They really care about us here

I’ve been working on a film about the impact of permanent exclusion over the past few months. Among other things, I wanted to explore how some pupils were able to succeed in their new mainstream schools despite a history of ‘persistent misconduct’. Was it that the shock of the exclusion triggered some kind of wake up call? Or that new skills were developed during the spell in the PRU? Of course, contributory factors will always be multiple and complex but the really interesting thing for me was that the pupils themselves had no difficulty at all with this question.

‘They really care about us here.’

That statement, and variations of it, was the explanation pupils gave me, in a heartbeat, time after time. Sometimes ‘all’ was added, with a degree of bitterness – ‘They care about all the pupils’. Nobody said, ‘Well here there are no excuses so I have to behave’ Or, “SLT run the detentions so I make sure I toe the line.’ No, it was feeling cared about that made the difference. And I don’t suppose anyone is surprised to read that.

Many studies confirm what has always been self-evident to inclusive practitioners; that vulnerable young people, those at risk of permanent exclusion, are more likely to be saved by an empathic relationship than a consistently applied behaviour management policy. Look no further than Kes and that line up of children waiting for the head teacher’s cane. “Always the same old faces.”

Stanford University researchers found through this study that the exclusion of adolescents fell by half when teachers adopted an empathic as opposed to a punitive mindset. The significance of this is outlined at the top of their paper:

Stanford researchers, in arguing for a paradigm shift, demonstrate how sanctions actually worsen behaviour. They demonstrate that the medicine of the traditional behaviour policy is killing the sickest patients since they’re the ones swallowing most of it.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting in citing this research that schools should abandon their boundaries, rules and the consequences for ignoring these. We can’t just have a free for all. What we must accept though, is that for a small, vulnerable minority, the traditional behaviour management approach will not work. It’s simply not the answer to a chronic behavioural difficulty and for as long as we continue to apply it as if it is, without reasonable adjustment and a focus on maintaining empathic relationships, then we will remain the highest excluder of children in Europe. That can’t be right. Especially when the answer is in many ways so simple.
“They really care about us here.”


He’s making all the wrong choices.  






















I had a really troubling meeting this week. It was my first with colleagues in Liaise, a service offering support to parents of children with SEND. In every LA, a spectrum of practice exists in relation to school-based SEND provision, ranging from the inspirational to the woeful. I’ve seen plenty of the former – including the glowing example at the bottom of this post – but this meeting was all about the latter, because we were discussing exclusions.

I heard about children being denied experiences because of their difficulties, labelled ‘naughty’ because of their needs, segregated, punished, sent home (one parent had to give up her job) such that when the permanent exclusion finally came, it was often a relief.

None of this is new or surprising, sadly; soon to be published, Jarleth O’Brien’s book, ‘Don’t Send him In Tomorrow’, will confirm that. But there was a perspective at the meeting that I thought was worth sharing. All members of the Liaise team were in emphatic agreement that there is one belief that, above all others, signals the beginning of the end with regard to a pupil’s successful inclusion. One utterance that indicates a punitive, evidence gathering, make-sure-you-log-everything route has been decided. Handing all responsibility for learning over to the pupil, it is:

“He’s making all the wrong choices.”

Of course, it’s sometimes ‘she’ – but ‘he’ five times more often, according to DfE data on rates of permanent exclusion from schools in England.

‘He’s making all the wrong choices.’

This reflects a fundamental misconception that challenging behaviour occurs because children have considered the consequences of their actions and decided that the benefits of misbehavior outweigh the costs.  By ratcheting up the punishment, then, behaviour policies are designed to mitigate this – to encourage better ‘choices’.

We should have moved on by now. The research is as compelling as it is widely ignored. One of the key insights that neuroscience has provided in recent years is that children, especially those who have experienced significant adversity early in life, are often triggered by emotional, psychological and hormonal forces that are far from rational. They aren’t making choices. This doesn’t mean that teachers should excuse or ignore outbursts. But it does explain why harsh punishments so often prove counter-productive. They can merely increase the toxic stress which has caused the difficulty in the first place.

Perhaps there needs to be more of a focus on neuroscience and child development in teacher training. There is certainly no shortage of literature. Paul Tough writes brilliantly about the impact of toxic stress on children’s ability to manage emotions here. @JarlathOBrien works tirelessly to raise awareness on these issues, as do @JordyJax, whose primary PRU is full of pupils with SEND, and guru in the field of childhood trauma, @janeparenting2.

Of course, the brain’s plasticity is a wonderful thing and with consistent, caring, skilful support, children’s executive functioning can dramatically improve. I’ve seen inspirational practice that has enabled children who began their school careers with huge deficits –  kicking, scratching, head-butting – to flourish. There’s a shining example at Spalding Parish Primary, which received the Boxall Nurture Award recently. I spoke at length to the proud dad pictured below. He said that the impact of the nurture provision on his son was nothing short of transformational.

We need to spread practice like this. England is by far the highest excluder of children in Europe, and when children with SEND are nine times more likely to be excluded than those born without such disadvantage, it’s time for an informed debate about what an inclusive behaviour policy might look like. Let’s start by talking much less about choice and much more about need.

‘We need to get the parents in’ – reimagined

How productive are these meetings, really? When a pupil, persistently dusruptive let’s say, has notched up enough behaviour points on SIMS for ‘parents in’ to be the next step? How often do we then see a sustained or even short lived improvement in general attitude and behaviour? Rarely, I’d suggest – if only the problem of disaffection was so easily fixed.

‘Mrs Ward, I’m afraid we have no choice but to permanently exclude Ryan. Since we last met, he’s been fixed term excluded twice, we’ve had him before the governors and yet still we see no change in attitude and behaviour. I can no longer ignore the serious impact this is having on the learning of others. I’m really sorry but we’ve reached the end of the road.’

‘I know you’re done everything you can. He never listens to me either. We’re grateful for everything you’ve done as a school.’

That’s the gist of many such conversations. Most parents accept the Headteacher’s decision without question and in truth most Heads would rather not have to permanently exclude – those meetings with parents, and there are often many, everyone desperately wants them to make a difference.

But all too often they don’t. And sometimes they’re stressful and acrimonious. I think one of the reasons for this is that they have a tendency to shame. We may hope that by making a pupil feel ashamed we will provoke a positive response, but the research tells us otherwise. Nathanson’s Compass  of Shame summarises our four most common reactions to the affect very clearly – all of them essentially anti-social.

Parents feel shame too, of course, when their children behave badly in school. They too occupy positions on this compass, blaming themselves, each other, perhaps withdrawing from or attacking school. None of this is helpful.

So meetings must never be shaming. But what could they be? I’m writing this from my hotel room after day one of the 13th Annual Conference of Solution Focused Practice in Swansea. It’s a glorious sunny day, I’m in the land of song so the conference opened with a beautiful 40 minute recital from Ffion Haf Jones, and it’s just concluded with some inspiration from Finland in the form of Ben Furman.

There aren’t many educators at the conference – we’re an assortment of mental health and social care practitioners mainly. But the worlds of solution focused practice and education need to properly meet, I’m now even more convinced.

As Ben spoke about his international s-f work with clients (sometimes observed by several hundred people – there’s no shame, so clients have no problem with this) I was thinking the whole time about how different our meetings with parents in school might be. If, that is, we went about them differently. Saw them not as part of the disciplinary process but as a solutions-focused intervention. I’m prepared to hazard that if everything depended on these meetings making a positive difference, our Ofsted rating, our outcomes, then we would conduct disciplinary meetings with families completely differently. We would be searching for solutions, not laying down warnings and ultimatums, and we would be embracing solutions-focused practice as a methodology and a language to enable us to do that.

With tongue firmly in cheek, Ben revealed his grand ‘flowerpot theory’. Each flower in the s-f pot represents a characteristic feature of effective practice, Ben explained; that is, the qualities of hope, collaboration and creativity. He then shared a handful of practical tips on how to cultivate these qualities through s-f conversations. I’ve listed some of these below, under the three headings.


  • Simply saying, ‘You have come to the right person!’
  • ‘What will it look like when it’s better?’
  • ‘What new skills will you need to get there?’
  • ‘When have you been able to overcome a problem in the past?
  • ‘How did you do it?’
  • Testimony. Others who have been where you are and triumphed
  • Humour
  • What steps of progress have already been made? ‘You’re here! You’re already on the road!’
  • Scaling exercise – measuring progress
  • ‘How do you want to celebrate when you’ve got these new skills?’


  • ‘Who do you want to bring to the meeting?’
  • ‘What skills do the helpers have that we could use?’
  • Focusing on each in turn – helpers identifying skills in each other
  • ‘What skills do you have? (What would your Mum / Dad / Gran say your skills are?)’
  • Thanking people for any positive change
  • Complimenting – not just at the end but throughout the conversation
  • Apologising for anything that hasn’t helped in the past
  • Asking for feedback


  • Believing that the child is clever and will have ideas
  • Seeing parents as the experts on the child – respecting this
  • Avoiding a focus on the problem – brainstorming ideas
  • Collecting these from everyone. Recording on post-it notes. Refering to in future meetings
  • Offering many ideas if necessary, so group evaluates and chooses, but not directing

We heard story after story about the transformational power of hope, collaboration and creativity – harnessed by a skilled s-f practitioner – over the two days of the conference. Positive change happens quickly too, compared to other therapies such as CBT. Six sessions are typically enough – sometimes just one can make a massive difference.

Our Lincolnshire PSP is solution focussed and Dr Geoff James will be training PSP coaches later this term. It’s not just my hope but my expectation that they will return to their schools inspired to try this simple but profoundly different approach. It will be interesting to follow their journey and to talk to the children they go on to help.

Inclusion – It takes a village

The truth of this was illustrated to me recently at a reintegration meeting. A pupil, Joe, let’s say, had been excluded for a fixed term following a major incident, one that had shaken his school’s orderly community. Pupils had been frightened, the police called, Facebook was on fire with the episode and parents were talking.

I’m not going to share Joe’s history except to say that he experienced prolonged trauma as a much younger child and the impact of this on his functioning was clear. He’d learned that adults are not to be trusted and was permanently excluded from two primary schools because of the presentation of this belief. Police call-outs were not infrequent during his lengthy spell at the PRU.

Joe was rescued as a Year 7 pupil, by his current Headteacher. And it was a rescue. Imagine the outcomes for this bright but broken boy if the door back into mainstream education had remained shut.

He’s now in Year 11 and meltdowns are rare; years of nurture have enabled some significant rewiring and emotional regulation is not the problem it used to be for Joe. However, his terribly compromised early years mean that he will probably always be vulnerable and this episode was a reminder of that. Nobody was hurt in the incident, but someone might have been.

Joe would have been permanently excluded from many other schools, certainly any ‘no excuses’ institution, but the Head’s acute awareness of her duty of care would never have allowed that. The fixed term exclusion was served at a neighbouring school – she couldn’t be sure he would be safe, unsupervised at home – and the ground was prepared for his return.

Obviously, there had to be a risk assessment and there was discussion too about whether Joe might need some additional support during the stressful run up to his exams. Staff had noticed how wound up he was becoming, with all of the exam talk, prior to the episode. This was part of preparing the ground.

But it was also important to prepare the village.

The Headteacher held a special assembly to talk honestly about the incident and the reasons for her decision-making. She explained what happens when cortisol and adrenaline flood our bodies, about fight or flight, about the devastating impact of chronic stress early in life. In so doing, she asked for the compassionate understanding of her pupils. And it was given. Because pupils appreciate being respected. ‘No excuses’ is fundamentally disrespectful because it assumes that young people are entirely without compassion or subtlety of thought. That’s actually more of an adult issue, it would seem.

The reintegration meeting concluded with some discussion about Joe’s future in the school. Not that it would be foreshortened should there be a repeat incident. Rather that it might not be extended into post 16: the Head’s main worry was that Joe wouldn’t achieve the GCSE English grade required for VI form study, and the science A level she taught. (He hated extended writing and simply wouldn’t do it.) This really troubled her.

“I just don’t think he’ll thrive anywhere else”, she said.

There, in that sentence, ethical headship, love and what it means to have built a village.

A Special Challenge – Inclusion and Behavioural Difficulty

Published in 2011, Mainstream Inclusion, Special Challenges: Strategies for Children with BESD predates SEND reform, hence the BESD categorisation, but its recommendations remain as relevant today as they were at the time of writing. With a deeply concerning Jospeph Rowntree Foundation report this week confirming that seven in every ten pupils permanently excluded from English schools have SEN (2014 data) it seemed worth revisiting the advice.

Focussing on leadership strategies, ‘Special Challenges’ explains how four primary and middle schools successfully included pupils who would have been labelled ‘maladjusted’, pre Warnock. The six key themes to emerge are outlined below but, taken together, they reflect the fact that inclusion can never mean treating all pupils the same way. A behaviour policy is, after all, no more the answer to behavioural difficulty than a literacy policy is the answer to dyslexia. There must be intervention and reasonable adjustment.

Theme One: identification

Having a member of staff who understood the nature of behavioural difficulty and could distinguish it from routine misbehaviour was essential if the school was to effectively support. All of the SENCOs interviewed were able to describe robust systems for identification and involved colleagues, from lunch supervisors to the heateacher, to build up a complete picture. Parents were also involved in the process, SENCOs understanding the importance of wider environmental factors in understanding a child’s behaviour in school.

Theme Two: an inclusive ethos

An overwhelming theme from the study was the positive attitude of staff towards inclusion. All saw it as preferable to exclusion of the children they were working with. The vision was maintained through regular staff meetings, which always focused on pupils in AOB, emails, CPD. The SENCO was part of the leadership team and took the lead role in communicating what inclusion looked like in each of the schools. Staff attitude was seen as vital and a positive attitude was modelled and promoted by the leadership team.

Theme three: support staff

Getting the staffing right was a crucial factor in managing challenging behaviour. Whilst job titles varied from school to school, all had appointed staff with the appropriate training to support BESD children. Many were using Inclusion Development Programme BESD materials to develop their knowledge. Whether key worker, behaviour mentor, HLTA, they represented a consistent adult who children could share their worries and problems with. In the best examples, they were ‘on-call’ throughout the day. Sometimes they worked to a skeleton timetable but were able to abandon this if needed.

Theme four: intervention

Whatever the arrangement, staff needed to spend enough time with the children to build up a meaningful relationship with them, and this time was spent in a variety of ways, as dictated by the needs of the child. Some children had one-to-one support in class, although this wasn’t considered universally helpful. One-to-one sessions were also provided outside the classroom, for example to discuss particular emotional or social issues. There were often scheduled first thing in the morning (particularly on Mondays, which many children found difficult), or after break times to resolve any playground conflicts and ease transition back into the class.

Many group interventions also ran, formal programmes including:

  • Circle of Friends
  • SEAL
  • Let’s Chill
  • Time to Talk
  • Socially Speaking
  • Hot Thoughts, Cool Decisions (provided by outside agency)

These programmes were most effective when they were part of a whole-school approach to behaviour, with all staff using the same strategies and giving the same advice, whether site manager or classroom teacher. In this way, skills were applied in a range of contexts, not just practiced through intervention work.

Theme five: a safe base

Pupils did their one-to-one or group work in a special place, a safe base also used for time-out. This, along with the designated adult to rely on, increased their sense of security and therefore allowed them to begin to address some of the emotional issues they were facing. Comfortable and relaxing, with bean bags, cushions, throws, it was also used for on-call.

Lunchtime was identified as a triggering time and some behaviour staff ran lunchtime clubs for pupils unable to manage the playground, or simply allowed them access to the safe base.

Theme six: peer support

Staff in these inclusive settings felt that inclusion, expertly managed, was beneficial to all children, often because of the interventions and social and emotional learning for all resulting from these. They also commented that including children with BESD increased the tolerance of peers and their awareness of diversity. Children consistently demonstrated caring and understanding behaviour towards those who were struggling.

Circle of Friends was used by one school as a strategy to close the social gap between one pupil and the rest of his class. This was seen to benefit all of the children involved, boosting self esteem.

Sometimes, parents were less tolerant of diversity. However, when the school’s commitment to inclusion was clearly communicated, this was easier to manage because there was no expectation that exclusion would be considered a solution – no mounting ‘out’ campaigns. School leaders also ensured that the benefits of inclusion for all pupils were celebrated.

The insanity of the fixed term exclusion

The title of this post is hyperbolic, of course. Approximately one third of fixed term exclusions could never be described as acts of madness. In fact, I discovered through my school visits last week some highly effective practice and my main purpose in writing now is actually to share that.

I’m an advocate of restorative practice and, as such, evaluate all strategies through Wachtel and McCold’s social discipline window. Whilst not the first tool you’d reach for as a restorative practitioner, the fixed term exclusion, strategically and robustly administered – as in the settings I visited – can be be an authoritative measure, located as such in the restorative corner of the quadrant.


In two schools there was concern about learning time lost and also about whether this sanction was working as the short, sharp shock it is supposed to represent. If it is experienced as simply a day or two off school, is it an effective deterrent? Is it safe? Acknowledging his duty of care, one headteacher has replaced the fixed term exclusion for serious breaches of behaviour policy with an enhanced internal isolation. Pupils must stay in school until 5.00pm and work must be completed to a standard that avoids a repeat of the experience. That’s authoritative.

Another headteacher has invested in a virtual learning platform, EDLounge. Senior staff monitor when a pupil logs on and off at home and also how much work is completed. Again, expectations around this are clear and consistently enforced. It’s authoritative.

A third school, whose use of the sanction is sparing, has an approach to the reintegration meeting which is exemplary. The ground could not be more carefully prepared for a positive return. It works like this.

  • Parents / carers must attend and the pupil may rejoin lessons only when they have done so – even if this means the pupil has to work in isolation for another day or two. With this expectation made crystal clear at the outset, such eventualities are avoided.
  • The meeting takes place in the headteacher’s office. It is led by the senior leader for Inclusion and minuted by a secretary.
  • The discussion ensures the pupil experiences a sense that there will be a proper holding to account. “Can we ensure that’s minuted please” etc, from the headteacher.
  • After reflecting on the misconduct and securing commitments, the discussion becomes restorative. “So tell us, where do you struggle? Why do you think that is?”
  • If the misdemeanour has involved a teacher, the pupil can only return to that lesson when the inclusion manager has mediated a talk between the two and the relationship is restored.

In these settings, the scourge of the repeated fix term exclusion, or its equivalent, is rare. However, two thirds of pupils excluded from English schools for a fixed term are excluded not just once – the short, sharp shock – but multiple times. Clearly, therefore, the sanction is mostly ineffective in changing behaviour.

Reading case-files last week, I found pupils who had racked up exclusions well into the double figures  – usually for persistent misconduct. In this way, just as pupils persist in not learning from the exclusion, schools persist in assuming they will. This is behaviour that Einstein famously defined as insanity.

Removing the independent appeal panel and its power to reinstate an unlawfully  excluded pupil, the DfE’s current statutory guidance on exclusion has scant regard for children’s rights legislation. However, even this document politely encourages headteachers to “consider whether exclusion is proving an effective sanction” when a pupil is repeatedly excluded.

That said, schools are also advised to avoid policy and practice that leads to the exclusion of a disproportionate number of pupils from vulnerable groups. With SEN learners shown the door for a fixed term six times more often than their peers, it’s clear that the guidance is widely ignored.

When misconduct is persistent, then there is an unmet need. It might be cognitive, environmental – it’s frequently both. Whatever the underlying cause of the self-destructive behaviour, it will not be addressed when the pupil is out of school. Indeed, Barnardo’s found that fixed term exclusions exacerbate behavioural difficulties because they alienate young people; they engender a sense that school has given up. When a young person is looked after, that experience is especially harmful.

Of course, senior staff cannot allow persistent misconduct to continue – that would be neglectful. Neither can they indulge it because that would be permissive. Inclusive schools respond with authority – restoratively.

I visited a school inclusion unit last week that is the embodiment of this ethos. It isn’t just about separating misbehaving students from their peers. There are counsellors available. Holistic assessments are undertaken and Early Help is provided where necessary. There are learning interventions. Pupils RAG rate their lessons, returning to those where they are confident they will experience success and building on this over time. Those autistic learners who are triggered by the change a supply teacher represents go to the unit instead. It’s a simple but important reasonable adjustment. The work completed in the unit mirrors that completed in the mainstream, so pupils don’t fall behind.

Readers will not be surprised to hear that permanent exclusions from this setting are very rare indeed. When they do occur, it’s because there was no other way of safely managing a major incident, not because a trail of fixed term exclusions had finally arrived at the dead end point for which it was always destined.



My ambivalent relationship with TwitterEd was nurtured during 2015. I know that we’ll stay together because, truly, clicking on those links has been the best CPD of my career. I follow Stephen Tierney, Laura Mcinerney, Sam Freedman, Tom Sherrington and others (as we all do) and as a direct result feel that I’m ON IT.

However, I also experience deep and daily frustration on Twitter and the sense that it has nothing to do with my lived experience as a senior teacher responsible for inclusion in a secondary mod.

Take the reformed GCSEs. Broadly welcomed on TwitterEd, these are a disaster for students like mine. Indeed, I started a petition against the ‘strengthened’ English Lit GCSE and the complete nonsense that is a closed book anthology paper. This generated some media interest – TES covered it, and Schools Week; policymakers also expressed concern –  I had a conference call with Ofqual and a letter from Nicky Morgan (each directing me to the other).  But in the end I couldn’t get so much as a retweet out of TeacherToolkit, Geoff Barton, David Didau, Tom Bennet or any of the big Twitter players. Morgan can rest easy in her bed then, if TwitterEd is a true reflection of teaching opinion.

That, however, is my point. I don’t think TwitterEd is a true reflection of the new reality confronted by those perplexed, exhausted, ignored teachers who lose sleep for their students. Our Head of English is for me the truer voice because she’s not speaking to an audience or trying to impress anyone that she’s hard-core rigour personified. She’s simply describing with complete honesty and deep concern how it is.

So how is it? Well, we have many students with SEN who made terrific progress in reading during KS3 – students who started to believe in themselves as learners, as readers. Who slogged through 1:1 phonics interventions and second chance reading schemes; who relished their every Accelerated Reader quiz success; who went on to share books with each other; who spent lunchtimes in the library with our librarian – himself a force of nature, private reading his mission.

These same SEN (or by now mostly exited SEN) students started Y10 full of confidence – they truly believed they could demonstrate their reading ability in a GCSE exam. And we persist in trying to convince them that they can do this. But, in truth, the challenge confronting them is an impossible one. Most will not comprehend a C19th text that is so far beyond their ZPD that it might as well be written in Swahili. They will not be able to demonstrate their reading ability in an exam constructed by out of touch elitists who, in the end, are not interested in them.

Perhaps I’m missing something (come back at me, big Twitter players) but why can’t an English exam (not Literature) focus on assessing candidates’ ability to comprehend English in its current form? What’s the harm in a Foundation tier, which could perhaps include such a focus? Why the insistence on C19th literature in an ENGLISH (not Lit) exam?

I don’t want to rant, on the cusp of a new year. I just think that our SEN learners deserve so much better. I’m posting this, though, in full knowledge that the TwitterEd A team will conclude that my expectations are low and that the future lies in a diet of Dickens and Austen from Year 7.

I’d like to reply by stating that TwittedEd opinion doesn’t concern me because I have more respect for what our Head of English thinks. Whilst that is true, I write this purely because actually it does concern me. And that’s because, clearly, TwitterEd IS influential. Just read some of Gove’s old speeches.

My wish for 2016 is then that TwittedEd does more to promote fairness; without this, there are no real standards; assessment is fatally flawed when it doesn’t allow all learners to show what they can do; when it is exclusive and says to so many, ‘This English, this academic stuff – don’t even bother.’

Why Ofsted need to inspect SEND services – a parent perspective

National Deaf Children's Society Campaigns blog

Matt Keer, member of NDCS, guest blogs for us on the Ofsted/CQC consultation on SEND inspections.

Dear Ofsted & CQC,

I’ve got two profoundly deaf boys. I’ve sent a response to your consultation about how to inspect special educational needs and disability provision in local areas. But there was something else that I wanted to say from the heart.

Matt Keer - FamilyAs a family, deafness has been part of our lives for over 15 years now. We got through the initial storm: dealing with diagnosis, learning how to help the kids develop, protecting them when they experienced social stigma, giving them a sense of self-worth and pride in who they are.

We managed all that. We’re not special people. Tens of thousands of other parents in our shoes do the same thing every day.

But the process of getting our kids the educational support they need? The support that they have…

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“Look for the helpers.” An Assembly. #Muslimsarenotterrorists

It dawned on me just how terrifying the world can seem when I was on a train to York with my 11 year old daughter last half term break. She was unusually quiet, glancing anxiously about at our fellow passengers, before finally blurting, “How do we know there’s not a bomb on the train?” I asked her to explain. “Well nobody checked our bags before we got on – like they do at airports. So there could be a bomb on this train.”

A quick google search and I was able to reassure her that the odds of us dying in a terrorist attack on the 10.15 from Newark to York were approximately 9.3 million to one. For some context, and because she loves dogs, I advised her that the odds of dying from a dog bite were greater, around one in 700,000 poor souls suffering this fate.

Unfortunately, the facts of the matter didn’t do anything to reduce Josie’s fear – she was on the platform at York before I was even out of my seat. This troubled me – I don’t want any of my children or indeed any of you to be unreasonably frightened of the world, or anxious about something so thrilling as travel. It was therefore a relief to find recently some better advice than mine, from an expert in childhood called Fred Rogers. Recalling his own fears as a boy, he wrote these words.


Tragically, with the Isis attacks in Paris and scenes of slaughter, carnage and grief dominating the news, there’s been plenty of opportunity to act on Rogers’ advice. Josie knows about the shootings in bars, in restaurants, in a packed concert hall; she knows about the senseless murder of well over a hundred people, most of them young. But she also knows about the helpers.


The helpers are the subject of this assembly.

Isobel Bowdery is a 22 year old survivor of the concert hall massacre. She played dead for over an hour as those lying face down around her were callously executed by the “circling vultures”. Her account is harrowing but its also inspirational. Its mainly about the helpers.

But being a survivor of this horror lets me shed light on the heroes. To the man who put his life on the line by covering my brain while I whimpered … to the complete strangers who picked me up from the road and consoled me during the 45 minutes I genuinely thought my boyfriend was dead .. to the man who held me and told me everything was going to be alright despite being all alone and scared himself, to the friend who offered me shelter and went out to buy me clothes so I wouldn’t have to wear my blood-stained top. To all of you who have sent caring messages – you make me believe this world has the potential to be better.

As multiple attacks were reported that terrible night, a state of emergency was declared with people directed to stay inside their homes. But taxi drivers worked through the night, switching off their meters and driving stranded people to safety. Those indoors took to Twitter to become helpers, using the hashtag ‘porteouverte’, which means ‘open door’, to offer stranded strangers somewhere to sleep. Facebook immediately launched its safety check.


This feature reminded users in the region to tell friends they were safe, through one quick click. It connected people even in the midst of chaos.

By morning, images like this one were flooding social media.


Just as the lights went out in Paris that night, so the French tricolour lit up landmark buildings across the globe in a beautiful show of solidarity.

With ‘muslimsarenotterrorists’ and ‘pray4paris’ trending on Twitter the whole of the next day, never did the words of Martin Luther King seem more resonant.


It seemed we were determined not to reply to Isis hate with more hate. This Facebook status was shared several thousand times.


Of course, Isis terrorists hate the sentiment expressed here – that we mustn’t condemn a whole community of innocent people for the actions of a tiny minority; they despise our modern, multi-racial societies. They want Muslim people to feel loathed in their European homes and driven to join them in Syria. They want them to feel that they have only one true home – within Islamic state. They want our western countries to become fearful, closed, authoritarian societies. They want us to divide and become weaker, less tolerant, less together – they want us more like them.

So we must not let these attacks, those merciless bandits, create tension and division between us. We mustn’t let a climate of fear and suspicion unbalance our richly diverse communities. When this happens, not only do the terrorists win, but innocent human beings – as closely linked with Isis as you or I – suffer greatly. Look at what happened to Ahmed.

Imagine how that talented Year 9 student felt when he shared his passion for robotics with the teachers he trusted, only to discover that they viewed him as a plotting mass murderer. Because of his race and religion. Thank goodness for the hashtag #IStandwithAhmed. This allowed people to become helpers; to express solidarity with the wronged boy. They tweeted in their thousands …

“IstandwithAhmed because when I brought my robotics project into class noone labelled me a terrorist.”

“Most kids who made a clock in 20 minutes would be hailed as Jimmy Neutron. Muslim kid? Potential bomb maker. Sad.” #IStandwithAhmed

“Society is teaching a young mind that no matter what he accomplishes, society will only see the colour of his skin. #IStandwithAhmed

After the trauma of being humiliated, arrested, labelled, how heartened Ahmed must have felt by this huge wave of support. How grateful for the existence of helpers.

So I end today’s assembly by urging all of you to become helpers. Because you can be – simply through the language you use and the climate your words create. Don’t give way to lazy thinking and prejudice – challenge it in yourself and in others. And my special plea to you, since much of this assembly has been about social media, is to use it in a really positive way. Use it, referring back to the words of Martin Luther King, to drive out the threatening darkness with light and to drive out hate with love.

Antoine lost the love of his life in the Paris attacks. And made this.


Poem’s title as mnemonic – a closed book conditions life-saver? Memory Strategy 6.

This is the last post in my series on memory-friendly anthology teaching and it moves onto that old favourite, the mnemonic. Many web-pages, such as 9 Types of mnemonics for better memory, are devoted to describing these strategies so I’m not going to rehash any of that information here. Most of what I want to suggest is actually exemplified in the pics at the end of the post, but I thought a few broader points would be worth making first.

GCSE students at my school are already familiar with the SPIT acronym. An understanding of what’s meant by Structure, Point of View, Imagery and Theme gives them not only a framework for anthology study and revision, but also angles from which to tackle an unseen practical criticism – though they do need to be very clear that ‘Imagery’ is intended to provoke wider considerations about a poet’s use of language.

English Departments will have their own versions of SPIT, of course. It’s important to consider James Theobald’s misgivings when devising them, however. There are good acronyms and bad ones. Good ones remind candidates to consider key elements. Without SPIT, many would forget to look at who is speaking in the poem, and the contribution of its structure and form to meaning, preferring instead to alight on the first reassuring example of some alliteration. SPIT ensures they both stand back and zoom in. Others acronyms, such as the suspiciously convenient POETIC, are less helpful. Indeed, as James argues – citing chief examiners – they can lead candidates up some extraordinarily convoluted blind alleys.

I’ve used SPIT to structure notes in this Edexcel Conflict cluster anthology revision guide. There is a lot here for students to remember, though, even with all of the memory-friendly teaching described in this series. There is also the deplorable fact of the closed book to consider. Without this ridiculous and unfair constraint, candidates would use the words on the page to stimulate all of their learning about SPIT. As it is, they must remember a poem before critically appreciating it and a significant minority of candidates will recall entirely the wrong poem. You can guarantee it. For example, both ‘What were they Like?’ and ‘War Photographer’ in ‘Conflict’ offer an outsider’s perspective on war – they would be very easy to confuse in the heat of an examined moment.

To guard against this, and to support candidates in retrieving from memory as many elements of the poem they’re not able to see as they can, I think we need to do a lot of work with titles. These, and the names of the poets, will be available in exam materials for candidates to see. Its imperative, therefore, that they trigger a stream of associations – that the poem’s title, or the poet’s name, or both, generate as much SPIT as possible.

It’s important to note that I am not for a minute suggesting that the strategies suggested here represent best practice poetry teaching. In fact I wish we could do without them. They are simply pragmatic and will, I hope, give those without strong verbal memory some chance of succeeding.

Title Strategies

Invent a catchy rhyme which begins with the title and adds to it so that candidates are reminded of a key theme.

  • William Blake / don’t be fake – relates to a theme in ‘Poison Tree’
  • Belfast Confetti / words left me – not the strongest rhyme, I admit, but it does take us straight to a key theme whilst also reminding us of first person
  • My Cousin Kate / I really hate etc etc

There’s one of these for each poem in the revision guide linked above, though students could be encouraged to create their own.

Adapt the letters of the poem’s title so that key images from the poem are incorporated. Advise students to display these prominently in their bedrooms so that when they see the title in the exam, they also see the images.

Use the title as a peg for key quotations, as in:



            Red rope



There is a space within the revision guide for students to record a mnemonic for each poem – as illustrated here.

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Of course, it’s important that students have opportunities to discover how effective their mnemonics are – whether they are sufficient or need to be further developed, perhaps. Whether, indeed, they are memorable. Mini-testing will allow them to find all of this out. So will more interactive alternatives to the mini-test – such as  ‘Just a Minute’ in which learners must talk about a poem’s SPIT with only their mnemonic for reference. Many would enjoy this type of challenge – and memory work can be fun. I just don’t think it’s what the study of English Literature should be all about.

So, on that somewhat depressing note, this series ends. I had the feeling all of the way through the writing of this particular post that there was a big idea I was somehow missing though. Please, any further suggestions about how we might work with titles and names so that they are as helpful to candidates as they possibly can be, do share!

In the meantime, thanks for reading.