Book blog No 5. Town is by the Sea by Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith


‘From my house, I can see the sea. It goes like this — house, road, grassy cliff, sea. And town spreads out, this way and that.’

This is one of those books that from the moment you see it you know it is something special. Whilst set in  a coal mining community in Nova Scotia in the 1950’s for me working as a headteacher in a coastal town this book sang to me instantly.  From the opening cover image dominated by the sea where the boy is facing back into the book we immediately know that this is a tale of reminiscence and inevitability. It’s a book of patterns  and repeats.

As the boy talks about his father mining we get  a clarity around him feeling trapped in this place ‘One day it will be my turn. I’m a miner’s son. In my town, that’s the way it is.’

We are presented with a tale that will repeat again and again. It’s a story of small worlds and limited hopes and aspirations, of being trapped in a repeating cycle.


There’s a minimalistic quality to this boy’s recount of a normal summer day, words are sparsely used but carefully crafted. The world is expansive yet contained, wide vistas lead to limited locations. The sea both offers the door to the wider world but also the barrier to stepping through it. It is a book about nothing and everything. It’s a book of hope and hopelessness.


Light and dark is powerfully used in the illustration. There is a stark contrast between the two worlds and this sings out through Smith’s evocative artwork.

As we explore the boy’s day, one element comes to dominate and that is his thoughts of his father mining under the sea. The repeated phrase ‘And deep down under that sea, my father is digging for coal.’ ties us into his thoughts and fears. This is wonderfully juxtaposed in the images.

Townunder 1

These pages are  dominated by an oppressive blackness that carries extraordinary weight to them whilst our miners are almost just a footnote on the page.

That the book is any day and everyday is both harsh and comforting at the same time. The book steers away from sentimentality and instead just says this is what it is. The humdrum normality of this life and this place.

Town under 3

There is a moment that sings out as we are left waiting at the end after a collapse in the mine. The use of light and shadow to show that passing of time is practically perfect and leaves you nervous to turn the page. Schwartz and Smith have created a timeless book

I’m using this with a greater depth writing group in Year 6 next week. I can’t wait to see where they take it and what they do with it. I know the discussions will be amazing.

It was my favourite picturebook of last year and it is just sublime IMO.

A beautiful quiet, sensitive and profound picturebook with real heart.   (9+)

(A great class explore for Year 4 and up. With care could be used with younger children )

Themes :- Community,  family, aspiration/predetermination, hope/hopelessness, fear , voices and viewpoints.

Below is a trailer which evokes the story beautifully


Carrot vs Stick…Fight!!! (Steps to better Performance Management)


Lets be clear Performance Management by its very name has negative connotations. The process has been used by some schools to save money…to stop people moving through pay progression. In school this has more often than not been tied to data and progress measures, a very blunt tool to explore a teacher’s work. Equally it in many schools it has been based on mistrust, on a perception (That stemmed from messages from DfE and Ofsted)   that all teachers are lazy and do the minimum. Well I fundamentally don’t believe that. Personally I believe that the teachers in our school (and most teachers to be fair)  want to do the best job they can. If you believe that then you have to look at Performance management/development as a potential tool to improve the job we do in school rather than a thing to beat people up with.

What is clear is that currently in general this is not how people feel about performance management in their schools. (I did a quick twitter poll… I know…) but the results were quite stark.

PM teacher view

4/5ths of those who responded said they didn’t value the procedures in their school. If staff don’t believe in the process they won’t effectively engage with it.

PM improve

Again more than 4/5ths  said that their performance management did not help improve their work in the classroom. Now I don’t know about other school leaders but I for me the biggest way to improve what happens in a school is by developing and improving the teaching in the classrooms. I think with performance management we are missing a trick if it doesn’t engage staff in exploring their work and how they can do it better.

PM data

84% also said that they had data targets as part of the performance management. This was mainly around the percentage of children making expected progress or attaining and expected point.

I  however think setting data targets whatever they are as part of  PM creates a few issues. What PM did do in my experience was create false data. (Pretty sure lots of us have been on the receiving end of data where children were not where the other  teacher they were. )

That’s not to say we don’t have targets in our school…we do. We however treat progress and attainment as a collective. As a head I have as much responsibility if not more for the progress in our classrooms. Having data targets as part of PM did not make teachers any more  responsible for the progress in their class, equally it doesn’t improve outcomes. We have honest data in our school we talk about the children all the time, teachers pro-actively try to ensure the provision is right for the children…honesty however allows us to put the right resources in the right place and use what we have more effectively.

PM and data was used as a stick to beat people with, it was and has been used to stop people progressing up the pay-spine equally it was intrinsically linked by the government with capability. We cannot however blame the DfE and Ofsted for how some SLTs have decided to implement this. I was horrified on twitter yesterday with some of the targets people were being set including one where a teacher was set a class attendence target.

The DfE in their model policy set it out as follows.

The objectives set for each teacher, will be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound and will be appropriate to the teacher’s role and level of experience.

The objectives set for each teacher will, if achieved, contribute to the school’s
plans for improving the school’s educational provision and performance and
improving the education of pupils at that school

If some of the targets being set currently are beyond achievable you have to question why that is. Essentially Performance management has been used by some as a tool to check up on what people are doing rather than supporting people in developing their practice.

Dr Gary Jones from the University of Bristol summarises in his review of Performance Related Pay in schools…see link
  • Performance related pay is not suited to complex tasks such as teaching
  • Performance related pay may reduce intrinsic motivation
  • The impact of performance related on pupils’ results is just above zero
  • Male teachers tend to respond more positively to PRP than their female counterparts
  • The introduction of PRP may lead to female teachers reducing the number of hours taught
  • More experienced teachers are more likely to display negative reactions to PRP compared to early career teachers
  • Job satisfaction is by far the biggest predictor of teachers’ intention to stay in the profession

So where does that leave us? Well I think school leaders need to ask themselves some questions about what they want Performance Management to do. If we want it to improve performance we need to break the link between improvement conversations and pay. If the process is about improving the capacity of our staff rather than measuring them then we need to change the focus…

Here are my 10 steps to changing the Performance Management approach in schools so the focus is on improvement…

1) Empower teachers to drive their own development.  Giving employees more and more autonomy, while providing the right tools and resources, will empower employees to push their own limits.

2) Plan effectively for improvement. Get the CPD right, invest the necessary time into growing them. Think about each person and their needs and how you can support their improvement  (It’s personal)

3) Listen. Never skip the “why”. People are not machines, they are driven by ambitions, desires and thoughts. Not having a clear perspective on their actions and the related impact affects their performance in a negative way.

4) Don’t forget the big picture. Remind people how each of their actions influence the overall big picture. Link them with your School Improvement Plan so that you get a clear perspective. Think about how individuals development can impact on others practice.

5) Set goals. Start with the end in mind. This goes for both an employees’ career path as well as the School’s Plan. Working without clear goals that can be easily tracked and evaluated is a recipe for disaster when it comes to employee performance. Set individual performance milestones as well as general team milestones and make a habit out of checking them regularly.

6) Be clear about you feedback. People need to be aware of what they should keep doing well, and clear-cut questions and suggestions on what they can improve. Over emphasising the negative is a cl;ear way to damage engagement with the process.

7) Give it value. Invest in it, time, resources Even how and when you hold the meetings.

8) Think about what measurable and achievable look like. Spurious data targets do nothing but damage. Be realistic, open and honest. By being honest, both yourself and the employee treat each other with respect and see each other as working for everyone’s benefit.

9) Keep the focus on developing the staff.  If teachers get better at the ‘work’ the other stuff will follow.

10) Light a fire. I have never been a big fan of the term ‘inspire’. However, the level of motivation that your teacher leaves the meeting with shows how well your performance review went.

So here are the questions if you’re a school leader…

What do you want performance mangagement to do in your school?

Is it focussed on measuring staff or developing them?

What impact do you want to see? More importantly what impact do the staff want to see?

CATCH 22 (With SEND and EHCPs you can’t win for trying)

1 o1t9PZDOUN_v1q49zsKgCg

noun: catch-22; plural noun: catch-22s; noun: catch twenty-two; plural noun: catch twenty-twos
  • a dilemma or difficult circumstance from which there is no escape because of mutually conflicting or dependent conditions.

This week has been a frustrating one, a hair-pulling, head-scratching, teeth-gnashing frustrating GRRRRRRR!!!!

My SENCo and I met with a SEND advisor from the local authority, most of the discussion was around a child in school. The crux of the discussion was we weren’t doing enough for the child to warrant an EHCP, not whether the child did or did not need one but the fact that we weren’t doing enough to show we were spending £10000 supporting this child. Equally we were told we need to evidence this over 2 cycles. Again not whether the child needs support but whether we as a school were spending the money.

For us this boils down to it simply being a capacity issue. We are a single form entry primary school. We currently have twelve children with EHCPs in school. (Anyone with an inkling of understanding will know that the funding does not match the  spend). We are isolated geographically which means parents choose to keep their children in our school rather than access specialist provision and who can blame them. Other schools locally say they can’t meet need and the children are guided our way.  This means we struggle for capacity…we know what the child needs but don’t have the capacity to fulfil those needs because we can’t fulfil the needs and evidence we have spent £10000 we can’t get the child assessed for an EHCP. A complete perfect CATCH-22 situation. What is worse is that as an inclusive school it feels as if we are being punished for being inclusive. Is it legal…I don’t know but I’m sure as hell gonna find out.


Every-time you feel like you’re getting there the powers that be move the line, the criteria for assessment is constantly changing becoming harder and harder to get across that line.  Our trust have been amazing at supporting us with the pressure this creates. We would have given up long before now without their unfaltering help.

A tweet thread this weekend showed that our issues are just the tip of a very big iceberg. That doesn’t make it feel better just makes me realise the battle is going to be a lot tougher. Shouting on our own won’t solve this however, we all need to shout loudly and keep shouting.

I wrote an article a year ago for the TES. I would it’s got easier but I’d be lying.


Inclusion TES article


In our town, we have a reputation for being the school that deals with special educational needs and disability. We are a one-form entry primary school with 10 high-needs pupils below the age of seven. We have 14 high-needs pupils in school altogether. A significant number of these children come from outside our school catchment.

When a parent comes to our door and asks whether we can accommodate a pupil’s needs, we bend over backwards to do so. And parents knock on our door a lot. The nearest specialist provisions are an hour’s drive away.

Unsurprisingly, no parent wants to send their child on that journey in a taxi at the age of five. Neither should they. So they come to us.

Many of the children are not yet on an education, health and care plan (EHCP). This is mainly because, in our local authority, getting a plan for such young children can be incredibly difficult. The pupils’ needs cover a huge range, including Down’s syndrome, autism, Rett syndrome, visual impairment, hearing impairment, foetal alcohol syndrome, and a range of communication, speech and language difficulties.

What irks is that we are left on our own to develop this, both in terms of finance and local support. On the latter, there is no viable alternative for these children in our town.

In the primary sector, more and more schools seem to be saying that they can’t meet pupils’ needs. Some of our pupils are with us because the parents were told that their nearest school “couldn’t meet the need”.

Accessing funding is challenging, as getting an EHCP is challenging. Sometimes I just wish the people making the decisions would come and see the children in school. The system seems set up to put barriers in the way of us getting the funding the children need.

That said, I know full well we can’t hit all the specific needs of some of our pupils, however much we try. In some cases a truly specialist provision is required. Equally, as the children get older and the gap widens, addressing specific needs can become increasingly challenging

If this sounds like a moan, you could not be further from the truth: that we are an inclusive school is a source of huge pride. The benefits for us far outweigh the costs. To watch the pupils playing together is a huge confirmation of the positives of being inclusive. Our children are tolerant and understanding of others’ needs; they are supportive and caring.

So anyway rant over. I have let it out. I will however be contacting to look to those constructive next step. Time to start shouting even louder.

Writing independently..The devil is in the detail


What is independent writing? The requirement for independence in pupils writing sits firmly in the assessment framework, yet in truth I don’t think anybody has a true picture of what it means.

Getting writing right is a massive challenge.

I do however see a drive towards overly structured writing. I see structure strips,  models of what teachers want pupils to produce that essentially just tell pupils this is what we want you to write, I see ‘Slow writing’. All are really valid and important scaffolds in the development of writing. What  I see less and less of is the teacher and the children creating a toolkit for writing. I see less of the children writing independently. Structure strips are not independent. Excessive modelling is not independent. Slow writing is not independent. They are all great, nay vital in explicitly teaching writing but they are not independent. Stepping children beyond the scaffold is the one of the hardest things to do.


So how do we get independent writers?

  1. Give them something to write about. (I have seen numerous children asked to write with nothing to say. I have read more atrocious ‘news’ reports than I care to mention)
  2. Give them the knowledge to write about it effectively. If it’s a story the time spent planning is key. If it’s a time-slip in World War 1. The time you spend learning about the conditions in the trenches is the bit that makes the writing sing. (the devil is in the detail)
  3. Create purpose. Give children a reason to write. (Audience’s for work are immensely powerful.)
  4. Underpin with lots of talking first, whatever the age range or ability, so that children have practiced the vocabulary, ideas and structures so they can fully understand the requirements.  sea
  5. Read really good books to them. Talk about really good books with them. Guided reading does not just benefit Reading. Models are vital, using great models allows children to understand the flow of writing.
  6. Teach grammar as a tool to improve writing, not a bolt on. Use examples when appropriate, don’t shoehorn it in. (Teacher knowledge and precision of writing forms tied into a well mapped grammar curriculum means grammar becomes part of writing and not an add-on.)
  7. Sometimes let them just go for it. A first draft is just that…let them splurge their ideas and get it down on paper.
  8. Don’t ban words. Sometimes sad is the right word, not melancholy, not lachrymose, not distraught, just sad …(Said is often the right word in my opinion. If what the characters say is right you don’t need to explain how it’s said)
  9. Practice. Rinse and repeat, give opportunities to revisit forms of writing they’ve done before. (Preferably with less structuring)
  10. Give them the chance to choose. If we’ve taught it, give children a choice in how they will respond. (One piece of truly independent writing after you’ve taught it will tell you more about them as writers and your teaching than 20 scaffold-ed pieces.)

Menus of choice work brilliantly after you’ve taught all the stuff  (Before not so much)

So the real question is “Where does your writing teaching lead?”

Does it really lead to children being writers?

Only you can answer that.

Other writing blogposts

Independence day…How independent is independent writing?

Writing…Honestly, we need honesty.

Exclusion…between a rock and a hardplace.


I’ve been stewing on the issue of exclusion for a while now and I just feel the need just get down my thoughts. Firstly I want to say that actions that put people’s safety at risk should never be tolerated also that people sharing horrific stories need to be listened to. As a head my job is to keep people safe and to create a space where all children can learn. To exclude should be the hardest decision a headteacher ever has to make. (though after the recent snow I’m not so sure)

The thing that bothers me is the lack of understanding with regards to the bigger picture. I don’t know whether this is a regional thing but in my experience the idea that exclusion gets a child the support they need is just idealistic piffle.

I know what the legalities say about LA providing provision on the 6th day I don’t however think the reality matches the rose-tinted perspective that some have. Equally the doing it for the good of the child argument is at best naive in my opinion. It may be the case in larger cities (though that is not my experience of it) where there is a provision or a space but in  many less built up areas there is little or nothing. The child is either moved on before exclusion or the child ends up out of school. Locally I am aware of a significant number of pupils whose education equates to one session a day or one day a week the rest of the time they are feral, when you exclude you are putting that child back in the chaotic place where much of that behaviour has stemmed from…nowhere to go and nothing to do and their downward spiral continues.

As a head if you know exclusion means this then whether you like it or not exclusion becomes an ethical nightmare, a moral quagmire. When you know that by excluding you are essentially stripping that child of any chance or hope then you think long and hard about that as an option.

Systemic pressures whether we like it or not add to this. Exclusion can be a quick way to turn around a school! All done for the greater good.


Another option is the idea of a managed-move.  I have experienced it from both sides. I have sat as a classroom teacher as a child appears in my class, moved from one mainstream school to the next. They arrive with little or no information. Passed from pillar to post. Set up to fail in another environment. Occasionally you get it right, you make it work more often than not that is not the case.

In some cases  the child’s parents are encouraged to find another school, encouraged to try a fresh start by the school they are in, not official like but subtle encouragement. “Maybe we’re not the right school for you.” “I feel that maybe you would fit in better”  this often goes alongside veiled threats of sanctions and exclusion. Some are encouraged to home-school. That doesn’t count as an exclusion does it.

Whether we like it or not the current patterns of exclusion will ultimately have significant consequences not just for the young people involved but also for the communities they live in in the future. When you have had to make that decision come back and tell me I got it wrong.

What I learnt from picturebooks…My Top 10 tips for leading a school.

When Gaz Needle asked me if I’d like to present at #PrimaryRocksLive I jumped at the chance. Having attended the year before I knew it was an education event not to be missed full of fun an energy and most importantly an evident love for primary teaching. I randomly threw out a jokey title and then thought no more about it really… well that was until I saw it on the program. Then I was stuck and had no choice but to see it through. I have to say I think I managed to get away with it.


1.Build a culture of trust. Let them feel safe in taking a risk (Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak)

Sendak is the godfather of picturebooks and Where the Wild Things are is undoubtedly his Masterpiece. For me its a book about unconditional love and care and more importantly Trust. When Max sails away ultimately he knows and believes that his mum will be waiting. In Leadership terms it has a simple message about creating trust and belief. I know my school has been a better place for the development of trust both in adults and children. Staff free to take risks. Systems built around trust and belief change the dynamic of your work. So many systems in school have been set based on not trusting the staff. Performance management, data drop, excessive marking policies, lesson observations and much more based on the belief that staff aren’t doing a good job. I genuinely believe staff come to school to do the best job they can. They almost always live up to that trust. Trust is equally a two-way street, staff believing in you is equally important and that takes time to get people to authentically believe in you. Running alongside that is honesty. Creating a climate where honest discussions about children inform the work should surely be the goal of every school. I’ve sadly seen to often spurious data used as a stick to beat up staff and  the data increasingly become a nonsense. Trust and honesty solves that.

TRUST ME… You gotta believe.


2.Grow the seeds, even if others come and pick the flowers (The Promise by Nicola Davies and Laura Carlin)

The Promise is a stunning book about changing our world, growing and nurturing things and the impact the can have on our spaces and our lives. As a Leader in a school this is one of the most important things we do. Growing our staff to be the best they can be. That doesn’t necessarily mean Leadership. Helping your staff take the career paths that are right for them is and supporting them to do that is a key part of what school leaders should do. Sadly this means that sometimes those carefully nurtured plants are picked for other gardens. That ‘s OK though you get to plant the next seed and do it all again. Having just appointed two new staff for September I am really excited to start that process all over again.

Chelsea Flower Show is not the only place where blooms need to be nurtured.


3.Make the space to think about and reflect on your actions (The Sound of Silence by Katrina Goldsaito and Julia Kuo)

Sound of Silence is a quiet and contemplative text about the hunt for that moment of true silence. It’s thoughtfulness and calm completely hits its target. As a bit of advice for Leadership it’s simple really, find your space and time to think about your work, both to reflect and plan. Stepping back. sometimes is vital. If you don’t your leadership can become reactive rather than pro-active. So whether its bobbing on a surf-board in the North sea of sitting on a hill. Find the place to step away and think.


4.Listen and pay attention. Don’t ignore the signals (Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems)

Knuffle Bunny is just one of the most wonderfully funny books ever. A simple tale told well. The frustration of the child as her Father both doesn’t listen or understand what she is saying is fantastic. The facial expressions are just magnificent. For a Leader again the message is simple. Just look, listen and read the signals.  Ask questions, pay attention and be sure to read between the lines. Almost anything can be solved with clear open communication and honesty.


5.Pay attention to the detail but keep an eye on how it fits in the bigger picture (Zoom by Istvan Banyai)

Zoom is on of those books that completely blows your mind when you first see it. It completely pans out and out and out, going from micro to macro. As a leader it’s vital you have an eye on both. The clarity of the big picture and what you are trying to achieve has to be supplemented by an eye on the detail. Precision actions and getting the detail right will make it stick.


6.Understand that sometimes the apparent rules are there to be broken  and we need to be brave (Don’t Cross the Line by Isabel Minhos Martins and Bernardo Carvello)

The book ‘Cross the Line’ is just the most brilliant book about breaking the rules and standing up for something The fantastic use of the gutter to create a barrier sets up the story perfectly an creates a moment when the pressure becomes too much and you have the character have to stand-up and break the rules.


The same is true of leadership. Sometime you just have to cross the line and break the rules. Sometimes things are thrown at you and you have to know when to say NO. Pointless data is one such line, lots of people ask you for pointless stuff, being brave enough to not do it for the right reasons is vital and scary in equal measure. I have often said NO. Sometimes it is blummin’ scary to do so. In the blog below I became an accidental hero, often by being brave you find you’re not the only one.

YOU ARE NOT ALONE … In your office no one can hear you scream!


7.Remember one Yes is stronger than countless Nos. Don’t let detractors stop you doing the things that are needed (The Yes by Sarah Bee and Satoshi Kitamura)

The Yes is a cheerful orange creature who sets off to explore the big wide Where. But the Where is home to the Nos, who travel in packs and discourage the Yes at every turn. The book has a great message about overcoming obstacles and not being put off.

Do I really need to explain this one? Essentially just keep focused on where your going and the reasons why and you will get there. Equally stick to the things that are important to you and you won’t go far wrong. Finding the important things is the challenge.

Those three words… a lens on your work.


8.Understand and know your community both its strengths and its challenges. Schools are not islands (Town is by the Sea by Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith)

Town is by the Sea is a melancholy, wistful delight. It talks about lack of choice and how destiny and future is set. Most importantly it evokes its community. I was struck on reading it to the parallels to the community my school is in. The rhythms and the potentially limited futures. Knowing and understanding your community is key to truly making an impact. Getting your community to support and believe in the work you are doing can significantly change the work you do.


9.Be honest when you get things wrong, take the knocks then get up and try again (After the Fall by Dan Santat)

A brilliantly clever picturebook that uses all the tricks to get the reader to truly understand the dilemmas faced by Humpty Dumpty following the ‘fall.’ Colour and perspective are masterfully used to draw us in.


The message is simple. Get up and go again. If the mistake is yours, then own it. Be honest! Equally make sure the successes are shared. The true job of a leader is to create the space for your teachers to do the best job they can.

Be More Alfred! (Let Batman be Batman)


10.Don’t forget what the job is really about… Children. Put them at the centre of every decision (Love by Matt De La Pena and Loren Long)

“In the beginning there is light/ and two wide-eyed figures standing/ near the foot of your bed,/ and the sound of their voices is love,”

A beautiful book about the true meaning of Love with children at its heart. For me as a Leader it’s that signal to look at the choices we make and to make sure that the children in our school are at the center of those actions and decisions . This doesn’t mean increasing workload in fact it means the opposite. It’s about doing the things that work and getting rid of the rest. Equally the best deal for our children is teachers who aren’t worn-out and exhausted. Children should always be the lens you use to look at your work. Sadly they can sometimes get forgotten.

TOP 10 TIPS FOR LEADING A SCHOOL (Picturebook Edition)

  • 1.Build a culture of trust. Let them feel safe in taking a risk
  • 2.Grow the seeds, even if others come and pick the flowers
  • 3.Make the space to think about and reflect on your actions
  • 4.Listen and pay attention. Don’t ignore the signals
  • 5.Pay attention to the detail but keep an eye on how it fits in the bigger picture
  • 6.Understand that sometimes the apparent rules are there to be broken  and we need to be brave
  • 7.Remember one Yes is stronger than countless Nos. Don’t let detractors stop you doing the things that are needed
  • 8.Understand and know your community both its strengths and its challenges. Schools are more than an island
  • 9.Be honest when you get things wrong, take the knocks then get up and try again
  • 10.Don’t forget what the job is really about… Children. Put them at the centre of every decision

Thanks to the @PrimaryRocks team for inviting me and  letting me waffle. It was a brill day with lots of amazing primary practitioners.

We all need days like #PrimaryRocksLive to remind us about the brilliance of our job.

Can you recommend a book?…Maybe, or maybe not?


I recommend a lot of books, I am however becoming increasingly worried about suggesting books to people. I worry that people spend their precious school budget on things I have recommended, a recommendation at the end of the day is just me saying I liked something.

I personally think we are in a bit of a golden age for children’s literature with some truly fantastic books being written. Twitter is awash with recommendations of new children’s books. I worry about our quality control however. I wonder about how some of these books will stand up to the great books already out there. Sadly I see a lot of older books disappearing, not because they are not good but because they are not new or shiny. I still firmly believe that Tom’s Midnight Garden is one of the finest children’s books ever written alongside Charlotte’s Web and don’t even start me on the merits of why The Graveyard Book should be read to every Year 6 class. Unfortunately  it is increasingly rare to see these books in our classrooms.

Last week somebody requested some recommendations for KS2 and I was struck by the fact that  they were presented with a list of the newest and the shiniest, often these books haven’t even hit the shops yet. Recommendations are often really unbalanced towards the new and the sparkly. I fear that some truly great books are getting lost in the melee. Pax is a book in question that sadly is criminally ignored in my opinion. Complex, dense , rich language, challenging themes, wonderful story telling.  (Book blog No2 Pax by Sarah Pennypacker) I see some books being written off as old hat. I see schools purchasing class sets of a book they’ve been told is good, I personally think there is something to be said for the test of time. What I’m saying is we need a balance. As a recommend-er of books I need to be cautious

The problem ultimately comes down to teacher knowledge. Many teachers don’t have time to sit and read a book or find one that works for them. This leads to two things

1) They become dependent on the books they knew in childhood.


2) They take a shortcut and get others to recommend books for them.

There is sadly no substitute for reading the book yourself. I’ve read books that I’ve really not got on with. I don’t say that because I know that it is possibly/probably more about me than the book itself. Using a book with a class is a big risk. It relies on many factors to make it work.

  1. Do you like the book? Do you find the book interesting? Does it rock your world? (There is nothing worse than wading through a book that you can’t stand because it’s on your curriculum plan or it’s the book your school has spent its money on.)
  2. The make up of the class. (knowing your class well is a big factor in picking the right book. That’s not saying don’t use something challenging, but about how incrementally you move that challenge on.)
  3. How you’re planning to use the book? What is the purpose for using the book? (a brilliant book for sharing as a class reader may not hold up to intense scrutiny of being picked apart as a model for writing)
  4. Do you understand the themes of the book? (matching the book to your class is tricky, sometimes it can feel like an arms race. Is it appropriate for the children. This is not about us it’s about them. Raising the challenge is not about using books with more mature themes. I always think would I want my child to be read that…I am a massive prude when it comes to this)
  5. Do YOU like the book? Do YOU find the book interesting? Does it rock YOUR world?

So if this sounds a bit grumpy I don’t mean it too. It really is about me.

I will recommend with caution and with an eye on the past as well as the present because it’s our duty to make sure children enjoy the joys of brilliant children’s books both past, present and future.

Now go out there and find the books that make your heart sing.

It’s SNOW joke! (Sorry for the pun)


This week I have had to make the hardest decision I have had to make since becoming a headteacher.

Whether I open or close the school due to the weather.

There are so many things to take into consideration when you make the decision.

We are in a rather fortunate position in Whitby that most of the time we are not hit by snow. In the four years I’ve been here this is the first time we’ve been really struck by it. My instinct is always to try to make sure school is open.

Unfortunately a significant amount of my teaching staff don’t live in Whitby. If you know Whitby at all you’ll know it is surrounded by the North York Moors. Whilst in Whitby there maybe no snow the moors can be quite treacherous.

I have a brilliant staff who I know if I said we were opening the school would endeavour to get to there. My job is to make sure those people are safe.

Thing is it’s not easy! Some schools have to shut while others do not, some are able to open while others cannot. It doesn’t make any school better than another. It’s all about each schools context.

This week however we received quite a bit of abuse on social media from a tiny minority of parents some of it pretty foul.

What upset the most is that these people questioned the commitment of our staff to the job. We have a brilliant staff who I know go above and beyond for the children of our school every single day. I know they would have tried to get in if I’d asked. My job is to make sure that they don’t take those risks. If the Met Office is declaring an Amber warning then I have to listen. I have to weigh up the all the information I have and make a decision. Sometimes I will get it wrong, but the heart of the decision should always be safety for all involved.  (Pupil/Parents/Staff)

DXCM5lMW0AEXZ8Z.jpg large

The decision to close wasn’t lightly taken and it wasn’t done in isolation, the local heads all discussed the situation, our Chair of Governors was outstanding in helping me make the decision, most importantly our caretaker was a font of knowledge about the town. (I don’t live in Whitby and couldn’t actually get to school myself)

Today  we opened (after three days shut), I arrived at school at 6:45 after an hour drive across the moors. Then proceeded to help my caretaker (He’d already made a cracking start) shovel the paths to school (I even brought my own shovel)


After after being criticised for closing we were then criticised for opening.

I learnt that I’m damned if I do and I’m damned if I don’t…so on balance I’d rather be damned for knowing everybody is safe.

Hey Ho! You can’t win… except I know everybody is safe and that for me is the biggest win.


Hyperbole-What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!


‘I look around and I see big mouthed rock stars with opinions on everything and answers to nothing.

Burnt out old men with money to burn.

Bandwagons full of bands with sycophantic fans with no lives of their own.

A place where image is king and music is a poorer relation that I can relate to.

I am the greatest

I am the greatest’

I Am The Greatest by A House.

Edutwitter loves a spat.

The government’s announcement of Times Tables Checks… was a perfect opportunity for a spat.

What is sad is that apparently grown up, intelligent people used it as an opportunity to promote their personal agenda and spout globules of hyperbole at their perceived opposition. Generations were failed, wanting tests was akin to child abuse, not wanting tests makes you an enemy of promise. There were apparently swarms of people who didn’t think children should be taught times-tables. (I have to say I still can’t find them)

It was all a bit childish and pathetic really and the only thing it did was stop people having an actual discussion about the Times Table Check. The Hyperbole prevented nuance and reasoned argument about the real issues regarding the introduction of the XTC or TTC or MTC (pick whichever one you like.) The actual issue around the government introducing another test and form of accountability was lost in a sea of hyperbole.


You have to question why this happens. There is significant grandstanding going on. There is much raising of standards, planting the flag in the ground and rallying the troops to the cause.

Next up seems to be  exclusions and behaviour. Where if you don’t exclude you preside over chaos, or if you do you destroy pupils futures. Where if you don’t exclude you’re allowing people to be hurt or worse, and if you do you are destroying society.

Again it’s not an either/or issue which seems to be how some people want to paint the argument.

Nobody is saying you shouldn’t exclude however a nuanced discussion around exclusion and the potential crisis that is happening seems actually an important thing to have, with voices from all-sides looking at the challenges. Sadly again that discussion won’t happen because it’s drowned out by a wave of hyperbole and grandstanding where the extremes at either end of the debate dominate the discussion and the reasonable are shouted down, lambasted and vilified.

Arguments are treated as a thing to be won rather than an issue to be solved.

The way some people act and speak to other teachers is frankly appalling. I’m pretty sure none of them would do it in real life.

As a person who often finds myself somewhere in the middle of these discussions, I’ve increasingly found myself not engaging and not wishing to get involved with it and I’m sure there are plenty of others who feel the same way. That in itself is sad as I’m sure many valuable voices just stop being involved  and walk away. Instead it becomes the same voices spouting viewpoint rather than a real conversation.

Personally I’ve got better things to do.





Good Teaching…what is it in your school?


As a school we’ve been really digging in to what  we’re about this year both in terms of ethos and culture but also in terms of teaching.

I as a head am not overly prescriptive about how people teach but on our last dig in I was struck by what was really working in our classrooms.  To varying degrees there were three key elements to the teaching these three things were the  bits that were making a real difference. Sir David Carter refers to them as ‘signature pedagogies,’ I define them as those things that are special about the teaching in your school. None of them are ‘rocket science’ but it’s amazing how often they get missed. The other thing I noticed is that we don’t really do gimmicks. I have had three moments in the past week where I have been struck by the relentless brilliance of the teachers in my school. They were those moments when they were so good that you just marvel at the skill of the person teaching the class. None of it was showy, some may call it’ bread and butter’ stuff but it was still amazing to watch.


1 ) ‘Fierce Kindness’ not sure where I got this phrase (It may have been @eltronnie) but it completely sums up what happens in our classrooms. I was struck by the fact that praise was sparingly used if at all, that the dialogue between the pupil and the teacher was relentlessly challenging and completely focused on moving the learning forward. I spoke to the children after and they didn’t even notice the lack of praise. This working relationship is based on trust, the children didn’t need praise because it was intrinsic in the rooms. The children knew they had done good work but they were desperate to know how it could be better. It was completely evident that the children were motivated and working hard. That the drive was coming from the children was testament to the great work the teachers had done in creating that working culture in their classrooms. These classrooms summed up our belief in Everyday Excellence.


2) ‘Effective Modelling’ has become a real driver in our classrooms. Explicit modelling the process is immensely powerful and has been something that has over the last three years become a key part of our work. I won’t explain modelling others have talked about it way better than I could, for a good start check out the article below.

(For a summary of modelling this article from the TES by A. Tharby is a good place to get an idea. Using Modelling successfully.)

3) ‘Precision.’ Knowledgeable teachers, knowing their subject and really digging at the detail. Precise, clear teaching leads to clarity of expectation and quality of work. Teachers knowing their stuff is vital. Sounds obvious but the devil really is in the detail.

In every class these three things were apparent to varying degrees. The three elements working together creates some intensely powerful teaching.

There is still some work to do on consistency and I firmly believe we need to start ‘sweating the small stuff’ a little, we need to be a bit more pernickety, but that is polish to the things that really work for our children. That this stuff is done in a vibrant engaging curriculum means we are beginning to hit the best of both worlds.

So ask yourself...
'What are the key elements of Teaching in your classrooms?'

Doing that has helped us hugely in developing our work.

For us it’s no gimmicks, no tricks, just good teaching.