What do you mean, mean scores?

Today, I posted this picture on Twitter:

Mean Scores

It was taken at an AQA subject hub. Like everybody else at the hub meeting, I was reassured. Yes! I thought. My students all got about 4 out of 8 and everyone else in that sample ended up with 3.28 out of 8 AND THEREFORE WE ARE WINNING. I posted the picture and then all my Twitter friends seemed to be reassured too. Then, on my drive home, I had some kind of moment in which my brain caught up with itself. I was listening to Will Self, on Radio 4’s A Good Read. I was half-listening to Self and half-thinking through the notion of grade boundaries and that picture from the hub.

Will Self, who always intimidates me with his intellectual ferocity, came out with something that caught my attention. It was an aside, really. He said that Doris Lessing’s novel The Grass is Singing shouldn’t have included a murder (if you haven’t read it, it opens with a murder). As an aside, he said it would have been a better novel without the murder. He tore the premise of the book apart. Just like that.

For some reason, this made me realise that the mean scores of 30,000 students still don’t mean anything. Just as The Grass is Singing  would be better without the murder, it would be better without the mean scores. By ‘it’, I mean everything. Life. Marking. Teaching.  It doesn’t really matter if our own students did better or worse than everybody else in this one test. The same holds true for PiXL Curve. It’s all a distraction. We don’t even really know how we’re marking compared to other schools. We don’t know who was in that sample of 30,000 (Selective schools? State schools? Schools with high levels of disadvantage? Schools for SEND pupils? Year 10 pupils? High levels of EAL?). We don’t really know the implications of those cohorts in a sample. We don’t know where the boundaries will be and we won’t know until after the exams. Even then, they’ll change for the following year.  Dawn’s blog is the best place to go for clarity on this. I’ve also blundered my way through something of an explanation and OfQUAL have recently reiterated the importance of not trying to predict grades at this point.

I do understand that it’s good to see a range of marks. It helps us to pinpoint some kind of clarity on where we stand in a huge, huge national rank order. Essentially, though, we need to consider why we want or need this data. It’s not helpful or healthy to fixate on it. I’m as guilty as the next HoD – I posted that picture, after all.

What we need to focus on is doing what we’re all doing already. Teaching thoroughly, thoughtfully and with total focus on helping the students to achieve their very best in those exams. Forensic attention to the mark scheme and lots of practice.



The hand that mocked…

In the last two weeks, I have sat two mock exams alongside Y11. I sat one in the gym with the year-group and the second just with my own class, for 45 minutes, in the classroom. The first was an AQA style English Language paper 1, the second was one question from an AQA English Literature paper 2 modern prose and drama (specifically, An Inspector Calls). I know this is really common practice and that many hundreds of teachers do this on a weekly basis. I used to do it for the old-old-legacy specification but somehow, I’ve fallen out of the habit. Here, I give some reflections on my experiences.

Here’s what I learnt:

The importance (and hindrance) of planning

I planned for all the longer answers. I really, really needed the plans for Q5 of P1 and also the AIC response. As a teacher undertaking this, arrogance bubbled within me; I thought, ‘I don’t need plans! I’ve been teaching An Inspector Calls since the day dot!’ I needed my plans, though. They were vital to my essay structure. When it came to the end of the literature exam, I then felt a fleeting pang of regret, spending a full 10 minutes on the plan – I’d not managed to include my final point. My plan included some key quotations and when I do this again, I’m going to spend five minutes on the plan and 40 on the writing.

Message to the students: Always plan but plan efficiently. Don’t write out quotations. Include a prompt if you think you’ll forget them. Don’t bother with any full sentences. Be strict with your timings here.

Mind blanks/blocks/what is happening to my brain?!

I forgot Sheila’s name. Sheila. A main character in An Inspector Calls. Shelley? Sarah? (no, that’s me) Sh… Sh… I thought I was going to cry. It came back to me but not until I’d become sufficiently worked up to think it was all over. I don’t think it’s my age (I hope it’s not my age, at 38). It reminded me of my GCSE exams – true story – I forgot how to spell ‘blue.’  Evidently it came back to me, or I got round it somehow, but we need to recognise that this is a problem that our students may face. Adrenaline and cortisol can impact negatively on the working memory. It’s easy to  get impatient with kids and accuse them of failing to revise properly when this happens in mocks. For some of them, this amnesia could be a side effect of stress.

Message to the students: Have a strategy to remember your key quotations or devices. I’ve blogged here about using the exam hall for quotation learning.

Paints a picture in the reader’s mind and other such nonsense

More than ever before, this process brought home the need to explicitly teach ways of explaining the effect of a device or technique. Put on the spot, in an exam hall, I fully appreciated why some students resort to ‘this has an effect on the reader’ without explaining the effect. I don’t think this is a case of a lack of analytical understanding. This is a case of being utterly lost for words, in a gym, with nothing around you but the backs of heads and seeing 150 other pens flowing across paper with apparent fluidity and ease. The structure question (P1, Q3) caught me off guard. Each paragraph moves the reader on – yes, got that – which makes the reader… what?! Again, I took a deep breath and had a word with myself.

Message to students: practise, practise, practise the questions that require you to comment on the effect. Build up an understanding of the various ways different devices can affect the reader or our understanding of events. This can be learnt as subject content.


In both English Language exams, Q5 is worth 40 marks out of a total of 80. By this point, my hand ached. I wanted to get up and stretch. I have always dismissed students telling me that it’s a struggle to keep writing after an hour. I stand corrected. However, I still feel that Q5 is best left until the end. Section A reminded me of what ‘good’ writing looks like and prompted some thought for how to structure my responses.

Message to students: come hell or high water, start Q5 when you have 50 minutes remaining.

My pen ran out

It really did. How mortifying. My colleague Hannah (@hannahjgale) was there to give me a spare. The kids often see this as a bit of an urban myth – they roll their eyes when we remind them to take a spare pen (and, it seems, so did I). Lesson learnt.

Message to students: no pen is invincible. Bring 4.


Riklef, W. (2010) – Effects of acute psychosocial stress on working memory related brain activity in men. Human Brain Mapping Issue 31


Q: Is Google male or female?

A blog for #IWD. Punch-line at the end.

Here are some encounters or interactions I have had all in the last week. They’re not related to education. They’re just bits and pieces from day-to-day life.

The Mortgage Broker

We’ve just applied for a new mortgage. On Tuesday, my husband and I sat in front of a mortgage broker and for about the 350th time in my seven-year marriage, I had to explain that yes, we’re married but no, I don’t use his name. On anything. No, not just at work. No, not on our existing mortgage account. Yes – everywhere I go, I am Sarah Barker, exactly as I was on the day my parents named me. Some kind of comment was then made about how I ‘wear the trousers.’ When our salaries were picked apart from the joint income figure we’d provided, it became evident that I earn more than my husband. ‘I can see why you’re in charge,’ came next.

The Reclamation Yard

Here’s a sign that is for sale in a local reclamation yard. It’s yours for just £14:


Google search: ‘Removing Gloss from Spindles’

I’ve been thinking about stripping the gloss from the spindles and banister. I looked it up and Google provided me with http://www.ultimatehandyman.co.uk. Another forum user had asked a similar question to mine. The first response (you can look it up if you can’t/don’t believe me) was this:


By the way, if you’re thinking of doing the same, I wouldn’t bother. It seems to be a hell-on-earth type of task.

Language and (what feels like) everywhere

You see, both sexism and old-fashioned attitudes in humour are everywhere. It encroaches into every part of life. It’s relentless. Some of my male friends and colleagues say that they don’t notice it because they are (rarely) on the receiving end of it. Being told we’re emotional, bossy, hormonal or fierce when men are, respectively, sensitive, strong leaders, work too hard/have a lot on or powerful gets tiring. The very language we speak is entrenched with sexism. Consider these words, their implications and the feminine equivalents:


With comments and/or associations


With comments and/or associations


Especially in the US, a ‘dog’ is a man who gets the women he wants but won’t commit. It’s a compliment – an achievement, even. Some music artists use it as a name.



This is an interesting one. We’ve seen a verbing of this word. To bitch is to complain, to moan, to talk about somebody in his/her absence. Then we have the noun, which I don’t feel needs my notations here.


Associations: bachelor pad; bachelor party; single by choice; loving single life; care-free and so on.


Associations: images of somebody who is dried up; abandoned; Miss Havisham-like; left on the shelf; gone to seed.


An expert.


Associations: a nasty woman (sounds like a presidential Tweet!); evil; hateful etc.


An expert. Top of the game. Knows all there is to know.


For me, this only ever means the other woman. It’s never a positive word, is it?

This is just a sample – a rather obvious one at that. Only today, one of my pupils bought up the word pimp. In the context, she had the wrong word (An Inspector Calls, if you’re interested, when Eric describes not understanding why a woman wanted Eva/Daisy to go to the Palace Bar). She needed the word madam. Pimp/madam. Sir/madam. On it goes.

If we replicate any of these points (that is, casual comments about female earnings, throwaway remarks about women’s decisions to keep their own names, retro signs churning out the standard stereotypical ‘all women are…’ comments, responses on trade forums suggesting that wives are controlling freaks and the English language as it stands) with discrimination about another minority group, we’d quickly find that there are policies in place to counter this kind of discrimination. Not, it seems, when it comes to casual put-downs against people based on their gender.


This is actually the shortest section. My point is that sexism remains everywhere and schools are no exception.

From the curriculum, to the language used by teachers, parents and other adults, sexism continues to pervade our schools. This often manifests itself through humour, which makes it harder to challenge. I’m not sure that citing examples would support my point but I encounter it on a weekly basis. Sexist attitude have shifted massively over the past 20 years, yet adult banter seems to be exempt from this shift. Schools should be the starting point for children to go out into the world of work, free from the entrenched, oppressive attitudes of older generations. What I see is the same old perpetration of the same old attitudes towards women.

Set Texts

These are the texts that our students are required to study for English Literature. In the planning of the new specification, I gave feedback to the board on this gender balance, as well as the lack of representation of BAME writers. I was not the only one to do so, but below you can see who made the cut for one board. They only study one cluster of poems but I’ve included both choices here for clarity:

Set texts (not including the Shakespeare) for one GCSE English Literature specification.

Today, a (male) colleague asked if he could borrow a pen and somebody else commented on the fact that I ‘always have a pen.’ So when the original pen-borrower came back with ‘it’s because she’s a girl,’ I just sat there speechless. Like, what the actual…? Because everywhere I turn, even in a room of senior- and middle- leaders, this kind of casual sexism is so embedded into our discourse that I feel exhausted at trying to challenge it. When I have challenged it before, I’ve been told I’m ‘spiky’. Maybe I am. I definitely give as good as I get, I concede that. I would like to think that my humour is not based on lazy stereotypes.

End on a positive:

Yet for #IWD, I do not want to end on a complaint. I want to celebrate the progress with gender equality that’s being made across my beloved city (read about it  in this Guardian article – I am proud to work/have worked for two of these women and alongside two more), across our country (@WomenEd) and on an international scale.

Oh, I nearly forgot to give you the punch-line:

A: Female, because it doesn’t let you finish a sentence before making a suggestion. (A joke I was told last week – by a man who interrupted me to tell it).

Learning and Thriving

I first visited Monks Park School in 1989. I was 11 years old and looking around secondary schools with my mum and dad. It was freezing cold and exactly like what I thought a secondary school should look like. There was a sort of Grange-Hill-esque feel to the place. I could almost imagine crying in the corridor after having my head held down an unflushed toilet. In the end, I undertook my secondary education at a different comprehensive school, based purely on the fact that I didn’t know anybody going to Monks Park and I didn’t like the windows at Cotham School – a perfectly rational decision, at the age of 11.

I started my PGCE at the University of Bristol in 2003. There were five schools on the placement list that put fear through the hearts of the trainees. Monks Park was one of them. It had a reputation for really, really bad behaviour. We heard unrepeatable urban myths that shocked us and secretly enthralled us. As it happens, none of us were allocated to Monks Park that year. We cut our teeth elsewhere and things moved on.

Then, in 2005, the school had a PFI rebuild. It was rebranded as Orchard School Bristol (OSB). We used to have our Heads of English LA hub meetings there. A friend of mine worked there shortly after this point and said the new build had helped things move forward – new name, fresh building, fresh start – but this was short-lived. Low-level disruption, that often comes hand-in-hand with catchments of social deprivation, was still presenting itself at the school. More recently, in 2013, one of my short-placement PGCE students undertook her second placement there. I received new from her that while the staff were doing their best, the kids were ‘tearing her apart’ – her words, not mine.

On Friday 20th January 2017, I visited OSB once more, this time with dual purpose. I was meeting with the English team so that we could get some external moderation and collaboration done. I also asked if I could see their new Ready to Learn (RtL) system in place. I had heard great things about RtL – a few other local schools had implemented it but I didn’t really understand how it functioned or why it mattered so much. I walked away from my visit with total and utter conviction that this school was a school transformed. I met and spoke to hardworking and happy pupils with a clear sense of purpose and a shared vision. I met teachers who loved – yes, loved – their school. I met teachers who expressed that they had been looking for new jobs until RtL started up, and now they didn’t want to work anywhere else. It was incredible.

It was incredible. I repeat this because there is so much in the press and on social media at the moment about behaviour, effective management of behaviour, systems, #noexcuses and so forth. It’s hard to escape and it’s difficult to envisage how a decent system could work. OSB have done something amazing because they have managed to create a system which is not punitive. It does not have punishment at the centre of it, but learning, relationships and restoration. Their RtL system has created the right conditions in the classroom for teachers to teach and pupils to learn.

Careful preparation: staff survey and visits

I was welcomed to the school by Kathleen McGillycuddy, Deputy Head at Orchard. She explained how the school came to introduce RtL:

‘We’d been ‘satisfactory’, then R.I. for years. We were fighting for that ‘good’. Then, in October 2015, we got it! That date is engraved in my mind. Getting a ‘good’ took the pressure off a bit. We could focus on improving our school, not just proving we knew what we were doing to Ofsted. We conducted a staff survey, to see how people were feeling about work. When it came to staff perceptions of behaviour, the results were awful.’

If I’m being honest, I hate conducting surveys – the emotive part of me gets instantly defensive when the results don’t give me a picture I like. I have utter respect to the SLT for embracing this with such openness.

Kathleen showed me the survey results. It was pretty awful. It was RAG’d – and predominantly red.  Staff felt frustrated with behaviour and although ‘reviews’ of behaviour (including the recent OfSTED report) found it to be good, they felt that it was anything but good. They felt that it wasn’t managed consistently or in a way that supported their teaching.

The decision was made to look at RtL, with a view to implementing and embedding it properly for the next academic year. Kathleen explained, ‘in education, most things we do or try are just fire-fighting. New incentives are thought about for about a month at most and not launched properly. They fizzle out. We wanted to do this properly.’

The senior leadership team, teachers, governors and pupils went to visit other schools with similar programmes in place. Henbury School is one such place – you can read about it here – as is Bristol Brunel Academy. The OSB staff told me that they’re grateful to colleagues in both those schools for their time and support in considering RtL.

‘We felt it was important to involve everybody in it, right from the start. We were really thorough. We ran test days in the summer and every single child in the school community knew what was going on.’

How it all works:

Four Rules

There are four key rules:

  • Follow instructions promptly
  • Remain on task
  • Listen when others are speaking
  • Always speak appropriately

These are on display everywhere. The students know the rules – several students explained them to me.

The Ready to Learn Room

If a pupil chooses not to follow one of the four rules, s/he gets given a warning.

If the disruptive behaviour continues, the pupil is sent to the RtL room until 4pm. Break and lunch are at adjusted times. The next day, the pupil returns to the RtL room until the same time s/he was sent there the day before, meaning a whole school day is spent there. For example, if a child is sent there at 11am, s/he will leave at 11am the next day.

In the first month, the school hall was used for the RtL room. It was full, some days. Then the numbers started dwindling. They dwindled to the point that the RtL room was moved to a classroom, where it remains. I was there at about 10am on a Friday and there were five students in there. Five. With 720 on roll, that meant that 715 were out in their lessons, learning.

The room is silent. It’s staffed by one person, who was employed for the role. I asked about staffing costs, to get this response: ‘our staff sickness rate has dropped by 58% since we introduced RtL. The cost here has more than paid for itself.’ Students work from curriculum booklets, produced by Heads of Faculty and linked to each year group’s curriculum. If students don’t manage their behaviour in this room, they face an external exclusion. It’s simple and it works.

‘But how… how… what? My kids would just run off and never arrive here!’ (me, to Kathleen)

Essentially, all students are on report. All the time. When a teacher starts a lesson, instead of putting a ‘/’ in the register, s/he puts a ‘2’. This number signifies neutrality. You’re here. You’re on time. You’re showing all the right learning behaviours. When a first warning is issued, the ‘2’ is changed to a ‘3’. If the pupil continues to misbehave, a ‘4’ is entered. This sends an automatic ‘ping’ to the RtL room. The pupil has 5 minutes to arrive. On the flip side, where a student shows learning behaviours above and beyond they get a ‘1’ and this triggers praise and rewards, in a different part of the school sanctions and rewards system.

‘There must be some kids who can’t cope with this sort of system’ (me to Kathleen). Yes. This is where Thrive comes in.


Thrive is a system for those who may not cope with RtL. It may be that a learning or behavioural need means that RtL is not going to work for some students. This is not a lowering of expectations. I explain how and why now.

Before implementing RtL, SLT and the SENDCo established a list of about 24 pupils who may need to use the Thrive room. The Thrive room was staffed by three members of staff, all of whom are trained and experienced in working with SEND, BESD and vulnerable young people.

All students are set the same expectations. The 24 pupils get a ‘2’ in the register on entry, like everybody else. However, if they are given a warning and they feel that they will not manage to stay off a ‘4’, then they can make the choice to exit the lesson and go to the Thrive room. Here, they are supported for 5 to 10 minutes, to process what the warning means and why it was given, at which point they return to lessons with an LSA to settle them if they want it. If a Thrive student goes on to get a ‘4’ they also have to go to the RtL room for a bespoke amount of time, based on what is appropriate for their individual needs. All of this is known and agreed up front with the SENDCo. The students are fully aware of this agreement. As far as the classroom rules are concerned, all students have to follow them. Behind the scenes, children are supported according to their needs. Here’s the thing, though. The Thrive kids are managing in the RtL system. They found, very quickly, that they don’t need three members of staff in the Thrive room. It’s absolutely brilliant – students who struggled with behaviour have risen to the challenge and are truly engaging with it.

What do the pupils think?

I spoke to a total of 6 students on my tour of the school. Some were selected by Kathleen, others I just chatted with on an incidental basis. I spoke to a year 7 child who described himself as ‘a bit chatty’ and ‘popular’. He said that he loved his secondary school. He articulated the 4 rules and said that he’d been sent to the RtL room once: ‘I’m never going there again!’

I met two KS4 boys. Kathleen told me that both had been very challenging in previous years. One was on the brink of a Negotiated Transfer. They were, by far, the best part of the tour. They were surly. They said that the new behaviour system was ‘boring’. One of them told me that he had been excluded from school over 20 times in the previous years. When I asked him how many times he’d been in the RtL room, he told me that he’d been in there three times. I was not impressed, to be honest. Then he added that all of those visits had been in the first fortnight in September. Most crucially, both of the boys told me that they are ‘much happier’ in school now. One said that he gets on better with his mum now, too. I have worked in Bristol schools for 13 years. I know Bristol kids. This was not scripted.

I met two pupils in a year 8 PE theory lesson (which, by the way, is indicative of the extent to the whole-school approach to literacy that is also going on along RtL). Both were shy, sweet and had never been in trouble before. They told me how they used to be angry when teachers couldn’t teach. They said that now, they can actually ‘learn something’. They also told me how the corridors and lesson change-over is calmer. I witnessed this calm change-over shortly after meeting them. It exceeded expectations.

Impact on staff

I’ve left this until the end because it’s what I want to leave with you. I met several members of staff that day. One who really stands out for me was a head of faculty. I asked her if there were any perceivable down-sides to this system, as a teacher. She said this:

“No. None. It’s amazing. The only thing I’ll say is this: we were warned that our planning time would increase by a third, because the kids would just plough through work. I’d agree with that whole-heartedly. They work more, they listen more, you need to plan more. It’s amazing.”

SLT members told me that it has changed their role – they have time to actually do their jobs because they are not constantly picking up behaviour issues. There are still teething problems, loop-holes, inconsistencies. Some staff have found the transition difficult, some feel guilty for setting firm boundaries, but the mantra ‘hold the line’ helps immensely.

There is so much more that I want to write, but I’ve already doubled my own personal blog-word-limit. It’s not true that you need a fresh start with a new school to sort out behaviour. Not true at all.

I am grateful to all of the staff at Orchard who took the time out of their busy day to show me around, especially Kathleen and Dorian (another DH, not mentioned in this blog, who spent the best part of an hour showing me the data, the systems and answering my questions).


S.T.R.E.S.S. = Stuff To Remember Every Single Second

This is about the use of mnemonics for GCSE revision. I teach English, so this blog post will be framed by my subject area, but it applies to revision across the curriculum.

I am not advocating against using mnemonics here. Always, always do what is best for your kids in your context. Nobody knows about that better than you. I’m just giving a few words of caution, especially when mnemonics serve as a ‘tick list’ for students to include certain devices in their writing. Sometimes, the mnemonic serves as something for a worried child to cling on to and developing a real application of knowledge is neglected.

Mnemonics Across the Curriculum

It’s easy to think that your own subject is the centre of the world and to forget that all the other subjects are up against it too. We’re all desperately trying to equip the same pupils with devices to use in the exam hall, should their minds draw a blank. Mnemonics in many forms are suggested, promoted and used by many teachers. In my school, pupils also devise their own – maybe the most effective ones are the ones devised by the pupils who’ll actually use them.

It’s important that everybody realises that pupils are getting crammed with mnemonics everywhere they turn. Our pupils are so full of acronyms and first-letter recoding devices that they barely have room for anything else. In science, students now have to memorise equations, elements, formulae etc. (as did I, in 1995!). “Please Stop Calling Me A Zebra, I Like Her Call Smart Goat” is, apparently, a good way to remember the reactivity series of metals – never mind the fact that it doesn’t make any sense. Perhaps a better one, as suggested by BBC BiteSize, is this: “People Say Little Children Make A Zebra Ill Constantly Sniffing Giraffes.” You could always try “King Philip Came Over From Greater Spain” when revising your taxonomic ranks (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species). Don’t forget BODMAS or BIDMAS or PEMDAS in maths when remembering the order of operations. Except, of course, that BODMAS isn’t always right and fails to help students understand what’s actually happening behind the scenes of the equation. Mnemonics are everywhere and pupils can conflate, confuse and misuse them. The fact that it’s not only your own subject area that is filling the pupils with such devices should be a consideration when using them in your teaching.

Some Memory Devices are More Equal than Others

Evidently, the reason for using mnemonics is that  X amount of information, be it formulae, dates, devices, sequences or lists, needs to be retained by pupils in order to perform well in a given examination. The mnemonic works as a decoding device for this information.  Some exams require the retention and then recall of factual information – there are questions in the GCSE RE course that require recall skills (‘list 3 things a Catholic may use to pray”). A’ Level biology includes an opportunity for students to recall information in order (Figure 1). I’m not saying that these are easy tasks, although my colleagues tell me that this kind of question is always a low scorer. These questions may serve as a springboard for students to tackle other, more complex, questions. Some memory devices work brilliantly for this sort of task.

Figure 1: AQA GCE Biology

Clearly, not all memory devices are the same. Jurowski et al (2015) highlight the various ways that mnemonics have been classified by researchers over the years: “Thompson (1987) arranges mnemonic strategies into five classes: linguistics, spatial, visual, physical response and verbal methods… Oxford (1990) identifies four major strategies: namely, creating mental linkage, applying images and sounds, reviewing well, and employing action… Baddeley (1999) described that mnemonic devices can be classified into visual imagery strategies and verbal strategies.” Jurowski et al use Bellezza’s (1981) classification method and the simplicity works well for me too (shown in Figure 2). It might be worth looking into these when you’re deciding what you want your students to remember and why it’s important they recall this information.

Figure 2: Bellezza’s mnemonics classification method in Jurowski, K., Jurowska, A., Krzeczkowska, M. (2015) (Jurowski et al’s comment)

Like anything, the approach taken needs to suit the purpose. It makes sense to use first-letter recoding for learning the taxonomic ranks in biology. As long as the student can remember what each letter stands for then it’s great. However, this approach doesn’t transfer to subjects where the students need to write for a certain purpose, audience and context, or apply their understanding of a given event to a wider context (be it in a novel or anywhere else on the curriculum). This is particularly true in English.

I have examined for two different boards over the years, for different parts of the English Language GCSE qualification. When it comes to analysing a text or producing a piece of writing, the number of acronyms I have seen at the top of students’ scripts is phenomenal. Truly, truly phenomenal. Most commonly, they are used as a prompt to remind pupils of what to include in a piece of writing – usually the old faithful, AFORREST, although I have seen some complex and undecipherable variations. Sometimes, they serve as a reminder for pupils to pick out language features when analysing a text. The ‘punctuation face’ (Figure 3) is quite common, especially with lower ability students. The ones that seem to be cropping up a lot on social media at the moment include: PEACH, GRANDDAD, AFORREST, STRIVE, RIOSPASM, APES STOMPS, RAT SWEAT. I have no idea what some of these mean, but I’m sure I’ll find out in the marking season.

Figure 3: Punctuation face, this (or similar) is seen at the start of many writing responses.

The Rub

In English, use of such mnemonics rarely improves the quality of responses.  When it comes to writing, the resulting piece of work is often mechanical, forced and somewhat pedestrian. The mnemonic seems to be guiding the writing. For example, when it comes to AFORREST, pupils have diligently included an anecdote, a fact, an opinion and so on, but they haven’t really written a cohesive response. Pupils who do not use an acronym, but write a simple plan of the points they want to include, do better. Their responses tend to be organised into logical paragraphs and usually they are considering the content of what they’re saying, rather than shoe-horning in predetermined devices. The same applies to reading responses and poetry analysis. The weighting of the marks lies heavily with the effect of whatever device has been identified. Feature spotting isn’t (and never has been) rewarded as much as insightful comments about the impact or effect of the way something has been written.

When it comes to the punctuation face, some pupils tick off each piece of punctuation as they use it. It can result in pupils using punctuation for the sake of it. Odd occurrences of semi-colons spring up, when the pupil would have scored a better mark for using simple punctuation they know well, thus illustrating that they can control their written language effectively.

Teach analysis skills to accompany the memory devices.

I repeat: I am not advocating that we do away with mnemonics. I’ve used them for my own studies. I used the ‘visual imagery’ approach to my M.A. examinations for remembering theorists, theories and dates. This involves imagining a scene and then ‘building up’ a picture that fits with what you need to remember. I’ve made a YouTube video on it here and I’ve blogged on using the exam hall to remember quotations here. For a three hour M.A. Leading the Learning Community examination, I managed to cram 56 educational theorists into my memory. I knew how to apply them to the essay question. I knew how to write an essay. I knew how to use academic writing. I walked out of the examination and my visual image of a fairground, onto which I’d hung all of those theorists and paradigms, disappeared from my mind and has never returned. I had a 5 week old baby – this approach was reasonable, given my situation. I wouldn’t say that it was particularly effective for long-term retention, though.

My advice, for teachers across all subjects, is to make sure that your students know how to apply their own analytical ideas to the features they’re identifying. Writing about the effect is the big scorer. When it comes to Q5 (writing) they should plan for content, not for language devices.

Keep the memory devices, if they work for you. Sometimes, pupils don’t have the resilience to go into an exam hall without such devices to hand. Just make sure they can do the other bits too. Empowering them with decent planning and lots of preparation will take them a long way – further than any tick list.


Jurowski, K., Jurowska, A., Krzeczkowska, M. (2015) Comprehensive review of mnemonic devices and their applications:  State of the art.  International E-Journal of Science, Medicine & Education, Vol. 9, Issue 3, p.4

Kamikaze: some supplementary thoughts.

Halfway through a PiXL session on Friday, I checked my work emails. I was concentrating (honest!) but I always seem to have a little corner of my mind checking in on the faculty and/or Twitter. To my delight, I found that Beatrice Garland had emailed me. The. Beatrice. Garland. I’m not embarrassed to be star-struck. It was amazing. I practically forced my phone into @xris32’s hand – look! Read it! – and then furiously wrote @tillyteacher a note: “the actual Beatrice Garland has sent me an actual email!”

Beatrice Garland had replied to an email I sent her last week. I had been thinking over some of the sound patterns in Kamikaze and emailed her about it. The response she sent was actually about the context of the poem, with links to a wonderful video (shared below) and more information on the pilots.

This blog is about my teaching of the poem thus far, details of Beatrice Garland’s correspondence with me and a few more bits I’ve been thinking about since teaching it. I’ll be covering the poem with Y10 before half-term and I am already looking forward to it. I haven’t bothered to include a whole poetry analysis here – there are loads of resources already available in the public domain.

The background.

I didn’t go into too much detail with my students on this one – just the basics of the kamikaze and the notion of shame. Essentially, I used the following information for this (I’m including it here as a quick copy and paste might be of use to other teachers):

A kamikaze was a Japanese suicide pilot in World War 2. Their aircrafts were loaded with explosives and sent on missions to fly into enemy warships. Inevitably, the pilot would die in these attacks.

Kamikaze pilots were given intensive training prior to their suicide missions. As well as explaining the daily physical punishment which the kamikaze pilots were put through, Wikipedia explains that “Pilots were given a manual which detailed how they were supposed to think, prepare and attack. From this manual, pilots were told to “attain a high level of spiritual training.” These things, among others, were meant to put the pilot into the mindset in which he would be mentally ready to die.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kamikaze#Training)

Interviews with surviving kamikaze soldiers.

Beatrice Garland sent me this link to a Guardian article on Kamikaze pilots. It includes an 8 minute video, which I will show my Y10, although if you prefer to just use the written article, rest assured it covers the same ground. The wonderful thing about the video is that it’s an interview with two real kamikaze pilots, now in their later years, discussing their experiences.

She also sent me the kamikaze soldiers’ oath, with which she commented “very salutary, to see how demanding the precepts they had to swear to.” I totally agree; it is illuminating to see how the expectations placed on these men:

A soldier must make loyalty his obligation.

A soldier must make propriety his way of life.

A soldier must highly esteem military valour.

A soldier must have a high regard for righteousness.

A soldier must live a simple life.

Kamikaze – a precursor of today’s suicide bombers.

Remember that AO3 requires that pupils show understanding of the relationships between texts and the contexts in which they were written. That’s the AO in its entirety and for this paper, it’s worth 7.5%. Unless you subscribe to the New Criticism movement (briefly – context has no relevance to the literature and the novel/poem/play is a world in its own right), then you’ll see the value of understanding this poem in context. There is value in reflecting on our own existing knowledge of the world, which I would argue cannot be disregarded when reading a work of literature. Additionally, we can gain a deeper understanding of the significance of a literary work if we consider the political, social and historical context. Perhaps we can gain a better understanding of our own contexts through our understanding of the poem.

So, for the sake of the Assessment Objectives or for one’s own approach to literary texts, the context in which Kamikaze was written can be reflected upon. Garland notes that the willingness for individuals to die for their beliefs is nothing new and we still witness such events in contemporary times. This should help hugely with making links between the poems.

I cannot say this as succinctly as Beatrice Garland, so here’s what she said on this area:

“They were of course the precursors of today’s suicide bombers, prepared to die for what they believed in.   But there have been individuals willing to do that throughout history, even though we tend to think of it as a modern phenomenon. The young men driving lorries into crowds are virtually identical, with rather less technology at their disposal:  they know they will die at the end of it.”

The concept of shame, the cultural context and Bushido.

In your teaching of the poem, you may have identified the shame brought upon the family when the father comes home, having abandoned the kamikaze directive. It occurred to me that our understanding of shame may have shifted over time and does not necessarily transcend cultural contexts. My pupils understand ‘shame’ as little more than ‘embarrassment’ – some came up with ‘embarrassment mixed with guilt’. Shame, in western cultures, is also understood to be a particularly negative experience. In western culture, shame is something private, something experienced and processed internally. This was not quite the same for the kamikaze soldiers. In order to understand the poem (especially the character of the pilot and his wife), it is helpful to consider this concept within the cultural context. We now look to the Bushido code.

The samurai code of Bushido is one place we can look when seeking answers for the origins of the kamikaze. Some cite ‘obedience to authority or sheer peer pressure’ (Hollway, 2016) as alternative reasons for the soldiers’ willingness to fly these suicide missions, but the Bushido code is interesting to look at here, especially when considering the concept of shame. In Premodern Japanese samurai culture, ‘the notion of shame [was] a powerful public concept even while rooted in the innermost depth of an individual’s dignity.’ (Ikegami, 2003). Shame was a desired quality for both the samurai and kamikaze soldiers. There was honour in feeling shame and therefore a belief that defending one’s honour would enable the pilots to undertake the kamikaze missions. Linguistically, ‘shame (haji) in Japanese can also represent the private passive emotion related to concerns for one’s social reputation’ (ibid.). Shame is tied up with pride, dignity, and honour. In order to approach this poem, we need to understand that the soldiers felt shame, lived with shame and that they were chosen for kamikaze missions because their deep desire to preserve their honour and dignity meant that they were likely to undertake these missions.

Lastly, the sounds.

Look at the first three stanzas of the poem. I’ve highlighted some of the fricative sounds below. Fricatives are sounds which are formed in the mouth by air being forced through a small space. The physical position of the mouth (tongue position, tongue movement, soft palette position etc.) determine the exact sound produced, but for simplicity, we’re looking at sounds like /f/ (as in fin), /v/ (as in vision), /ð/ (as in this), /θ/ (as in thin), /ʃ/ (as in should) and /ʒ/ (as in measure). This list is not exhaustive; if you want to know more, start with looking at the International Phonetic Alphabet online.

There seem to be a lot of fricatives here. A disproportional amount, in fact. Of course, you don’t need to equip GCSE students with the phonological details that I’ve just laid out, but perhaps the following ideas may be of interest to you or your students: the sounds brought about the buzzing noise of a plane prior to take-off for me. The sounds evoked an unpleasant, anxiety-filled sensation – like that feeling when you can’t concentrate because something’s lurking in the background. The fricatives almost hiss at you; they’re unpleasant to listen to and they echo the uncomfortable mood of the poem. There are 18 /f/ sounds in the first three stanzas and none in the last two. Maybe the silence he’s subjected to after returning home is reflected here.

Students rarely write well about the effect of alliteration. However, it’s possible for them to comment on any repeated sounds and what these evoke for them. I hope this has given you some points for reflection.

Here are the first three stanzas with relevant sounds highlighted. That’s all for now.

(Apologies for the errors in formatting below – I’m aware of the missing stanza breaks. I’m trying to get it sorted!)

Her father embarked at sunrise with a flask of water,

a samurai sword in the cockpit,

a shaven head full of powerful incantations

and enough fuel for a one-way

journey into history

but half way there, she thought,

recounting it later to her children,

he must have looked far down

at the little fishing boats

strung out like bunting

on a green-blue translucent sea

and beneath them, arcing in swathes

like a huge flag waved first one way

then the other in a figure of eight,

the dark shoals of fishes

flashing silver as their bellies

swivelled towards the sun


Chilton, J.M. (2012) “Shame: A Multidisciplinary Concept Analysis.” Journal of Theory Construction & Testing. Vol. 16 Issue 1, p. 5

Hollway, D. (2016) “Divine Wind” Aviation History Vol. 26 Issue 3, p. 48

Ikegami, E. (2003) “Shame and the Samurai: Institutions, Trustworthiness, and Autonomy in the Elite Honor Culture.” Social Research. Vol. 70 Issue 4, p. 1351-1354.


Playing on Rubble

I started writing this at the start of December and a few Tweets on the matter have surfaced again, so I’ve pushed ahead to publish. This is about the fact that while state schools have moved to a structure of  100% examination for the GCSE English courses, private schools can still use the IGCSE, with 50% coursework. 

I am not advocating that state schools be allowed to do coursework. Jonathon Peel (@mrpeel) has written about the implications of demanding this, and I agree with him on most parts. I don’t think that it’s helpful to suggest another overhaul of GCSE English, for many reasons. I don’t think that we should be trying to make the course easier. However, I do think that the disparity gives unfair advantage to private school pupils and I do think that use of coursework makes the course easier. I’ll cover why below.

Let’s clarify one thing:

State-schools never used the same IGCSE specifications as private-schools. This was the same for all boards, although I am going to use CIE to exemplify this point, because all their resources and specifications are still live and I’ve taught it. Private schools and international schools didn’t need the specification to be approved by the DfE because they don’t need to satisfy the criteria for national performance tables. Universities, however (including the Russell Group), have accepted the private school IGCSE for years. There has always been a disparity here, but this didn’t really matter too much because the two courses were roughly the same.

Michael Gove then gave the green-light for state-schools to use the IGCSE – a move that was welcomed by most. State-schools couldn’t use the same syllabus as private schools because the private school specification was not accredited to count in the performance tables. A new, DfE-approved one was produced. It was roughly in line with the specification used by the private schools – if anything, the state-school one was slightly more accessible for some students as it included a speaking and listening element, worth 20% of the overall grade.

Here’s a summary so you can get an overview and with links so you can look bits up yourself:

State of Affairs up to and including Summer 2016 (CIE used as example)
  State Schools Private and International Schools
Specification No. 0522 0500
Specification Name IGCSE English – First Language (UK) IGCSE English – First Language
Link to website Link to 0522 Link to 0500
Written coursework requirements Yes – optional route.

3 written assignments.

40% of total marks.

Yes – optional route.

3 written assignments.

50% of total marks.

Speaking and Listening requirements Yes – compulsory element.

10-12 minute discussion with teacher or three shorter interactions, at least one individual.

20% of total marks.

Available as optional route. Does not contribute to final grade. Certificate of achievement awarded.

The Introduction of the Reformed GCSE (first teaching, 2015, first awards 2017)

A series of reforms were introduced, largely marketed as ensuring a ‘fairer’ system. I felt, generally, that these changes were positive, because some schools were pushing their students through every GCSE examination possible. My step-niece started her GCSE English and Maths courses in Year 8 and then was put through GCSE exams 3 and 4 times respectively until she got the C grades. She eventually got the C grades and was so turned off by the whole system that she left school with a desire to never step foot in an educational establishment again. Anyway – I digress. Some of the changes over the last 5 years have included:

  • Linear GCSEs to stop the retake culture in some subjects.
  • ‘First Attempt’ reporting, so that any subsequent result was valid for the child but not the league tables.
  • Abolition of the teacher-assessed Speaking and Listening coursework in GCSE English Language (with a shift to 60% examination/40% controlled assessment), moving to…
  • … 100% examination courses for GCSE English Language and Literature, with a requirement that students still undertake a S&L assessment. This is filmed and a sample submitted to the boards, but does not contribute to overall grades.
  • The new 9-1 GCSE grading system, designed to strengthen our system and help us catch up with the rest of the world and for many reasons, I don’t think that this move is particularly helpful.

Except for if you’re a private school.

As has always been the case, private schools will still be able to use the IGCSE (0500 – outlined above).

The new GCSEs were very much marketed as levelling the playing field. This is NOT a level playing field. OfQUAL, Michael Gove and even OCR said that coursework and controlled assessment were open to abuse by teachers. I agree. I really do – especially when it comes to coursework. If you’re reading this and you’re unclear on the difference: coursework is undertaken in the candidate’s own time. It can be re-drafted and discussed. It can be taken home. Controlled assessment is done under exam conditions, in school, in silence and locked away. It’s still open to abuse, but there were some systems in place to counter this.

This isn’t a level playing field. This is like playing on rubble on our half of the pitch. The state-schools are using the new 9-1, strengthened specification while private schools can still, well, abuse the system. I simply will not accept that submitting coursework as 50% of your final mark is as hard as sitting 4 hours of examinations at the end of a course, especially if you come from a family that has enough status, wealth, power or whatever other prowess to raise the funds to pay for your education. What parent wouldn’t want to help his or her child with this? It’s an easier gig. While private schools aren’t subject to the same performance tables as state schools, they’re still sending citizens out into the work-force and producing candidates for UCAS. Their alumni are at a direct advantage over their peers in the state-system when it comes to their GCSE English results.

I do not want to see a return of coursework or controlled assessment. I don’t think that the petition to ‘allow state-schools to do 40% coursework like private schools do’ is where my heart is.

I just thought, for a while, that my kids would be able to compete in a truly fair battle. How wrong I was.

Brain Gym (don’t worry, it’s not).


This is a picture of the gym at my school, right at the end of a mock examination. I took this picture to help my Y11 students with learning quotations. I did this same exercise last year and it worked. I know it worked because they came out of the examination and told me that it worked – they managed to retain several quotations, taking inspiration from their surroundings. I did this after a Y11 student told me that she ‘can’t think of anything in the gym. It’s so dull!’ She posed a challenge for me. We all went down to the gym (in the last 5 minutes of the lesson) and they took photos of the place. They actually did this from their seating position in the room.

Nest lesson, we planned how the quotations from one scene would fit with what they could see around them. They then went away and used the technique for the revision of the other texts. It really helped some of them, across a range of abilities.


A couple of pointers:

  • The students who found it most helpful designed their own versions. It seems to be a very personalised thing, working out which object what reminds you of what.
  • This is limited to memorising quotations. They clearly still need to know how to analyse their selections in the examination.
  • I have produced a very minimal version of this for this blog. My students managed many, many more than shown here. Some managed 3 from each scene last year.

Enough from me. I hope it helps. Comments, ideas and areas for development are always welcome.


Paper 1, Question 4: AQA English Language (8700)

I am going to write a series of posts, each one based on a different question in this exam. Each post will start with this introduction (you’re not going mad and reading the same thing twice). I’ll try to get them all out on this site before the end of the Christmas break (2016).

I need to stress at this point that I am not writing this on behalf of AQA, nor are my posts endorsed by them. I am not writing anything that is not already available in the public domain; I’m simply condensing what you can find on their website and in training materials into manageable chunks. I also include some details of what I am doing with this information – but it’s just that; advice from my own professional practice.

Paper 1, Question 4

This question is marked by ‘expert’ examiners (AQA have an explanation of this term here).

The Assessment Objective being assessed here is AO4:

AO4: Evaluate texts critically and support this with appropriate textual references.

You may be interested to know that…

The question structure is formulaic. The question will always give students a line number and it will always be in the second half of the text (‘…to the end’).

The phrase ‘A student said…’ is also fixed.

The 3 bullet points will broadly keep to the structure of:

  • your own impressions…
  • how the writer shows that…
  • support your response…

There is no need for pupils to give a counter argument. You can do away with ‘on one hand I agree with the student, however, it could be argued that…’. They can just decide whether or not they agree and stick to that argument.

@FKRitson has a wealth of resources on her blog for this question(https://alwayslearningweb.wordpress.com/). Look under her index for 11. ‘Slave’ and 4. ‘Betcha by Golly Wow’.

If you want my advice…

This question is asking students to make a judgement. So, I am teaching my students ways to express this coherently. Sentence openers for this are given at the end of the blog.

Students need to show off all of their reading skills: ‘from inference, through analysis to evaluation.'(AQA – 8700-SOV available online).

This question is asking students to consider the impact of a text and therefore they should consider the form and purpose. Remember, ‘structure’ is assessed in Q3 so keep form and structure distinct in your teaching of this. Students need to discuss “the extent to which the writer successfully draws the reader into the world of the text” (AQA – 8700-SOV available online).

Here are some sample responses for you to use:

I’m reluctant to write whole answers out here; there are many ways to structure the answer to this question and I don’t want people to panic because what I’ve produced looks different to the way you’ve taught something. I find starter sentences/key phrases/sample paragraphs useful when teaching GCSE pupils so I’ve produced some here.

I used an extract from ‘Stoner’ for this – you can access it here. A sample question is also on the sheet. extract-from-stoner-by-john-Williams

Each paragraph/section here is intended as a separate sample from different responses. They’re not meant to be perfect but it’s hard to ape a 16 year old’s writing!

I fully agree that William is feeling low – ‘For several minutes …he sat unmoving, staring out before him’ seems to indicate that he is not engaged with what is going on around him. It seems to be typical behaviour of somebody who is downhearted. Additionally, he thinks about ‘students he would never see or know’. This free indirect discourse (or simply ‘this’) gives a strong indication of loneliness, which a reader could reasonably associate with feeling low.

I do not fully agree that William is feeling low. Although there are some indications that he’s not particularly happy, this is not necessarily the same as feeling ‘low’. I believe that he is not interested in university life. He feels detached from the other students. For example, they ‘brushed against him’ – so he has physical contact with them but the writer makes it very clear to the reader that he does not have any emotional connection with them. Also, we are shown the inner confusion felt by William: ‘he felt very distant from them and very close to them’. This is disorientating for the reader because the phrase appears to contradict itself. The writer is drawing the reader into the feelings of the character, who may feel confused by being in such a busy place, yet not knowing anybody. This doesn’t necessarily indicate that he’s low, though.

The writer shows that William is bored by university and being bored all the time could make you feel low. For example, his professor is described as having a ‘droning voice’ and his learning is described as a ‘process of drudgery’. The writer shows that William may be bored with studying, bored with life and bored with other students. This could symbolise a desire to change, therefore going from a sense of feeling ‘low’ to something more positive.

I strongly disagree that…

The writer doesn’t give me the impression that William is low…

The ‘dry rasp of wood’ and ‘roughness’ felt by William may symbolise…

The writer clearly intends for the reader to feel sympathy for William in this part of the book. He uses the weather to indicate that this character is vulnerable – even a ‘thin chill’ can get to him – ‘the thin chill of the late fall day cut through his clothing’. The writer could also be using pathetic fallacy here to indicate that something negative will happen to this man. These could lead us to understand that he is not a happy character at this point in the novel.

That’s it for now. Please share this around and any questions, either ask below or tweet @ladybarkbark. Thanks!


Paper 1, Question 3: AQA English Language (8700)

I am going to write a series of posts, each one based on a different question in this exam. Each post will start with this introduction (you’re not going mad and reading the same thing twice). I’ll try to get them all out on this site before the end of the Christmas break (2016).

I need to stress at this point that I am not writing this on behalf of AQA, nor are my posts endorsed by them. I am not writing anything that is not already available in the public domain; I’m simply condensing what you can find on their website and in training materials into manageable chunks. I also include some details of what I am doing with this information – but it’s just that; advice from my own professional practice.

Paper 1, Question 3

This question is marked by ‘expert’ examiners (AQA have an explanation of this term here).

The Assessment Objective being assessed here is AO2. Now, it’s important that we look closely at this because not all of AO2 is being assessed:

AO2: Explain, comment on and analyse how writers use language and structure to achieve effects and influence readers, using relevant subject terminology to support their views.

Question 3 is only assessing analysis of how the writer has structured a text. It is in question 2 that language analysis is assessed. Just a reminder that ‘structure’ refers to:

  • Whole text: beginnings, endings, perspective shifts
  • Paragraph level: topic change/ aspects of cohesion (in old money – links within and between paragraphs)
  • Sentence level: how the sentence structure contributes to the whole structure.

‘That’s not structure!’ said everybody on Twitter.

There’s discussion over this one. It’s not that I’m not interested but that’s not what this post is for. The bullet points above are what we’ve been given, so this is what I need to focus on here.

Here is some further advice on what sort of things the students can look for:

  • Zooming in from something big to something much smaller (and vice versa).
  • Shifting between different times and places (they may notice this between paragraphs).
  • Sudden or gradual introduction of new characters at significant points.
  • Moving from inside to the wider world outside (and vice versa).
  • Combining external actions with internal thoughts.
  • Switching between different points of view.
  • Developing and reiterating (focusing on a point of view by expanding and repeating it)
  • Cyclical structure (returning at the end to what happened at the beginning)
  • Positioning of key sentences and their impact on the whole text.

You may be interested to know that…

The phrasing of question 3 will ALWAYS include information on the positioning of the extract within the whole text. For example, ‘This text is from the beginning of a novel’. This information has been included for a reason and I am encouraging my students to use it to inform their answers.

@FKRitson has a wealth of resources on her blog for this question(https://alwayslearningweb.wordpress.com/). Look under her index for 11. ‘Slave’ and 4. ‘Betcha by Golly Wow’.

The more sense of the ‘whole text’ that students have, the higher up the mark-scheme they can go.

The bullet points in the question can be fulfilled in any order.

I thought it would help if I wrote a few example phrases and sentence starters –

I’ve used this opening (Treasure Island) as a basis, from the opening of the second paragraph, up to “And that was all we could learn of our guest.”

The text opens with a detailed description of the old seaman- ‘his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails’. This is significant because the writer is establishing the characters and ensuring the reader focuses his/her attention on…

The writer repeats ‘I remember him’ in the opening. This use of anaphora serves to show us how important this character is, because…

As this text is from the beginning of a novel, it is clear that this is going to be an important character. The writer has immediately focused the reader’s attention on…

In the middle of the extract, the writer changes the focus from a physical description of the seaman, to examples of the way he spoke. This shifts the focus of the reader to…

The sentence ‘And that was all we could learn of our guest’ is structurally important because it gives the reader a strong sense of conclusion to the description of the seaman and creates a sense that the character was enigmatic or…

I hope this helps. Any questions, tweet or ask below.