Beyond the ‘Show Sentence’

Back in January, I wrote about a method for improving pupils’ writing, coined as the ‘Show Sentence’. The method was simple: model sentence construction, using synonyms for words that come up often in analytical writing. Instead of ‘Shakespeare uses tricolon to show’, pupils had a number of different options in their armoury, such as highlight, emphasise, underline, imply, reveal, explore, among others.


We supply pupils with academic vocabulary for other parts of the analytical writing process, too. For example, when discussing characters (here, the witches in ‘Macbeth’), pupils were given a large bank of words to use, such as sinister, devilish, satanic, diabolical, fiendish, demonic, abominable, odious, nefarious, malevolent, and so on. Facts on pupils’ knowledge organisers, which were frequently tested and drilled, were used to link their analysis directly to the quotations and Shakespeare’s use of language. Again, they had a number of words available to them to use, e.g. ‘this would have horrified, yet fascinated/ terrified, yet intrigued/ alarmed, yet captivated the Jacobean audience’.


This, combined with a detailed, specified knowledge curriculum, enabled my bottom set year 8 class to write some fantastic sentences. For example:


Shakespeare amalgamates alliteration and chiasmus to reveal the witches’ demonic, satanic characters.


Shakespeare fuses alliteration with repetition and rhyme to demonstrate the malevolent sorcery of the devilish witches who would have horrified, yet fascinated the Jacobean audience. James I was petrified of witchcraft and wrote a book called Demonology in 1597.


Merging chiasmus with alliteration, Shakespeare cleverley implies that the witches are demonic, conniving and fiendish, and perhaps also they are determined to get Macbeth to commit abominable things.


The purpose of this exercise is to attempt to overcome some of the drawbacks of the PEE model. Whilst it is useful for pupils to have an overarching structure, a sequence of questions to respond to, and a number of sentence openers, this doesn’t really get to the heart of what pupils find difficult. Telling the class to start their sentence with ‘This demonstrates….’, is one thing, but many pupils (particularly the weakest) will struggle to know what to say next. A small part of me dies inside every time a kid puts their hand up to ask: “But Miss, what does it actually demonstrate?”.


The Show Sentence approach was designed with precisely this problem in mind. In the past I had assumed that my pupils had all the ideas, but just needed a structure to help them to write it down, but I now believe that it’s about much more than that. Pupils need clearer guidance on exactly what to say, not just how to say it.


This approach enables me to drill pupils in the hardest part of the analytical writing process every single day. I will often start a lesson with a quotation on the board, and ask pupils to annotate it in their books, looking specifically at striking vocabulary and techniques. Once they have done that, I then ask them to write a Show Sentence about the quotation. In the early stages, I need to model and give them guidance, and remind them of the vocabulary they could use, but eventually, they get into the habit and don’t require much help at all. After about 5 minutes or so, every child has written a lovely, analytical sentence about the quotation.


One legitimate challenge people made of the Show Sentence previously was that it would result in 30 identikit sentences, all containing the same words and ideas. Critics argued that the approach would hinder creativity and diversity of interpretation, that pupils were being too heavily spoon-fed and dictated to.


I’ll admit that in the beginning, this is a fairly accurate depiction of what happens, particularly with less able pupils. Over time, however, as they become more confident, they branch out and make it their own. In the early stages, they need this support because they are novices who would otherwise struggle. But in the long run, this is far better for their writing. Creativity in any form is simply the result of a happy union of converging bits of knowledge, and writing is no different.


Drilling pupils in this approach for months on end has really helped to improve their essays. Last week, the same class (now in year 9) wrote an essay on Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Now that they have really embedded their understanding of the Show Sentence, and have automated including academic vocabulary and contextual links, paragraph writing becomes very straightforward.


When asking them to consider how Shylock’s character is developed throughout the play, I tell them to construct their paragraphs in this way:


  1. Write a sentence about Shylock’s characteristics in the scene.
  2. Quotation
  3. Show Sentence including context.
  4. Quotation
  5. Show Sentence including context and/or stagecraft.

Each pupil wrote three paragraphs using this structure, and some also managed to write a conclusion. They all had an hour and a half to write it, with only a page of brief notes to help them.

Whilst they still have a long way to go – particularly in terms of improving their written accuracy- their writing has improved enormously, and whilst there are some things that many essays have in common, no two essays are identical. Below are a few extracts from some of their essays.

essay-1 essay-2 essay-3 essay-4


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CPD for Knowledge Fans

CPD has the potential to be the stuff of nightmares. At the end of a long day, the last thing I would choose to do is spend an hour sitting around discussing questioning strategies for closing the pupil premium gap, or messing about with Bloom’s Taxonomy card sorts, or worse– trawling through reams of data. Utterly soul-destroying stuff.


Since joining Michaela, I have not had to sit through anything close to this. In the English department, our CPD is focused around improving our subject knowledge. Under the guidance of our exceptional Head of English, Jo Facer, I have learned lots about the texts we teach, which has dramatically improved my teaching. Here are three things we do as a department to improve our subject knowledge.


  1. Annotation


We meet each week for an hour to discuss our upcoming lessons (which have been planned and resourced in advance). We all arrive to the meeting with the lesson content (poems/ book chapters/ grammar exercises, etc.) pre-annotated so that we have lots to discuss. Jo leads the meeting, and she goes through a few key points that need to be drawn out, focused on or developed in the lesson. We then branch out into a discussion about some of the texts, sometimes driven by our particular specialisms or interests. The aim is to deepen our understanding of the content. We all add to our annotations as the discussion progresses, building on each other’s points. Another aim is to consider possible misconceptions and alert our attention to things that pupils may struggle with. For example, Jo might point out some ambiguous vocabulary, or clarify, ‘make sure they don’t get x confused with y here’. It’s really, really useful, and it means that every teacher in the department spends a lot of time thinking deeply about the content.



  1. Memorisation


At Michaela, pupils carry out memorisation for homework every night. The aim of this is for every child to learn the most crucial knowledge to automaticity. Teachers at Michaela also work hard to memorise the same knowledge by heart. I’ve found this tremendously useful. If I find my class packed up, standing behind their chairs a few minutes before the bell, I can quickly quiz them on a few things without having to scramble around and look for a sheet of paper. It also means that I know what they know, down to the precise definition they have been taught for each concept. I have found that having a shared language for such things to be invaluable.


We also learn quotations and poetry off by heart. Again, it’s lovely to be able to refer to this shared language regularly with kids. For example, I often say things like ‘Come on, team, we need to fill the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds worth of distance run!’ or ‘You are the master of your fate and the captain of your soul! Don’t let yourself down!’


We sometimes have knowledge tests in our weekly English meetings, which is good because it holds me to account! When there are a million things to do, learning Macbeth quotes might slip down the priority list; knowing you’ll be tested on it in a week’s time is a good motivator!


  1. Reading


Of course, relying on the above is not enough. Teachers should always be a long way ahead of their pupils in terms of subject knowledge. As a non-English graduate, I feel particularly paranoid about this from time to time. This is another area in which Jo Facer and Joe Kirby have been brilliantly supportive and helpful: they have recommended various books and articles for each unit we teach, and in some cases, have furnished us with helpful abridgements! All of this has really helped to enrich my understanding of the curriculum.




If you want teachers to teach knowledge, then shaping CPD around the content they will be teaching is a good place to start. Of course, this isn’t going to help teachers get better at managing behaviour, nor will it directly improve their pedagogy, but it does help to focus their minds on their subjects. Sadly, subject knowledge gets pushed to the sidelines in many schools, often because of pressures surrounding data or exams or moderation, etc., and whilst those things are important, they shouldn’t eclipse our subjects, because our subjects, after all, are what we are here to teach.


How to Overcome The Curse of Knowledge

On a recent trip to my Nan’s, I was asked once again to fix her iPad. She was unable to watch something on “that BBC button” and was quite distressed about it. In exchange for several cups of milky tea and a Tunnock’s Teacake, I did my best to solve the problem.

“Well what’s wrong wit’ bloody thing then?”

“Right. Looks like your wifi’s stopped working and the app hasn’t downloaded properly.”

Befuddlement ensued. I did my best to explain what ‘wifi’, ‘app’ and ‘downloaded’ meant before trying to explain what had gone wrong without using those terms. My Nan was still confused, so she just left me to it in a sort of “I don’t care as long as it’s fixed” way.

It struck me that I possess a lot of knowledge about the internet, apps, etc. that my Nan does not. It was very difficult for her to understand exactly what I meant, never mind attempt to resolve the issue herself, because she lacks the basic knowledge that I have.

This often happens in classrooms and is a phenomenon Steven Pinker terms ‘The Curse of Knowledge’. It means that experts often underestimate the amount of knowledge required to access new information. As has oft been said before, teachers can underestimate their own knowledge, and overestimate their pupils’ knowledge.

For example, when teaching something as seemingly straightforward as the humble apostrophe, we can underestimate the amount of knowledge required to really understand it. In order to use an apostrophe correctly, pupils need to understand five complex, overlapping rules:

  1. Singular and plural nouns not ending in ‘s’: show possession by adding apostrophe s.

E.g. Tom’s book, Ali’s table, the children’s room.

  1. Singular and plural nouns ending in ‘s’: show possession by adding an apostrophe (and sometimes an extra ‘s’ at the end).

E.g. Ross’s house, The foxes’ den, Elephants’ tusks. In order to understand this, pupils need to know the difference between singular and plural, and how to form plurals from singular nouns.

  1. Plural nouns that don’t possess anything do not require an apostrophe.

Sometimes pupils write things like this: ‘I have two apple’s’ because they have misunderstood the relationship between subjects, verbs and objects, and have formed a misconception about how possession works. This is something that needs to be addressed when teaching the apostrophe, either through teaching it correctly in the first place, or confronting embedded misconceptions.

  1. Pronouns of possession do not require an apostrophe.

Common mistakes with this one include: Our’s is really nice, I want her’s, the pencil is your’s. This happens because, again, pupils have formed a misconception about possession. This usually also indicates that they don’t really understand that pronouns replace nouns, but not always.

  1. Contracted verbs/nouns: show omission by adding an apostrophe in place of the missing letters.

E.g. I don’t know, we won’t go, they’re out ‘n’ about.


And don’t even get me started on the difference between ‘its’ and ‘it’s’….!


The knowledge required to understand these rules is vast, and because experts are susceptible to the curse of their own knowledge, underestimating what they know and overestimating what pupils know, they sometimes fail to recognise just how hard it is to learn new, complex things. As a result, pupils end up confused and unable to understand and apply the thing you want them to learn.

Possible ways to overcome The Curse of Knowledge

At Michaela, we are working hard to overcome this. Here are some strategies for getting past the curse of our knowledge.

  1. Curriculum Sequencing

Joe Kirby’s post on curriculum design is well worth revisiting. A good curriculum takes knowledge into account, and prioritises teaching the concepts that pupils need to know in order to access new information. For example, it is far easier to learn how to subtract if you can count, so you wouldn’t teach subtraction before counting. The same applies for complex processes such as literary analysis. You can’t analyse a text unless you know things about it. You can’t write an essay until you know how to write a sentence, and so on.

  1. Knowledge Organisers

Looking at a unit as a whole, identify the 20% of content that will have 80% impact on pupils’ understanding. In an English literature unit on Shakespeare, for example, that might be key quotations, poetic and rhetorical techniques, plot, themes and a list of characters. If pupils learn this knowledge to automaticity, it will help them with more complex tasks later. Prioritise this knowledge at the start of the unit and refer back to it again and again until they have mastered it and are able to apply it flexibly.


  1. Drilling

Drilling the basics helps to free up space in working memory for more complex processes. For example, when writing an essay, pupils have got a lot to hold in their minds at once: grammar, spelling, punctuation, plot, themes, characters, quotations, links, paragraph structure, vocabulary, and so on. It’s overwhelming at the best of times, but helping pupils to automate many of the underpinning basics frees up thinking space. Experts can write grammatically accurate sentences without even thinking, weaving in interesting ideas and vocabulary with little thought. This is incredibly hard work for someone who has not automated the underpinning basics. At Michaela, we support pupils to automate the fundamentals by drilling them daily in quotations, grammar and knowledge. When it comes to essay writing time, they stand a much better chance of being able to get to grips with the complex ideas they want to express.



If Michaela sounds like somewhere you’d like to work, get in touch! We are currently looking for teachers of History and Science. More information here:


Personalised Learning Harms Children

Here is a transcript of the speech I gave at the Michaela Debate at City Hall yesterday. I was debating the brilliant Tom Sherrington on the subject of personalised learning. Here is where videos of the debates will be posted in a few weeks’ time.



I want to begin today by telling you a story about a boy called Jason.

About a year ago, a file landed on my desk. It was huge. About the size of a rucksack. It contained hundreds of pieces of paper about Jason: a boy who was due to start at Michaela that September. As I waded through all the documentation I thought: ‘crikey, we’re going to have our work cut out with this one!’

The list of needs was long and boggling. Weak social skills. Low reading and spelling scores. Low maths scores. Weak writing skills. Low confidence. Low self-esteem. Poor social awareness. Poor self-control. Poor concentration. Poor behaviour.


Poor Jason.


The list of support mechanisms was even longer: a personalised curriculum that was heavily differentiated, differentiated vocabulary, different methods of recording his learning, targeted questioning, an individually designed literacy and numeracy programme, speech and language support… the list seemed endless.


A few weeks later, I went to visit him at his primary school.

“Jason” his teacher said “is very different to other children. He is a very unique boy and therefore requires a very unique approach.”

She told me that Jason was not a happy boy and that his self-esteem was through the floor.

He struggled academically.

He was poorly behaved, lacked focus and concentration.

He struggled to remember things.

He was perpetually frustrated.

He lost his temper easily.

He had few friends.


The conversation went on. She explained how she gives him different tasks and delivers lessons in diverse ways to suit his needs. She needs to go at a slower pace, otherwise, he won’t stay focused. She needs to plan strategically to fill in the precise gaps in his knowledge. Everything had to be highly personalised in order to help him learn.

Jason requires a very unique approach because Jason is a very unique boy.


In my head I compared Jason briefly to some of the other kids I teach. Kids like Emily who didn’t know what a triangle was when she started. Kids like Tyson who couldn’t sit still at first. Kids like Mohammad who didn’t learn the alphabet until year 5. All of them have various issues, granted, but Jason was by no means ‘weaker’ than any of these kids, nor was he any less capable than they were of meeting our standards.


We don’t offer those children a ‘highly personalised’ approach because, even though they are unique people, they are not unique in terms of how they learn.


And I suspected that Jason was the same.


Personalised learning harms children like Jason because it is premised on the idea that every child learns differently. This leads to a multitude of different activities that aim to suit the child’s needs, but often overlook tasks that best suit the content being taught. For example, when teaching a novel, I might be tempted to give children different extracts according to their reading ability, or give the Jasons of the world a vocabulary bank to support them with the reading. I might ask them to read their extracts in groups or pairs and get them to look up words in the dictionary. But at Michaela, we choose not to do that. Instead, we choose to read the whole text together as a class, reading along line by line with a ruler, stopping to annotate new or unfamiliar vocabulary and practise new pronunciations as we go. In Michaela lessons, everybody reads and everybody writes. That’s it. This is guided by the teacher – the subject expert, and pupils are expected to keep up.


Personalised Learning harms children like Jason because it lowers our expectations and prevents us from really believing that they can achieve.

There’s no escaping the fact that personalised learning necessarily requires creating different resources and teaching children in different ways. Not only is this inefficient and a huge burden on teacher time, and the weakest children miss out on the benefits of quality whole class instruction, but it is a clear statement that children like Jason are unable to access the same work as other children.

Knowing that a child has a need of any variety subtly skews our view of them. Somewhere deep down, we think ‘well, that kid has x need, so he/she will struggle’. Some of you may be sitting here thinking ‘well I wouldn’t think that’, but we need to accept the fact that labels inevitably colour our view of the child. And our entire system is set up to encourage this. Ofsted inspectors and SLTs demand colour-coded, differentiated seating plans demonstrating exactly how we intend to personalise the lesson for the pupil premium kids, the dyslexic kids, the kids with behavioural issues, and so on. But this is harmful! It is harmful because it damages our expectations and prevents us from believing that every child really can achieve.

At Michaela, we believe that everyone can do it. We believe that all children can access the same content if the teacher’s explanations and examples are good. CPD revolves around building teacher knowledge and determining optimal teaching sequences and concept explanations. And it works! Last year, our year 7 cohort made an average of 20 months progress in reading in just 10 months. The average pupil made 5 sublevels of progress in English and Maths, and pupils with special needs made 6. I promise you- nothing was ever personalised for these kids. Not Jason, not Emily, not Tyson, not Mohammed, not anyone.

In fact, the reason we achieved those results is precisely because we didn’t personalise learning at all! Instead, we prioritised whole class instruction where everybody reads and everybody writes.

Finally, Personalised Learning harms children like Jason because it lowers the expectations they have of themselves.

After all, if we don’t believe that they can achieve the same as their peers, then why should they?

Giving children personalised targets puts a ceiling on their expectations of themselves. Whether it’s “I need to work on sitting still” or “I need to work on analysing language in more detail”, the kid thinks that that is what they should focus on that lesson. And learning targets, just like any targets in life, are damaging because they are all we end up aiming for. It puts a ceiling on children’s expectations of themselves.


Since joining us in September, Jason has flourished. In his lessons, his teachers do not personalise his targets, set him different tasks, or record his learning in different ways. Instead, he gets consistently high quality, well-planned and delivered whole class instruction in a highly-structured, focused environment. He works at the same pace as everyone else in the class.

He works at the same pace as everyone else in the class because actually, he isn’t that different to everyone else. Lots of his peers found the same things difficult that he found difficult. He made the same mistakes as everyone else and got confused when everyone else got confused. Because that’s how learning works: our minds aren’t so different, but if the content itself isn’t presented to us in the right way, we stand less chance of understanding it. Get the instruction right, and everyone can learn.

And Jason has learned a lot this year. His reading age has improved by over 2 years. His behaviour has transformed. Where he used to lose his temper easily and end up in trouble often, he is now calm, focused and polite. He has made friends and earns lots of merits each week. He proudly wears a merit badge on his blazer for landing in the top 20 in the year group.


Sure, some pupils may require a little extra time to really digest new stuff, but they don’t need different approaches because they are somehow more unique than other children, or learn in a different way to other children.


We have mistakenly premised our entire system around the idea that each child is unique, when in fact they are not unique in terms of how they think or learn. Jason was far behind his peers, but that does not necessarily mean that he needs a personalised approach in order to make progress.


And yes, it was hard for him at first. He did struggle from time to time. But isn’t struggle a good thing when you’re learning? Isn’t struggle something we should expose kids to from time to time, to help build their resilience? Isn’t that how we learn to persist when the going gets tough? Doesn’t it make us feel even more proud of our achievements if we have to struggle to reach them?


Jason struggled at first, but he persisted, and consequently flourished.


Ladies and gentlemen, I know that before today, many of you voted against this motion, thinking that personalised learning doesn’t harm children. And intuitively it does seem like it’s a bit unreasonable to suggest that personalised learning is ‘harmful’. But I ask you to think again and in particular, to think of Jason. Is it unreasonable to ask that every child is given the same access to the same curriculum at the same pace with the same high quality teaching? Is it unreasonable to ask that every child is pushed as far as possible every single lesson, every single day? Is it unreasonable to want the best for every child, to believe that every child can achieve?


Every child can achieve, but it is precisely because we personalise learning that many in fact don’t.

Every child can achieve, but the cult of personalised learning tricks us into believing that some children are less capable than they really are.

Every child can achieve, and it is precisely because the system says that personalising learning makes things better that we actually make things worse.


Ladies and Gentlemen, personalised learning harms children because it reduces our expectations, it reduces their expectations, and most importantly, it reduces their outcomes.



How can we get kids to read widely?

Getting kids to love reading is difficult at the best of times. Reading is hard, particularly for children who, for whatever reason, aren’t exposed to new language or reading in the early years. By the time they arrive in secondary school, many reluctant readers hate books: they see reading as dull, pointless and arduous.


One way round this is to give reluctant readers books that appeal to their interests, or are relevant to their lives. The view tends to be that so long as children are reading something, then it doesn’t really matter what it is that they are reading. In lots of schools, this means that ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’, ‘Guinness Book of World Records’ and ‘The Story of Tracy Beaker’ are the most popular titles.


This is something I have gone back and forth on over the last few years. On the one hand, we do want children to enjoy reading, and starting them on books they like seems to be a good way to do that. But I’ve always wondered what happens next? I’ve seen kids get into ‘Wimpy Kid’ and ‘Tracy Beaker’, but struggle to transfer that to other books that might be more challenging or different.


Ultimately, it is really important that children read as broadly as possible. Reading is one of the primary mechanisms we have for learning new things, and if we don’t promote wide reading in school, it is less likely that children will become wide readers in adulthood. So whilst I do think that children should be allowed to read books they like (obviously), I want to make sure that this doesn’t limit the breadth of their reading. At Michaela, we have several programmes in place to support children to read as broadly as possible.


Class Readers


At Michaela, we believe that reading is all about habit. For that reason, we read every day with every pupil. Our class reading programme is designed to give even the least able readers daily access to great works of literature. Books are carefully sequenced, and all titles have been chosen precisely because they aren’t the kinds of things that pupils would typically read on their own. We believe that reading with an adult is a powerful way to get through books that are difficult or out of kids’ comfort zones. When the class reads together, the teacher can pause and explain difficult vocabulary and concepts, and can ask questions to check for understanding.


These books – titles such as ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, ‘Silas Marner’ and ‘A Christmas Carol’ don’t tend to fly off the shelves in our school library, but pupils read them in class and, with the support of their teacher- get a lot out of them and end up really enjoying them. They may have enjoyed them had they read them alone, but it’s unlikely they’d pick them up in the first place! Class reading is a way to broaden pupils’ reading by pushing them out of their comfort zones.


Reading Club


Our least able readers stay for 30 minutes after school every day for Reading Club. Jo Facer, our wonderful Head of English, has created a brilliant sequence of Reading Club books. These books are more pupil-friendly, with titles that are a sort of halfway house between ‘classics’ and the books they’d pick up on their own anyway. They tear through ‘The Red Pony’, ‘Farenheit 451’, ‘The Woman in Black’ and many others. Again, these books are challenging for the least able readers, but with the support of their teachers, are made more accessible. Importantly, this means that the least able readers in the school are reading the most books with adults, and are reading even more broadly than other pupils.


Friday Reads


Jo Facer came up with this brilliant idea. We found that lots of pupils (of all abilities) were struggling to choose books from the library. Jo suggested that we recommend our classes one book every Friday. These are from all sorts of genres and appeal to a wide variety of interests. So far, we’ve had ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’, ‘My Sister’s Keeper’, ‘Gone Girl’ and many others. We hold the book up, talk about it a bit, and then it goes in the library. At lunchtime, loads of kids turn up to grab one of the coveted ‘Friday Read’ books.


Team Reads


Following the Class Reader theme, we have lots of full class sets of books in the library that pupils can take out together and read in groups. These are called ‘Team Reads’. These are a mixture of classics and modern novels, and pupils are welcome to come in to the library at lunchtime and read them together, or take them home to read and discuss. If you’re stuck for resources on this one, check out the Penguin Classics offer for schools– you can get loads of books for a relatively low sum.


Personal Reading


Finally, our pupils are all expected to have a library book with them every day. They read this in silence in morning tutor time and at home in the evenings. This gives kids the flexibility to choose anything they want to read. Interestingly, pupils often choose books related to the topics they are studying in lessons. So we see lots of kids reading about Ancient Egypt or Astronomy, for example. ‘Tracy Beaker’ is still popular, but lots of our pupils challenge themselves to read more widely and push themselves out of their comfort zones.




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How can we help the weakest catch up?

“So let me get this straight: we’re behind the rest of our class and we’re going to catch up to them by going slower than they are?”- Bart Simpson


Our instinct is often to assume that a kid with a reading age of 7 couldn’t possibly be asked to sit and read a Dickens chapter in class for an hour.  So rather than cruelly forcing them to do so, we might perhaps choose to watch a film clip and draw a storyboard instead. On the surface, this seems entirely legitimate and reasonable. After all, pupils cannot be expected to run before they can walk. But this is where I think we have been going wrong with the weakest pupils for a long time. Our good and caring intentions have unwittingly lowered the bar for the pupils who struggle the most. By reducing the expectations we have of their behaviour and output in lessons, we limit them from ever being able to achieve the best possible outcomes. Weak pupils will simply never catch up if they are rarely exposed to truly challenging tasks and aren’t pushed to meet the demands of an academically rigorous curriculum.


The weakest pupils need more focus, more rigour and more practice if they are to stand any chance of catching up with their peers.


  1. More Focus


For some reason, we don’t expect weak kids to behave as well as we expect top set kids to behave. 7.1 may be a dream to teach, but why, in the same school with the same teacher, are 10.8 a complete nightmare? Bottom set kids are doubly disadvantaged: not only do they come in knowing the least; their lessons are often the most disrupted. They need to spend the maximum amount of time in lessons listening to the teacher, following rules and working hard, yet often they are surrounded by chaos.


Think about the precious minutes that are melting away whilst the weakest pupils sit in a chaotic classroom. Think of all the things they could learn during that time if they were actually listening. School leaders must do everything in their power to ensure that every child has the opportunity to learn from their teacher every single lesson.



  1. More Rigour


When pupils find extended reading and writing difficult, there is a temptation to reduce the rigour in the content and tasks they are asked to do. It’s tough to give a kid with a reading age of 7 a full page of text to wade through, but surely it is better for them to struggle and come out the other side than to never even attempt such tasks. Again, we feel like it might be cruel to expect a bottom set pupil to sit and read a challenging text for an hour, but isn’t it crueller never to give them the chance? Reading texts in lessons with weak pupils is tough, but it isn’t impossible. If they get into the habit of doing it every lesson- perhaps, even across subjects- they will get better at it and will feel successful.


  1. More Practice


If a child has a reading age of 7 and cannot spell, they need to spend the bulk of their time in lessons reading and writing. They are literally years behind where they should be, and we simply do not have a moment to spare. Every planning decision we make gives us a choice: spend time doing things they can already do (drawing a story board), or spend time developing skills they desperately need to master if they are going to stand a chance of being successful in the future.


We must also remember that pupils only spend around 25 hours per week in lessons. This time is so precious. With such limited exposure to teachers and their expertise, we should strive to make the most of every second they have. They can watch films, make posters, do a bit of drawing and chat to their mates at home. They can’t work out how to solve quadratic equations or read and understand a Dickens novel without the support of a subject expert.




The weakest kids have the biggest mountain to climb. With the support of their teachers, a rigorous curriculum, meaningful lesson activities and focused behaviour in lessons, they stand the best possible chance of reaching their potential.




If you found yourself nodding along in agreement with this post, why not apply to work with us at Michaela? We’re hiring English, Humanities and Science teachers. More information here:

Women: Know Your Limits.

Growing up, I was fortunate enough not to have to worry about gender inequality. As far as I was concerned, I could run just as fast, shout just as loud, and be just as smart as my brother or any of the boys I knew at school. My dad was a Judo coach, so from about the age of 8 I spent weekday evenings throwing boys twice my size around a hall in the local community centre. Of course I had heard about gender inequality, but I saw it as a thing of the past. From my perspective, the women  who fought for women’s rights had given me the chance not to have to do the same for myself. Through their chastisement of the status quo, I was liberated from the limits that had been imposed on them for millennia, and for that I was grateful.


Over the last few years, as I creep steadily towards my 30s, a few things have helped me to see that perhaps I was naïve to believe that women were unquestionably equal to men. The usual stuff kept cropping up: woman are ‘emotional’ and ‘bossy’, must be married with kids before 35, should weigh no more than 8 stone, and should spend more money on hair cuts than rent to avoid being considered a slob. Bla bla bla. But I was most shocked when, recently, at an event hosted by an older man, I sat myself between two guys I know well and respect deeply; the host engaged sincerely with them, shifting his eyes from the man on my left to the man on my right, and yet overlooked me completely. I was more than a little annoyed. My inner Judoka wanted to leap up and thrash him to the floor in the names of feminism and good manners. Of course, I didn’t. I sat there politely and nodded along, trying occasionally to squeeze a word in or earn a second of his focus, to little avail. His loss. I’m great.


Explaining these lurking concerns to a devout feminist acquaintance, she declared: “Yes, Katie. Welcome to the Patriarchy!” She’s right. The Patriarchy does exist and it is terrible that women aren’t as equal as they ought to be. But I fear that looking at the world through this lens is problematic. I fear that too much acknowledgment of ‘the patriarchy’, and all the evils that go with it, renders women less powerful. In doing so, we place subtle, damaging limits upon ourselves, and I am not about to let that happen to me.


Maybe it wasn’t because I’m female that the host was rude. Maybe he was just rude! Maybe he didn’t like me because he disagreed with something I wrote in a blog once. Maybe I’d accidentally said something that annoyed him. Maybe he thought I was an arrogant idiot (a fair assumption). I’ll never know the truth, but by instantly jumping to the conclusion that his rudeness was a response to my gender, I actually did myself a disservice. Gender inequality isn’t the answer to all of life’s woes. I blamed abstract ideas – ‘society’, ‘the patriarchy’, ‘misogyny’. Ideas are easy to blame, but very difficult to change if they come to define us. It’s like we are all standing around pointing to a massive neon sign saying ‘PATRIARCHY’, giving it more credit than it deserves. By viewing the world through this prism, we subtly impose further limits on ourselves.


I may be great, but I cannot control the minds of others. I cannot control their thoughts, their prejudices, their attitudes, their ignorance. I cannot change history, either. Yes, men have had the power since time immemorial, but I cannot change that. Focusing on the fact that this is unfair won’t change it either. It’s a huge leviathan composed of an infinite number of moving parts. It’s extremely hard to pin down. Focusing on it too much risks removing women of their agency and ability to overcome the lingering barriers that society will inevitably present.


So I urge women not to allow the problems in society to limit them, but instead to move beyond them. So the next time someone says something that triggers your inner feminist, don’t allow that thought to limit you. Overcome it. Realise that you cannot change what is not within your control. Carry on as you would have, had misogyny never existed. Be brilliant, and work to improve the things about you that you can control. There are things that all of us need to work on, but don’t let gender inequality posses you. Know the limits that lie within, and ignore the limits that lie beyond, and perhaps one day the apparent need for ‘Feminism’ will cease to exist.