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:


The ‘Show Sentence’

The Michaela approach to writing about literature involves building up sentences by combining pupils’ knowledge of poetic, theatrical and rhetorical techniques with memorised quotations, memorised facts and academic vocabulary. Through lots of guidance, we are able to elicit some pretty good sentences from the class, before letting them loose to write their own. I call this a ‘Show Sentence’. I do these pretty much every lesson so they get plenty of writing practice.


Below is a demonstration of this approach in action in a lesson. To provide a context, this would take place after they have read, discussed and annotated the text, and have memorised key quotations. I would most likely be scribbling this on the whiteboard as they go.


Year 8 (lowest set) Lesson: Shakespeare’s Macbeth


Teacher: “Fair is…?”


Pupils [chanting in unison]: “…foul and foul is fair: hover through fog and filthy air.”


Teacher: Super! Which techniques does Shakespeare combine in this quotation about supernatural sorcery? [Wait for hands up] Charlie?


Charlie: Shakespeare combines alliteration, rhyme and chiasmus, Miss.


Teacher: Excellent response. Who can spell chiasmus? … Rachel?


Rachel: C H I A S M U S


Teacher: Nod if you think Rachel is right. [Pupils nod] Well done, Rachel!  Okay, so Charlie said ‘Shakespeare combines alliteration, rhyme and chiasmus’. That was a great start. I’d like us to use a synonym for combines to improve this sentence. Anyone have any ideas? Ushra?


Ushra: Shakespeare fuses alliteration, rhyme and chiasmus, Miss.


Teacher: Excellent. I really like the use of the word ‘fuses’ there. But now I want us to turn this into a Show Sentence. So what does Shakespeare fuse these three techniques to show? Turn to your partner for 30 seconds.


[30 seconds pass- teacher gets class’ attention again] Okay hands up- what does Shakespeare fuse these techniques to show? Ray?


Ray: Shakespeare fuses alliteration, rhyme and chiasmus to show the witches’ sorcery.


Teacher: Love it! Can we use a synonym for ‘to show’ though, Ray?


Ray: Shakespeare fuses alliteration, rhyme and chiasmus to emphasise the witches’ sorcery.


Teacher: Superb! Okay, this is looking good, but I think we can do more to it. I’d like to add an adjective in here before the word ‘sorcery’. I’m thinking of a word beginning with ‘s’ that means something that’s unnatural, or to do with magic. [Lots of hands go up]… Karl?


Karl: Supernatural sorcery!


Teacher: Brill. Next, then, I’d like us to add another adjective, perhaps before the word ‘witches’. Who can think of an adjective to describe the witches? Sarah?


Sarah: evil, miss?


Teacher: you’re right. They are evil, but can we think of a synonym for ‘evil’, maybe? Jon?


Jon: Malevolent!


Teacher: Good! Carrie?


Carrie: Satanic?


Teacher: Fabulous! Okay, I think I’m going to choose malevolent this time, but you could choose any of those synonyms. So let’s have a look at the sentence now: Shakespeare fuses alliteration, rhyme and chiasmus to emphasise the malevolent witches’ supernatural sorcery. This is looking so excellent, but I think we can do even better. I reckon we could add something about the audience or the context, maybe? Hmmm… can anyone think of the word beginning with a J that describes people living during the time that Macbeth was first performed? Jake?


Jake: Jacobean, Miss!


Teacher: superb! Who was the monarch during Jacobean times? And when did their reign begin? Farsha?


Farsha: It was James I and he was the monarch in 1603 after Elizabeth died.


Teacher: goodness me! What a cracking answer! We need to get that into our show sentence somehow. Let’s have a think. Perhaps I could add a relative clause at the end of my sentence. I could finish the previous clause with a comma, and open the next clause with ‘which’. When I write a relative clause, I’m adding information. I want to add some extra information about the noun I’ve just talked about. So I want to say something about the witches, and I want to try and link them to Farsha’s excellent point about James I. What link could I make? Tasha?


Tasha: Miss, you could say that the Jacobean audience would have been scared by witches, Miss.


Teacher: You’re right! That’s a really good link! What did James I think of witches? Was he a fan? Lee?


Lee: No, Miss! He wrote a book called Demonology and said witches were illegal.


Teacher: Superb knowledge! He did indeed write Demonology and outlawed witchcraft. Okay, so we could say something like this: “which would have scared the Jacobean audience.” But you know what… I think we can do better than that! Who can make some suggestions? Prem?


Prem: Change it to ‘which petrified the Jacobean audience’, Miss.


Teacher: Excellent. Now we are really getting somewhere with our show sentence today! I think we could add one more thing. We know that the audience were petrified by the idea of witchcraft, but we also know that they found it quite entertaining to watch. So I could say, ‘who petrified, yet entertained the Jacobean audience’. Anyone want to suggest how I could improve that? Kaynath?


Kaynath: Instead of ‘entertained’ could you say ‘enthralled’?


Teacher: Yep! ‘which would have petrified, yet enthralled the Jacobean audience’. Superb! But we know lots of words for petrified, such as ‘terrified’, ‘disturb’, ‘frighten’, and we know lots of synonyms for enthralled, such as ‘engaged’, ‘enraptured’, ‘captivated’. So when you write your own show sentence, you’ll be able to choose some of your own synonyms to put in there. Right, so let’s have a look at the whole show sentence together now:


Shakespeare fuses alliteration with rhyme and chiasmus to emphasise the malevolent witches’ supernatural sorcery, which would have petrified, yet enthralled, the Jacobean audience.


I think that’s pretty good work, team! Now you’ve got ten minutes to have a go at writing your own show sentence about the quotation ‘fair is foul and foul is fair: hover through fog and filthy air’. Ready? GO.


Below is an example of one Michaela pupil’s Show Sentence.


Show Sentence

Why being a SENCO is awesome

Whenever I tell people I’m a SENCO, or explain the nature of my job to non-teachers, I pretty much always get the same response.


“Crikey, I couldn’t do that job!”

“You must be mad!”

“That must be such hard work!”

“Why would you take that on?”

“Sounds like a complete nightmare!”


When I told one of my friends that I was applying for the position of Director of Inclusion at Michaela, they said: “I’m pretty sure nobody else would want that job, so you can guarantee you’ll get it.”


I’m really not sure why people react in these ways when I tell them what I do. People recoil in horror; they look at me as if I’m completely mad; sometimes, they even have the audacity to give me patronising pat on the shoulder, implying on some level that I’m a haggard soldier about to leave for yet another war-torn country against my will.


I hear loads of people say how much they want to be a Head of Department, a Head of Teaching and Learning, or a Head of year, or how they aspire to be a Head teacher some day, but I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who has said that they want to be a SENCO in the future.


This makes me really sad. It makes me sad not just because we need great people to do this job, but because it is an incredible role. Here are a few reasons why I think so:


  1. Clear focus


Too many people overcomplicate the role of SENCO, which can make it seem less appealing to prospective applicants. For me, my role is very simple.


My aim, first and foremost, is to make myself redundant.


To do that, there are two really important things I need to keep in the centre of my mind at all times: first, make sure every child can read. Second, do whatever needs to be done outside of lesson time to make sure kids learn when they are in lessons.


I’m so clear about what I want to achieve as a SENCO that I don’t fuss about with things that get in the way. So I avoid pointless meetings, unnecessary paperwork and attending timewasting conferences as much as possible. Instead, I teach, organise interventions, spend lots of time with the pupils, and make sure teachers and support staff have everything they need to teach their kids really, really well.




  1. Improves your teaching


In my first year of teaching, I was thrust into a bit of a nightmare situation at a bit of a scary school. One of the things that I really did love, however, was the fact that I had been given pretty much all bottom sets in my first year. Again, I received looks of pity and pledges of support, and although I was initially horrified at the prospect, I quickly grew to see it as a gift. Those classes- 10.6, 9.4, 11.5 and 11.6- crikey, they were tough. But I was a much better trainee and teacher for it.


Teaching bottom sets makes you a better teacher because you have to think really carefully about how to get weak kids to grasp tricky concepts. How can you get a group of illiterate boys to understand (and possibly enjoy) Romeo and Juliet? It forced me to chunk down content into minute parts, and to think deeply about exactly what I wanted them to master and how I could help them get there. It forced me to think about learning in a completely different way, and it transformed my approach, understanding and beliefs about teaching forever.


  1. Long term, strategic thinking


Being a SENCO is more than attending annual review meetings and drinking cups of coffee. It’s an opportunity to shape the direction and focus of the school. As a SENCO, you are thinking constantly about what’s best for those who need the most support, and with a proactive attitude and a bit of gusto, you can fly the flag for SEN when senior team are cooking up the latest school-wide strategy. It is an excellent opportunity to have a huge impact on what is often (sadly) a big chunk of the student body. As a SENCO, you can introduce your own school-wide initiatives and strategies that support these kids. It’s an incredible opportunity to change and improve things.


  1. Strong relationships


At Michaela, I only teach the bottom two sets, and am the tutor for the weakest kids. This means that I know those kids really, really well. I teach them all of them for six hours a week. I see some of them another 3 and a half hours on top of that (for intervention and/or reading club). Our amazing team of Teaching Fellows run other interventions with them and report back to me on progress (quantitative and qualitative) every week. I observe them in lessons at least twice a week. I speak to several parents often. I know those kids really well. It’s a great pleasure and I’m excited to get to know them even better over the next five or so years.


  1. Transformation


If you have high expectations of SEN kids, the sky is the limit. Tell them they can do it, tell them you love helping them do it, and give them the right tools, and you will transform their lives. As I said at the beginning of the post, nobody needs education more than the kids with the biggest mountain to climb. When they do reach the peak, the view is more incredible than you- or they- could have ever imagined.