Delivering RS Linear A level – entering Year 2

I have thoroughly enjoyed the first year of teaching the OCR A level. As well as rediscovering my love for theology – topics on Jesus and on Bonhoeffer have gone down particularly well – we have particularly got into Business Ethics which helped to dispel the idea that RS is full of old ideas that have no real relevance in the modern world.

The idea for Year 1 was to get through as much content as possible to allow time to slow down, review, and practice skills in year 2 – thus avoiding the trap of rushing to finish the course. We aimed to get through 18 of the 28 topics – we managed 17 but that was OK. I am all set to start with liberation theology – good links to Bonhoeffer – and theology and gender.  Our main thoughts entering year 2 are around teaching and learning; what is written below is by and large the key messages that I will be giving to the Humanities team at the college as they begin the year at various stages (History has had its first results, RS is midway through, Philosophy and Classics are beginning their linear journeys)

As I have been thinking I am guided by a quote from Stephen Tierney at Northern Rocks 2015. Good teaching and learning is ‘Finding out what students don’t know and then teaching it.’ (Stephen Tierney @leadinglearner) Hence a key question is – do we know what each of our students’ strengths and weaknesses are? If we do, this is the first step to being able to do something about it.

  1. Content and Linearity

In the second year of RS and History we are beginning by using a Google form and asking students to RAG rate themselves against each of the first-year topics. This will help us to plan how to review first-year content and can be updated as we quiz students on what they claim to know.

Obviously we will be checking students learning on the new topics and questioning in class. In an effort to combat the difficulties of linearity.

Quizzing: By the end of this year we should have a pre-prepared quiz on each of the topics in the first and second year, whether this be a Kahoot, Socrative or pen and paper. For the electronic versions it will be possible to revisit these quizzes and by announcing the quiz schedule in advance and having a quiz league it will enable students to always be reasonably warm on past topics by virtue of their competitive natures.

Poor performance by individual students can lead to support or challenge as appropriate. If most students are struggling on a quiz – that gives us a priority in terms of our teaching.

  1. Skills and Linearity

In an effort to bridge the literacy gap we have introduced a reading program where students and staff will read silently for around 20 minutes towards the end of the last lesson of the week. The reading program for RS in Year 1 is an anthology of key chapters and articles .

In terms of exam technique we have to recognise that alongside the scheme of work for content there almost needs to be a parallel scheme of work for skills. (or if you are clever this can be one document!)  This includes

  • Improving students’ metacognition – one strategy will be to do modelling of how to answer exam questions in a similar way to John Tomsett’s walking talking exam
  • We will also be making use of actual exam board scripts that we will talk through together in class. (Past scripts are fine and OCR have got senior examiners to annotate some sample answers – see website)
  • One other useful strategy before students hand their own essays is to get them to annotate their essays in terms of which assessment objectives they think they are fulfilling. It is often quite enlightening to see that what they think is AO2 is actually AO1 or completely irrelevant; interesting discussions can then emerge.
  • We are also explicitly teaching paragraph structure using PEE for AO1 (Point Explain Example) and PEA (point explain assess) or PACE (Point, Assess, Counterargument, Evaluate) A more advanced structure (DISC + PEREL) and discussion is found here in courtesy of @missavecarter.
  1. Feedback

Our primary forms of assessment are the taking in of typed up notes after every couple of topics (We are using Google classroom to help with this) and regular timed essays. This will enable us to see how students are progressing with both content and skills.

  • We aim to do most of our feedback in class through verbal feedback – sometimes live marking an essay with the student present is far better than written comments
  • That said, for timed essays we will also be developing a feedback sheet that enables us to highlight phrases from the exam board mark scheme, jot down a couple of key messages and, most importantly, leave space for the students to write down action points. Once we have action points it is important that we give students time and space to write improved sections in class.
  • There are also some excellent ideas of feedback here from @MrsHumanities which I have blogged on before. HERE

All of this might mean that some of the content gets pushed outside of class. One of the key messages of the new A-levels is that students need to be doing more outside of class.

Finally : The final thing that we are doing an RS is that we aim to have all of the content covered by early March. This leaves us at least 10 college weeks to review topics in class, practice essays and get ready for the exam. During this time I would like my students to be doing at least one timed essay in class each week. They are in a national competition so needless to say the messages about Mindset, Work ethic and organization that we deliver in induction have to be constantly reinforced.

If you’ve managed to read this all the way to the end, I hope my ramblings have been of some use and that you have an enjoyable and fruitful year of linear RS.


Top Ten Interviews

I am not in the current ‘teacher transfer window’ ahead of the May deadline but I have had a lot of interviews over the years – good, bad and ugly. Here in reverse order is my top ten.

10. Raising my hopes twice! Having been encouraged by a colleague who was a governor at this particular high school I spent a long day interviewing for Head of RE. I didn’t get it and they didn’t appoint. 3 days later I received a letter in the Headteacher encouraging me to reapply and suggesting what he wanted to see next time. Great! A month later and a re-run of the interview with several of the same candidates. I didn’t get it . . .

9. You’re my best friend. Turning up to one of my first interviews and seeing my closest friend from my PGCE there was tricky. The day went well but he got the job and I didn’t. It wouldn’t be the last time that our paths would cross in such circumstances

8. The internal candidate. On several occasions I have arrived at interview to find that there was an internal candidate, and on one occasion I was the internal candidate as my temporary position in my second school became permanent. The internal candidate has always got the job in interviews I have been in. (Yes, I know it’s not always the case)

7. The Remote interview. Imagine my excitement at doing a web video conference interview with the exam board for a Principal Examiner role just last year. Predictably the technology fell over and the next half hour or so was spent shouting down a crackly phone line to Cambridge. Got the job.

6. Are you really sure? My first permanent job was offered to me after a fairly brief interview procedure and I accepted with enthusiasm as Christmas was coming and I had just purchased a £500 guitar. The Head’s response to my acceptance was ‘are you sure? Do you not want time to think about it?’ I should have read the signs regarding the challenges that were to come. . .

5. A bird in the hand. As several years later I made an effort to leave the school mentioned above, I found myself with two interviews in 2 days shortly before the May deadline. The day 2 job was the better job. Half way through Day 1 and seeing that I was up against a friend (see 9) I withdrew to focus on preparing for the dream job the next day. The day at ‘dream school’ went well and I almost got it. ‘You don’t have experience of working in a large team’ was their reservation and why I came 2nd not 1st. ‘You knew that when you called me for interview’ was my curt reply.

4. Salt in the wounds. Several years ago I applied for a senior internal role and was eliminated at the end of day 1. A colleague within my area managed to get through to day 2. (and ended up getting the job) My prize was to cover his lessons whilst he did the second day interview!

3. The walk of shame. During a bleaker time at my current college I made an external application to be Head of Sixth form at the high school where one of my children attends. After performing reasonably well in the morning the field was cut from 6 to 3 for the afternoon and, despite their sympathetic noises about how well I’d done and the tough field, I was dispatched home. There is something about having to physically walk the mile home that seems to add indignity to not getting a job!

2. At least I teach in English. I came to interview at my present college for a position teaching RS and Philosophy. There were 2 candidates: myself and a colleague who also taught languages as well as RS. The interview went well and I was delighted to be offered the job. Clearly I had mastered this interviewing thing! It was only after I had been in post for a couple of months that my new line manager revealed that the colleague in question had argued that Kant should be taught in the original German and was proposing to spend time in A level RS doing just that. As he bluntly put it, ‘when you walked in, we were desperately hoping you would say just one vaguely sensible thing!’

1. Second in a field of one! The most bizarre interview I went to was my very first. I had applied to teach RE in a high performing high school. As I arrived on the Monday morning, a senior manager in a panic informed me that all the other candidates had got jobs and withdrawn over the weekend. Nevertheless they would proceed with the day. After a tour of the school and an informal chat about ‘National Records of Achievement’ among other things, they paused and told me that they were not going to appoint. They had major misgivings that someone who was a little unclear on NRAs should be allowed near their students. The sense of deflation when you are the only player and you still lose the game cannot be overstated!

By the way, I got my first job whilst 300 miles away on honeymoon. The school where I had done my PGCE placement had an RE teacher depart suddenly. Was I still available and could I start in 3 weeks time? The Lord provides and he moves in mysterious ways…

What is your time worth? Thinking out loud on pay

A chance comment I read at the weekend referred to ‘the 1265 hours we are paid for’.

(YesI realise it is not that straightforward. I would actually be unimpressed if my colleagues or the teachers at my children’s school insisted they were only going to do 1265 hours. – 32.5 hours for 39 weeks)

But please indulge me whilst I go on a few thoughts.

Firstly, teachers may in fact be working a lot more than 32.5 hours a week – 56 hours was the average in one recent survey, this would mean 2180 hours a year. (assuming they do absolutely no holiday work!) By the way, an average worker in a standard non-teaching job would work around 1800 hours a year (37.5hours x 48weeks)

Now consider 3 hypothetical colleagues

Teacher A is an experienced middle leader and earns £40,000 a year. If he/she sticks to the 1265 hours their hourly pay is £31.62 per hour. If they work as hard as the average teacher on 56 hour weeks then this drops to £18.35 an hour

Teacher B has been teaching for around 5 years (so is part of the 60% that survive their first 5 years) and earns £30,000 a year. If he/she sticks to the 1265 hours their hourly pay is £23.72 per hour. If they work as hard as the average teacher on 56 hour weeks then this drops to £13.75 an hour

Teacher C has qualified this year and is an NQT earning £22,000 a year. If he/she sticks to the 1265 hours their hourly pay is £17.39 per hour. If they work as hard as the average teacher on 56 hour weeks then this drops to £10.09 an hour

Yes, I realise that if you are earning minimum wage doing an unpleasant job then some of the sums of money above sound generous. There are people worse off than teachers although given that the UK average salary is £28,000 there will be actually many teachers under this average figure. 

How do the figures above compare? Teaching is a highly skilled job. Consider the following hourly rates that skilled persons may charge . This is what you would have to pay for the following skills:

  • £10 per hour for a handyman
  • £30 per hour for a plumber
  • £50 per hour plus for a garage mechanic
  • £100 per hour plus if you require a solicitor or a private medical consultant

The minimum wage is £7.50 an hour and the average graduate hourly rate is £16 per hour (assuming the 1800 hour year and the average graduate salary of £29,000 per year)

Consider also the following hourly rates we may get in any second jobs we do

  1. When we do exam board work such as attending meetings £15-20 per hour is generally the going rate for our expertise. In cases where we are not paid by the board but our school or college is paid to release us then a daily rate of £150 for a 6-7 teaching day is standard
  2. If we offer our services as private tutors the going hourly rate seems to around £25 per hour. In fact some of the those who have left teaching have discovered this is a worthwhile alternative.

So how does a teacher’s hourly rate compare to other professions? What would be a comparable profession in terms of skill? Should teachers be paid more? Should they work fewer hours than they do? Although we cannot put a price on what teachers do, financially what should it be worth? I’m not sure I know the answers but I think the questions are interesting and important

Over to you!

I am writing (again!)

I would love to blog more regularly but currently I am writing again. Working with a colleague who is also a senior examiner we are producing 3 revision guides for the new OCR Religious Studies A level. 

The titles which will be published by Hodder in January 2018 follow the OCR modules

Philosophy of Religion

Ethics and Religion

Developments in Christian Thought

Each volume will be around 96 pages long and at 500 or so words per page aims to cover the whole specification in an accessible way and will include revision and exam advice. Our hope is that these revision guides will complement the resources that are already out there currently. 

If you are a teacher of OCR Religious Studies reading this I will try to tweet a few updates here and there; if you  know someone teaching the course please pass this on. 

Hopefully I will return to blogging in the summer at some point. 

Au revoir for now


Not enough teachers part 2 – workload

It is safe to say that there is an impending crisis in teacher numbers; it is likely to get worse. Recruitment targets have either been missed or just about hit depending upon whose version of events you believe. But more worryingly 30% of teachers are leaving within the first five years. The government’s response is to say that there are more teachers than ever in schools; this may be true but it is a little bit like saying that I have more carpet than ever in my new house but neglecting to mention that I have built several extra rooms. The key issue is whether we have enough teachers for the students in front of us. This 3 part series will look at what is going wrong and what we can do about it.

Part 2 – workload 

At the time of writing #staffroomelephant it was suggested that the average working week for teachers was 59 hours and 56 hours per week for primary and secondary teachers respectively. The most recent survey suggests a slight reduction to 53 hours overall in secondary but as the graphic below suggests a significant proportion are working well in excess of sensible hours.

My most popular blog post of last year with well over a thousand views, as well as a key theme of my book, is the idea that #50isplenty. Key message – if you can limit each working week to 50 hours, you will give yourself the best chance of long term survival in the classroom. The key issue with workload is that it is cumulative. We may be able to manage the odd crazy week but if we do it week in week out it is this that drains us as teachers and leads to burnout. 

In writing about workload over the last couple of years it is clear that there are no magic wands but there are 3 causes or types of workload

1. Workload that you can control: We can reduce our stress by getting more organised. Having a year planner with all your schools key dates on one document and fitting your marking around it is essential assuming your school allows you a little flexibility. Invest some time in thinking about time saving marking strategies; My blog on feedback contains some useful links and ideas. We also need to stop the perfectionism. It is hard for some of us but part of our responsibility in dealing with workload is to accept that it can’t all be done and to make peace with that. Some teachers find that quite difficult and although I have no hard evidence, I think perfectionists are more likely to leave. 

2. Workload that your school controls: just as you make the weather in your classrooms so too your school and your leadership team affects how much you can control your workload. Here overbearing policies on feedback, over rigorous monitoring of lesson plans etc. under the misapprehension of what ofsted may or may not want have all contributed to excessive workload. If schools want to ensure they have enough teachers, this is an area where bravery is needed in cutting things that take time but add no value.

3. What only the government controls: even with good time management strategies and with the most enlightened senior management team, the workload in teaching is still considerable. There are two things that only the government can do. Firstly, stop constantly changing things. This year I have taught a new Linear A level. The increase in work for this has been significant. Some colleagues will have had new A levels, a new GCSE and changes in Key Stage 3 assessment all within 12-18 months linear. Please leave us alone now for a few years so we can see how these changes bed in! Secondly although we know we are responsible for outcomes, the level of accountability experienced is crippling. League table places and sudden decline in results often lead to heads being removed; in some schools middle leaders and heads of department have also been made to fall on their swords after a difficult year. We need to find a way of cutting people a little slack.

Workload is the killer in terms of teacher retention but there are things that we can do to help ourselves at least to an extent. The final part will look at some of the possible solutions to the crisis in teacher numbers that we may need to implement if the numbers continue as they are.

Lessons from 2016 for 2017

I missed last year’s nurture posts due to my writing and am late this year having had a virus in the first week of the New Year. My 14/15 post was written in the middle of a difficult year and some of the themes indicated here have reappeared. 

‘It’s no secret that ambition bites the nails of success.’ (U2 – The Fly)

It has certainly been an interesting year professionally. Yet bizarrely I ended the year feeling flat and over dwelling on the things that got away. (Particularly 1 internal and 1 external interview for senior positions) I have since had a word with myself. If a few years ago you had told me that I would have a book published, be appointed as a principal examiner on the New A level spec, be managing History as a result of a merger of departments and have done 1/3 of an MA all in one year I would have been delighted. I love teaching RS and Philosophy and I’m trying to consciously notice and appreciate the magic moments in the classroom. It’s a privilege to be doing this. 

LESSON For 2017 – Be content, look around and enjoy the view a little more!

You reap what you sow – but not always where you sow

 I have always believed in the principle of sowing and reaping. You get what you give. What you put your energies into and how you treat others affects what happens next. Although interestingly enough the plants don’t always grow where you expect. However when I step out and try things, whenever I develop new skills or invest time in an area of life, there is a benefit even if it isn’t the one I expect. I have several examples but none that can be publically shared, sorry!

LESSON for 2017 – Keep sowing and growing, time and truth are friends – all I need to do is keep trying to do the right things. Results will come. 

Simplifying and making space

Lots happened in 2016 but probably too much. Whilst I have learned that although I have a large capacity and energy that keeps most of the balls up in the air I have reflected that that in terms of quality of life and work I need to simplify and reduce some of my involvements. I have slowed down the MA, stepped back from one of my additional roles, and will probably be on social media a little less. I am trying to start each day with at least 15 minutes of quiet time and am being more rigorous in applying #50isplenty.

LESSON for 2017 – Make space. Creativity and clear thinking needs regular pauses. The space will also allow good things to happen such as family time.

Wishing everyone a happy and purposeful 2017

Too old to teach?

Yesterday’s Guardian’s Secret Teacher column caught my eye: ‘I feel too old for the job but I’m trapped.’

Having taught for over 20 years now, reached my mid-forties and this year published a book on teacher wellbeing, I thought I’d share a few thoughts

Firstly a few concerns. No matter what age we are, we have to keep growing and developing as teachers. The writer refers to poor student evaluations of her teaching and her frustration that CPD sessions are being led by younger more enthusiastic staff. I am not convinced that our teaching has to decline as we get older. I think I am a better teacher now in my forties than I ever was in my twenties. Mindset is more important than age

Secondly I am not convinced that the age gap to our students is necessarily a problem. What matters is our ability to connect and relate as human beings not our ability to make references to popular culture or music. Hence I’m not sure that this is as big a problem as it may seem.

Having said that there is actually a valid point that the writer makes and I suspect it is her main point. Those outside the profession don’t necessarily realise the physical and mental energies that teaching requires. The feeling that ‘I can’t do this into my sixties’ is common amongst very good teachers that I talk to who are a similar age to me. I’m not sure whether this is age related or just the wear and tear of having done the job for a number of years. Certainly I will watch what happens with Lucy Kellaway who has decided to retrain as a teacher aged 58 with interest. 

Those who, like the secret teacher, may feel they are becoming too old to teach have some unfortunate evidence for their view. On two separate occasions when speaking to union officials I have heard it said that most capability proceedings are being brought against staff in their 50s. Why should this be the case? Whilst it may be that they become disengaged and their skills decline, I believe it is more likely to be a simple case of the body slowing down and not keeping up with the energy required. We need to find a more dignified way of supporting these colleagues rather than managing them out as ‘failures’ in our compliance led regimes.

Some colleagues may counter this by seeking promotion to senior management. A few years ago I complimented one of our Assistant Principals on his lesson which I had overheard whilst in the departmental office next door. His honest and very modest reply was that given he only taught a few hours a week his lessons should be excellent. He didn’t feel he would have the energy to cope with a full timetable now. I think he would have been in his mid-fifties at the time. Senior leadership is hard work and stressful but it doesn’t seem to bring the same exhaustion as full time classroom teaching. 
Clearly we need to find ways of helping ourselves and each other; some of my own strategies are in my book. (Shameless plug…) We can make some progress in ensuring we have some success and longevity but I’m not sure what the overall solution is. We certainly need to manage workload and expectations nationally; there have been positive signs here and the better leaders understand this and don’t pass on their stress to staff. 

Perhaps we also need to be more open to part time working – and not just for those who are returning after children. Maybe we need to encourage younger teachers to career plan and think about what they may do – indeed what else they may do in later life. In my own case I have never seen teaching as a job for life; I love it and feel I’m doing as good a job as I’ve ever done but it would be naive to think that I could go on indefinitely. I have plans in place to do other things if the moment comes that my energy levels lag way behind the pace of the job but I wonder if that makes me unusual.

I hope that our secret teacher rediscovers her enthusiasm for teaching and is able to maintain some balance in her life. There is nothing worse than feeling trapped in a job you no longer enjoy. I also hope that as teachers we can find a way of harnessing the wisdom and skills of our older colleagues