” is defined as any starter that is not part of the continuation of this learning episode. It’s common (and probably effective) for a lesson to begin with a retrieval activity not linked to the lesson’s main purpose. This would be classed as a “non-gain” starter, but I would not argue with anyone who claimed that this was an effective use of lesson time.

However. Is it? Really? Are you sure? If you can answer “yes” to all these questions then I’ll believe you.

  • Do students always arrive on time and set straight to work?
  • Do students see the starter as compulsory?
  • Is there always a consequence to not finishing the starter?

Conversations with the students in this study revealed that they saw the starter as “optional”, and that there was no consequence to missing it because it ‘wasn’t the real lesson’. Punctuality was poorer in lessons with a “non-gain” starter. For the record, we use “non-gain starters” in my department and I certainly can’t answer yes to these questions! Just before schools closed, I was tackling a year 8 girl who was late and had not set to work. Her words; “but it’s only the starter!” cut right to my heart.

Let’s assume for the moment that you’re feeling all smug because you answered “yes” to all of the questions above. Well done.

What about the other six minutes?

No school leader will tell you they have behaviour in lessons completely sorted. But every school leader would seize the offer of an additional 20% curriculum time, for free.

To gain those extra six minutes, or more, many attitudes need to change. But haven’t they already? Won’t they? In my view this is a whole school issue that leaders could be planning for right now. We have a huge opportunity ahead of us, a chance to help students to truly believe they’re all in it together, their future is in their hands and actually, their response to this situation is theirs to define.

The restart will present a huge challenge. Yes, it’s about assessment. Yes, it’s about curriculum. But mostly it’s about winning the hearts and minds of some traumatised and anxious children.

Painting the Wall

Painting a wall with a roller, the trick is to keep rolling, keep pushing hard until all the gaps are covered with paint. Many of the strokes cover paint that’s already there, as well as the gaps, but this is necessary to create a smooth finish.

With schools now making fast and critical decisions about the care of key workers’ children next week and beyond, I offer some strokes below not because I think you haven’t painted that bit already, but to help make sure that we have as smooth and complete a coat of paint as possible.

  1. These are the children of key workers. They’re more frightened than many children because they’ve seen the headlines and heard the stories directly from their parents. They need compassionate honesty.
  2. These are the children of key workers. Their parents are tired and scared themselves. These children might be getting less care at home than usual. Parents might be more tired, stressed or quick to anger.
  3. These are the children of key workers. If they get Covid-19, their parents are out of service for at least 14 days. The strategies we’ve taught them for the past two weeks need to be followed to the letter to keep not just them, but the country, safer.
  4. These are the children of key workers. They need the same learning opportunities as those who are at home. They need some kind of normal, but they’re unlikely to be thinking about homework when they get home.
  5. These are the children of key workers. We’ve spent our careers trying to reduce inequity, and now we need to put that principle to work for a whole new cohort of children, and their parents, for as long as we are needed.

I’ve run out of paint already, and there’s probably loads of bits I’ve missed. I’m in awe of the leadership I’ve seen so far from those in schools making these decisions next week and beyond, and I hope that if they too run out of paint, others will share theirs.


Keep your eye on the ball

When the Met Office forecasts the weather, its Cray XC40 supercomputer looks out of the window and draws down billions of similar data points from previous weather patterns to predict the most likely sequence of events over the next day, week or month. The more data it has, the more accurate its predictions.

down angle photography of red clouds and blue sky

When a frisbee flies through the air, its path is guided by a combination of influences that someone catching a frisbee for the first time will not have seen before. The speed, spin, tilt, air pressure and wind patterns all combine to ensure that while an expert catcher will predict its path, he won’t always be correct but the number of previous experiences he has of similar flights will help with his judgement.

In education, this means that familiarity with a concept or fact will improve our understanding of it. Not that we catch the same frisbee, thrown the same way, in still air a thousand times, but that each nuance and variation of flight which emerges over a thousand experiences is noted and stored, so that we can confidently catch the next one. We study today so that tomorrow is better.

As Tom Rees and Matthew Evans have explained well, leadership is the same. We might be experts in the field but we cannot truly lead that field until we have led that field. An event needs a decision, and we might make the best decision we can at the time, but further experience of similar events will help us make a better, or at least more informed, decision next time.

So when a football coach tells a player to keep their eye on the ball, or a cricketer “watches the ball to the bat” it’s not to improve today’s shot, but each and every shot that comes after.



Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Pexels.com

A Child is Born – to fail?

Over the Christmas period I have been pondering three unremarkable things, which I now realise are related. I hope that how I think they are related will enable a short pause for thought.

Here are the three:

  1. In the final week of term I finished reading Born to Fail by Sonia Blandford. Instead of the hoped-for magic bullet, I have since been made to think, idly and often, about how we in schools perceive the issue of social mobility.
  2. With the end-of-term bell still ringing in my ears I hit the road and spent three days in the Lake District with some good friends, and after each long day in the hills we retired to a quiet hostel for beer and Scrabble. I lost every game of Scrabble. I had neither hope nor clue.
  3. The final morsel in this smorgasbord was finding my long-lost high school reports in among the Christmas decorations in the garage. Contained within them are comments from my housemaster, Mr Blakeney, about what lovely fellows I and my four elder brothers were.

School report Y9
Mr Blakeney – Praise indeed

Mr Blakeney’s exact words in Year 9 were “a first class character and personality”. He was speaking about all of us, and I know he genuinely thought that. What he doesn’t mention is that my two eldest brothers spent more time bunking off than sat in lessons, and were no strangers to the Headmaster’s office; that my Dad had my third brother hand-deliver a letter, granting permission for corporal punishment. I don’t think Mr Blakeney ever used corporal punishment; instead he would threaten someone with “a ruddy pasting” about every third sentence. These days we would call it “tear a strip”. But – and I am welling up as I realise this – he bloody loved us all.

Even though I’m now a Maths teacher and love my subject, and I can see their signatures and read their words on my school reports, I could not tell you the names of any of my high school Maths teachers. However – even though I didn’t take History at GCSE – I can still hear Charlie Blakeney’s booming, frustrated voice. He cared passionately about everyone in his House, but saved special attention for those who turned up in broken shoes and ripped trousers, with dirty fingernails and a lack of Lynx (this was the eighties..).

My parents didn’t attend parents’ evenings. There were mitigating circumstances of course – six siblings, a farm and living 5 miles from school – but it simply wasn’t something that happened and nor did I expect it to happen. It took me until Year 11 to realise that Mr Blakeney was the one who had stepped in to fill that void. He was the one who took me by the scruff of the neck and pointed my head in a different direction to the one I was expected – born? – to take. In the Year 10 report he mentions sixth-form and university and I remember feeling like that was a world that belonged to other people. In Year 11 he called me into his office to give me a ruddy (verbal) pasting for applying to college, instead of sixth-form, and includes a desperate line in my report asking my parents to come in to talk about my future. He cared, deeply.

My mum made it possible for me to go to university and would have been immensely proud to know that I became a teacher. My Dad, too, but like any congratulations among the men in my family, it would have been in the form of a piss-take.

So, as the first in my “disadvantaged” family to go to university, I am one of the social movers. I’m one of those that Gove and Gibb like to talk about.

So why did I keep losing at Scrabble?

It’s because I don’t know any of those ridiculous, never-used two- and three-letter words. We didn’t play Scrabble at home, ever. It’s a gaping hole in my personal cultural capital. A tiny hole – granted – but a hole nonetheless. Edexcel’s Maths paper this summer asked a 5-mark question involving the Circle and Stalls in a theatre. A nervous 15-year-old who had never been to theatre would have neither hope, nor clue.

My Lake District Scrabble game is a small sample from which I should neither make assumptions nor draw conclusions, but please indulge my paranoia for a moment while I ask,

What if..?

What if I shouldn’t have been there, playing that game with those people? Those people who played Scrabble as a child, coached by their parents? What if I shouldn’t be in this social circle at all? Should I have moved from working-class to middle-class? What else is missing from my cultural capital that might mean I don’t belong here? Should I wait to find out? Are my friends even the right friends?

Which brings me full-circle to Sonia Blandford’s excellent book. Sonia argues that true social mobility is enabled by ensuring that people from disadvantaged backgrounds have the opportunity to stay, and prosper, where they are if they choose; it is about ensuring that equal opportunities are available to everyone, whatever they do and wherever they live, not about moving from one perceived class to another.

In terms of success, I don’t think I am now any more or less successful than most of my family – we have all done OK. Social mobility is not about creating opportunities to lift people out of one class and into another. We need to be more intelligent than that.


Gap analysis

Like many schools, we are struggling to close the gap between our vulnerable groups and the rest. Also like many schools, we use flight paths based on KS2 attainment for tracking student progress and as an inspiring guest speaker said last week, we are planning for this gap right from the start!

As a Head of Maths, I read a lot and remember some of it, and I wanted to turn the maelstrom of ideas and opinion into something our Department could actually act upon in a cohesive way. What follows is my first ever (short) blog post which might go some way to helping me formulate a plan of action. Credit to this series of posts from Stephen Tierney (@leadinglearner), which helped a lot.

I envisage this being used as a discussion document in a forthcoming meeting, leading to some actions we can all commit to taking, but I’m pretty sure there are some big ideas I have missed out. Comments very welcome.

All students, regardless of their background or educational need, might be faced with the issues below and it is important for all students that we provide the responses indicated. However, disadvantaged and students with SEND will be affected more significantly by these issues and will therefore benefit more from this attention.

Attendance means that missed lessons are unlikely to be caught up because the support at home doesn’t exist to help them.

  • Add tasks for a week’s or topic’s lessons to Hegarty Maths either as a class or individually. Can we develop a school-wide system to support this via tutors?

Gaps in learning are more prevalent for disadvantaged due to home support, attendance and other factors, leading to further misunderstandings and a widening gap.

  • Focus our assessment on the curriculum and closing gaps in learning, and be confident that working-at grades will flow from this information.
  • Explicitly examine, test and re-teach the pre-requisites for each unit.

Behaviour and expectations tend to slip at times. It is tempting to be over-sensitive to a student’s predicament.

  • Ensure expectations of behaviour, work and homework are the same, high standard for all
  • Support students in maintaining them where necessary.

Belonging. Many students feel like outsiders in school, as if the aspirations and discourse in the classroom is not for them. There is some mindset research showing that a sense of belonging spawns resilience and reduces fear of failure.

  • Be explicit about how to conduct a discussion and group work.
  • Do not assume language and knowledge of context is already understood.
  • Help students to feel they fit in – ambassadors, invitations to Study Group, phone calls and postcards home.

Destinations and careers. Do our disadvantaged students know what they need to do in order to get into college – apprenticeships – sixth form – university? Who tells them what is important and why – it needs to be someone whose advice they can trust rather than an add-on to a lesson or a motivational speech where all they perceive is some notion of the future being used to make them complete their work.

  • Avoid “you need maths to get a good job” and teach the subject for its own sake.
  • Instead, discuss the school’s (or independent) careers advice in Year 9 to ensure they have at least two years to focus on where they want to be.

I’m keen to avoid the predictable cries of “mark their books first!”, or “seat them at the front!” and am mindful of Alex Quigley’s Penalty Paradox, but would love for this to spawn some suggestions of things that work in your school.

Tell me what you think: go to town. It’s my first blog and I need to learn quick.