Why I love the Junior Choir

This year’s Christmas Concert was an absolute triumph, as you can read in my review for the website and all the lovely emails and messages which were sent in afterwards. The standard of music-making and performance was exceptional, and the variety of acts was joyous. But for me, and I think for most of the audience, the Junior Choir was the perfect way to close the show. Here’s why I love the Junior Choir…


By my count there are 237 students listed on the programme in the Junior Choir, including 21 soloists. This captures the ethos of the Academy – it’s inclusive, where all students are valued, where everyone has a voice. And what a fantastic sound 237 Year 7 and 8 students make when they’re together!


The soloists – and the rest of the choir – who performed on the night were incredible. It’s important to remember that some of them had only been at Churchill for eleven weeks before they took to the Playhouse stage! To sing so skilfully, word- and note-perfect (or dressed as Elvis!) on a professional theatre stage is testament to all we do to build the confidence of our young people; it is this work that makes our students our best ambassadors.



The songs that the Junior Choir sang were all composed by Churchill students. This year we had new compositions from Finn Williamson, Lois Hart and Brooke Knight alongside some from previous years’ songwriting competitions. The chance for students to showcase their creativity on this huge scale is such a fantastic opportunity! And the songs are great too; a fantastic alternative to traditional Christmas carols.


As well as the sound, the sight of all those students moving together is breathtaking! The choreography really brings energy to the singing, too, and brings the words to life.



The Junior Choir are the Youthful Spirit of tomorrow. Having the younger students in the Playhouse to hear the senior students sing, play, act and perform allows them to see where the performing arts can take them at Churchill. Our senior students are superb role models, and having the Junior Choir alongside them in the theatre ensures that this vital area of our work remains strong into the future.


Although our Christmas Concert takes place at the end of November, for me it marks the start of the Christmas season. It’s the first time this year – outside of shopping centres! – that I’d seen festive tinsel and it got me properly into the Christmas spirit.

You can watch and download a video of the Junior Choir, along with a selection of other performances from the Christmas Concert, at the Music Department website.


How to revise #3: Elaboration


This is the third post in a series looking at the most effective ways to revise, based on the work of The Learning Scientists. The Learning Scientists are cognitive psychologists who want to make scientific research on learning more accessible to students and teachers. Their aim is to motivate students to study and increase the use of effective study and teaching strategies that are backed by research. I’ve met Yana Weinstein PhD at an education conference in Southampton last week – she’s the real deal!

Read all the revision posts here. 

Elaboration: what is it?

When you are elaborating, you are explaining and describing what you are revising with as many details as possible. You are looking for answers to why and how things work, and you are looking for connections between the material and other things you know.

Elaboration: why?

When you elaborate, you focus on the details and the connections between the material (what you are revising) and things in your own experience and knowledge (already safely in your long-term memory). These details and connections create “hooks” to help you remember the material you are revising.

Also, by working the material through your brain and doing something with it, you are strengthening the connections in your memory.

Elaboration: how do I do it?


How you elaborate depends on what it is that you are revising. Let’s say you are revising Biology, and you want to remember cell structures. You could ask yourself why animal and plant cells differ, and how they differ. Note the answers down, or say them out loud to yourself (or into a voice memo recorder). You could then ask yourself how they are similar, and why.

Always check that your elaborations are accurate after you’ve done them. Refer back to your notes, textbooks, or online resources. Correct and mistakes and repeat the elaboration with the corrections, otherwise you’ll risk remembering the incorrect material.

Elaboration: next steps

In the early stages of elaboration, it’s a good idea to have your notes around you to refer to. The eventual aim, however, is to get to the point where you can describe and explain accurately without the material in front of you.

Elaboration: watch the video


How to revise #2: Spaced Practice


This is the second post in a series looking at the most effective ways to revise, based on the work of The Learning Scientists. The Learning Scientists are cognitive psychologists who want to make scientific research on learning more accessible to students and teachers. Their aim is to motivate students to study and increase the use of effective study and teaching strategies that are backed by research. I’ve met Yana Weinstein PhD at an education conference in Southampton – she’s the real deal!

Read all the revision posts here.

Spaced Practice: what is it?

Spaced practice, sometimes called distributed practice, means that you revise little and often rather than all at once.

Spaced Practice: why?

forgetting curve

The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve – reviews over time lead to better retention of learned information

Spacing out your revision so that you revisit your material again and again  over time with breaks in between is far more effective than cramming all at once. Studies have shown that revisiting material helps secure the connections in your brain.

Spaced Practice: how do I do it?


Spaced practice needs planning – but it can start straight away. In any year, you can start spaced practice immediately to help secure your learning for the future. At the weekend, give yourself time to go over what you’ve learned in the previous week. It doesn’t need to be long – just a few minutes to make sure you’ve remembered what you’ve studied during the week.

Spaced Practice: next steps

After a few weeks, go back over the stuff from a month ago to make sure it’s still there. If you have to remind yourself of things that you’ve forgotten – don’t worry! Re-learning and reminding yourself of things you’ve forgotten actually makes the retention rate better.

In the run-up to exams, make sure you revise your material a little and often, leaving spaces of a few days between sessions on the same subject.

When you are revising, use the retrieval practice method, elaboration (see post #3!) and self-testing. Don’t just read over your notes – make your brain work hard with the material so you remember it better.

Finally, don’t leave all your revision to the night before – you won’t remember it! You’re actually far better off getting a good night’s sleep than pulling an all-nighter. Your brain will be sharper and more effective for the exam if you’re well rested.

Spaced Practice: watch the video


Mr Hildrew’s blog for Remembrance Day.

Teaching: Leading Learning

Remembrance Day in school is one of those moments which make you realise what an important job we do, and what a privileged position teachers are in. It’s always the day of the year when Iwantto be teaching period 3; I’m disappointed if I have a non-contact session. It’a an honour to share the silence with young people as we reflect, separately but together, on our individual and collective experience of loss and sacrifice. There are few other occasions where I’m so intensely aware of what Graham Nuthall calls the different worlds of the classroom. On the surface we all experience an identical minutebetween the bells, but in our private inner worlds each person has an unknown and unique journey.

SourceSource I always preface the silence with my classes with a little about why Remembrance Day is particularly important to me. I tell them about my Grandfather, an…

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Assembly: Think Before You Speak


Over the half term, I got a new book: Fun Science by Charlie McDonnell. I’d been looking forward to this book for ages as I’ve watched Charlie on YouTube for a long time and really enjoyed his Fun Science videos. The book is great and highly recommended! I was reminded of this video Charlie made back in 2011 explaining the science of sound:

Charlie’s song discusses speech, and begins with the line “it starts with an idea, or an impulse to make a sound.” It is the gap between the idea and the sound that I want to concentrate on – when the idea to say something has formed, there is a choice about whether we should give that idea voice. There’s a useful mnemonic to help us make that decision:

In my view, if what you are about to say does not pass one of those five tests, you should think twice before saying it. Once something is said, it is possible to apologise and try to make amends, but it is never possible to take it back.

To demonstrate this principle in assembly, we did a little Fun Science of our own. A willing volunteer from the audience donned the important safety equipment, before attempting to squirt all the toothpaste out of a tube as quickly as possible (Hanover were the best at this, with a time of 9.08 seconds). The second part of the experiment saw the volunteers try to put the toothpaste back into the tube. This proved much more difficult.

The experiment was designed to show that squeezing the toothpaste is like blurting something out without thinking about it. It’s easy to do – the work of a moment – and actually feels pretty good in that moment! But once it’s out, there’s no putting it back, and any attempt to do so actually creates a worse mess than you started with.

It’s also important to think about the way we “speak” online. Mrs McKay has already spoken to students this year about the importance of e-safety, but we often see how people “say” things online they would never say in person.

written in ink.jpg

The difference between speech and posting online, of course, is that there is a permanent record of what you have “said.” Even on services like Snapchat, where the message expires, screencaps can still be taken – and the impact of the communication is permanent. When confronted with the things they’ve put on social media, for example, people will often say “I didn’t think…” If what you’re about to say – whether in person or online – doesn’t pass the THINK test, then think twice.

Of course if we have the opportunity to say something that is true, that is helpful, that is inspiring, that is necessary, that is kind, we should take that opportunity. Because, although our words can cause damage, they can also make someone’s day immeasurably better. And by choosing to say that truthful, helpful, inspiring, necessary and kind thing, we add to the sum of positives in our community, and make everyone that little bit better.

Our words make a difference. Let’s make a positive difference.

COULD mortal lip divine
The undeveloped freight
Of a delivered syllable,
’T would crumble with the weight.

Emily Dickinson

#LoveToRead: My Desert Island Books


This weekend (5-6th November) is “Love to Read” weekend, a campaign run by BookTrust and the BBC. There’s a wealth of programming across the BBC (read about it here) and as part of the campaign, Simon Mayo has been asking authors to share their six “Desert Island Books” on his Radio Two show (you can hear Marian Keyes’ choices here). Our wonderful LRC co-manager Mrs McGilloway suggested I share mine here…and I don’t need asking twice! You can read the LRC’s #LovetoRead blog post here.

Firstly, I’ve always loved to read. I used to read by torchlight under the covers at night when I was supposed to be asleep. I have always got a book on the go (it’s pretty much all I put on my Instagram!) and I don’t think there’s much to beat the feeling of being completely absorbed in the imagined world of a story. If I was really on a desert island I’d want to clear some of my “currently unread” pile, but here are the six books that had the biggest effect on me, or mean the most to me, in alphabetical order (author’s surname) because I can’t rank them!

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen


Jane Austen famously described her novels as “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush as produces little effect after so much labour.” In this novel the art of nuance, delicacy, and meticulously crafted language is unparalleled. It tells the story of Fanny Price, a low-born girl, adopted into the rich Bertram family. Fanny has a rock-solid moral compass, and always knows right from wrong. When her uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, goes away to Antigua to look after the plantation full of slaves his wealth is built upon, the elder and supposedly better Bertram children begin to drift away from the straight and narrow, flirting with unsuitable people and generally getting out of hand –  but Fanny stays strong. I love the fact the Austen, in 1814, was showing that those born with privilege don’t necessarily deserve it, but that being true to what you know is right will be rewarded. The novel is also notable for the fabulously awful aunt character, Mrs Norris, a horrendous snob and busybody – and the character that J.K. Rowling named Filch’s cat after in the Harry Potter series.

The Complete Poems by Emily Dickinson


Emily Dickinson is a fascinating character. She spent most of her life as a hermit, shut up alone inside her house in Amherst, Massachusetts. After her death in 1886, her sister, Lavinia, found stockpiles of poetry, hand-written and hand-bound, locked in trunks. They were breathtakingly modern, often very short, dense, and compact, using dashes as punctuation and meditating on death and immortality. She is now widely regarded as one of the most important American poets of all time. This book contains all 1775 separate poems, and I read it cover-to-cover for a final year university assignment. I’d love to have the time to do it again! As an aside, you can now see all of the original handwritten manuscripts at the open access Emily Dickinson Archive – a real treasure trove.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath


This novel had a profound impact on me when I first read it in Year 12. I’d read some of Plath’s poems in class, and my English teacher recommended this novel as further reading. It’s a semi-autobiographical account of her depression and breakdown in 1950s America, told through a character called Esther Greenwood. Esther is a thinly-veiled version of Plath herself, and the novel deals with her treatment by electric shock following a suicide attempt. It is harrowing and horrific, but it is a story which has a strong thread of hope running through it. It is also brilliantly written, with metaphors and images so striking they remain with me still. Published in 1963, its unflinching first-person portrayal of mental illness is as important and relevant today as ever.

His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman


I may be slightly cheating here by cramming a trilogy in as one book, but it has been published in one volume and it’s my list, so I’ll do what I like! The opening novel, Northern Lights, tells the story of Lyra Belaqua, living in a parallel world where people’s souls exist outside their bodies in the form of animal companions or dæmons. In the second part, The Subtle Knife, Lyra’s story intertwines with that of Will Parry, a boy from our own world, as the two of them try to find the secret of the mysterious Dust that is swirling through the universe. Supposedly a children’s book, the trilogy’s ambition and scale is huge: it takes in the nature of religion, creation, adulthood, life, death and the self within a gripping and thrilling narrative. It has to be read to be believed.

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters


Sarah Waters is a brilliant writer of historical fiction, often exploring the experience of women in different time periods. This perspective always makes for fascinating reading, but in Fingersmith she fashions a plot so fiendishly complex and so full of twists and turns that I remember gasping aloud as I read it. It’s definitely one for older readers, but the exploration of love, trust, betrayal, madness and deceit in Victorian Britain is simply stunning.

The Waves by Virginia Woolf


When I was at university, I got really interested in whether it was possible to express thoughts in writing – dreams, unconscious thoughts, the inner workings of the mind. Woolf’s attempt at that The Waves reads almost like a poem, with six characters speaking in the first person in a series of interlinked inner monologues. It’s an experimental, beautiful book.

Over to you!

What are your Desert Island Books? Let me know in the comments, or have a chat about it with your teachers. Even better, let the LRC managers know so they can add you to the #LoveToRead list!

How to Revise #1: Retrieval Practice


This is the first post in a series looking at the most effective ways to revise, based on the work of The Learning Scientists. The Learning Scientists are cognitive psychologists who want to make scientific research on learning more accessible to students and teachers. Their aim is to motivate students to study and increase the use of effective study and teaching strategies that are backed by research. I’ve met Yana Weinstein PhD at an education conference in Southampton last week – she’s the real deal!

Retrieval Practice: what is it?

Retrieval practice is when you make your brain recall information from memory, and then do something with that information.

Retrieval Practice: why?

By forcing your brain to recall information from memory, it strengthens the connection in the long term memory and makes it easier to remember it next time. Failure to retrieve information also helps. If you can’t remember an important piece of information, fact or idea, it tells you that you need to re-learn it carefully so you can retrieve it next time.

Retrieval Practice: how do I do it?

Over to the Learning Scientists:


Flashcards are particularly useful. Write a concept or keyword on one side, and the definition on the reverse. Alternatively, write a question on one side, and the answer on the other. Look at the front and remember the information on the reverse. Don’t be tempted to flip the card – if you do, you’re just reading the information, not recalling it from memory, and this isn’t helping with retrieval.

Retrieval Practice: next steps


Testing yourself is difficult! Don’t worry if you find it hard. The struggle is actually making the connections in your brain more secure. Follow the advice above and it will get easier – but if you cheat and look at the answers, you aren’t securing those connections to your memory.

It’s also vital to check that you’ve recalled information correctly, otherwise you might be cementing incorrect definitions and ideas into your memory!

Retrieval Practice: watch the video

In this video, the Learning Scientists explain about retrieval practice:


Happy revising!

The hare and the tortoise


A school year is a marathon, not a sprint: it’s important to pace ourselves. It reminds me of the story of the hare and the tortoise. The hare sets off at a terrific pace, relying on its natural talent – speed – to get it through. Initially, it pays off and the hare sprints ahead. However, it can’t maintain the pace over time, and ends up asleep under a tree. The tortoise understands that consistent, steady effort, applied over time, will bring its rewards. Because that level of effort can be sustained, the tortoise overhauls the sleeping hare and finishes ahead.

“The moment we believe that success is determined by an ingrained level of ability, we will be brittle in the face of adversity.”

Josh Waitzkin

Everyone at Churchill – staff and student – needs to put in constant and consistent effort in every lesson, every day. That way we can all stay on top of our work and make sure we haven’t got an impossible mountain to climb at the end of term or the end of the year. But it also means that we can sustain that level of effort over time, and make trying hard our default behaviour. Relying on our natural talents to get us through – coasting – may get us a certain distance, but there will come a time when it isn’t enough. Then, if we aren’t used to trying, we won’t have the reserves to make it count.

Another key element to making sure we have the energy to maintain our effort over time, is to ensure we build in relaxation time. We can’t work all the time, and time to unwind and de-stress is vital! It’s also essential that we eat and sleep well, so that we are charged up and ready for the hard work of learning during the school week.

Pace yourself – and keep going!



Assessment without levels at Churchill

This week Year 7 received their starting profile reports, which assess students as they start the school. These reports are the first we have issued at Churchill since national curriculum levels were removed from both primary and secondary schools. In their absence, we are using several measures to assess students at the Academy, and to track their progress. Our aim was to design an assessment system that gave useful information to students and families, whilst being clear and easy to understand.

Assessment on entry

Key Stage 2 Test Results (SATs)

We get the results for every child who has taken the SATs at the end of Year 6 in their primary school. The overall scaled score – combined from their English and Maths tests –  ranges between 80 and 120, with 100 being the national average. At Churchill, the average score we have in our Year 7 is 104.

In addition to the Key Stage 2 results, we do several tests to assess students when they start at the Academy. This helps us to “triangulate” the data and gives us a level playing field for all starters.

CATs Tests

These tests include assessments of students’ performance across four “batteries” of tests:

  • Verbal (handling words and language)
  • Quantitative (handling number)
  • Non-verbal (problem solving)
  • Spatial (handling shape in two and three dimensions)

The national average across the four batteries is 100, with scores usually ranging between 90 and 110. At Churchill our average for Year 7 is 103.

NGRT Reading Test

This test assesses reading and comprehension of text. Again, the national average is 100, with scores usually ranging between 90 and 110. At Churchill the average for our Year 7 is 107.

Starting profiles


Starting profiles for our current Year 7

We use the scores from Key Stage 2 tests, CATs and the NGRT Reading Assessment to create the profile of the year group. The chart above shows distribution of the average of the scores across the three assessments in our current Year 7. This helps us to give students a “starting profile” which we can use to track progress over time. Starting Profile 5 (SP5) represents the highest scores across the assessments. Most of our students are in Starting Profile 3 (SP3 – the highest point on the curve, with the highest proportion of students). Starting Profile 1 includes students with the lowest scores, so that we can assign support as appropriate.Starting profiles are reviewed each year.

Tracking progress over time

When students are assessed in future, we will be able to track their progress relative to their starting profile. In each subject, assessments will be scored and we will be able to report to families whether students have made:

  • Expected progress relative to their starting profile
  • Good  or Exceptional progress (better than expected) relative to their starting profile
  • Less than expected progress relative to their starting profile

In other words, if a student with a Starting Profile of 3 completes an assessment and the score shows that they remain in that bracket, they will be assessed as having made “expected progress.” If they have worked really hard and moved up in their assessments, they will be assessed as having made “better than expected progress” and so on.

In the future

At the moment, we are running this assessment system with Year 7, and tracking the progress of Year 8. Over time, as the new GCSEs are taken, we will be able to make more accurate estimates of GCSE grade expectations for students with particular starting profiles. This means we will be able to roll the system out over time across the whole school.

We hope that you find the assessment information useful!

Open Evening 2016


Open Evening is a key event in our school calendar. It’s when we get a chance to showcase our wonderful school to children and their families who are interested in coming to Churchill in Year 7. This year was my first open evening as Headteacher, and as I walked around the site I couldn’t have been prouder of the staff and students! There was a fantastic “buzz” in every part of the school, from the twinkling fairy lights outside the Design and Technology grotto to the Duke of Edinburgh fire pit, from the tarantulas, rats and tortoises in Biology to the magic in Mathematics, and from the Shakespearean photobooth in English to the crumble-making in Catering…and everything in between!

I was especially proud of Elliot, Anna and Stephen from Year 13, and James, Emma and Drew from Year 7, who spoke confidently and so warmly about their time at Churchill to the packed houses in the Academy Hall. Our student tour guides were also excellent ambassadors for the school, answering questions and making sure that no stone was left unturned. I even found myself clapping along to the Youthful Spirit Gospel Choir at one point! Thanks to everyone from the Academy who came out to help.

Next week we have our Open Mornings when we will showcase the Academy on a normal working day. We can’t wait!

You can download my presentation from the evening here. Meanwhile, below are a few photos – and a couple of videos! – from Open Evening.

Four reasons to come to #churchillacademy. 1. MUSIC #lovemusic #performingarts #agreatbigworld

A video posted by Performing Arts Churchill (@performingartschurchill) on

Reasons to come to #churchillacademy 2. DRAMA #shakespeareschoolsfestival #theeggbath #shakespeare #lovedrama

A video posted by Performing Arts Churchill (@performingartschurchill) on

Reasons to come to #churchillacademy 3. DANCE #lovedance #matildathemusical #performingarts #btecperformingarts

A video posted by Performing Arts Churchill (@performingartschurchill) on

Reasons to come to #churchillacademy 4. EXTRA CURRICULAR PROGRAMME #lovemusic #youthfulspirit #gospelchoir #performingarts

A video posted by Performing Arts Churchill (@performingartschurchill) on