Rocking the times tables

So, it’s been a while…

I set out with the intention of writing a blog per week and enlightening the world with my  view from within Ninestiles. Then teaching, marking, planning and everything else that comes the way of teachers got firmly in the way.

Anyway, i’m back and determined to do more, just more. No New Year styles resolutions of how many more but more anyway.

I’ll kick off with an easy (and short) one.

Today we’ve had lots of our students manically doing times tables as rapidly as possible. It’s all part of the NSPCC national number day tie up with Times Tables Rockstars and we’re doing it because we want to win…. At lunch time we were streaking well clear

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I’m making no bones about it, i’m unashamedly trying to get students at Ninestiles to answer more multiplication sums than anyone else in the country. The donation to charity from Times Tables rockstars on our behalf is great and we have previously enthusiastically promoted the work of the NSPCC, especially on number day. We initially used times tables rockstar to improve the multiplicative ability of our lower Key Stage 3 students but it has been one of those weird things that just sort of has a life of its own. By no means does every student access it regularly but we have a very different student groups who compete enthusiastically.

Our best students have long since surpassed me. I set the early running but although my brain is still quick (i like to think anyway) i’m afraid my digital dexterity is no match for year 9 students who can do the rubiks cube in 20 seconds let alone bash numbers out on a keypad.

The benefit is that we have students of all abilities working together on maths. We’ve got a growing group of students who genuinely just really like maths, encouraged by an enthusiastic and motivated team of teachers who also just really like maths and are engaging and interesting.

I’ve got a feeling today is going to end in Devon Loch style glorious failure but it was fun while it lasted.

Ready, aim, fire part 2 – setting new targets

The new year brings so many new things. New teachers, new groups, new examination demands and strategies and inevitably new targets for students.

I’ve blogged before about how we used to set targets (  so I won’t go extensively over that again other than to say that our previous targets were based on the notion of “expected” progress and “outstanding” progress. We used the classic 3 levels from KS2 as the expected and 4 levels as outstanding. Now to be fair to everyone involved this system reflects a time before progress 8 and attainment 8 and everything else involved in assessing how successful we have been with the students. It also reflects a time earlier in my teaching career when I was less prone to really considering the roots of everything and their logic. At that stage I was still desperately trying to improve my teaching (still am) and was keen to meet the targets set for me and my students by the SLG whereas now I’m part of the group setting the targets!

Now we used this system both to assess our effectiveness with students and as an integral part of our appraisal process using 3 levels of progress as the benchmark for all teachers. It always felt slightly punitive to those teachers with weaker students but then 3 levels was “expected” so to demand anything else was counter intuitive. It seemed like having a higher group (particularly group 1) was akin to getting the golden ticket. Any student going on to achieve an A* would return a minimum of 5 levels of progress making the teacher look brilliant. A top group student finishing their GCSE with an A would still have secured “outstanding” progress for themselves and their teacher despite potentially making less progress in their secondary life than they did at primary school. Contrast this with a level 3 entry student who makes three levels (good) progress and is only deemed “expected”. All this and I haven’t even mentioned a sub-level entry point! Hopefully you see that it always felt rough on the teachers of lower ability students but also did not offer the highest ability students the targets they would want. For example, the last top ability group I taught was a year 10 group back in the old days of multiple entry. I think I taught them pretty well but they benefited from being highly self motivated and driven. At the end of year 10 they had recorded 7 A* grades and 11 As from 28 students. Now I like to think I’m ok at teaching but I didn’t  deserve to claim those crazy levels progress as mine, they belonged to the students.

So when, at Easter, I was tasked with assessment and reporting one of the first things I began working on was our targets. In conjunction with Brian Lewis our outstanding data manager, we began to look at the evidence for student achievement from outcomes both internally and from the national transition matrices. This showed a number of interesting things. Take maths for example as this is the subject I teach. When we looked at the highest attaining KS2 students we saw from the transition matrices that an overwhelming majority achieve A* grades (something like 76% of 5a students if my memory serves me correctly). We then compared this to our own data and saw that all of our A* grades came from ether the 5a or 5b entry groups. Surely it makes sense for these students to be given a target of an A*? We worked our way through other grades and other scenarios trying to find the most challenging grades for our students whilst maintaining feasibility and common sense wherever possible.  We also wanted to avoid setting our students targets that they would achieve but not give them access to further education. I always wince at the very thought of giving students a target of a D, slapping them on the back for 5 years telling them how “on target” they are and then commiserating with them when their college options are limited.

Eventually we came to a tiered approach. Our highest attaining KS2 students have targets that are 5 levels, there are 4 level targets for those coming in near the top of their KS2 levels and there are 3 level targets for the lower band an those middle band students from the bottom of their KS2 levels. While this all sounds a bit nuanced we hope it will accurately reflect our prior attainment whilst setting challenging and worthwhile targets. we also created notional flight paths to be able to inform students, teachers and parents whether the student was on the right track in line with our overall assessment procedures. Finally we made our best possible stab at mapping the new numerical GCSE grades in based on all the info we could find from the DFE.  They look like this….

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We were simultaneously considering how this would affect the school progress 8 scores when the new tables are released and modelled this to try it out. If all students reach their new “minimum expected outcome” we will have a P8 score over +1.0 – here’s hoping!!!!

We know it’s not perfect, the changing landscape with GCSEs makes it difficult to be so. We also know we are currently still using levels and the absurdity of sub-levels whilst we work on the best solution for future years (watch out for a blog on this soon) but we think that it makes sense for now and sometimes that is enough to be going on with.

As ever if you’ve got comments and thoughts please let me know either here or at

The day David Cameron came to Ninestiles…

Well it was meant to be the first day of the holiday. Like every other teacher around I had gleefully turned off my alarm for this morning, failed to iron a shirt and planned a nice easy morning watching the final round of the Open. Except then I remembered we were due to have a visitor. No names, no clues other than that it was a “high ranking member of the cabinet” and an SLG only invite. I wearily re-set my alarm, figured I better dig out a shirt and tie and then pondered who it could be.

Being a big sports fan I watched the train wreck of the Ashes yesterday afternoon and had missed all manner of government announcements about a key note speech in Birmingham on Monday from the PM. So I casually strolled into Ninestiles at 8:30 am on the first day of my hols to be greeted by all manner of security staff, sound technicians, police officers and government aides. And so began the build up to the Prime Ministers speech on tackling extremism.

As I’ve said before I’downloadm incredibly proud to work at Ninestiles. From the day I walked through the door ten years ago I’ve felt a warmth and compassion in the place that just brings people together. I was born just down the road and my father went to Ninestiles as a boy so I understand the community that we live in and have always been at home in a multicultural melting pot but life at Ninestiles has always seemed so diverse, so easily. However, you can never take this for granted. We may think it happens by luck or by serendipity but actually it happens with hard work and love.

In his speech David Cameron spoke of the need to live with each other in a community of strong British values. We work incredibly hard to ensure our students understand and respect each other. We have daily assemblies on topics that relate to community cohesion, tolerance and respect. Our first few for next year are respect, democracy, sameness and differences and the rule of law. I promise I didn’t make those up and couldn’t believe it when David Cameron mentioned them directly in his address. We have fortnightly Aspire sessions aimed at actively engaging our students in their community and ensuring they know about their peers. Our staff are well trained, knowledgeable and vigilant, keen to protect us all but also desperate to ensure our students have a chance to build lasting and trusting relationships with adults in school. When we had Prevent training and FGM advice it felt like a natural part of building our knowledge base and protecting our community. Our tutor groups are smaller than you might expect with two teachers in each room to ensure that there is an adult every child should be able to relate to at the start of the day.

We start the process early… This year, in two weeks time I’m part of a fortnight of activities to introduce the new year 7 to each other and to some teachers. It’s ostensibly come from catch up premium money but we supplement it to ensure all our students feel part of the Ninestiles family from the very start. We plan our trips with our community at heart. Last year every year 7 visited a Mosque, a Gurdwara, a Synogogue and a Church. In his speech David Cameron mentioned the powers that will now exist to remove passports form children that are thought to be at rick of fleeing overseas. I can see the process that leads to this but I would also point to the students that I took to Barcelona in my last blogs that had never left the country before. Travelling overseas in their own diverse little group to learn about other cultures. The wonder of a group of Sikhs, Muslims, Christians and Atheisists marvelling at La Sagradia Familia breaks down many stereotypes.

So when the Prime Minister spoke of how we could tackle extremism I reflected on the things we do here at Ninestiles. We don’t do it all perfectly but our values mirror those outlines in the speech. We give everyone a chance regardless of background. This year we’ve seen Afghan refugees sit in exams alongside the rest of our school community, safe in the knowledge that we’ve given them a real start. We avoid the grievance justification by being scrupulously fair to all groups in all situations. We try to tackle poverty in all our groups by the effective distribution of the funding we get using it sensitively and intelligently to create opportunities.The liberal values that our school lives and breathes by ensure students and teachers alike are given true freedom of speech and worship. We openly condemn violence in any form in school and deal with it earnestly. We have strong voices amongst the teacher groups which give themselves and students an identity that ties in with cultural and spiritual heritage as well as strong British values. We could do more to hear even more from the students in this way, we’ll make it happen.

I came into teaching 10 years ago to help young people succeed. I thought it would be easy, teach them maths, help them do well. I give no heed to their background from a teaching point of view. I want every student to do equally well regardless of their race, religion or socio-economic background. As I’ve progressed I’ve come to realise that it is all inter-related and growing the community raises the aspiration of the students. Academic success and a strong relationship with peers, teachers, families and the school community actively fights religious extremism in all its forms. There have been times when I’ve wondered (loudly) if the culture of our great school was too much about being a great citizen and a valued member of the community at the expense of the greatest academic success. Today I couldn’t be prouder that it is like this. I want us all to succeed together, for the benefit of everyone, regardless of who we are, what we believe and where we come from.


The best job in the world

this will be a quick one, I’m by the pool again and there are 29 students knocking about playing pool, chilling out and some dancing.

If you’re ever sure whether teaching is for you, check out yesterday’s blog about the difference we make to young lives.

Today I’m just going to say you get great opportunities and have a right laugh. I say yes to most things that go my way but if I’m honest 20 hours into a 24 hour coach journey, with kids tired and irritable and I was thinking “what have I done?”. Caring for and looking after these students in a foreign land (with foreign food) can be pretty stressful but the payback is that today I have howled with laughter at their wit and humour, screamed with joy on Europes biggest and fastest roller coasters and maintained some teacher street cred by being able to hold the photo poses at high speed.

Most of all I’ve loved seeing the kids have an absolute cracker of a time, at their happiest with each other, a beach and a volleyball!!!!

It might not feel like it every single day but teaching is the best job in world!!!!!

A view from poolside

I’m writing this from the poolside in Barcelona (who says teachers have it too easy?!) in the glorious sunshine. It’s not all good news, my Irish heritage has blessed me with ginger hair and I don’t deal with the direct sunshine too well.

I’ve also got 29 students with me who have been at various points, lively, loud, boisterous, excitable, respectful, amazed,  shattered and just plain hot!!!  They’ve seen things they’ve never been introduced to before. In one case it was a beach. It wasn’t particularly a sandy Spanish beach that they hadnt seen by age 15, just a beach of any kind.

We’ve visited the nou camp and marvelled at the scale (and the ruthlessness of the marketing), we’ve hung out on the beach, had dinner together, had a Spanish lesson and then played a football match against a local team.

The Spanish lesson showed the students that the language was nothing to be scared off. Their confidence has grown and they’ve tried to engage in some simple use of the language with the locals.  They didn’t all go to the Spanish lesson as some were on the football arm of the trip and this led to perhaps the most enlightening moment. 

Our lads played the “youth” team of a local football club. We were outmatched by a couple of years in nearly all cases and were certainly physically inferior. Technically our hosts were much better too but a bit of English grit held us out to see half time at nil nil. We lost 4-0 but as well as the amazing spirit out lads displayed there was a moment in the second half that blew me away. One of our year 10 lads who doesn’t speak Spanish and has not studied it said he wished he could speak the language. Furthermore he vowed to go home, change his language settings on his playstation to Spanish and learn a bit!!!! 

Like I said, we lost but like so many football managers “I’ll take the positives!!!!”

The benefits of getting engaged in research

I like to think i’ve got a critical eye, i’m certainly not one of those that jumps on any old initiative without at least a healthy degree of cynicism and yet I really do love changing stuff to make it better. I’m one of those who suddenly wakes up in the middle of the night realising that my fondant fancy tree diagram lesson isn’t going to work because it’s Ramadan, that our new appraisal system needs this tweak to bring it in line with our target setting or even (most disturbingly) that everything tends towards e including all our student exam results. This latest (woefully inaccurate) revelation comes as a direct result of reading the excellent “Alex Through the Looking Glass” by Alex Bellos. In short, i’m one of those “always on” type of people. The problem with this is that I have a stack of ideas and yet the cynic and mathematician in me wants to know if they’re going to work before I make them happen.

Now this wasn’t such a problem when I was at the level of trying out stuff in my maths lessons with 30 students. I like to think my tube-map-vector creation lesson was an absolute triumph but i’m willing to admit that my water torture inverse proportion attempt was torture for everyone in the room. Now i’ve managed to find a position of some responsibility however, the initiatives I espouse have to be backed with something. So i’ve been diligent enough to do my own bits of research and reading  before I present anything and i’ve encouraged others to do the same but that isn’t the same as having a whole school like this founded on what works and challenging of what doesn’t.

So the epiphany (of sorts) came whilst stood at the urinal at Durrington High School which I know is a strange place for this to occur. On April 13th myself and Vice Principal Jason Bridges ( were lucky enough to be hosted by Shaun Allison ( and Andy Tharby ( for our whole school “visit another school” inset day. We saw loads of awesome things at Durrington but the one that really struck a chord with me was the engagement of key staff members and therefore the wider staff in current education research. Andy has whole school responsibility for making this happen and is the reason I was stood at a urinal reading a summary of recent research. Shaun is one of those people we’ve probably all seen on twitter who writes something and is instantly engaged with the views of another few thousand people and their knowledge of education. Suffice to say I left the day thoroughly inspired by both of them.

I determined that I wanted to tell people all about the fantastic work that happens at Ninestiles (, I’m incredibly proud of my school and want people to know. However, I don’t intend my blog and my twitter to just be a fanfare for Ninestiles Multi Academy Trust. I want it to serve as a vehicle for improvement and change as well as a tool for staff engagement. So myself and Jason worked  on our twitter accounts, persuaded others to sign up and now have a growing community of acolytes. Coincidently twitter paid dividends on my first night. A guy I’d never spoken to before saw my first blog post on my twitter feed, got in touch and helped me enormously with my work on my blog and life after levels (thanks again

The next step is for us to be more involved in research properly. As the Ninestiles twitter group has grown people have just seen more stuff and this has increased the level of conversation around school. As part of our teaching school alliance improvement strategy our Associate Vice Principal Elizabeth Ford has now put together a research and development sub group to look at how we kick-start a more comprehensive approach to research and provide staff with the necessary knowledge and guidance to begin some small scale work. We had our first meeting last night, it was great. Being always on,  I instantly went home and scribbled down a host of ideas for research projects and then this morning had a chat with a couple of staff members who could also consider some of these and be involved.

I’m so excited by the prospect of doing some research that I know my personal challenge will be reigning that in to be meaningful and lead to improvements. Most of all I’m excited by the prospect of our staff conducting research and sharing their work with our local community and a wider audience through twitter and the blogosphere to lead to change and better outcomes for our students.

If you’ve got any tips on the best ways to make this happen then please  get in touch either through here, at my twitter ( or by email

If you’d like to be involved or could help us please contact either myself or Lizzy Ford (, we would love to hear from you…

The final nail in the study leave coffin?

So it’s just Statistics GCSE left for us now. An intrepid band of 59 of our students who had chosen at the end of year 10 to study stats are still in school. And when I say “in school” I still really mean it. Ninestiles has never really had study leave as I remember it from school. We’ve always had the students in until pretty much the first exam and then they were left to their own devices to prepare. Except that own devices bit had got smaller and smaller. The next step was to have lessons as planned until a chosen examination had finished and then to eliminate that from the timetable ensuring a smaller and smaller attendance until the final exam. In recent years we had moved toward this model with just an extra few revision sessions thrown in directly before the exam. It was well planned but like many schools in areas of high deprivation and low income we had struggled to get the students and parents to buy into this period.

This year however, we went the whole hog…

About 2 months before the examinations began the four curriculum Assistant Principals at Ninestiles, of which i’m one (twitter handles – @alexhughesnine, @vcreedonnine, @BeetisonJade, @SyAndersonnine) sat down with the year 11 timetable, the exam timetable and the BIG list of each student and their current grades. We (rather painstakingly) went through every period of the timetable from the beginning of the exam period, yes right back at the English IGCSE paper, to the Stats paper on Thursday and mapped in what we needed each session to look like.

We started with the point of view that the students should experience as much normality as possible all the way up to the exam. A quick google search of thoughts on study leave reveals a huge range of thoughts from those advocating students being in all the time right up to those that think we should completely allow students to study on their own. I read one blog by Helen Cadbury in 2014 ( which talked of students “being forced to stay in school full-time” and spoke of students making their own choices “kids vote with their feet or the parents are forced to lie about made up illnesses”.

Now i’m going to nail my colours to the mast early here and say I disagree with these thoughts. Firstly, students have been in school for 12 or 13 years by this point of their life, the only thing that changes is our mindset in addressing the exam series. No-one thought sending them home in year 6 was a good idea before their SATS or in the old days before year 9 SATS. Indeed at no other juncture in their whole academic life to this point has anyone thought that the best way to prepare a student for what they face is to send them away. With one month left that is what many people choose. I can’t say I understand the logic!

Many points that are raised in the debate for study leave are well intentioned I believe but not entirely logical. I hear the thought that students will become stressed and overworked if they stay in school throughout the exams. I can only speak for the students I work with but I know that actually the familiarity of routine and structure of a timetable is reassuring to them. Seeing the same face that has cared for them, guided them, worked on their weaknesses and given them belief is incredibly comforting for the students. I will accede that for a small minority of students (perhaps a bigger group in other contexts) the freedom to study at home, on their own terms and away from distraction is of benefit and linked to this perhaps the most convincing argument for study leave is that students have the potential to waste their time in school and be put into meaningless, crowd control style “revision sessions”. So this is the area we really focused on addressing.

With that plan of all the exams, the lessons and the student priorities we set about mapping our ideal session into the timetable. To avoid meaningless sessions we immediately converted “finished” English lessons to become maths periods for those not undertaking English literature. For the 60 or so students who were still to complete English Literature we did of course continue with their usual provision therein. We temporarily juggled other year group priorities to free up the maths staff (using what used to be termed “gain time”) to provide the extra sessions. Wherever exams were imminent we planned a revision session the day before that exam and on the morning to get the students in the right frame of mind.

Where students had multiple exams in close proximity we focused on providing the one that would be of greatest need or benefit to the student. As subjects finished the timetable for each student would become increasingly full of their remaining lessons. It was a logistical nightmare and could never have been remotely achieved without the flexibility of our staff and the dedication of our admin team. However, I also believe it was a logistical masterpiece too.

We sold it well to our students. Discussed it with them, underlined why we thought it was of benefit and provided them with their very own completely personalised timetable. We reassured them that the sessions would be with their usual teacher as far as possible or with a subject expert in all but the most exceptional circumstances. We put in provision for the lost and wondering students and sat back ready to see the voting with their feet and mystery illnesses mentioned earlier. For most students, right until the end, it never came. In fact we were probably a victim of our own success in some cases. We envisaged some natural waning of our students attendance in the later weeks and staffed accordingly. It never really materialised. Indeed, even as an optimistic maths teacher I thought three sessions in one day for some students would be too much but most came to all and were motivated and engaged throughout! If I compare this to the previous year when I was getting single figures of students from my two combined C/D borderline groups then i’m delighted. Indeed one of my most difficult, least engaged and motivated students said that the process was a bit annoying but really helpful and laughed one day commenting that they wouldn’t have even been out of bed yet let alone revising at a 13:35 start session!

And so now we have just the 59 left for stats, we have cut them some slack in the final days, it was just the two sessions out of three today.

Like so many things at this time of year, it’s hard to truly evaluate the impact of this personalised timetable on each student. Once we see the results we might be able to pick out a thread running through the students that had full attendance and possibly the ones that had prioritised sessions. I do know one person that has been reassured by the whole process though – me!