Twenty years of teaching…

I saw this advert today and it made me think of how things have changed in over twenty years of teaching (it’s 22 years since I completed my PGCSE but who’s counting?)  When I entered teaching there was little accountability and consequently teachers didn’t deal with data at all, no predictions, no targets, and no four levels of progress.

So what else has changed in twenty-two years of teaching?


I was fortunate to get a ‘golden hello’ for training to teach balanced science (which paid for me to buy a PC to play Doom on!)  There was strong competition for science teaching posts, quite the opposite of what we see now, although even then the biologists outnumbered the physicists and chemists.

Teaching styles.

When I entered teaching expectations of both teachers and learners were significantly different to those we have now.  I remember a lesson I taught during my PGCE where one of my mentors praised some notes that my students copied off the board.  Fast forward over twenty years and teaching methods have moved on to the point that copying notes has been left firmly in the past.  Instead, there is an expectation that students work as independently as possible with ALL students making progress.  There is far more attention paid to how students learn and to the sharing of strategies and new ideas.


The National Curriculum tests were the worry of every year 9 teacher, would you get the right students to level 5 (and would they go on to get a C!)  When I started teaching we gave predicted grades at A-level but GCSEs were prediction free.  Students didn’t have targets and they, and not the school or teachers, were held accountable for success/failure.  I’m sure many students didn’t reach their potential but at the same time schools weren’t judged or compared based on their GCSE success.


I remember my first inspection in 2001.  We had six weeks notice so were able to plan for the inspection (my lesson plans were written weeks before the inspection) and inspectors were in school for the whole week. Many more lessons were observed and the system was far less streamlined than now (the reports were extremely lengthy and reported on individual subjects as well as the school).


School funding has been through numerous cycles of boom and bust.  When we had a Labour government there was plenty of cash but much was spent on the National Strategies with questionable impact. Conservative governments always seem to cut fundings and salary increases have always been kept to a minimum.  Salaries haven’t increased an awful lot whilst teachers pension contributions continued to increase whilst the pay freeze was in effect.


I remember teaching a student nearly twenty years ago who kept forgetting his swimming kit. Threats were ineffective so a girl’s swimming costume was found for him to wear instead.  Unfortunately, it didn’t have the desired effect (he loved the attention) but attitudes have changed for the better in the meantime.  We are now more inclusive and equality a feature of most schools but the existence of schemes like Stonewall School Champions would suggest they have a way to go.


There have been so many changes – social media, the rise and fall of the GTC, and several iterations of the National Curriculum.  Teaching may have been more fun years ago, but I prefer the professionalism that we have now.

What changes do you remember over the last 20 years?


Book review: Specific Learning Difficulties – What Teachers Need to Know by Diana Hudson (2015)

I came across this book at an ASE event as it was part of their book sales. A quick flick through told me I needed to have a better look so I blew my Amazon Prime no-rush credits (if you have Amazon Prime you’ll know what these are!) and bought the Kindle edition.

I was very nearly put off the book as the first chapters talk about being right and left brained, and about VAK.  For those of you who don’t read around, these theories have been discredited and put out to pasture.  (This would be a good time to plug the excellent Naked Scientists podcast again who have an excellent piece on this myth here)

If you skim over the dodgy neuroscience in the first chapters you get the nuggets of gold that are useful to the mainstream classroom teacher. The book goes through a variety of specific learning difficulties and identifies the traits of each one, and strategies that the teacher can put into place.  Experienced teachers (especially those of us who work in the SEND sector) are likely to be familiar with most of the information in this book but it does serve as a useful refresher with the information in one place.

Should you buy this book?  It isn’t a science book and is useful for teachers of all subjects (although it has a stronger secondary bias than primary). If you want to know more about the specific learning difficulties covered in this book (e.g. dyslexia, ADHD, ASD) then it might be worth picking up a copy, similarly, if you want a handy reference guide (PGCE tutor) then this could be for you.

The book is £9.50 for a paperback copy for members from the ASE bookshop (I know a lot of my followers are members).  If you aren’t an ASE member then the book is currently £11.40 from Amazon (£8.96 on Kindle)

There’s also an interview with the author here.



Getting SEN learners to reach their potential at GCSE – spaced learning?

This year I’ve struggled with GCSE additional science.  My students have lapped up the content, they’ve answered exam questions at the end of each lesson but they’ve really struggled to remember the sheer range of information they are expected to recall when we reached the end of the course.

I was talking to a senior leader from another academy within our MAT (I’m so grateful we have a sharing and collaborative ethos) and she was talking about spaced learning.  As an experienced special school teacher I know the value of repetition (or repetition, repetition, repetition as we call it) but I have never read any research on the subject.

That’s when I remembered that one of the perks of being a member of the Chartered College of Teaching is access to research journals (and to be honest it is the first time I’ve found my membership of the Chartered College useful!).  A quick search through my email account and I was online searching for research papers, something I haven’t really done since my student days.  Interesting papers were downloaded as PDF files, thrown into Evern0te and annotated – I wish I’d had that facility when I was an undergraduate…

A quick search of research papers, Google and Twitter tells me that I’m a little late to this party.  There is plenty of scientific evidence to suggest that spaced learning works but not a lot to tell me what would work best with my students who all have SEND.

So what did I learn from my reading that would be useful in my setting?

Effects from spaced learning appear to be persistent across all stages of development (Vlach & Sandhofer 2012) and it can be seen in other species too (handy for some of my groups!) – I should have realised this from my dog training.

Those participants who used a toolbox or scaffold to model the key concepts do better than those who have free study time (important if you are setting homework tasks!) – Egan 2012

The spaces between learning activities could be as little as ten minutes (Vaz 2014) and as much as days (Bergey 2014) or weeks (Lockyer 2017)

Three lots of stimulation (learning) is enough to significantly strengthen a synapse and lead to increased recall (Vaz 2014) and this technique could have benefits for learners with ADHD as students are more engaged, although I would love to see more detailed research on this to determine the reason, if one exists (Vaz 2014)

Final thoughts

Nearly every paper confirmed there are benefits in recall from spaced learning  The difficulty for me as a teacher is having enough time to build this approach into my teaching.  I have to teach an entire GCSE (including mandatory practicals) in a year and finish teaching this course sufficiently early to revise with my learners (who won’t or can’t revise at home/independently).

Of course I won’t need as much revision time at the end of the course if spaced learning has the desired effects but it still makes delivery tight.

I have two double lessons of 100 minutes each and once we have enough content to revisit, I intend to dedicate 30 minutes a week to revision (spaced learning – recap) which students will complete in a separate book. I don’t know how successful this will be but I will feed back later in the year.

I would also love to hear from anyone who has built spaced learning into their science curriculum and what the activities, timings etc look like. Please comment below.


Bergey, B.W., Cromley J.G., Kirchgessner, M.L. & Newcombe, N.S. (2014) Using diagrams versus text for spaced restudy: Effects on learning in 10th grade biology classes, The British Journal of Educational Psychology, 85, 59-74

Egan, R. (2012) Understanding the effects of different study methods on retention of information and transfer of learning, Electronic Journal of Research in Educational Psychology 10(2) 659-672

Lockyer, S. (2017) Spaced Learning: The final frontier in revision. Impact, Interim Issue

Vaz, A.C. (2014) Spaced Learning: Making space for neuroscience in te classroom, e-TEALS: An e-journal of Teacher Education and Applied Language Studies, 5, 1-17

Vlach, H. & Sandhofer, C.M. (2012). Distributing learning over time: The spacing effect in children’s acquisition and generalization of science concepts Child Development, 83, 1137-1144

The frustration that comes with the wrong assessment method

I’ve mentioned before that I train with a dog group.  The class is divided into classes from one to four, with dogs moving up a class when they are proficient and pass a test.

My dog has special needs and is extremely nervous around strangers, to the point she runs away from people she doesn’t know.  She’s reached the point where she is comfortable training with the people in my class but there are still a lot of strangers at training in the other classes.

Jasmine has demonstrated mastery of all the skills required to move to the next class and this has been observed by several of the trainers. Unfortunately, the club rules state she has to take a practical test which is observed by a trainer from the club.  Jasmine has what can only be described as a phobia of the lead trainer and so has panic attacks and runs away from him.

I’ve complained about the assessment method but the compromise put in place was only a minor change with the instructor stood a few feet further away.  Consequently, Jasmine is destined to fail each and every test that she takes.

So why am I writing about it here?  The feelings of frustration at being forced into an assessment method that doesn’t suit.  The feelings of failure when you can jump through what seem like impossible hoops. The feeling of experiencing an examination system that sets you up to fail. These are the feelings that my students have every day and after my experiences today I have a little more empathy with them.

Fortunately, I’m in a position where I can walk away from the training club (that’s my intention), but my students aren’t so lucky.  Spare a thought to your students with special needs and consider their needs and feelings at this time of year as they enter into a process from which they will come out emotionally battered and bruised, feeling like a failure.

The importance of the curriculum – thank you Amanda Spielman

Last week the new Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman spoke at the ASCL conference.  She was setting out her stall as one of the most influential leaders in the world of education, and she told the conference of school leaders “Vitally important though a school’s examination results are, we must not allow curricula to be driven just by SATs, GCSEs and A levels. It is the substance of education that ultimately creates and changes life chances, not grade stickers from exams.

She also told her audience “I am determined to make sure that the curriculum receives the proper focus it deserves.

It’s hard to point the finger of blame at school leaders who, anxious to avoid being labelled coasting schools, have done everything they can to boost their progress 8 scores and EBacc results.  Fortunately, the governors at my school had the foresight to put the needs of the individual first when we built our curriculum so we aren’t pushing students through inappropriate exams to boost our school results.

Last week  I attended some CPD with the Institute of Physics discussing how to encourage more girls to follow a STEM career.  Whilst the advice they were giving wasn’t anything that you won’t have heard before it does make you appreciate the effect that teachers and the curriculum have on the long-term life chances of our students, regardless of phase or socioeconomic background.   Much of the language we use in class and the way we run our lessons could potentially have long-term implications for our learners (Stonewall give similar messages about gender neutrality which can influence attitudes from a very early age)

A fortnight ago I was part of a discussion with the 11-19 committee at the ASE talking about combined science vs triple science.  The options path decided at the end of KS3 (year 8 now in many schools) can determine, for better or worse, the life chances of students who may either choose or be guided towards an option that isn’t appropriate for them.  This decision could be made on experience in previous lessons (bringing us back to the message from the IoP) or could this choice could be restricted based on a flawed assessment system at KS3.    Those of you interested in the combined vs triple debate will be interested to read this article on education datalab.

My point is that the curriculum you offer, whether it be at departmental level or at a whole school level, will have long-lasting repercussions for your students and it is important you’ve got it right.  For this reason I commend Amanda Spielman for the tone she has set as she takes up the mantle of Chief Inspector and look forward to seeing the discussion about the curriculum develop as she continues in office.