Nick Dennis' Blog

History, Technology, Education, Leadership

Thank You

Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore opens #TLAB15

Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore opens #TLAB15

I want to thank all the speakers, workshop leaders and delegates for making the Teaching, Learning & Assessment Conference, Berkhamsted (#TLAB15) a memorable one.

You can find a collection of the tweets from the day here.

Blogs posts on the day:

Sally Thorne:

Drew Thomson:

Jonathan Peel:

Nikki Able:

Emma Kell:

Amy Harvey:

Kevin Carson:

Kamil Trzebiatowski:

Helena Marsh:

Workshop materials:

Dave Stacey:

Tom Boulter:

David Fawcett:

Darren Mead:

Mark Steed:

Candida Gould & Crista Hazell presentation


An excellent team is taking over next year. Alastair Harrison and Laura Knight will be leading things from the Berkhamsted School end. They will be joined by the Astra Teaching Alliance  & Chesham Grammar School in planning future events. I was asked yesterday whether it is hard to ‘let go’. My answer then (and it is the same answer now) is that the conference was never meant to be linked to one person, school or sector and the teachers attending and leading workshops are proof of this.  I know my colleagues at Berkhamsted and beyond will take the day to new heights as the workshop leaders and speakers already do. They are the leaders we have been waiting for.

Professor Barbara Oakley closes #TLAB15

Professor Barbara Oakley closes #TLAB15

One of the most interesting conversations yesterday was around the need for such events in other areas of the country and beyond. It is just an idea at the moment but will now be floating around in ‘diffuse mode’ so feedback/comments are welcome!

One tweet stood out for me yesterday:

Great education and professional development is not the preserve of a particular education sector yet certain social forces and loud voices seem to suggest otherwise. I hope that when the conversation occurs again (as it will), there will be one concrete and successful example people can point to where all involved are seen as educators who care about the ‘work‘.

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#TLAB15 Welcome

The text below is taken from the #TLAB15 conference booklet. The Teaching, Learning & Assessment Conference, Berkhmasted takes place on the 21st March. 

Education is an ever-unfinished conversation yet we seem to forget this fundamental idea as data, inspection judgements, performance reviews and lesson grades crowd our vision. Although important, the supposed finality inherent in these measures often limit our ways of thinking. We don’t see that we are in fact dealing with other humans and their minds as well as reflecting on what we do with ours. This year’s conference, with the theme of ‘All in the Mind’, hopes to put the human element squarely on the agenda. It also seeks to touch upon the latest research from cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience – two exciting contributors to this ever-unfinished conversation.

The theme also pokes fun at the purveyors of limited political vision who suggest that independent and state educators sectors will only work together effectively when money (or the potential prospect of losing it) is on the table. I must thank the workshop leaders for giving up their time freely to share their work because they think it is important. Rebecca Brooks has continued her great work in managing the event and containing her sighs when I discuss conference badges.  I am especially grateful to Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and Professor Barbara Oakley for taking the time to talk about their research. As I write this on International Women’s Day, it seems appropriate to point out that very few educational conferences have had two women scientists provide the opening and closing keynote sessions. As we reflect on the professional work we do in schools, we should also consider our professional work outside of the classroom.

The final sense of ‘All in the Mind’ is that this conference hopes to lay down a concrete challenge to all attendees. We have heard from a variety of organisations that one-off CPD is fairly ineffective because there is no chance to develop the learning. This view certainly has merit, yet I believe it ignores the possibility (and probability) of leadership.  John Kotter writes that leadership is not what we usually think it is in terms of position or supposed status:

Leadership is entirely different. It is associated with taking an organization into the future, finding opportunities that are coming at it faster and faster and successfully exploiting those opportunities. Leadership is about vision, about people buying in, about empowerment and, most of all, about producing useful change. Leadership is not about attributes, it’s about behaviour. And in an ever-faster-moving world, leadership is increasingly needed from more and more people, no matter where they are in a hierarchy. The notion that a few extraordinary people at the top can provide all the leadership needed today is ridiculous, and it’s a recipe for failure.

If you have not guessed it by now, you are the leaders we have been waiting for. By attending the conference, you have partly accepted the challenge of taking the ever-unfinished conversation about education back to your schools, meetings and training sessions. Since 2013, former attendees have told me how they have left the conference inspired to become teachers, senior leaders and better educators for the students they have in front of them on the Monday morning. Some of them are in the audience or leading workshops today. I can think of no better proof that you too can be part of the conversation and also lead it in your respective organisations and classrooms.

I wish you all a very enjoyable and stimulating conference.



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After a long period of gestation, we have released details of the revamped ‘gifted and talented’ programme.

We already have extensive provision for sports, music, drama and academic scholarship students yet we felt we could do more to support our students. The first element is our Fry Scholars’ Programme (named after Dr Thomas Fry)  and seeks to promote the following values:

  • An attitude of scholarship;
  • Curiosity;
  • Independent study;
  • Humility;
  • Working hard by doing hard work;
  • Developing a love of learning.

Selection for the programme will be limited to three students in each year group on each our campuses. Identification is grounded in baseline data and teacher recommendations. Students are then invited to partake in the additional challenge this programme provides. We will also invite a small number of students outside the selected group to participate in additional activities (denoted by the asterisk in the tables below) by signing up on a first come, first served basis.


Year 1 Activity 1 Activity 2 Activity 3
Year 7 & 8 Introduction Maths/Science Visit*
Year 9 & 10 Introduction Philosophy* Engineering
Year 2 Activity 1 Activity 2 Activity 3
Year 7 & 8 Literature/Poetry Debating Visit*
Year 9 & 10 Fiction* Leadership Training Mindset and learning plenary


For students in Y10, there will be a further opportunity for stretch and challenge by entering the Academic Competition.  Inspired by the selection process for Fellows at All Souls College, Oxford, it is open to all students in Year 10 who achieve at least 8 A grades in their summer exams. Students meeting the criteria will have to write a letter of application and if accepted, will sit three papers of an hour each from the selection below:

  • Classics
  • English
  • Geography
  • History
  • Philosophy and Ethics
  • General paper (sat by all candidates).

After sitting these papers, the students will have a viva voce exam based on their papers lasting no more than 20 minutes. One winner will be named for each campus and they will hold the  honorary title of Nicholls’ Scholar for Year 11. We will post further information on the exam questions, viva process and the prize (trophy) on the Berkhamsted School website after the Easter holiday.

It is worth reiterating that we have high expectations for all our students. We believe our curriculum already provides stretch and challenge in all areas (record GCSE results last year are only part of the story) yet we believe we can do more. The Fry Scholars’ programme and the Nicholls Academic Competition are just the start of our exciting plans to refine the work we do.

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TLAB – All Sold

TLAB PhotoI am very pleased to announce that the original ticket allocation for the Teaching, Learning & Assessment Conference, Berkhamsted has now been sold!* There will be around 240 educators at the conference on the 21st March to discuss, share and consider ideas on the process of learning and teaching.

As it will be my last event as organiser, I am really looking forward to welcoming you to the conference and hopefully joining the discussions. See you on March 21st!

*We have released 10 more tickets that are on sale until Friday 6th but no more will be sold after that date (unless you would like to be placed on the waiting list). Please go to the booking page for more information.

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The problem of a single story

Robert Peal’s article in the TES on Friday ‘History’s an adventure – don’t cut it short’ left me feeling slightly bemused. In the piece, Peal argues that current history textbooks lack an extended narrative that is detrimental to exciting students about the stories of our past.

You would be hard pushed to find a stretch of more than 200 words that is not broken by a cartoon, a snippet of “source material” or a “funny fact”. The layout often resembles a magazine, not a book, with short chunks of boxed text designed to cater to the supposedly minimal attention spans of today’s pupils.

Moreover, the apparent attempt to link the past to the experience of the students breaks up the power of the narrative. The downfall is due to the changes in post-Imperial Britain, the move towards encompassing historical skills and the growth of ‘irreverent humour’ in the Horrible Histories series. I don’t doubt that there are KS3 textbooks which are poor having seen/used a number of them myself, yet Peal’s argument resides on two assumptions that are troubling. The first is that textbooks are the best way to tell a story and the second is that a particular narrative should be privileged.

I think Peal expects too much from textbooks or does not comprehend their place in the toolkit of a history teacher. They are a resource which the well-trained teacher can use as a basic standard from which they can innovate (teach). There is a form a recognition at the end of the article when he suggests that he uses them to aid planning yet the thrust is that they are the main teaching tool for conveying a story. Due to the National Curriculum (schools who do not have to follow it choose to do so anyway) and the chronological span and flexibility within a single school year, no KS3 book can adequately cover the variety of topics or narratives available even if there is a series like the Counsell, Byrom and Riley books.

The article then uses the work of RJ Unstead at Primary level to showcase how good a textbook can be when there is a focus on stories rather than sources. What is interesting to note is that Unstead’s books were produced at a time when there were no mandated topics to cover (see David Cannadine’s The Right Kind of History for examples of the very  general guidance given to history teachers at Primary level). In the absence of useful material, Unstead’s books helped to fulfil a need for a ‘good story’. KS3 books operate in a slightly different atmosphere and I question the suggestion that a series of books, located in a particular time and for a particular purpose, can be the panacea for the complex conditions of KS3 history. This is an anachronism that seems to slip by in the critique of the inexact use of culturally and temporally fixed reference points.

The most worrying aspect of the article comes in the section ‘Back to the old school’. Here, Peal explains why Unstead’s book fell from favour:

From the 1970s, Unstead became a figure of fun, mocked for his earnest stories of derring-do and insufficiently critical take on British history. In 1962 he defended his brand of scholarship: “Whereas England has often acted foolishly or badly, her history shows the persistence of ideals which good men have lived by since Alfred’s day.” This was not a fashionable view in post-Imperial Britain.

The crude linkage between an unbroken narrative of high-minded ideals and the disruptive ‘post-Imperial’ condition seems to suggest that the ‘best’ narrative of collective memory in the public sphere has been lost due to the post-colonial condition.  This mourning of a single, linear and progressive narrative in this passage reveals a belief that we (English? British? Western?) learn from our mistakes. I am not so sure of this view when considering the Middle Passage, the treatment of the Mau Mau in Kenya or the racism in society that fuelled Imperial Britain and continues in various guises today.  I am not suggesting that these examples, a ‘post-Imperial’ narrative, should replace Unstead’s as the ‘right’ one because the collective memory that we deal with in school classrooms is not a competitive history but a connected one.  Examples of the persistence of great ideals are part of our history but there is also the unsavoury and the unspeakably cruel. No textbook can ever capture this depth and this is where the expertise of the teacher, versed in what Michael Rothberg terms as ‘Multidirectional Memory‘, is vital. To deny these parts of our collective memory for the sake of scoring points against a ‘progressive turn’ in ‘post-Imperial Britain’ shows, at best, a naivety about the multicultural society that we live and teach in.

Stories are important for history teaching. They help us to reveal that even though the past is a different place, the human ‘qualities’ of love, desire, greed, hate, hospitality, vulnerability and altruism can be found and this can be used to create a link between the present and the past for our students.  Yet we should not forget that in a desire to support a particular story, we miss the complexity of our history and the world around us.

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One million minutes and pointing fingers

No doubt you will have seen Dr Tristram Hunt’s speech last week about independent schools and tax rates. If you have not, I suggest you read it first

This is an invitation to do something radical. In his book, ‘Lessons Learned’, Fenton Whelan estimates that children between the ages of 4 to 18 spend around 1 million minutes in school. This might sound like a generous amount of time, but to make each minute count there must be an effective school system in place – a condition arguably not fulfilled by our current arrangements. Last week Dr Tristram Hunt revealed his take on resolving the problem by suggesting that independent school should lose their charity status if they do not form meaningful partnerships with state schools that will enhance the experience of students. Some have labeled it as ‘class war’, a rebuttal that further muddies the waters. If Tristram Hunt is to be considered as a possible next Secretary of State for Education, it is worth examining his ideas in detail.  After all, they might be foisted upon a school near you.

In my reading, Tristram Hunt’s makes two points, both of which contain a number of important complexities not accounted for in his original speech. The first is that the state and private sectors should work together. This is correct, and I firmly believe they should too. Where it has worked successfully is due to spirit of collegiality between the schools/teachers. One example is the Teaching, Learning & Assessment Conference, Berkhamsted (TLAB). In its third year, TLAB has managed to draw a fantastic crop of teachers from both sectors to lead workshops in their particular subject areas. These teachers have come together from the state and independent sector out of a shared desire to exchange and learn from each other and the result is an event that confirms the positive value of cross-sector dialogue and sharing. I question however, whether this same spirit of collegiality can be forced, rather than fostered, into existence. If such an event was to be demanded by government, the feeling of goodwill and openness would likely disappear, and teachers would rightly question the motives behind every conversation.

The second point that Tristram Hunt makes is that the removal of tax breaks would redress inequality across the country. While I don’t question the sincerity of his desire to redress the imbalance, I have serious concerns over the true effectiveness of this proposed removal. £150 million is a large sum of money, yet if divided equally among all state schools in England it would amount to just over £6,100 (if limited to secondary schools in England it would be around £20,311 per school). To be sure, an increase in school funding would be welcome, yet it is not the radical shift in equity that apparently drives the policy. What Tristram Hunt’s speech avoids is the stark reality that data on student achievement from Ofsted reveals; that the Social and Economic Status (SES) of parents and students still largely determines the grades that these students achieve. There are clear examples where individual schools have made a considerable difference –  Dunraven School and Chestnut Grove School to name just two. Yet there is still a persistent achievement gap between those who are on free school meals and those students who are not.

As well as avoiding the difficult conversations on society and economy, the speech sidesteps key questions regarding the role of Ofsted, general funding for schools, and the progressive diminution of the Arts/Sport as a result. These are urgent problems that my colleagues in the state sector struggle with as they strive to provide the best education for students. We have a state inspection regime that is nominally based around accountability, yet historically it has enabled an environment of fear and summary judgement rather than support and appropriate challenge. We have little space for the Liberal Arts (music, dance, drama, art) because politicians appear to only want a curriculum, which as the philosopher Michael Sandel suggests, reflects a market society rather than one that reflects some of the most wonderful aspects of our humanity. As a result we have diminishing opportunities for school sports, a lack of investment in facilities, and limited vision when it comes to school planning. These are serious issues and the challenge is to create an inclusive and successful education system by thinking through all the problems and opportunities to maximise success.

I don’t think anyone disagrees with the view that education in this country can improve when we work together, or that it must. When average house prices in the postal districts of the thirty best performing state schools are almost nine times higher than average gross annual earnings, we have a problem. When we have around 1 in 10 students from working class backgrounds and hardly any black students attending Oxford and Cambridge, we have a problem. When fees for independent schools are, in the words of Andrew Halls, Head of King’s College School in Wimbledon, only for ‘oligarchs’, we have a problem. As a teacher, I want the best for all students, even the ones outside my immediate care. When only limited numbers of students can benefit from a great education there is a serious problem; one that demands a collective effort. Yet it cannot happen when ‘pointing fingers’ is perceived as an effective strategy for educational change.

Essentially, this is an invitation to Tristram Hunt and other politicians to grasp the complexity of education in this country and engage with all schools. Without this, we will stay exactly where we are, wasting too many of the precious and unrecoverable 1 million minutes students have.

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#TLAB15 tickets now on sale!

'Multipliers' workshop at #TLAB14

‘Multipliers’ workshop at #TLAB14

Tickets for the Teaching, Learning & Assessment Conference, Berkhamsted, are now on sale! You can book you place by clicking on this link.

The price remains at £50 as we want to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to hear two world-class speakers and three excellent teachers for a quarter of the cost you might pay for a day’s inset training with one speaker. Lunch and refreshments are also included and we are able to do this because:

  • The conference is non-profit;
  • Workshop leaders and speakers give their time freely (we do pay for travel expenses and a room for the night in recognition of their effort);
  • We focus on what matters.

As of 10.00am this morning, a quarter of the allocated tickets had been sold. The last two events were fully booked. What is particularly encouraging this year is the fact that schools are bringing five or six colleagues along so there is genuine dialogue about what is heard/experienced.

Last year’s conference iBook is available on the iTunes Store and you can watch some of the video from #TLAB14 here.

You can see what is being said on Twitter about the day here.

We look forward to welcoming you to the conference where we will be announcing exciting plans about its future!

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LegacyWhat is your legacy as a leader/teacher?

I have been thinking about this question carefully since reading James Kerr’s ‘Legacy – what the All Blacks can teach us about the business of life‘. In the book, Kerr charts the ethos that makes the All Blacks a special rugby team and outlines the following key points on leadership:

  • Character – humility is a key focus. The All Blacks put a great deal of emphasis on values going so far as to select people on character over talent. For the All Blacks, this means being never too big to do the small things that need to be done (such as cleaning the changing rooms themselves rather than letting someone else do it);
  • Adaptation – possessing the wisdom to reinvent your strategy and also to make it happen;
  • Purpose – asking the foundational question and connecting everyone through personal meaning to the purpose of the organisation;
  • Responsibility -instead of reinforcing the leader/follower dichotomy, leaders create leaders. By using devolved leadership structures, leaders create ownership, autonomy and initiative (being a ‘Multiplier’);
  • Learn – great leaders are great teachers. They create great learning environments and they are great learners too by continually deepening their understanding;
  • No dickheads – no one is bigger than the team and individual talent does not lead to automatically outstanding results. One selfish mindset will infect a collective culture and weaken it;
  • High Expectations – embrace the challenge of doing well and then work towards meeting the expectations and surpassing them;
  • Preparation – you prepare under pressure with increasing intensity. This means that when it comes to the crunch, you are able to perform at the highest level;
  • Authentic – that you are true to yourself and your deepest values. You act with honesty and have integrity (you do what you say you are going to do with clarity);
  • Sacrifice – that champions do extra. They go that extra mile when no one else is around and make sacrifices to be the best;
  • Language – that the words you use and they way you speak embody your goals and values;
  • Ritual – that to make something ‘stick’, you create the rituals, the structure, to maintain the values or story. Rituals tell a story and create a legacy. Rituals make the intangible real;
  • Legacy – great leaders are stewards for the future. They aim to leave behind a better organisation than they found it. They honour those who have gone before them and those who will come after.

As a leader/teacher, what will be your legacy?

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What makes great teaching? A response to the Sutton Trust report

I was asked to give my views on the Sutton Trust’s report ‘What makes great teaching?’ for a newspaper this week. This is the original text:

It is a useful summary if you are interested in teacher professional development and have not come across the research before. The six components of ‘great teaching’ highlighted should not be surprising yet I cannot help but feel that the nuance will get lost and the paper makes this mistake amid all its careful considerations. It cites Deborah Stipek’s research on grouping students by ability and states that such practices are ineffective. Yet, when examined in detail, Stipek’s paper does not suggest that grouping by ability is wrong but rather it is the teacher’s perception of the group that leads to varied results, especially for students in low ability groups. If the professional training suggested at the end of the paper is adopted, it would disturb teacher perceptions and therefore the students in these ability grouped classes would be taught appropriately and make expected progress.

This inconsistency does not mean a rejection of the recommendations. On the contrary, I hope it is rightly received as a mechanism to ask some serious questions about student learning and teacher professional development in all schools. My challenge to the Sutton Trust and the academic contributors is to be better ‘choice architects’. Yes, they do indeed point to ways forward for schools and leadership teams yet why not go one step further by making the research base of the paper available for free so schools can improve their professional development programmes? If they did this, they would remove a substantive barrier to teacher professional development in schools and fulfil the ‘quick win’ they identify at the end on the necessity to spread awareness of research on effective pedagogy. I am sure that this action would go some way to reducing the Sutton Trust’s identified gap of a year’s learning between poorer students with effective teachers and those with poorly performing teachers.

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Research notes

I mentioned earlier this year that I was slightly frustrated by talk about educational research in schools. So I decided to do something about it and applied to do a Masters at the University of Oxford. My original plan was to write about the research once it was completed, yet  a wonderful opportunity to discuss some of the issues in relation to History teaching specifically has changed my mind. From November, I will be posting a monthly blog on the Schools History Project website based on the readings/tasks I have been set alongside questions about how the generic/specific educational research used throughout the course might be applicable to a History classroom.  The purpose is not to tell you how to use the research but to engage in a conversation about what it might mean.

If you have any topics you would like to suggest in terms of discussion, please add them in the comments section below.

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