History at Michaela

The weekend before last, I spoke at the West London Free School History Conference. The event was a superb gathering of history teachers and it was a real privilege to be able to share some of our Michaela insights. I thought it would be a nice idea for me to summarise the content of my workshop here, for the benefit of those who could not make it, or for those that are interested in our approach to teaching history. At the conference I spent some time explaining the core principles of the school, as a whole. This has been summarised far better elsewhere, so for this post I will give a brief overview of our approach to history specifically, as I outlined at the conference. I hope this goes some way into providing a concise guide into the underlying philosophy that underpins our thinking in the Humanities Department and how we get the pupils thinking hard about the discipline and writing great history.

History at Michaela

1. Philosophy

We believe that our pupils deserve to be taught the very best of what has been thought and said across the humanities. We think that if the right systems and teaching is in place, then the subject content should engage our pupils. We therefore do not plan for engagement, but for rigour. This does not mean we don’t think carefully about how we chunk knowledge so that pupils remain focused on what’s important. It does not mean either that we don’t think about how we can make our explicit instruction capture the imagination of our charges. We do not teach topics just because they are relevant, but because we think our pupils need to know them. We do not select topics based on narrow pupil demographics. We believe firmly in teaching our children their rightful inheritance of western philosophy, history and culture. This does not mean we do not teach history through a global lens, nor does it mean that we don’t focus on aspects of history that have been unfairly side-lined in the past. A choice to teach one thing in history is a choice not to teach a thousand others. Decisions need to be expedient and it would be irresponsible if we did not give our pupils the necessary amount of British and European History which would enable them to anchor themselves in the country and continent that is highly likely to be their home for the rest of their lives. It would also be irresponsible to exclude them from the great conversations of western culture that the wealthy and powerful are able to navigate with such deftness and ease.

2. Knowledge

Our philosophy as a school is that academic knowledge should and needs to be taught explicitly from the front, so that our pupils can creatively flex that knowledge and bring it to bear on conceptually focused questions. In history, we think this is especially clear. I’ll use the example of the First World War. A pupil cannot answer a question on the causes of the First World War unless he/she knows the following:

  1. the chronology of 1870-1914
  2. the main events and their consequences
  3. people and personalities
  4. procedural knowledge of cause and effect which enables pupils to discern the relative impact of certain events

All of the above can and should be taught explicitly. Only then will a pupil be close to answering a question which can be objectively agreed on as a ‘sound’ historical argument.

3. How we teach

Contrary to popular opinion, a change is not always as good as a rest. We believe that it is the content that should vary, not the task or the activity. Why?

a) The level of complexity and variety for a pupil in a school day is already extremely high. Imagine a pupil who has six lessons each day for five days of the week.

b) By reducing the number of tasks or activities for a pupil, teachers do not have to spend time instructing how to do the task. They can spend all of their time addressing misconceptions of the what rather than the how.

c) Consistency –  By limiting the number of tasks in a lesson, the variety between teachers and subjects is limited. This avoids ‘the race to the bottom’ for ‘fun’ or ‘engaging’ activities.

Tasks at Michaela therefore are limited to written and oral re-caps, quizzes, whole-class reading and instruction, co-construction, pair work and independent practice.

Knowledge Organisers can be important in history, as well as other subjects. The difference lies in how we use them in our department. We still organise key dates, people and events but we also consider the procedural knowledge needed for pupils to make sense of a particular question or period. We would use Christine Counsell’s phrasing and call this distinction ‘residue’ knowledge and ‘finger-tip’ knowledge. Residue knowledge is the sense of period that they will leave with at the end of the unit and will remember. This might be a broad sense of the events or chronology, or an understanding of important historical concepts, either substantive, procedural or both. We interpret ‘finger-tip’ knowledge as the knowledge that pupils need in the short-term to answer a specific historical question. Our aim is for pupils to remember what they have learnt and so we need to be careful about what we include on organisers and how we use them in lessons to ensure that the knowledge sticks with the pupils. They are useful for codifying the most important knowledge for the unit, however it is vital that they are used as a tool and not an all-encompassing panacea. There is a temptation to view glib one-sided organisers as the solution to the problem of the pupils not really knowing an awful lot and failing to retain knowledge beyond the unit. In reality, they are used at Michaela as a small part of the big picture of history curriculum design, teaching and retrieval. If you think that learning the knowledge organiser is the main aim of the game, then you have missed the point entirely. The most important resource in the room is the teacher’s specialism and subject knowledge. Knowledge organisers must be used in conjunction with excellent teaching and formative assessment, otherwise they can lead to the substantive knowledge becoming acutely inflexible.

4. How we get history to ‘stick’.

We believe that schools can underplay the importance of memory in the curriculum. We say that if you haven’t remembered it, you haven’t learnt it. How do we get pupils to remember the history they have done, not just last lesson, but all the way back to Year 7?

a) Sequenced and distributed re-cap: we give the pupils a third of lesson time to re-visit and retrieve knowledge from previous units and previous years.

b) Overlearning: we keep pupils learning after they know the material to prevent forgetting: ‘a good rule of thumb is to put in another 20 percent of the time it took to master the material’. This is why we spend so much lesson time on recap.

c) Testing frequently: testing students frequently helps them remember material. This another reason we spend so much lesson time on recap.

5. Enquiry

All historical topics should have a focus. The work of Michael Riley et al. is instructive in clarifying the importance of rigorous and challenging questions in secondary history classrooms. The answering of historical questions is at the heart of what we do. The origin of the word history, as most of us know means ‘enquiry’. However, an enquiry question is not the same as enquiry-based learning. We think that sometimes, a slavish focus on the enquiry question can lead to enquiry-induced blindness, whereby other fascinating and important parts of a historical topic are side-lined. Moreover, enquiries can often be created for engagement, rather than rigour. It is not to say that engagement and rigour are mutually exclusive, far from it. In fact, it is the intrinsic rigour of the subject, when mastered, that makes history engaging. We think that the best questions are rooted in historical scholarship. It is another aspect to our practice that we think is worth thinking about to ensure our questions reflect real historical debates and enable the pupils to get a broad sense of period. We try and craft enquiries that enable the pupils to bring as much wider knowledge to bear on a specific question.

6. Substantive & Procedural knowledge

There have been necessary and positive developments in history teaching in recent decades, notably the understanding that in order to ‘do history’; you need to be clear about the analytical framework in which you are flexing your substantive knowledge. However, we would still argue that this is still knowledge that can be taught explicitly and that a dogmatic focus on second order concepts such ‘change’ or ‘cause’ can actually inhibit us from mastering the critical substantive knowledge that will enable us to actually discern change, or ascertain a cause. Crucially, every analytical framework is firmly rooted in the specific domain of that topic – or the substantive knowledge of that period. For example, understanding the causes of the First World War requires a radically different conceptual and substantive toolkit than understanding the causes of the European Renaissance, despite the existence of clear similarities of second order concepts across time. This is not to say that second order concepts are not vital to discerning patterns in history, merely that we are careful to ensure that teaching second-order concepts is not at the cost of teaching the substantive knowledge which will enable them to understand and discern the second order concepts in the first place.

7. The Epistemology of History has become its Ontology

This is a phrase which I was told about by Michaela’s former Head of Humanities, Jonny Porter. He came across it in a blog by Michael Fordham a few years ago and I find it a particularly instructive phrase. ‘Epistemology’ in this case means the theory and methodology of history knowledge (the ‘doing’ history). ‘Ontology’ in this case refers to its very essence, or being.  Although enquiry is at the heart of historical scholarship, clearly that enquiry is intended to discern truth in and of itself. We believe it is a mistake to make the ‘doing history’ the most important component of history itself, particularly at KS3. There are two problems with this view of the discipline for our secondary school pupils. It often manifests itself in the belief that as long as pupils are able to master certain skills, then that makes them able to tackle historical problems and by extension, the problems of the real world more effectively. This is often shown in the ‘death by sources’ fetish that seems to have dominated much history teaching in schools. We believe this is a mistake because the idea of ‘analysis’ has to be rooted in the topic, or period you are studying. The second problem with this view is that in order to ‘do history’, it requires prior knowledge in the first place. I think about some of the classic sources used in KS3 and KS4 History. One example might be Joseph Goebbel’s Sportpalast Speech calling for ‘total war’. In order to fully understand this source, you need reams of knowledge. You need to know who Joseph Goebbels was. You need to know that he was the Nazi Minister of Propaganda. You need to know who the Nazis were. You need to know what propaganda is. You even need to know what a minister is. Finally, you need to know what was going on in Germany in 1943, and that the Red Army had just defeated the German Army at Stalingrad and that the Americans and British were starting to see the fruits of some early success. This prior knowledge needs to have been taught somewhere along the line, otherwise ‘doing history’ becomes an esoteric fumble which punishes those pupils who do not have the benefit of a culture of wider reading or a knowledge rich curriculum. These pupils, are of course, incidentally often the poorest.

8. Analysis

‘Analysis’ is an opaque term to describe what is ostensibly the essence of historical scholarship. Analysis is the ability to bring relevant domain specific knowledge to bear on a question, or debate. It is also true that the main points have clash within the main historical eras we teach have generally been discerned, for the purposes of an 11 year old. It is therefore incumbent on us to also provide the pupils with the main lines of analysis in our teaching so that can understand the variety of ways they could answer a particular question. This is not to say that we do not expose them to differences in interpretation, or that we do not allow pupils to develop their own ways of expressing historical claims,  only that we think it is often the case that we prematurely rush to complex history without the pupils having a bedrock of knowledge beforehand. It would be irresponsible to not teach pupils that claims about the past are contested.  Naturally, as time progresses, these scaffolds and lines of analysis will be reduced, much in line with the pupils’ understanding that history is not just a clear cut narrative but also contains a myriad of different interpretations and viewpoints. The aim of KS3 history at Michaela is to give the pupils enough substantive knowledge to ensure they are ready to enter the intellectually volatile world of the professional historian.





Year 7 History at Michaela

One of the great things about working at Michaela is watching the rapid transformation of our Year 7 pupils. From their baptism of fire induction in the first week, through to the end of the summer term, our youngest cohort improves hugely in terms of habits, behaviour and confidence.

The same is true when teaching them history. I was really impressed by their latest essays, particularly from the lowest ability groups, that I thought it would be useful for me to blog about how we got there.

We are so lucky in our department, in that we are given the space and time to talk about what to teach and how to make sure it sticks. Unlike the monstrous regimes of data meetings, school wide marking policies, or discussing the latest diktat from on high induced by ineffectual accountability regimes, we are actually given the space to talk about what to teach our Year 7s. We are also so lucky in that our Year 7s get three hours of history a week – which means we get to spend much longer embedding knowledge and helping the pupils practice.

That process of constantly thinking has led us to where we are now. We have lots to learn, and we are by no means there yet. My colleague Jonny has outlined some of this thinking in his blog, in particular the focus we have on the ‘horizontal’ or ‘domain’ specific vocabulary needed to make sense of a historical era or epoch and the ‘vertical’ vocabulary which is needed to analyse a specific historical debate, issue or question. Some might call the latter ‘conceptual’ vocabulary – tools which enable pupils to discern change and continuity, causation, significance or interpretative elements of the past. I think that can be quite limiting. While ‘concepts’ are vital components of the historian’s tool kit, it is important to remember that any historical question is rooted in a specific domain of knowledge, even if there are conceptual similarities across time. The causes of the enlightenment will need a radically different conceptual toolkit to the causes of the First World War, despite both questions being causation focused, for example. We would therefore expand ‘vertical’ vocabulary to include all of the thematic and conceptual terms needed to answer a specific question and to understand a particular period.  We try to choose questions which allow pupils to master a broad domain of history, without the tapered and conceptual enquiry questions which often mean pupils only remember knowledge which is needed for that specific enquiry. Our Year 7s answer the following questions: ‘What led to the development of Egyptian/Greek/ Roman civilisation?’ ‘What led to the development of the English nation by 1066?’  & ‘What were the main challenges to the king’s power in late medieval England?’

How do we get Year 7 writing analytically?

Writing analytically is, of course, not a generic skill, but an ability to bring relevant horizontal and vertical (conceptual) vocabulary to bear on a specific question, which draws upon the wider context of the relevant domain. Many make the mistake of assuming this ‘analysis’ is divorced from the wider domain of knowledge. This wider domain and the vocabulary to make sense of it needs to be explicitly instructed. In essence, we do the following:

  1. Use of Knowledge Organisers to embed key dates, people and events as well as analytical vocabulary needed to analyse a specific question.
  2. Lesson content which challenges all pupils, with extra content used to enable the high ability pupils to draw upon more examples in their essays.
  3. Pre-empting common misconceptions and more practice for the weaker pupils.
  4. Constant repetition and drilling of the key horizontal and vertical vocabulary within lessons.

Pupils need to be constantly exposed to good historical writing. We are doing them a disservice by assuming that even with enough knowledge, pupils will be able to conjure up a well written and historically sound essay. It is fair to say, that most of the main historical ‘points of clash’ in a debate have already been discerned. A pupil in Year 7 is not going to break any new ground in terms of historical scholarship. We, the experts, need to guide our pupils onto the right path of analysis (for that specific topic). Critics may say that this is too prescriptive, or that we should just teach them how to ‘think critically’, and analysis will follow naturally.

I think we need to be teaching them the main arguments for an essay as explicitly as we teach the dates, people, and events needed to construct the essay.

Patently, as the pupils acquire more knowledge and with our guidance they will come to realise that there is not necessarily a clear cut answer to historical questions. Our latest Year 7 essay was “What led to the development of the English nation by 1066?” This is clearly a question about causation. In most history classrooms, teachers will be getting the pupils to sift through card sorts, evaluating and synthesising the relative impact of different factors. There is nothing disingenuous about getting kids to evaluate the relative impact of causes on an event. However, the questions we need to ask are:

  1. Is this how historians really conduct their analysis? Do they approach every question with the same critical toolkit, or does each question require specific domain knowledge in order to answer that question and formulate that critical toolkit?
  2. Can our time in the classroom be better spent embedding knowledge and the structure of analytical writing, or getting them to discover the answers themselves – particularly in Year 7?

By the end of year 7, some of our pupils are able to prioritise causes and sequence them both chronologically and in order or importance. By Year 9, given the strong foundation they already have, we are able to develop their vertical vocabulary to include the ‘weight’ of different causes (latent causes, triggers, underlying causes, accelerators and pre-conditions).

Every time pupils write a paragraph, we give short and sharp feedback which the pupils then act upon immediately. Because the behaviour is so good, it also gives us time to go around and give verbal feedback to each pupil in the lesson itself. Their paragraph structure has remained the same since their first unit, with more examples and complex conclusions built in as time goes on. In the future we can flex and adapt this structure to meet the complex demands of historical questions later at KS3. In their final year 7 unit, we try and flex this foundational structure even more by looking at a question which incorporates change and continuity as well as causation. Below are some examples of the final essays they wrote for their Anglo-Saxon history unit. All essays were completed in 50 minutes entirely from memory. These are a selection from our high, middle and low ability groups.

Essay 1 – High Ability



Strengths: Excellent sense of period. She clearly understands the ideas of peace and conflict as pre-conditions for nation-building in the English context. It is also really pleasing to see clear references to her knowledge of religion, which is taught alongside history as a Humanities subject (see use of ‘monotheistic’ and her knowledge of the ‘Ten Commandments’. She also makes a link between King Alfred and King Hammarubi, from when she studied Ancient Mesopotamia.

Essay 2 – Middle Ability




Strengths: Correct chronological sequencing.  Huge amounts of specific details recalled to strengthen her analysis. Eg. Correct dates of the Synod of Whitby, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English people. This pupil has an excellent sense of period, with the essay drawing upon ideas from 597AD-1066, and with clear references to the development of the ‘heptarchy’ through comments about the development of a nascent identity through religion and clarity on the role of translation from Latin to West Saxon English as a vehicle for unification. She also makes links between her bigger concepts, by linking Alfred the Great’s penchant for translating great works and his leadership of Wessex during the Viking invasions.

Room for improvement: There is an implication that conflict was the key factor, but it is not explicit. As I suggested earlier, this is not necessarily a problem at this stage – particularly for such a broad question. These analytical structures will be taught in the subsequent late medieval unit.

Essay 3 (two paragraphs) – Middle Ability


Strengths: The strengths of a knowledge-rich curriculum are really highlighted with this pupil’s paragraph on conflict. Here the pupil makes reference to the Great Heathen Army, the Battle of Brunanburgh and even the campaigns of Edward the Elder and Aethelflaed. He also remembers the historical significance of Aethelflaed as one of the key women in English history. He also uses the correct Old English diphthong: Æ.

Room for improvement: He is evidently thinking in a thematic, rather than chronological way. It would have been much better had he had prioritised and ordered the disparate elements of warfare in a logical way.

Essay 4 (three paragraphs)- Low Ability


Strengths: Excellent clarity and prose. Use of various synonyms to highlight ‘importance’. Good links made to his religion lessons (monotheistic, Ten Commandments).

Room for improvement: Clearer explanation of why Offa’s coinage enabled him to project his authority and create a shared sense of loyalty, rather than just focusing on the economic element.

Changing my mind on grammar schools

When I was 16, after having completed my GCSE examinations, myself and a few friends travelled to London for a few days of sightseeing. We visited the Palace of Westminster on our last day and out of the corner of my eye, I spotted our local MP. As any group of precocious and politically aware grammar school boys would, some of us decided to go over and greet our Member of Parliament.

Time and tide wait for no man

Time and tide wait for no man – Geoffrey Chaucer

It is now my fifth week working at Michaela. I taught my Year 9 class last Friday and on reflection, I was gobsmacked at how much I managed to get through. The routines are so slick and the behaviour is so impeccable that I am able to get through so much in an hour. I thought it might be useful for me to narrate a history lesson at Michaela, so I decided to note down the rough timings the next lesson I taught them. Here goes:

8:14am – I arrived from corridor duty to find my Year 9s lined up immaculately. The head of department was quizzing them on dates related to 18th and 19th century British history. I moved to the front of the line and asked the pupils to get out their equipment and stand behind their chairs as soon as they got inside. I wished each pupil a hearty ‘good morning’ which was always reciprocated, with a beaming smile.

8:15am – Two pupil book monitors had already gone to the back of the room to collect exercise books and paper and handed them out to each row, where they were left in a neat pile. The others were stood behind their chairs in silence. I asked them to sit down and take out their practice books (used for homework/prep at Michaela).

8:17am – I told the pupils what their homework was over the weekend and they diligently wrote it at the top of the next clean page in their practice books. They then packed away their practice books and sat up straight. I asked them to pass down blank paper for each pupil.

8:18am – The pupils then completed a test from memory of the key people (with a few lines of detail) associated with the growth of the British Empire, which is the topic we are currently covering with Year 9. As an extension, they were asked to add thirteen key dates and events associated with the growth of the British Empire.

8:25am – The tests were passed down to the end of the rows and I collected them quickly. At the same time, exercise books and our unit booklets were passed down. The pupils then turned to the back of their books and completed a quick re-cap exercise, designed to allow the kids to retrieve all their learning from last lesson. The re-caps are always printed at the start of the lesson for that unit in the booklets.

8:27am – Rapid fire re-cap on the topic we covered last lesson – the early Industrial Revolution. I led a speedy Q&A and the kids use green pens to correct any mistakes they made. Merits were given for any elaboration. For example – I asked ‘when’ the Industrial Revolution was as part of the re-cap and every pupil had their hand up. I then give merits for any pupil who could tell me ‘why’ the Industrial Revolution began in Britain. Many made reference to geographical advantages; however one pupil was also able to articulate the unique political conditions in Britain which enabled technological progress to develop more quickly. Another pupil was also able to make a reference to new ideas and the fact that in Britain, enlightenment thinking was often practical and scientific, rather than the French philosophes who were more concerned with political issues.

8:30am – We quickly moved onto their essays they wrote from the lesson before last (How useful is Brooks Slave Ship in understanding the conditions for slaves being transported to the New World?). I had made some notes after looking through all the books earlier in the week and delivered specific feedback by highlighting mistakes individuals were making as well as the common mistakes they were all making. I gave merits for exceptional work and picked an excellent example to dissect on the visualiser. The pupils were able to see an example of a great piece of work which I was able to comb through in front of everyone. The kids were then able to use their green pens to improve their own work and I gave them a couple of minutes to add extra explanations, or more precise details. 

8:35am – We moved on to the main focus for the lesson that day – the social effects of the Industrial Revolution. Pupils took out their rulers (used to help them follow the page) and we began reading the text. We covered factory and mine labour, with particular reference to the introduction of the workhouse on a large scale in British cities. After each paragraph I would explain any difficult concepts and clarify specific details. The pupils were rapt as I told them the stories of atrocious conditions in Manchester factories, particularly the prevalence of grisly injuries through the use of textile looms.

8:45am – I read a short section of a poem to the class by William Wordsworth called ‘The Old Cumberland Beggar’. I have early 19th century editions of Wordsworth’s folios in my classroom, mainly because I find you can discover some incredible insights into British politics, foreign policy and society in his poetry. The poem highlighted the disdain that politicians often felt for the poor. I was able to teach them a new term too – social Darwinism. The pupils love it when I get out the old books and they are always craning their necks to see if the pages are really falling apart as I say they are!

8:50am – As this was a high ability group, I gave a short lecture on the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act and its consequences. The pupils annotated their booklets as I took them on a whistle stop tour from the Elizabethan Poor Laws, through to the Speenhamland System to the contemporary 19th century concern for poverty and cost-cutting. I narrated to them that many pupils would only cover this content during their A Levels. I told them about eligibility criteria and the workhouse test after 1834. The kids were asking loads of questions about the jobs the inmates would do in the workhouse, such as stone-breaking. As a department we all agree on the core knowledge that the pupils need to know. However, because behaviour is so good we are able to make relevant digressions which are really beneficial to the pupils.

9:00am – Ready, get set, GO. With three loud bangs on the table, the pupils began their silent practice. They answered questions which elicited factual recall of the key points of the social changes of the Industrial Revolution, with later questions requiring more elaboration on the significance of the 1834 act. 

9:02am – I quickly marked the tests that the pupils completed at the start of the lesson by sorting them into three piles (100%, pass or fail). I was then able to speedily put the data into a spreadsheet.

9:07am – I had a quick wander around the room and gave some verbal feedback to some of the pupils for their questions, highlighting grammatical errors as well as conceptual and factual misunderstandings.

9:12am – I asked the pupils to pack away, which was done in fifteen seconds. The book monitors then collected the books and placed them in the cupboards at the back of the room.

9:14am – I asked the pupils to stand behind their chairs and I fired a few re-cap questions at them on the Industrial Revolution, but also on the early development of the British Empire. Pupils knew the date of Columbus’s voyage to Hispaniola, the Act of Union between England and Scotland and the date of Lord Anson’s naval reforms, in addition to Pitt’s blue-water strategy. I quickly informed them of their test results and gave some quick tips to those that did not do so well on how to improve.

9:15am – I dismissed the class. Many showed real gratitude for the lesson and some wanted to stay behind and ask more questions. I had to tell them to see me in the yard if they wanted to know more. I then headed out to the corridor to greet my next class.

Aside from sounding like a regimental diary from the first day of the Battle of the Somme, I hope this gives some indication of what we are able to do in one hour when the routines are so slick and behaviour is so conducive to learning.

Incidentally, this was all before any lessons had begun in many schools.

At Michaela, the hours are so productive because we count every second.

Down the rabbit hole – my first week at Michaela

“A change is as good as a rest.”

In this case, my move to Michaela Community School in Wembley has been a huge change, with an accompanying sense of massive rejuvenation.

I am in my third year of teaching, after going through the Teach First programme at an ambitious inner London school. Working in an improving school was truly rewarding and it was a pleasure to work with such inspirational colleagues and be part of a huge transformation which will see my old school delivering a much higher standard of education to the local community. However, the constraints of such an environment often made it particularly difficult to focus on subject knowledge and what pupils needed to know. During our Ofsted visits, I was never asked once about curriculum or substantive content. Systems, feedback and pedagogy were always the priority for whichever of Her Majesty’s Inspectors graced my classroom that particular day. Completely understandably, schools need to get through the inspection. Anything else is a red herring. In the long term of course, un-centralised systems, excessive feedback that leads to teacher burn out and dubious pedagogy are the three biggest red herrings in a rather complicated sea.

Subject knowledge was always my priority. I am a History Teacher before anything else. Admirable as it may sound, I always recoiled when I heard colleagues wax lyrical about roles which suggested anything other than transferring knowledge and developing pupils into proactive, confident and caring citizens.

Outside the private sector, I did not think it would be possible to break out of the straitjacket of the conventional ‘wisdoms’ of 21st century teaching. As luck would have it, the school I wanted to work for did exist.

Philosophically, I have always loved what Michaela do. In the company of many teachers, this has made me feel akin to a 16th century priest during the high tide of Elizabethan religious reforms. When I arrived, it was exactly as I expected, albeit a huge jump practically.

I am aware that working here is like working in the educational equivalent of Hollywood and many of my truly inspirational colleagues have already written extensively about the school. Hopefully, this gives a brief snippet of what it is like starting at Michaela.

“A school is only as good as its weakest link.”

The first thing that is immediately apparent is that I have a lot of catching up to do. Teachers at Michaela really know their stuff. Every departmental conversation oozes with subject specific tweaks and the culture is one of continuous improvement. Every moment of each lesson is considered in terms of its value and impact. Incidentally, meetings are few and far between, yet each one is beneficial for everyone.

Feedback has been rapid. Each member of staff understands that a culture of candour and constant feedback is the way in which we improve rapidly. The problem with feedback is that it is very difficult to differentiate between good feedback and bad feedback. Despite having an excellent school mentor, my general feedback from others in my previous school was “less teacher talk, more group work”. At some point I hope to write about this problem generally. At Michaela, feedback is short, sharp and swift. I feel I have improved more in one week than I have in a half term previously.

Of course, Michaela’s success is predicated on us all rowing together. Feedback is tailored to ensure that each oar is the correct length, we are rowing in time and the boat doesn’t have any holes in it.

This success comes down to the staff. We all believe what we do changes pupils’ lives and we are happy to sacrifice an element of independence in order to create such an environment.

What is certainly replicable is the way our SLT take decisions. Every decision is considered in light of its value, impact and unforeseen consequences. Many will be well aware that we do not mark books. By this time last year I would have already marked four sets of books, taking hours of time out of my day. Marking is not the same as feedback and at Michaela, the irony is that our pupils get considerably more feedback than in other schools which adopt a laborious process which has little effect, given the effort it took. In my first week I have given one to one feedback, verbal feedback within lessons and whole class feedback, dissecting essays and paragraphs under a visualizer (which, incidentally is one of only pieces of technology I now use in my teaching).

My quality of life, even after one week has improved exponentially. We do work long days and teaching from the front every lesson can be tiring. However, I am leaving work at 5pm, give or take and taking absolutely nothing home with me. I have regained my weekends and for the first time I actually have plenty of hours spare in which I can read history books again.

The behaviour here is exceptional. Teaching the pupils is an absolute joy. I look at the clock and my only negative reaction this week has been observing how quickly the time goes in lessons. There is so much more I want to get through and so much more I want to tell the kids. I know many teachers, not necessarily through any fault of their own, who watch the clock for very different reasons.

My Year 7s are beginning to grasp ancient Mesopotamia and my Year 9 pupils have a good understanding of the geo-politics of empire building in the 17th and 18th centuries. In fact, I have found that my new Year 9 pupils are far better at expressing an historical argument than many of my previous A Level pupils.

I am really excited to see what the pupils are capable of. Eton is famously known as the “nurse of England’s statesman”, yet there is no doubt that Michaela is delivering an education which will rival the very best public schools. I really hope this will mean that our pupils will go on to do some very special things. I for one cannot wait to see what happens next.

Silent Witnesses – Review of the First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme

“I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon Earth through the years to come, than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war”

King George V at Tyne Cot Cemetery in 1922


Recently, I had the privilege of accompanying one of the centenary battlefield tours to the British sites of Western Front. I have always found the First World War fascinating. I spent much of my undergraduate degree focusing on the diplomatic intrigue of the pre-war period. Prior to becoming a teacher, I also spent the best part of a year guiding visitors around the battlefields of the Ypres Salient and the Somme. Therefore, I was thrilled to accompany six of my pupils on the centenary programme in October 2015 and March 2016.

 I cannot recommend the programme highly enough. The meticulous planning enabled our group to visit places which were pertinent to our school communities, while also retaining sites which illustrated the bigger picture of the conflict. Every school in England is entitled to send two students and one teacher. Even if you already organise an annual tour, I would really suggest signing up to the FWWBTP. It will give you some really great insights, particularly as they are always led by experienced members of the Guild of Battlefield Guides.

 Battlefields are sacred places, no matter when the battles were fought. They are often places where human history has changed course. Naturally they are also places where the dead lie, which is reason enough for us to stop and reflect. Evidently, British battles such as Agincourt, Waterloo, Ypres and the Somme all had huge military and strategic significance. More interestingly however, despite being precisely 501 years apart all these pivotal battles occurred within a geographical radius of approximately 120 miles. This incidental fact of geography exposes the importance of Northern France and the Low Countries in the thread of British foreign policy for over half a century. It is the political significance of these battlefields which fascinates me. Militarily, the first battle of the Somme (July-November 1916) was initially a catastrophic failure which later bore fruit in terms of lessons learnt and new tactics. However it was the social consequences at home and the realisation that five centuries of light touch British intervention and splendid isolation had been rudely interrupted by the heartbreakingly morbid harvest of over 60,000 casualties on the 1st July alone.

 Our visit to the Sheffield Memorial Park was a particularly poignant way to illustrate some of those acutely personal stories and connections. We were accompanied by a number of northern English schools, who I am sure would have appreciated the focus on the pals battalions of the northern cities, such as Manchester, Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield. One of my favourite memorials is the purposefully half-built Accrington Pals memorial, made from the familiar Lancashire red-brick which I was so accustomed to when I was growing up in Manchester. We then proceeded to High Wood where we visited the London Cemetery, which would have resonated with the pupils who I was accompanying.


 My favourite image of the Sheffield Memorial Park. The British front line on 1st July 1916 is just where the trees are on the left. In the distance you can just make out two additional cemeteries, crowned by the simplicity of Herbet Baker’s Cross of Sacrifice.

The use of enquiry questions was also a valuable way the tour enabled pupils to focus their learning on the key aspects of the war. I often find that enquiry questions are wonderful ways of providing focus on a historical topic; however I also find that enquiries can often create tunnel-vision with our pupils. The tour does a really great job of keeping focus on some key questions whilst also allowing that freedom to explore other aspects of the conflict which may not be directly relevant to the enquiry question that day. Every aspect of the tour was always focused on an objective, theme or question keeping the pupils thinking, guessing and learning. The use of artefacts and the expertise of an accompanying member of the armed forces also provided a unique insight into life on the western front.

 There is no doubt that the tours will be remembered by my pupils for the rest of their lives. Two of our pupils were selected to lay a wreath on the Menin Gate memorial to the missing of the Ypres Salient, which I know affected them deeply. However, I do have a number of suggestions which I think would make the tours even more effective as a national vehicle for commemoration, academic study and remembrance.

 Firstly, teacher CPD beforehand should ideally be more knowledge focused. This would ensure that when we are working with pupils on the battlefields we are able to provide the best possible support for them. A detailed pre-reading on the key sites of the war and the sites to be visited would enable teachers to think creatively about how to use the sites effectively. Secondly, I would ensure that far more work is given to allowing the pupils to explore the causes of the conflict and Britain’s role in the pre-war conflagration which engulfed the continent in July 1914. Obviously this has implications for KS3 curriculum design, but I think the tour could also address this in the tour preamble at Kingswood, or even on the coach over to France and Belgium.

 Often pupils have entrenched (excuse the pun) images of the Great War, which circulate around trench warfare, ‘butcher’ Haig, poppies and remembrance. Interestingly, I would also go as far to suggest that this remains the image of the Great War for many of the adult population. The July crisis of 1914 is one aspect of the conflict which has been hugely oversimplified. The overused MAIN (militarism, alliances, imperialism and nationalism), and the assassination still provide the bread and butter of teaching for the causes of the First World War.

Christopher Clark’s brilliant focus on the complexities of Serbian and Austrian politics shed much needed light onto the Balkan tinder-box which triggered the conflict. I have heard that some schools are trying their best to incorporate this scholarship into their curriculums. Crucially however, the underlying motivations for Britain entering the conflict are also ignored. Britain’s place in the world and imperial agreements with France and Russia are often replaced by the crude simplicity of ‘plucky little Belgium’. Considering one of the key themes of the tour and of the whole conflict is remembrance, it would surely be a good use of time to reflect on why Britain chose to declare war on Germany in 1914. That would hopefully clear up some of the ambiguity which is certainly not present when we remember the Second World War, which tends to be conveyed in a remarkably more Manichean way.

One contemporary of the Great War, writing about the creation of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission suggested that the Western Front should be converted into a ‘Via Sacra’ – a continuous line of memorials which would bear witness to the destruction of war. Winston Churchill famously wanted the whole city of Ypres to be kept in its decrepit state as a permanent British war memorial. The creation of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission by Sir Fabian Ware was a truly remarkable convalescence of remembrance, sacrifice, and imperial and religious diversity and unity. However, it is up to the next generation of young people to ensure the First World War is remembered. I am always humbled by the way the Commonwealth countries send coaches of pilgrims to visit their significant sites (Pozieres Ridge, Gallipolli, Delville Wood to name but a few). I am always impressed by the Canadian scheme which funds a number of passionate students to guide visitors around the Newfoundland Memorial Park and Vimy Ridge. Although there are certainly some issues with giving each site over to a particular nation (often the contribution of earlier regiments or nations are forgotten), I find the Canadian scheme is a superb way of keeping the memory of the conflict alive for future generations. The centenary battlefields programme with its Legacy 110 project is doing likewise in the UK. There are some fantastic projects and we hope to create ours on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.

A final thought – with the centenary ending in two years time, it would be a magnificent idea for the government to endow a similar scheme as the Canadians did. Thiepval would seem the obvious choice, guiding visitors around the battlefield where one age passed and another began – allowing young people to pass on the torch of remembrance from their generation to the next.

Seven simple steps to survive Teach First

I wrote this short guide back in August for the 2015 cohort of Teach First participants. Obviously it is specific to Teach First trainees however, much of the advice particularly surrounding behaviour, subject knowledge and time management are applicable across the board.

Step 1 – Create a timetable

After Summer Institute, draft a timetable. I found this to be the most important thing I did which helped me get through the year and actually enjoy it. I can understand why many people recoil at the prospect of planning the minutiae of their day to day existence. When you have very little time however, planning your life works.

  1. Contact your subject mentor, and ask him/her what your planning commitments are like for September. Are all lessons already planned? Do you have to adapt anything? Do you have to start from scratch? Are you co-planning? If so, what are you required to do and by when? Work out how long this will take.
  2. Contact your professional or subject mentors and ask them what the school’s marking policy is. Is it every book every two weeks? Is it a book a week? Is it a deep mark every half term? Work out how long this will take.
  3. Make a list of non-negotiables which you enjoy on a weekly basis (socialising / exercise / entertainment / family / relationships etc)

Step 2 – Sort out behaviour

Statistically this is the biggest concern for new teachers and also one of the key reasons why many teachers decide to leave the profession not long after qualifying. Fundamentally, the pupils need to behave in your lessons. You will feel less stressed and the pupils will learn. Do not pander to the litany of TES advice about using a cow-bell to get their attention, or to strategically plan a lesson on interpretative dance every week to ‘calm’ down your rowdy Year 8 class. I am also aware that your summer institute training probably consisted of role plays and copious amounts of sugar paper. My advice would be to never lower your standards and always use the school’s behaviour policies consistently. If your school’s behaviour policy is inconsistent, or not supported thoroughly by your SLT then –  tragically –  it is up to you to follow things through. Spending this time chasing things earlier in the year will pay dividends later. Always insist on silence when you ask for it, and do not progress with the lesson until you get it. Meet and greet pupils at the door, enforcing simple expectations around uniform. Insist on full equipment and no chewing. Once these little things are sorted the rest will follow – relatively easily – in most cases. You are not their mate. Anything that stops each pupil (or a whole class) from learning you need to nip in the bud, immediately.

 Step 3 – Don’t beat yourself up

Participants have a tendency to over-worry and over-complicate, particularly in the first few months. If things go wrong, don’t worry – you are training. Focus on the small things first and get them right in the lead up to October half term. Routines, classroom presence and behaviour should be your first priority. Don’t worry about planning all singing and all dancing lessons in your first few weeks. If you have had a disastrous day, remember why you are doing this and keep your mind focused on those golden moments. Think practically about your challenges and reflect on what you can do, within reason to improve things. Never take anything personally, and think of challenging classes as a learning point.

Step 4 – Be aware of your responsibilities, and your rights

Make sure you are on top of your school’s systems and procedures. If a school requires you to mark books every two weeks, then make sure you plan your timetable accordingly. Always act with integrity and uphold the school’s values and ethos. This will help you in the staffroom and in the classroom. Crucially however, you must also be aware of the school’s contractual obligations with Teach First to support you, and not request you to undertake any unreasonable additional duties. You are a trainee after all, and the impact you make in the classroom must not be compromised by a lack of support, or onerous additional tasks which impede your professional development. If you are unsure about these obligations, see your Professional Tutor/LDO in the first instance, and then raise any uncertainties with your school mentors. Mentor meetings, timetable allocation, cover work, pastoral duties, lunchtime supervision and undertaking the duties of a form teacher are all areas which you need to be careful about.

Step 5 – Know your subject

Subject knowledge is absolutely integral to your role as a classroom teacher, and the impact you make. In terms of pedagogy, it is without a doubt the most important aspect. In the summer holidays, make sure you are fully aware of what you are required to teach, and make sure you are confident teaching it. Ask your subject mentor for all KS4 (and KS5 if appropriate) exam specifications, and allow yourself some time in August to read up on anything you are unsure about. Most importantly, throw yourself into your subject. Get yourself excited about teaching things that you have a passion for. Planning lessons is an onerous task, but one made remarkably easier, quicker and more enjoyable if you love the topics you’re teaching. Keep on top of current research too, by subscribing to any relevant associations and journals. This will make your teaching better, but more importantly the ability to inspire pupils with your enthusiasm will get them onside far more quickly, and make your life easier.

Step 6 – Keep on top of your Journal and PGCE

Your journal may seem like an irrelevance now, and many participants go many weeks without consulting it. Realistically, leaving your journal empty for weeks, and then filling it in desperately in a fit of despair every time you meet your tutor is utterly impractical and time-consuming. Spend ten minutes each week (perhaps on a Sunday) recording your thoughts, observations and reflections and then use those to create manageable, achievable and measurable targets. I made mini-reflections in my school planner at the end of every lesson, which I then consulted when I wrote my journal reflections. Take your essays seriously too. In a school-based training programme, it is often easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. Dedicate an hour or so each fortnight to planning your essays and doing any relevant reading. If you do little bits throughout the year, you will find that your holidays won’t be miserable pits of misery filled with hours spent hunched over a laptop surrounded by pro-plus and congealed mugs. Finally, create a box-file with evidence of anything that meets your teaching standards. This will make you PGCE portfolio much easier to compile. May is a busy month, and the last thing you want is to spend days sporadically searching for emails and evidence of pupil’s work.

Step 7 – Socialise, exercise and read regularly

Teaching, second to sainthood seems to be one of the few professions where there is an expectation that you sacrifice every aspect of your life for your job. Some schools implicitly assume that you should be working 14 hour days to meet the basic requirements of planning, teaching and marking in addition to pastoral work, extra-curricular activities, behaviour chasing, paperwork and data entry. Although this is clearly morally reprehensible, you need to ensure that you set aside plenty of time for yourself. Have targets for what you want to get done every week, such as getting through a chapter of a book you have been meaning to read, or to go to the gym, or playing a sport a minimum of once a week. Most importantly, actively seek out those friends and colleagues who really spark and inspire you. They could be your closest mates, old university pals or Teach First colleagues. These are the people who nourish your individuality and remind you of what it is you are trying to achieve. Try to ensure you don’t just stick to teachers. In fact, try and make an effort not to see teachers quite so much, as many have a propensity to moan and talk shop, constantly.




A brief introduction

I have been teaching history for over a year in an ambitious school in North London for the past eighteen months. I am an NQT in my second year on the Teach First programme and – certainly to my surprise – I have found the experience hugely enjoyable. I wanted to record my experiences in the hope that new teachers might glean something useful and practical.

I have always been passionate about history and I have developed a firm belief in the role of teachers in imparting knowledge which can enrich and sustain young people for the rest of their lives. I hope to share some thoughts about the state of history teaching and education in general.