What have I learned?


At the start of my Headship at the Academy, I told students, staff and families that my mission up until Easter was to look, listen and learn as much about the place as I could so I could make an informed decision about what I needed to keep, grow and change. This has been a fascinating process and I wanted to share it with you!


How did I do it? – I have visited lessons every day since I started at the Academy! I’ve seen lessons in every department and from every year group. I’ve also eaten lunch with the students in each of the kitchens, spent time in all of the house wells, and got down on to the field when the weather permitted us to open it. I’ve met with the House Captains and the Sixth Form Council, and met with several deputations of students who wanted to chat. I’ve taught my own Year 7 class and supported students in the Academy Skills Centre. I’ve been to Breakfast Club, run a detention, and take on Miss Bones and Jens Hullah in an epic rowing challenge. It’s been incredible!

What did they say? – students are overwhelmingly positive about the Academy. They really appreciate the expertise and energy that teachers put into their lessons. They recognise that they are lucky to come to an outstanding school and they want to make the most of every opportunity. Many students speak very highly of the wealth of extra-curricular activities on offer, including the performing arts, sports and outdoor education to name but a few! In lessons I’ve seen students eager to learn, well-organised, focused and well-behaved.

I’ve had a few requests from students to relax some of our rules and regulations. In particular, students wanted me to allow mobile phones in school. I won’t do this – we have very good reasons for not allowing them to be used in school as I explained on this blog in the post Why We Don’t Allow Mobiles In SchoolAlong similar lines, some students wanted to be allowed to listen to music in class – but the research shows that this can undermine learning as I explained in the post Can I listen to music while I work? I revisited this theme for my assembly on Concentration which seemed to go down well!

Students have been very positive about our use of social media to celebrate the work of the Academy. This is in its infancy but we’ve broken 300 followers on Instagram this week (which is nothing compared to the Performing Arts Department’s account which is nearly at 500!)



How did I do it? – I’ve been meeting with every single member of staff individually. So far I’ve held 106 meetings! I’m looking forward to the rest after the Easter holiday. It’s been great to hear what they’ve had to say and to get their perspectives on the place. I’ve asked them what the best things about working here are, and what they think I should be working on.

What did they say? – When asked what the best thing about Churchill is, almost every single member of staff has said “the students.” Time and again the teachers and the support staff have spoken about how the young people at Churchill are keen to learn, focused on achieving their best, and willing to support the Academy and one another. The warmth and strength of those relationships is a vital part of the Academy’s success – the students love the staff and the staff love the students. I sometimes feel I’m the luckiest Headteacher in the country!


How did I do it? – It seems like a long time ago now, but back in January I held “Meet the Headteacher” evenings to meet with families from each of the Houses. Since then I’ve met families at many of the school events such as the Options Evening, Parents Evenings, West Side Story, the Spring Concert, the Dance Showcase, Dance Their Socks Off, Spelling Bee, Vocabulary Millionnaire final, Young Musician of the Year…it’s been busy! I’ve also been grateful to the parents who have emailed, phoned, written or come in to see me since January, and I have found this especially helpful.

What did they say? – as I explained in the newsletter in February, families are overwhelmingly positive about the work of the Academy. In particular vertical tutoring and the house system, the quality of staff, the ethos and values of the Academy and the performing arts opportunities were singled out for praise. These are all vital parts of what we do at Churchill and it’s my mission to protect them! Families advised us to improve communication, reports to parents, facilities, catering services and extra-curricular provision. These are all things we’re working on. Finally, families wanted us to enforce expectations around uniform, improve the buildings and facilities, develop homework and improve communication and reports to families. I’m on the case…

What now?


The plan for our new Business Studies and IT block – now approved!

The next step for me is to put in place the plan to take the Academy from its position of considerable strength to the next level of success. The signs are already looking promising: our successful bid for a new building begins the process of improving the quality of the facilities. We are fully subscribed for September with 270 offers of places made at Churchill to Year 6 children and their families. Students are working hard, staff are positive about their prospects, and the sun has shone sufficiently to get the field open at lunch time!

Over the next term we are working on:

  • Care: ensuring the wellbeing of all members of the Academy is prioritised and that appropriate support is provided to those that need it
  • Inspire: planning professional development so that the provision of excellent teaching and learning is the focus for all
  • Challenge: redeveloping assessment, target setting and reporting to make it clearer and more helpful for students, teachers, and families
  • Achieve: ensuring that outcomes are the best that they can be, whilst recognising that achievement is about more than just exam results.

We are also planning for our new building, preparing our new website for launch, and so much more besides! Watch this space…

Assembly: Concentration

This assembly owes much to a presentation on the brain given by Bradley from Inner Drive (@Inner_Drive) at #GrowEx last year, and this excellent TED talk by Peter Doolittle (@pdoopdoo) on working memory shared by Huntington Learning Hub (@HuntingtonLHub). It’s well worth a watch:

The PowerPoint slides are shared at the bottom of this post.

We start with a test of working memory (see the video for this test). I am going to ask you to remember five words just by holding them in your mind. Here are the five words:

  1. Tree
  2. Motorway
  3. Mirror
  4. Saturn
  5. Electrode

Whilst you are remembering those five words, I am going to set you three challenges.

  1. What is 23 x 8?
  2. On your left hand, use your thumb to count your fingers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, then back again 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.
  3. Now in your head recite the last five letters of the English alphabet backwards.

How many of the five words that I asked you to remember do you still have in your memory? Does anyone still have all five?

The reason why many of you will have forgotten some of the words that I told you only a minute or so ago, is that the capacity of our working memory is limited. It can only hold so much information at any one time. Daniel Willingham provides a simplified model of the brain here:

A simple diagram of the mind (source)

A simple diagram of the mind (source)

In our test, the Environment (me) provided some information which was fed into your working memory. You didn’t do much with that information, and immediately afterwards I distracted you with three more activities which demanded space in your working memory. Little wonder, then, that when I asked you to return to the original information (the five words I asked you to remember), some or all of it had been pushed out of your mind without ever having made it into your long-term memory.


There are some more demonstrations that will help us understand why sustained concentration on the task in hand is important. The first is to do with focus, and multitasking. You might think that you are really good at multitasking, and that you can easily do two, three or more things at once. Where some of those things are automatic – walking and talking, for example – that is probably true. However, your working memory can only focus on one cognitively demanding task at a time. In that way, it’s like focusing a lens – you can only focus on one thing at a time.

You can only focus on one thing at a time

You can only focus on one thing at a time (when in doubt, reach for the cat gifs)

Let’s take this optical illusion as an example. In the picture, the man’s face can be seen looking to the right, or looking straight ahead. See if you can see both!

Looking to the right, or looking straight ahead? Both - but not at the same time.

Looking to the right, or looking straight ahead? Both – but not at the same time.

Now try to see both at the same time. Your brain switches from one to the other – it will only let you hold one interpretation of the picture in your head at one time. This is what happens when you try to multi-task. Your working memory actually switches from one task to the other. This is called context switching, and you may be able to do this quickly (there is some evidence that women are better at it than men), but you are not multitasking. You can’t.

Finally, here’s a demonstration of context switching in action. I need a volunteer from the audience to take this box of multicoloured balls, and arrange them in rows of four in the order of the colours of the rainbow. At the same time, they will be solving some Mental Maths Questions from the KS2 Maths SAT Buster book.

I know this challenge well, because Bradley used me as his volunteer at #GrowEx when conducting the same experiment. Essentially, your brain can either focus on arranging the balls, or on doing the maths – but not both. As I was trying to arrange the balls, I got simple questions wrong. When I thought about the maths, my hands stopped moving. My working memory would not allow me to do both things at the same time. I felt embarrassed, but I shouldn’t have; I was simply demonstrating a human characteristic. Our brains cannot do two cognitively demanding things simultaneously.

Let’s think about how we can apply what we’ve seen today to the classroom. The first thing is that it only takes is a small distraction for information that you have just learned to evaporate. If you are getting to grips with a new concept in your lessons and you then think about the piece of gossip you meant to tell your neighbour, your chances of transferring the new concept to your long term memory are dramatically reduced. Distractions are compelling – it’s very easy to be like Dug from Up: 

Distractions can take your mind off the task at hand

Distractions can take your mind off the task at hand

And don’t kid yourself that you can do two things at once; you can’t. Once you’re distracted, the damage is done.

Put simply:

  1. Concentrate on the task at hand
  2. Focus on the learning
  3. Apply and use what you have learned straight away if you want to stand any chance of remembering it.

And, by the way, 23 x 8 = 184.

Good luck!

Here is the PowerPoint, though the gifs don’t work in this slideshare version. Click on this link for the full version: Concentration.

Concentration phoster

How to revise: techniques that work


We love revision…right?

Revision – it really matters. But, with the best will in the world, it’s not the most exciting way to spend your time. The process itself requires you to look back at work you’ve already done – to “re-vision” it – to try and remember it and commit it to memory. There’s nothing “new” in it. But the trick to making it effective is to get your brain working as hard as it can be.

The reason for this is best summed up by cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham. Willingham says:

Whatever you think about, that’s what you remember. Memory is the residue of thought. 

In other words, you need your brain to really be processing the information you are trying to revise, if you want to stand any chance of remembering it.

What doesn’t work?

There are a few techniques that seem effective – but actually aren’t. These include:

  • Highlighting
  • Re-reading
  • Summarising

Highlighting: expectation vs reality

These techniques allow information to pass through your brain without much thinking. Covering pages of A4 with beautifully highlighted patches might make you feel like you’ve achieved something, but it won’t actually help you to remember the information. These are low challenge activities, and therefore low impact

What does work?

Practice Testing

This technique is pretty straightforward – keep testing yourself (or each other) on what you have got to learn.  This technique has been shown to have the highest impact in terms of supporting student learning.  Some ways in which you can do this easily:

  • Create some flashcards, with questions on one side and answers on the other – and keep testing yourself.
  • Work through past exam papers – many can be acquired through exam board websites.
  • Simply quiz each other (or yourself) on key bits of information.
  • Create ‘fill the gap’ exercises for you and a friend to complete.
  • Create multiple choice quizzes for friends to complete.

Distributed Practice

forgetting curve

The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve – if you revisit newly learned information, you remember more of it

Rather than cramming all of your revision for each subject into one block, it’s better to space it out – from now, through to the exams.  Why is this better?  Bizarrely, because it gives you some forgetting time.  This means that when you come back to it a few weeks later, you will have to think harder, which actually helps you to remember it.  Furthermore, the more frequently you come back to a topic, the better you remember it.

Elaborate Interrogation

One  of the best things that you can do (either to yourself or with a friend) to support your revision is to ask why an idea or concept is true – and then answer that why question.  For example:

  • In science, increasing the temperature can increase the rate of a chemical reaction….why?
  • In geography, the leisure industry in British seaside towns like Porthcawl in South Wales has deteriorated in the last 4 decades….why?
  • In history, the 1929 American stock exchange collapsed.  This supported Hitler’s rise to power….why?

So, rather than just try to learn facts or ideas, ask yourself why they are true.

Self explanation

Rather than looking at different topics from a subject in isolation, try to think about how this new information is related to what you know already.  This is where mind- maps might come in useful – but the process of producing the mind map is probably more useful than the finished product.  So, think about a key central idea (the middle of the mind map) and then how new material, builds on the existing knowledge in the middle.

Alongside this, when you solve a problem e.g. in maths, explain to someone the steps you took to solve the problem.  This can be applied to a whole range of subjects.

Interleaved revision

When you are revising a subject, the temptation is to do it in ‘blocks’ of topics.  Like this:


The problem with this is, is that it doesn’t support the importance of repetition – which is so important to learning (see distributed practice above!)  So rather than revising in ‘topic blocks’ it’s better to chunk these topics up in your revision programme and interleave them:


This means that you keep coming back to the topics.  So, instead of doing a one hour block of revision on topic 1, do 15 minutes on topic 1, then 15 minutes on topic 2, then the same for topic 3 and 4. The next day, do the same. On day three – just to spice it up and stop your brain getting into a rut – mix up the topics!

Have a break

Your brain can only work effectively for so long. Scientists differ on this – some say our attention span is around 20 minutes, whilst others say we can work for longer. My advice is to revise in blocks of around 45 minutes, giving yourself a 15 minute break in each hour to recharge. Make sure you get some fresh air, relax and switch off. You don’t want to underachieve because you haven’t done enough revision – but equally, you need to stay healthy and happy if you’re going to do your best, so don’t overdo it!


There are lots of resources out there to help you revise. Here are just a few:

Good luck!


With thanks to Shaun Allison for the inspiration  and some of the images for this blog. Read Shaun’s original post here.

Can I listen to music while I work?

This week I met Lara, Holly and Melissa, three students in Year 8 who wanted me to let them listen to music whilst they revised for their exams. They wrote me a very polite letter, and they’d even discussed it with their classmates to gather a petition. They felt that listening to music when they were working helped them relax, focus, and shut out distractions. So, they asked, would I relax the rules and let them have their headphones in?


Will listening to music help us concentrate?

There’s been some quite interesting research in this area. Scientists have studied how listening to music can change our performance in different types of tasks. Under some conditions, music actually improves our performance, while in other situations music makes it worse.

One study from America looked at how listening to music had an impact on surgeons’ performance in the operating theatre. This study found that listening to music made them more relaxed and they performed with more accuracy, especially if it was music they liked.

Another study, by British researcher Nick Perham, found that playing music you like can lift your mood and increase your motivation — if you listen to it before getting down to work. But it serves as a distraction from cognitively demanding tasks like learning new material or trying to memorise information.

This is a very important distinction. Surgeons in operating theatres are performing operations that they have practised many times before, and therefore they are performing things they have already learned. It’s the same principle as the research that found that music can make rote or routine tasks (like folding laundry or filing papers) less boring and more enjoyable. Runners who listen to music go faster. Music can lift us when we’re doing things that don’t require us to think too hard about them, or things that we have practised many times before.


Listening to music interferes with concentration when we’re trying to read or retain information, and makes us less effective learners

That’s not what lessons and revision are about however. Learning is what Nick Perham would call a “cognitively demanding task.” In one of his more recent studies, Perham says, he found that reading while listening to music, especially music with lyrics, impairs comprehension.

“You’ve got…information that you’re trying to use when you’re reading a book, and you’ve got…information from the lyrics,” Perham says. “If you can understand the lyrics, it doesn’t matter whether you like it or not, it will impair your performance of reading comprehension.”

What basically happens is that your brain will switch between the music and what you’re trying to learn or revise, and that switching distracts you from the learning process. If you’re going to be an effective learner, your brain needs to focus fully on what you are trying to learn. No distractions.

So, sorry Lara, Holly, Melissa and friends: the rule stays! If you’re learning or revising – turn the music off.


Why “I can’t do it” won’t do


Thomas Edison, inventor of the phonograph, motion picture camera, and the light bulb – he knew a thing or two about persistence (image source)

What are the biggest barriers to learning? Of course, there are many difficulties and problems which face us all when we are learning something new. We may not have the resources available; we might not have the right environment in which to learn; we might not have the skills or prior knowledge we need to grasp the concept. However, I think the biggest barrier to learning is our own attitude – the tendency to give up when it gets difficult, to throw up our hands and say “I can’t do it!”

I remember interviewing a student (let’s call her Emma*)  for a place in the sixth form a few years ago. Her mum was with her and she was really struggling in Maths. “I can’t do Maths,” she said. Her mum turned to her and said, “don’t worry, I can’t do Maths either.” Needless to say, Emma didn’t get the grade she needed in Maths to get into the sixth form. I’m sure her mum was trying to help, to offer some comfort to her daughter who was struggling with some difficult concepts. But the notion that not being able to do Maths is somehow okay gave Emma permission to believe that she genuinely couldn’t do Maths – and this wasn’t the case. Anyone can do Maths. Everyone can do Maths. But you need to work at it, and you need to believe you can do it.

Imagine for a moment if Emma had been struggling with reading. Would her mum have turned to her with the same comfort? “Don’t worry, I can’t read either.” This just wouldn’t happen, and we need to have the same attitude to all our learning.

Luckily, there is a solution – and it’s one simple word. That word is YET. Adding the word “yet” to  the end of a “giving up” phrase is a simple way of reminding us that learning is a process.

  • I can’t do it…YET
  • I don’t understand it…YET
  • I’m no good at painting…YET
  • I tried question 4 and I couldn’t do it…YET
  • I’m not a Maths person…YET

The only way we can guarantee failure is if we give up. Until then, everything we’re doing is learning. What “YET” does is it says that this is a skill which is acquired over time. It’s not something you’re necessarily going to get instantly. There’s a learning curve, and to be successful we need to stay on that curve.

Even Sesame Street have tuned into the power of YET with a catchy tune from Janelle Monae. Enjoy…

You didn’t do it right now, but keep trying, you’ll learn how

You just didn’t get it yet, but you’ll get it soon I bet

That’s the power of yet. 

*Names have been changed.