Nick Dennis's Blog

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

Category: KS3 (page 1 of 2)

Frameworks and narratives

In our first history department meeting last week, we discussed the school’s new approach to ‘Building Learning Power’ and how we could create resources to use the language and ideas to structure planning and work for the students. As we went over key ideas, I recalled some work I had done in 2009 with a Year 9 class and presented to the PGCE students at the University of Cambridge which would fit into the ‘Building Learning Power’ language. I managed to dig the resources up and thought I would share them too. I must stress that the lessons were not designed with ‘Building Learning Power’ in mind but by a focus on subject pedagogy and subject knowledge (from reading Carr’s book again).

At the time, I was struggling to get my students to think about the second-order concept of ‘change and continuity’ and felt that the work I was doing with them at the time really was a ‘march through history’.  After re-reading some work from Ian Dawson, Alan Kelly and Christine Counsell, I went back to Denis Shemilt’s four narrative frameworks for use in history teaching in his chapter ‘The Caliph’s Coin’ from the book ‘Knowing, Teaching & Learning History’:

  1. A chronologically ordered past – events are told in sequence via timelines and with varying degrees of sophistication;
  2. Coherent historical narratives –  where history is presented as a story and historical events have meaning attached to them;
  3. Multidimensional narratives – history is taught through three ‘interlocking and interpreting dimensions; means of production and population history, forms of social organisation, and cultural and intellectual history;
  4. Polythetic narratives – teachers teach history in a way that allows students to understand that truth is constructed and there is no one narrative of the past.

I felt pretty sure that I was good at getting them to think about the first two levels but wanted to stretch them on the last two. An opportunity presented itself when we reached the end of the First World War topic. I had also finished reading E H Carr’s book ‘The Twenty Years’ Crisis’ again, a classic in the field of International Relations. In it, Carr suggest the following:

The main feature of the crisis of the twenty years between 1919 and 1939 was the move from hope in the first ten years to grim despair in the second. E H Carr,

With only two lessons to work with, I wanted the students to challenge Carr’s argument and gain a deeper understanding of how historical narrative is constructed (following Shemilt’s ideas).

Drawing on Ian Dawson’s work on ‘living timelines’, I created three sets of cards representing three European powers at the time. Each card had a ‘crisis rating’ on them and the students were asked to place them chronologically on their own graphs first and then arrange the cards according to the ‘crisis rating’.

Twenty Years' Crisis overview

When placed along the main classroom timeline, students were asked if Carr’s idea of a ‘Twenty Years’ Crisis’ was a valid one. The students were able to see, through the use of the coloured country cards, that Carr’s assertion stemmed from a particular view and the move from ‘hope to despair’ was more aligned with Britain than with Germany.  Students began to grasp that the historical narrative employed by Carr was a indeed a constructed one and could be challenged by examining other countries. This was a major achievement but I wanted to push them a little further in their thinking. Each card had an image which represented a different historical factor such as the Treaty of Versailles (picture of the actual treaty and represented a political factor), the Wall Street Crash and its effects (economic factor represented by a picture of money) and the role of the individual (represented by the green figure).  A close up can be found below.Twenty Years' Crisis card

By tracing these themes on the diagram by focusing on the images on the cards, they were asked to compare their graph of factors against Carr’s assertion. The hope was that by doing so, pupils would gain a  ‘multidimensional narrative’ of International Relations and also an overview of the period. To round it off, a written piece was generated when they wrote to Carr and explained that he needed to take a wider view of the period between 1919 and 1939.

The resources for the lessons can be found here and a video of the events (used as a prompt in the second lesson) can be seen below.

I plan to use the lesson framework with my Year 8 students as we study the Tudors. Any ideas would be very welcome.


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Legacies of the British Slave Trade

With results out of the way, the focus now turns to planning lessons. For my Year 9 classes this year, I plan to get them to do some research using the Legacies of the British Slave Trade database.  Based on the records of compensation claims after the emancipation of slaves in 1833, it provides an insight into how slavery was intermixed with politics, economics and society in Britain. The British government paid out £20 million from the taxpayer to slave owners as compensation for their loss of ‘goods’. The research suggests that half of that amount remained in Britain and was used in a variety of ways to build or refurbish houses, make donations to charities and extend influence.  The database has also been extended to include the structure and significance of slave ownership from 1763 and as such, they have been able to chart some of the physical, cultural and commercial legacies of the slave trade.

One aspect you can search for is the education establishment/place of residence of names in the database. I immediately checked to see if any former Berkhamsted students/inhabitants were involved in claims or had links. No records were found. Out of interest, I searched for other institutions attended by claimants/individuals associated with the slave trade/compensation claims. The raw figures are below:

  • Harrow School – 25
  • Eton College – 70
  • Westminster – 15
  • Charterhouse – 19
  • University of Oxford – 137
  • University of Cambridge – 133

It is worth pointing out again that the figures above are just the basic returns and it is only by going through the individual records do you get the detail. For example, the Rev John Wilson of Queen’s College, Oxford was awarded £2165 17S 10D. The Rev. Samuel Edward Bernard (attended Winchester and then Cambridge) claimed £3,983 12S 4D. There are children of slaves and planters in the records too reinforcing the view that the numbers cited above should not be used as a blunt instrument to tell a particular and limited story. My plan is to use the database to help the students understand the legacies by examining the records related to Hertfordshire and places close to Berkhamsted (like Tring).  The hope is that rather than something that occurred ‘out there’ in the past and in another place, they will grasp that the slave trade had a considerable impact on British society.

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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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‘Practise like you play’ – Schools History Project Conference, Leeds 11-13th July

Having done a lot of work on CPD in schools since I took over the role at Berkhamsted, I have seen a recurring theme around quality of CPD available to educators at events that are by their very nature, broad in their appeal. As a History teacher, it is great to learn about wider educational concerns but it has little direct impact on my teaching. In the ‘Pedagogical Content Knowledge’ frame, my ‘pedagogical’ knowledge may increase yet I am not able to ‘practise like I play’. Thankfully, the Schools History Project’s national conference allows me to engage with some of the best thinking about effective History teaching over three days.

I have made no secret that the Schools History Project is a major influence on my intellectual and professional development with the Teaching, Learning and Assessment Conference held at Berkhamsted being the most visible manifestation. And as I sat in the auditorium with 289 other History educators (including delegates from Brazil, Malta, Japan, Singapore, South Africa, Germany), I wondered if other subject areas had events like this that covered all specifications (the conference is for all teachers of History and not tied to the SHP specifications).

The highlights for me included Don Cumming’s opening address and two workshops from Christine Counsell and Dale Banham. I have admired Don’s work from afar and whilst others may have sought to use social media to celebrate their work and views, Don has continued to work for the benefit of the students under his care and the History teaching community in the North of England. Deconstructing the view that there is an ‘island story’ by close examination of the curricula used in Scotland and England and the narratives they tell by omission. We talk of the Norman invading but not of the Norman Empire. We talk of English monarchs yet do not discuss the Angevin ‘Empire’. We talk of the Vikings but not of Cnut’s rule in Norway, Denmark and Sweden. In terms of stories about  Scottish History, Don identifies the bias in the narrative where the ‘English’ are seen solely as ‘conquerors’ and how we repeat this bias in England by missing out the complexity in these events (this was developed by Ian Dawson’s brilliant role-play on the importance given to Bannockburn). It really was a great opening session and showed that even when he feels like Statler and Waldorf from the Muppets, he is saying the right things.

Christine Counsell‘s session addressed a number of issues I have wanted to blog about for a while yet did not have the reading, thinking or subtlety to compose. Christine started by suggesting that we are able to read a piece of text by Simon Schama not because of ‘literacy’ but because we have substantive knowledge and knowledge of ‘second-order’ concepts in History (such as change, continuity etc). Teaching the subject well demands that we address both. Or in other words, we need to plan with ‘fingertip knowledge’ in mind as well as ‘residual knowledge’. Christine also addressed the issue of ‘measuring’ historical progress through assessments and the work of her PGCE students and former trainees is outstanding. When people suggest that University training of teachers is universally poor, I point to the Cambridge History PGCE course.

My final highlight was Dale Banham’s workshop which was pragmatic to its core with a focus on improving written work. There were so many ideas and my two key takeaways are his consistent approach to using the Cornell method of note-taking for Sixth Formers and the use of graphical organisers to help essay planning. I will certainly be using these two ideas when term resumes. I suggest you check the Schools History Project website for further information on the resources showcased by Dale.

There were also some workshop/plenary sessions where I left with more questions than when I started. Denis Shemilt and Frances Blow’s idea of ‘Big History’ and the practical application of it by Dan Nuttall and Laura Goodyer seemed to me more of a diachronic (through time) view of History rather than a reconfigured ‘Big History’. I think I need to read more about ‘Historical Frameworks’ before I can reach a genuine conclusion.

Outside the workshops it was good to catch up with old friends and make some new ones. Thanks to Michael Riley, the SHP conference team and all the workshop leaders and plenary speakers. In a world of CPD without context, it is incredibly useful to ‘practise as we play’ before the new academic year in September.

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Assessment without levels

Spurred on by a conversation with Alex Ford, I decided to write down my initial thoughts on the debate around assessment at KS3. The proposal below is highly pragmatic and its simplicity derives from the belief that we (and by that I mean schools and teachers) already hold a notion of pupil progress in our heads.

Reporting student progress uses the following grade scheme:

  • A
  • B
  • C
  • D

I know. Radical.

Departments would work out what constitutes progress over three years and within each year group they would determine what A, B, C pieces of work would look like. These assessed pieces would also be combined with work in class and appear as grades on reports alongside the effort grade categories we currently use for classwork, homework and behaviour in class using a 1-4 scale;

  • 4 = excellent;
  • 3 = meeting expectations;
  • 2 = below expectations;
  • 1 = serious concerns.

These assessed pieces, reports and the end of year exam grade will form the final report grade reflecting our view on the progress the student has made throughout the year.

To be clear, grade A at Y7 is not the same as a grade A in Year 8. Awarding a Year 8 an A grade would demand more from a student and it would be clearly detailed by the department.

The benefits of this model are simple:

  • The subject experts decide what progress is in their subject (as they should) and it allows school leaders to ‘tap into the genius of those around you’;
  • The grades reported are linked to key skills, concepts and processes in the subject which are understood by students, parents & external bodies;
  • If an external body wants to find out if the students are making progress, the initial headline data is easy to produce. If they really want to dig further, they can consult the departmental documentation or better yet, look at the work.

To ensure that the model of progress in each subject does what it says, you would invite a HoD from another school to come in and sample some work and check it against the department documentation. A similar situation is used at HE.

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This is a practical piece on some work I am doing this year on what was formerly known as the Most Able Group (Gifted and Talented in old money) and I wanted to develop the programme into something that was more in line with raising expectations across the board. Below is an outline of current plans (and work in progress):

  • We are running a trial of the Higher Project Qualification (HPQ) for Year 9 this year as a co-curricular activity. The first term is where students are introduced to research skills and they will have until the early part of Year 10 to complete it. We offer the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) in Year 12 and wanted to make sure that the students had a break between the two research projects and could concentrate on the GCSE exams. Because of its trial nature, we have selected a small group of students and limited the projects to written pieces. The plan next year is that we open it to all students in Year 9 and explore how we can include Art and Drama into the project.
  • We have a pilot programme where a small group of students are selected initially on their Midyis Scores to be part of the formal Scholars programme that will start after the break. Students will have up to four days a year to take part in external projects with a real world outcome (a scholars’ evening) where they will give presentations/demonstrations of the work they have done to parents and other invited guests. The projects are organised over two years (7+8 and 9+10) and there is a link in terms of progression over the four year cycle. Below is the framework for the programme (we are finalising the exact topics this week after much discussion).
STEM Philosophy/History Literature
Year 7
Year 8
Year 9
Year 10
  • Membership of this scholar group is not fixed and we will be monitoring progress of students within the group and of students outside it who we think will benefit (recommendations will be taken from Pastoral Staff and HoDs).

The purpose behind this programme is to widen the opportunities that all students have according to where they are. We offer a range of activities for all learners within the school and want students to follow the path most appropriate to them (we already have a sports/drama/arts scholarship programme running throughout the school where students are offered tailored opportunities according to their interests). This is really the first step and we certainly don’t expect to get it right this year yet it has led to some very interesting conversations including the possibility of the HPQ becoming part of our KS4 offering.

It will be interesting to see how this develops over the coming months and how it fits with the work on effort grades already underway.

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Susan Boyle, historical knowledge & the Black Death

One binary pairing we never seem to tire of in education is the knowledge/skills division. Lately, the prominence given to ‘knowledge’ has become fashionable in the media and as a History teacher, I find it puzzling because both are necessary to do well. The following task created by myself with the help of the Library team at Berkhamsted shows that we should really talk about skills and knowledge as two sides of the same coin when it comes to great historical learning.

The first part of the task was to evaluate the BBC Black Death website and then also the Wikipedia page and they were asked to evaluate the websites with the following questions:

  • Who wrote the website and why?
  • How accurate is the information on the website?
  • Who is the site aimed at?
  • Was the information on the site useful to you?
  • Would you go back to it?

After using these research questions, students were let loose on a dummy site created by myself and the library team. You can see it in all of its fake glory here.

Apart from the obvious historical errors, we also added links to a variety of things including Susan Boyles’ website (where we substituted the word ‘Buboe’ for the word ‘boyle’) and a merchandise shop.

Using the historical knowledge from their previous lessons and these new questions, students were asked to evaluate the site and answer the following:

  • What is wrong with the content of the site?
  • How would you improve the site?

The first question demands recall and use of their knowledge to make a judgment about the validity of the content. It also demanded careful reading.  They could ‘Google’ information to check facts but it was far easier for them to think carefully about what they have learned and use their exercise/texts books as the authority. The students were outraged at the obvious mistakes but then had to think very carefully about the things that seemed plausible. The answers for the first question were marked according to the following mark scheme:

L1 1-4 marks Can identify basic historical errors (dates, sequence of events)
L2 5-7 marks Explains the errors and links to own knowledge via explanation about why the content is wrong
L3 8-10 marks Is able to provide a balanced critique of the site with examples supporting both sides

The second question was marked according to the following:

L1 1-5 marks Provides factual correction in relation to sections/talk of layout
L2 6-8 marks In addition to the above and provides one example of research/content to be included
L3 9-10 Identifies what should be kept, adds additional pointers for improvement/uses the research questions to help shape their answers links.

All the Year 7 students have completed the task and it has improved/sharpened their knowledge of the Black Death and improved their digital literacy skills. As a great side effect, they also seem to be increasing their cultural literacy by singing Susan Boyle songs.

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Using new technologies to enhance teaching and learning in History

Using New Technologies book coverA brief update to publicise a book that I have contributed to and edited by Professor Terry Hadyn of UEA. Using New Technologies to Enhance Teaching and Learning in History (Routledge) is now available in paperback and a ebook friendly version will be available within the month.

I recall a few years ago being told by someone very prominent in the History teaching community that ‘ICT had been done’ and did not require any more thought. This book indicates that the judicious use of technology is still an issue to be grappled with especially as the thoughtful use of technology stems from careful thinking about subject knowledge, skills and literacy.

The ebook version will have links which will be constantly updated and may come with additional chapters. My contribution includes how iPads can be used to enhance History teaching and also the use of iBooks Author. I hope you find it useful and let me know if you have any questions.

Contents are below:

Professor Terry Hadyn What does it mean to be good at ICT as a history teacher and We Need to talk about PowerPoint),

Neal Watkin The history utility belt: getting learners to express themselves digitally

Ali Messer History Wikis

Arthur Chapman Using discussion forums to support historical learning

Dan Lyndon Using blogs and podcasts in the history classroom

Richard Jones-Nerzic Documentary film making in the history classroom

John Simkin Making the most of the Spartacus Educational website

Ben Walsh Signature pedagogies, assumptions and assassins: ICT and motivation in the history classroom

Johannes Ahrenfelt Immersive learning in the history classroom: how social media can help meet the expectations of a new generation of learners

Alf Wilkinson What can you do with an interactive whiteboard?

Nick Dennis and Doug Belshaw Tools for the tech savvy history teacher

Janos Blasszauer History webquests

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‘Standing in the light’

Confused road signs


One of my colleagues pointed me in the direction of Martin Kettle’s article in the Guardian about the paucity of History teaching in schools. Kettle argues that because History teaching is limited, the English (whatever the term means) are cut off from a sense of self-respect. The article centres around the experience of his son not knowing anything about the English Civil Wars as an adult and that this is scandalous because ‘everyone in the country ought to know about it’. I recommend you read the rest of the article as it is indicative of the ambivalence and confusion society has towards education and the very limited understanding of the pressures schools are under to resolve the problems society refuses to acknowledge.

Kettle identifies the issue of the History curriculum as being limited but does not outline the cause. It is true that in general, History as a subject has become marginalised and it is also true to suggest that there is a lack of consistency across the board. The Ofsted report ‘History for all‘ in 2011 tells us this:

Patterns of entry for GCSE history varied considerably between different types of school: only 30% of students in maintained schools took the subject in 2010 compared with 48% in independent schools. In academies, the proportion was lower still at 20%.

The are many reasons for the above figures. Two year Key Stage 3. The move to a competency based curriculum. Poor thematic teaching. Integration into ‘Humanities’. None of these are mentioned in Kettle’s report nor is the other driver – more time for students to gain C-A* GCSE grades. What Kettle does state is the old myth that not enough ‘English History’ is being taught. Ofsted disagree.

The view that too little British history is taught in secondary schools in England is a myth. Pupils in the schools visited studied a considerable amount of British history and knew a great deal about the particular topics covered. However, the large majority of the time was spent on English history rather than wider British history.

A cursory glance at the forum would have also told him this. The solution to the problem of not enough English History is to teach History chronologically. I did wonder how many History classrooms or curricula Kettle had viewed in his research. Maintained or independent/Academy? Urban or rural?

What was more worrying is the story of his son’s education as it reveals a more readily voiced ambivalence towards schools and education in general. For all the emphasis Kettle places on the English Civil Wars and that it should be ‘standing in the light’ of education, it seems puzzling that he never appeared to have a conversation with his son about the topics he studied at school. Nor did he seem to take the more active role by taking him on any visits as a child. The subtext of Kettle’s argument is that education is seen solely as the school’s domain and that parental responsibility, or that of wider society, is discharged once the child is past the school gate.

This is a dangerous position to hold and neglects the fact that society shapes what schools do (and they in turn shape society) which is quite unexpected for someone steeped in Marxist writings.  If the final arbiter of how a school performs is a focus on GCSE grades for the all important league tables and job skills, it is not surprising that many schools focus on creating more lesson time for key subjects and remove creative subjects/sports and limit curriculum time for subjects that have no ‘direct’ relevance for the workplace. Child poverty? Schools can deal with it. Law and order? Schools can do that too.  These issues are societal issues and one institution can not do all the work and nor can it be seen as separate from the wider society that gives rise to it.

I am sure that many schools would welcome Kettle coming in to talk about the importance of the English Civil Wars. It really would help challenge the ‘scandal’ in History education and I am a great believer in doing something rather than commentating from the sidelines. I also believe that he would find students who are better informed than he suggests and that the problem, and the solution, is more complex than a confused, particularist view masquerading as a universal and informed judgement on History education.

Photo by Bob August on Flickr

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Conference Update #1

I love good news especially when I know others (as well as myself) will benefit. This weekend I had two good pieces of news which I am really pleased to relay.

The first piece is that Alistair Smith, author of Accelerated LearningLearning to Learn, the Secrets of Successful Schools and renowned trainer has agreed to speak at the Teaching, Learning & Assessment conference at Berkhamsted School on the 16th March 2013.

The second piece of good news is that Professor Bill Lucas, co-author (with Guy Claxton) of New Kinds of Smart, The Learning Powered School  and co-director of Real-World Learning at the University of Winchester has also agreed to speak.

With workshops run by outstanding teachers from across the country alongside distinctive and challenging key speakers, we believe that the conference will be a unique learning experience for attendees with lots of practical, effective ideas. Ticket prices and details about booking will appear on the blog and the Berkhamsted School website in October. What I can reveal is that the event price will be pleasing to everyone!

Places will be limited on the Saturday to make the workshops manageable so please bear this in mind when tickets are released. To enhance the weekend and to provide as much collaboration as possible, we will also be holding a TeachMeet on Friday 15th March which will be free to everyone. Further details will also be released in the next few months.

The response to the call for workshop proposals has been fantastic and we are still looking for more suggestions. If you would consider presenting a workshop or would like further information, please sign up to our Google Form on the original announcement post.

We look forward to seeing you on the 16th March! Stay tuned for further updates….

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