Author Archives: dcmacpherson

Recognising Effort.


“Continuous effort – not strength or intelligence- is the key to unlocking our potential” Liane Cordes, 1981.

In what I would imagine will be one of many tennis-related posts this evening, watching Andy Murray beat Djokovic inspired me to write something about effort. It seems to me that in his case perhaps more than many others, Murray’s success is not a product of some innate ability to play world-class tennis. It has come from years of training, commitment and effort. When admiring his victory, we are all too ready to forget this. I’m struck by how students also seem to forget what it takes to be successful.

Sir, I’m rubbish at languages.

My bottom set year 9 class are quick to tell me they have no talent for Languages. It’s all a bit too foreign for them (no pun intended!) and they just cannot get their head around them. To me, this is much too easy for both them and me to accept. Their success in my subject and the reason why they are in the bottom set is simply the result of their levels of effort in previous years. More than any other subject, perhaps, success in languages is directly proportional to the amount of effort and time spent practising them. Our job as languages’ teachers therefore is changing the mindset of our students so they see effort as the key to success and not intelligence.

With that in mind, I’m reviewing the way I incentivise all my students next year, not just those in the bottom set. The strategies below are a mix of what I do now and what I plan to do in September. To me, to win the battle of hearts and minds we need to offer a series of carrots and sticks.

The carrots:

1.  Marking  – My school runs a fairly standard marking policy of letter grades for achievement and letter grades for effort. When I mark homework, regardless of the achievement grade, a ‘1/2’ effort grade gets a merit mark and a ‘1’ gets a house credit. That means it is perfectly possible to end up with a ‘B1’, and receive a house credit, trumping an ‘A2’, which would receive nothing. This is really important: just because someone started at a higher point, doesn’t mean a high level of effort has gone into a piece of work. We should be rewarding those people who are putting in the effort to improve, rather than those putting in less effort but working at a higher level.

2. Assessment + preparation – There are four assessment points in my school’s academic year. At each one, in my preparation lesson, I write out a series of model answers for my students to learn and then offer my time outside of lessons to give extra help. Each person attending a support session is credited with a merit mark. There are no limits on the number of merit marks given. If the whole class attends one session, they all get a merit mark. If one person attends five sessions, they get five merit marks. It’s important that students know praise isn’t limited. If they all do the right thing, they should all be rewarded. This does not devalue the recognition (I’m yet to issue a whole class’ worth of merits for them all attending a revision workshop!), but it does show that if each individual makes the right choice, they will be rewarded.

3. Presentation – this one is slightly more controversial. I insist on high standards of written presentation in exercise books. Dates and titles must be underlined with a ruler. Work should be written on alternate lines. Handwriting should be as neat as possible. I have plenty of colleagues who think I’m wasting my time, but I can’t agree. If my students hand in a well-presented set of notes, they are rewarded with a merit mark. It’s easy: get the basics right and be rewarded. I set a lot of store by this as I think the way students present their work says a lot about their mindset. Well-presented work suggests a sense of commitment and pride. This isn’t about having neat-handwriting; beautifully handwritten work can still be poorly presented. The results of this have been clear: my exercise books are some of the best-presented in the department.

The sticks:

1. Marking – The other side of my marking policy is that any grade with a ‘3’ or below in it (2/3, 3, 3/4, 4), regardless of the attainment grade, has to be redone. An A grade student producing ‘A/B’ standard work is clearly not committing themselves to the correct degree. Equally, if these effort grades persist, I use the school’s homework policy to encourage them to change their ways. The first piece of work with insufficient effort is a warning. The second piece incurs a first homework sanction and the third incurs a homework detention. Homework detention is organised by SLT and lasts an hour after school. This means that a high achieving student who is persistently lazy can and will end up with a serious school sanction. Crucially, the clock is never reset until the end of the year. Students cannot get into the mindset that they can afford a ‘dud’ homework once a half term.

2. Assessment – If we recognise that effort is more important than achievement, then when we come to reward or sanction in assessment we need to be careful. In my classes, each student  (in collaboration with me) sets themselves a realistic target. If they achieve it, they get a merit mark. If they surpass it, they get a house credit. If they fall short of it, they must redo it. Particularly for bottom sets, getting a poor result in a test is actually a success for them as it means they do not have to put in the effort in the first place. Equally, failing a test has proven to be more time effective for them as they haven’t had to commit themselves to effective revision or accepting they need help. This cycle must be broken.

So as I lay down the foundations of a classroom based on effort, I hope to gradually change the mindset of my students. Much like Murray and other successful sportsmen, international level talent is not born in people, it must be cultivated. The same is true for any student of languages. The challenge is convincing those who have become disenfranchised with the subject to re-engage with it and reap the rewards.


Why I didn’t join Teach First.



Like previous posts, I feel I should start with a couple of disclaimers:

1. I’m not sure anyone can argue over the success of Teach First. It has been exceptionally successful in recruiting large numbers of highly successful graduates into the most challenging schools. Without a programme like Teach First, we clearly would not have some of the  best graduates teaching in some of the country’s most deprived areas.

2. Following tweachers like @redorgreenpen, @Kris_Boulton, Joe__Kirby and others, in addition to having a number of friends on the Teach First programme, I have a huge amount of respect and admiration for the work they do. Teaching is hard wherever you teach, but learning to teach in a challenging school deserves everyone’s high admiration. 

But it’s with those two disclaimers that I have to part ways with Teach First. 

1. ‘The Mission’. You just can’t argue with TF’s mission (summarised here)  – young people’s life chances are too often hampered by poverty and a wasted education. Education is the key to social mobility. You also can’t argue with the passion and drive with which teach firsters approach the mission. I went to several TF recruitment drives at university, and was equally affected by what the recruiters had to say, but became uncomfortable with the idea that you could be so convinced of the mission to change people’s life chances, but then leave to work as a consultant or civil servant two years’ later. There are plenty of teach-firsters who don’t do this, I know, but the principle that you give yourself to education for two years before going on to be successful doesn’t sit right with me. I want teaching to be a profession that people want to sign up to as a career, not simply as something they do between university and a life in the City. 

2. Training to Teach/ Learning to Cope. I spent a year as a full time, English teacher in a teach-first equivalent school in Italy on my year abroad at university. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life and I learnt a lot about the tough reality of teaching. But did I learn how to become an effective classroom practitioner? Not really. I learnt what I had to do to get from the beginning to the end of the lesson without having losing my voice. I learnt the most effective way to get my students’ bags off the desk in the first half hour of the lesson, and eventually my students learnt a few sentences of English. I learnt how to get the best from my lessons in difficult circumstances. 

Many of my colleagues have told me that a teacher’s training years are the most precious of their career. On a reduced timetable, with the opportunity to visit other schools, watch other teachers and read around your subject, trainee teachers can engage in the messy business of making pedagogy meet practice. You just can’t do that properly when you’re teaching a 90% timetable and your lessons are routinely an uphill struggle. 

3. A bigger problem. I fear that Teach First tries to cover up the cracks of what is a much deeper problem in education. We need to be focussing on making sure the most experienced, most effective teachers work in the country’s most challenging schools. And we should be offering financial incentives for the best teachers to stay in these schools. To put the hopes and futures of the country’s most challenging young people in the hands of those with equally high hopes but only the most basic of training is almost cruel. We should be taking these same teachers, training them into highly effective practitioners and then paying them a wage they deserve. At the moment we are equipping potentially highly effective teachers with survival skills rather than proven pedagogy with the result that they may be stifling their own potential. 

4. Teach First in the bigger picture. I’m a huge fan of school-based teacher training. I have genuinely enjoyed my GTP year and think that it was probably the best route into teaching for me. What I don’t want though, is for Teach First to be seen as a model that should be rolled out across the whole country. This is already happening with the School’s Direct Salaried Route, where a teacher is paid at the lowest point of the Unqualified Teachers’ Pay Scale (while it still exists) and is given up to a 90% timetable and expected to complete their training to a high standard. This is a race to the bottom in terms of quality teacher training if ever I have seen it. The highly selective nature of the Teach First programme is an excellent principle, and we should be applying principles such as these to the ITT routes we already have so that teaching as a whole becomes a more popular (and therefore more competitive) career choice. But we should do this with the German model in mind, where teaching is a perceived as a competitive life-long career, rather than something that will look good on your CV before you move on and do better things.

To finish, I repeat – I have huge respect for those who do Teach First, and hope that the best of them choose to stay in education and continue the huge impact they are having on young people’s lives. I’m not convinced, however, that this is a model we should be adopting in the long term to raise the status of teaching in the UK. 


How do you get x to behave?

Why is that they behave in your class but not in mine? 


It’s a myth that students in a selective school are angels. It’s a myth that they sit quietly at their desks, taking neat, detailed notes while the teacher lectures the room. It’s a myth that these schools are ‘easy’ places to work. I completely agree that working in an environment like this is perhaps not as emotionally draining as working in schools in difficult circumstances, but there are still challenges to confront. 

Take behaviour for example. The ‘treat’ of teaching a class of twenty six highly intelligent boys is that if they choose to misbehave, they are capable of orchestrating a pretty effective, co-ordinated psychological attack on you at the front of the room and will not stop until you have left the room. You need your wits about you to keep your class on your side.

A Head of Year came to see me the other day. His question: ‘what is it you do with x?’ I was puzzled. ‘What do you do that’s so successful which means he’s fine in your lessons but gives other teachers the run around?’ He had been removed from the lesson before lunch, something that was becoming a repeat occurrence. This then got me thinking – which behaviour management strategies do I use that are repeatedly effective?


Be reasonable: The boys I teach like to be treated as reasonable human beings. That sounds trite, I know. If you explain clearly why it is they need to behave they will probably listen to you. They get irritated, however, when you appear to be making arbitrary pronouncements that don’t seem to have logical consequences. In the case of this particular student, he is a serious sportsman, who is often in school before me in the morning doing practices, he spends lunch and afterschool doing sport and will spend most weekends at competitions. A lunchtime detention for him is like a double punishment. Not only does he have to spend time with you, but he is also deprived of the thing he both enjoys and is seriously talented at. He asked me once if, rather than staying in at lunch to catch up on work, if I could give him some extra work to be completed by next lesson so he could do his sports practice. He completed the work, which satisfied me, and he could go to his practice. A reasonable compromise. Likewise, I asked him to stay behind at lunch this week. He spent twenty minutes with me, and then asked if he could leave to complete a school sanction. He promised to bring the rest of the work, completed, the next day. Again, by being reasonable he was able to be responsible and complete a sanction and satisfy me. 

Being reasonable means you can buy ‘good feeling’ between you and the student, which you might need to call upon if there is a more serious transgression. If you have been on a students’ case for minor offences and then something serious happens, you’ve got nowhere to go.


Confront the behaviour, not the person. I try to run my classroom along the lines of clear policies, which I brief students on throughout the year. They know, for example, that if homework isn’t completed satisfactorily the first time, they get a non-sanctioned intervention from me. The 2nd time? Intervention + school sanction. 3rd and subsequent time? Intervention + escalated school sanction. No equipment? 1st time? Don’t do it again. 2nd and subsequent time? School sanction. 

This means I can take the emotion out of my behaviour management. Because I have clear policies, I can’t change my mind when a ‘good’ student forgets their textbook or doesn’t do their homework. My students also know that I am simply addressing the behaviour, and not them personally. Again – ‘bad blood’ is minimised. 


Be consistentYou have lost the game before kick off if you punish one person for doing something and then not the next person. Students (quite rightly) smell a rat and automatically see you as having favourites, not being consistent, not worthy of their co-operation. It is the biggest cause of bad blood between teacher and student. 


I had messed up a little bit with one of my classes at the beginning of the year; I hadn’t been consistent. They were starting to get irritated. I had to be brave and address the issue. We stopped the lesson and had an impromptu class conference about the problem. I asked them – why isn’t this working? Their answer? You’re not being consistent, sir. I got a homework sanction but he didn’t. You said we’d get a detention if we didn’t put our hand up. I got a detention but he didn’t. They were right, of course. I had to be brave enough and apologise. Plenty of people would think that apologising to a class is humiliating. I completely disagree. If you have clearly messed up, be a reasonable person too and say you’re sorry.  


Like them. I watched an episode of Teaching with Bayley the other day, in which a headteacher said: ‘You’ve got to find something to like in every single one of these students. Or leave’. He’s spot on. Even if you inwardly cannot stand someone in your class, you have to find something to like in them. In the case of the boy in my class, I know that he has absolutely no talent for my subject, will never do anything with it, and will want to drop it at the first possible opportunity. He cannot sit still, is easily distracted, occasionally makes inappropriate comments in the middle of the lesson and can be a real pain. There’s loads to be irritated by. But by at least outwardly appearing to like him, I can again build ‘good feeling’ between us so that when push comes to shove (and it does at points), we can have a reasonable discussion and address it. 


So what’s the magic tool?

I don’t think you can manage behaviour successfully by deploying tools and strategies. It’s about ‘rapport‘. If you build rapport with classes and students, learn to like them, be reasonable and treat them like reasonable people, they in turn will repay you in their co-operation. Of course, some classes and some students are harder to like than others. But these are the classes that need the security of a strong relationship with you the most.



Infiltrating the elite.

How do we rapidly and realistically increase the number of state school students at institutions like Oxford and Cambridge? 

How do we get more state-educated students into institutions like Oxford and Cambridge?

How do we get more state-educated students into institutions like Oxford and Cambridge?

Before I start, I must declare an interest: as a grammar school boy myself, the first in my family to go to university, having recently graduated from Cambridge and now working in a grammar school, it’s become something of an obsession since arriving at university to make sure as many students from backgrounds like mine to get to the best universities.

It’s easy to get carried away though. The newspapers would tell us that the situation is catastrophic; that Oxbridge is full of Etonians/ Paulians/ Harrovians and that there has been little effort to remedy the situation. It’s not as bad as we think: the number of state school students at Oxbridge is healthy. In the 2012/13 admissions cycle, 63% of offers Cambridge made was to state school pupils, up from 58% in the previous year (see here). The University of Cambridge has one of the most generous bursary programmes in the UK (see here, and millions are spent on delivering access initiatives such as student shadowing, visits, talks and summer schools to encourage more applicantsBut coverage is patchy – schools of similar intakes have varying degrees of success, and there are large geographical disparities. The solution to ironing out these differences seems to be in schools better preparing candidates so that they are equally, if not more attractive that privately educated students when they come to apply.

It is here that I think grammar schools play a crucial role, particular in areas of country like Essex. There isn’t space here to talk about merits of grammar schools, and I’m not suggesting that they would exist in an ideal world. As reality stands, however, where they do exist, they have the capacity to be real drivers for social mobility. A school taking the top 20% of local intake should, for example, be looking to prepare and send an equal proportion of its students to Oxbridge. Through work as an interviewer for social enterprise Oxbridge Interviews where I’ve interviewed dozens of candidates from range of backgrounds, it’s easy to notice the ‘edge’ a privately-educated candidate has. It’s our job in the state sector to try to match that edge, within the constraints we have.

So how do we do it?

I believe academically selective schools in particular have a duty to adopt a whole school policy for Oxbridge. This should infiltrate everything they do, right from KS3, to ensure that students never cap their aspiration.

1. Raising Aspiration from the beginning – We need to make sure that our students don’t exclude places like Oxbridge just because they have no prior experience of it. We fail as teachers if we allow students to discount institutions like Oxbridge with the logic that ‘they aren’t for people like me’. This is easily remedied. Schools should look to introduce students to these universities from an early age, attending university access initiatives, visiting on trips, taking tours of the colleges and meeting current students so that our students see that these places are not for the elite, but are full of normal people, like them!

2. Early identification of potential candidates – Often identification of potential candidates happens too late, with only limited time for meaningful preparation to be completed. Students from Year 10 onwards should be identified as potential candidates, and be offered opportunities to broaden their experience of the subject and aim high. In an MFL context, this could include exposure to literature and authentic materials through use of the languages’ assistant (assuming a school has one!) or trainee teachers. These students should be tracked through the school to ensure that, despite their high achieving status, they are not narrowing their horizons.

3. A wide diet of cultural enrichment – Through my experience as an interviewer, I’ve noticed that privately educated pupils have a much broader cultural palette and are able to draw on this when speaking in an academic context. We must try to encourage our state school students to visit the theatre, read books for pleasure, read magazines with an academic edge and then apply them to their work in school. I’m not suggesting that we should be encouraging students to ditch whatever they do at the weekend and force them to go to an art exhibition, but I am saying that schools must provide opportunities for their students to experience alternative cultural experiences, which can then be applied to their studies.

4. Opportunities to think more critically about core content – My favourite question to ask students when I’ve done mock interviews is: ‘Do we trust the author?’ They are normally completely stumped. Through scholarship lessons or routine teaching, we need to be encouraging our students to think much more deeply about what they are currently learning. In arts subjects in particular, the best candidates do not know more than the others, but they can think critically about what they have studied.

5. Promotion of independent learning – The more students work independently, the more they acquire the skills of developing an independent viewpoint. Qualifications such as the Extended Project are invaluable in this respect. Guided support to think deeply, and independently about a topic provides worthwhile material for discussion at interview as well as equipping students with the skills they’ll need to thrive at university.

But isn’t this just promoting a culture of elitism?

Absolutely not. It’s about fundamentally readjusting the culture of aspiration in the type of schools that have a moral imperative to send as many students as possible to the best universities. Each school has a duty to respond to its circumstances. Realistically, national challenge schools and schools fighting low levels of literacy have much more pressing priorities before they consider Oxbridge entry for their students. But state schools that routinely make it into the top 100 state schools for A level have a duty to convert this into Oxbridge places for its students.

A change in culture as I have suggested I believe benefits the whole school community. If those who are unsuccessful at Oxbridge entry gain a place at other Russell Group universities, the school has done them well, particularly in an ever more competitive higher education market. By encouraging every student to aim as high as possible, we are sending a message that no institution is off-limits.  We have, however, failed those capable of places at the best institutions if we fail to offer them a determined programme of preparation.

Living in Dreamland

What I’ve outlined above is unashamedly a ‘dreamland’ project. I appreciate that many of these suggestions cost money in terms of staff, time and a realignment of expectations. It has certainly given me food for thought though – not least in looking at how some of these things could realistically be implemented in schools such as the one I work in. I’d be interested to hear your suggestions.