Nick Dennis' Blog

History, Technology, Education, Leadership


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.

Share Button

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.

Share Button

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.

Share Button

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.

Share Button

#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!

Share Button


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?

Share Button

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.

Share Button

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.

Share Button

#TLAB15 – All in the Mind – Saturday 21st March 2015

CPD panel at #TLAB14

CPD panel at #TLAB14

Seeing the Teaching, Learning & Assessment Conference, Berkhamsted grow since 2013 has been a joy. Hundreds of teachers have been enthused, challenged and engaged by the day and I am pleased that we have a fantastic group of workshop leaders and keynote speakers for the 2015 on the 21st March. The theme for #TLAB15 is ‘All in the Mind’ and we are very fortunate to secure our two main speakers. Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore is a Royal Society University Research Fellow, Professor in Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL and has been Leader of the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Group at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience since 2003. Her group’s research focuses on brain development in human adolescence.

 You can see her TED talk below:

 Our closing speaker is Professor Barbara Oakley. She is a Professor of Engineering at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan and her research focuses on the complex relationship between neuroscience and social behaviour. Described as “revolutionary” by the Wall Street Journal, she is also a former U.S. Army captain and worked as a Russian translator on Soviet trawlers during the Cold War. She is the leader on the Coursera MOOC ‘Learning How To Learn’ and has recently published ‘A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science’.

 You can see her TEDx talk below:

 As usual, there will be a range of subject workshops led by teachers from across a variety of schools and locations. See the draft workshop list below:

The conference, as usual, is non-profit and the price is £50. This includes all refreshments and lunch.

If you would like to attend next March, tickets will be on sale at the end of October from the conference website. Make sure you purchase them as soon as possible – one school is bringing its entire staff!

This will be my last TLAB event. In true ‘Multipliers’ spirit, I will be handing the organisational reins over to three colleagues at Berkhamsted and some new partner schools (announcement to be made at the conference). TLAB was never meant to be exclusive affair and I already know the new team have some very exciting plans for 2016.  Rest assured, the conference will continue to be non-profit and provide a stimulating and collegiate atmosphere as usual.

I do hope you join us on March 21st for what promises to be an inspiring day.

Share Button

Digitising Cultural Heritage

Biblioteca Angelica, Rome

The amazing Biblioteca Angelica, Rome

Last week I spent a day and a half in Rome at the Biblioteca Angelica working with Europeana on digital cultural heritage and education. The Europeana Foundation seeks to create new ways for people to engage with their cultural history, whether it’s for work, learning or pleasure and works with member states of the EU, other countries and cultural heritage institutions across Europe. My brief was simple. I had to make a case to various government officials and cultural institute representatives that allowing the digitising of materials would be of great help to educators (especially History teachers) across Europe.


I started with the view that teachers get blamed for lots of things in society yet what we really want to do (in my view) is to create a sense of connection with the world around us and help students understand people beyond the horizon on their vision.  As a History teacher, I suggested that this is pretty difficult to do when you are limited to source material in your own language and have been provided by the textbook makers. If our job is really to help tell the ‘human’ story, then access to resources from different countries with translations would be incredibly helpful to gain a truly multi-perspective view on significant events such as the First World War. Using Steven Johnson’s idea from ‘Future Perfect’, I suggested that because publishers acted centrally to negotiate rights, the sources available in a ‘home’ language are always limited and ignore the unique and difficult images/texts. If you are brave enough to go beyond this provision in limited time,  you are confronted by an array of problems. Yet if these resources were curated, translated and made free for educators, we would be able to benefit from the ‘distributed’ network of the web. One example of where things worked well was the Europeana site on the First World War. I suggested that the cultural institutions and government departments were ‘choice architects’ in the ‘Nudge‘ mode of thinking and some of the choices they gave us meant that it was very hard to do our jobs (and ultimately what states want).


My second point was much more pragmatic in that it dealt with enabling teachers to access already existing material in collections so we could tell the ‘human’ story. In essence, I asked them to rethink the ‘choice architecture’ they use when working with teachers. I gave the example of the British Museum and its offering of CPD for teachers (£300 for half a day and £500 for a full day). Prices such as these limit the possibility of sharing their cultural heritage expertise and I asked the question whether institutions put funds into outreach with teachers as part of their project budgets. The lack of interaction with teachers also meant that generic learning activities were created, reducing the capacity to educate people about the items museums held. Using the cognitive psychology notion of the illusion of explanatory depth, I asked delegates to turn to the person next to them and explain how a person learns.  The intention was not to embarrass anyone but to show that just because you have an experience of education and think you know it pretty well, your causal knowledge (knowledge about how the world works) about it is poor. An experience of school does not furnish you with complete causal knowledge on learning. Where does retrieval come into it? Research on working memory? Emotional connection and advanced organisers? I used an example of a worksheet from the Smithsonian which was generic in its questions. My point was not to suggest that cultural institutions should neglect learning but to work with people who are steeped in it as the benefits are tangible for all parties. Taking a lesson from ‘Multipliers’, they need to tap into the genius around them. If they worked with educators effectively and provided training, the content knowledge of the institutions would overlap with the pedagogical knowledge of the educators and would create the Pedagogical Content Knowledge that is highly prized. The teachers would also help the institutions devise activities built with a deeper understanding of learning in mind.


My final point was to place the delegates into the context of history and show that the work they were doing started long before they were born. Using Theodor Adorno and Michael Sandel, I suggested that they needed to move away from a limited vision of education and consider the deep roots of the project. Giving examples of Renaissance thinkers and educators, I pointed out that they were part of the cultural ‘gift exchange’ that started in the 1400 and 1500s and this was done without the tools and technology available to delegates today. If we really are interested in ‘cultivating humanity’ through heritage institutions and schools, we really need to move beyond the ‘logic of the market’.

The following day was spent working through draft recommendations and I would like to thank the group that I chaired as they were genial and very efficient!

I would like to thank Jill, Steven, Joke, the Europeana team and our Italian hosts for a very interesting few days.

Share Button
« Older posts

© 2015 Nick Dennis' Blog

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑