Taking Special Measures in English

After just two months of taking over as Head of Department at my new school, OFSTED visited. We were judged to be, ‘Inadequate.’ This isn’t a blog post about OFSTED. This is a blog post about what I’m doing to raise standards in a school whose socio-economic profile is inconsistent with all surrounding areas. My school is situated in a borough, which is essentially a very large housing estate, in which the number of children living in poverty is higher than all 205 other boroughs in Surrey. We have the third highest number of children Not in Education, Employment, or Training (NEETs), and the local area ranks 12, of 206 boroughs, on a list of percentage of people in unemployment. I won’t euphemise, because I have more respect for the students, parents, and staff at my school, but the simple fact is this: I work in a deprived area.
I’m proud of the fact that the otherwise damning OFSTED report, made specific reference to the ‘scholarly atmosphere’ in English lessons. I’m proud because scholarly is exactly what me and my department were going for. Changes to the curriculum were made right from the get-go. Out went ‘Holes’ and in came ‘Oliver Twist’; Out went AFOREST and in came Aristotelian Rhetoric; Out went Autobiography and in came 19th century Gothic Fiction. And this is Just KS3.

But, the vision I have for the English Department- a vision of a knowledge-focused curriculum founded upon classic literary and educational values- doesn’t end here. No, this is where it begins. What follows is a list of things the English Department will be doing next year, to raise the standards, expectations, and enjoyment of English Lessons at my school.

1. Knowledge Centred Curriculum

The phasing out of old schemes of work, with a focus on generic skills and no clear knowledge focus, must continue. Take the now defunct ‘Autobiography’ Unit for example: Nobody knew what it was. A reading unit? A writing unit? What were we actually teaching? Why were we teaching it? In came 19th Century Gothic Fiction- a reading unit with a focus on the literary and linguistic techniques of Pathetic Fallacy and Adjectives, aimed at acquainting students with the syntactical structures of 19th Century Literature, but also a contextual understanding of Victorian Society.

Still, there are changes to be made.

Still languishing on my curriculum is a unit entitled, ‘Poetry from Other Cultures.’ I’m not happy with it. As part of an on-going review process, my department and I need to ask the following questions:

• What are our aims here?

• Why poetry from ‘other cultures’?

• What is an ‘other culture’?

• Are the poems chosen because they imbue students with a sense of cultural capital or just because they’re ‘foreign’?

• What specific literary terms and devices do we want them to take away from this unit?

• Do these build upon what’s been taught previously?

• What vocabulary can we teach in relation to this unit?

The questions go on, but they are questions that, once answered, will result in more focused schemes of work that will provide better outcomes for students.


2. Greek Myths and Legends Unit

As part of our on-going quest to raise standards, I have recently received funding to allow me to work with a renowned expert in the field of Classics. In conjunction with Dr Arlene Holmes- Henderson, based at the Faculty of Classics at the University of Oxford, I will be designing a new scheme of work on Greek Myths and Legends for our Year 7 students. The Unit aims to provide students with the thrill of good story-telling, but also foundation knowledge of myths that are alluded to in other literary works, such as the plays of Shakespeare. I believe that an awareness of classical allusions, quite literally, makes students more literate when it comes to interpreting Shakespeare. A simile that likens a Shakespearean heroine to ‘Diana’ is meaningless if students don’t know who Diana is and what she represents. . The unit also aims to provide students with a wider vocabulary. The word ‘protean’ is better understood with knowledge of Proteus’ story. A focus on Greek and Latin root words should improve students’ ability to decode words for meaning. This is not a Sisyphean task by any means.

3. Multiple Choice Quizzing

Building on the research surrounding the Testing Effect, I want to develop a bank of carefully considered Multiple Choice Quizzes (MPQs) that teachers can use to assess kids’ understanding of key knowledge. MPQs, are ‘top-heavy’. That is, they take some time and careful thought to design, but once done, can be used repeatedly and often, and also take just seconds to mark. MPQs will also enable English Teachers to see what areas of knowledge students are deficient in. This could lead to meaningful specific targets (‘re-read Act 4 scene 3 of Macbeth and list three adjectives Malcolm uses to describe himself’) rather than vague targets based on summative descriptors (‘write a perceptive point in your next paragraph’).


4. Live Shakespeare

Somehow, some way, somewhere, I’ve got to get kids seeing some live Shakespeare. Some of the students I teach rarely leave the estate, let alone the town. Somehow, I need to get them into a theatre, bums on seats, watching Shakespeare. This is a must for next year.

5. Getting stuff remembered.

My aim, next year, is to have all quotations needed for GCSE exams, to be remembered by the end of Year 10. I’ve done a few sums, and this means I’m aiming for a minimum of 100 quotations to be learned, off by heart, in just one GCSE year. This is going to be a challenge, but going some way to achieving this will mean that I can spend Year 11 focusing on analysing language. Remember quotations, although valuable when it comes to analysis, are also ‘signposts’ for a text or poem, offering hints or directions as to how the narrative is progressing. Remember quotations, remember plot.

As a teacher, this means increasing my repertoire of memory techniques. I need to be exploiting the forgetting curve, and strategies of spacing and interleaving. I also need to aid students in developing a knowledge of basic memory techniques such as chunking and mnemonics. This, I truly believe, is synonymous with me developing and improving as a practitioner.

I also need to do more at KS3 in the way of getting students to actively practice getting things committed to their long term memory. I’m planning Poetry by Heart Unit somewhere in KS3, ending in an evening in which students recite ‘proper poems’ from the canon in front of peers, teachers, and parents. Can’t wait for this.

6. Isolated and directly instructed Grammar Lessons

A recent talk by Katie Ashford, from Michaela, has left me absolutely convinced that grammar needs to be taught in isolation via the direct instruction method. I can’t wait to get this going next term and working with my department to develop clear, concise, and effective explanations of difficult grammatical concepts. Again, my excitement is partly selfish; yes, this is great for kids, but it’ll make me feel smarter too. I like feeling smart.

7. Booklets

I’m becoming increasingly convinced of the effectiveness of Department made Text Books. Text books, such as those created by RobNQT and The Michaela lot, ease teacher workload whilst also providing clear explanation and anchor points to aid teacher explanations and student understanding. Next year, I want to create a Text Book on Aristotelian Rhetoric. A big job, but a satisfying one no doubt.

My school is in an area of social deprivation. But so what? Our greatest PP strategy is providing students with excellent GCSE outcomes and widespread cultural capital. I only mention it in case anyone reads with the cynical, excuse that ‘this couldn’t be done in my school’. If a school in Special measures can do it, we all can.


Author: PositivTeacha

Whole School Literacy Coordinator and Lead Practitioner

9 thoughts on “Taking Special Measures in English”

  1. Thanks for posting this, it’s as if you’ve taken the vague ideas of change I would like to make in our department and crystallised them. Do you have a unit summary sheet where you explicitly lay out what linguistic and literary devices you would like to be covered?


  2. Excellent post. We’ve just come out of special measures in a similar demographic in 3 years achieving ‘good’ in all 6 areas. In terms of English we also linked the new SoW to knowledge but didn’t go as far as Aristolian Rhetoric! Would LOVE to see your text book when it’s done. With these ideas you’ll fly out of special measures!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This sounds absolutely fab and as though it would fit in with our Trivium plans. Please share all your delicious stuff!


  3. Sounds great. With grammar remember that primary schools now teach lots and lots of this so relative clauses, subordinate clauses, passive voice and much more *should* be familiar.


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