What makes the difference?

A few days ago, after getting our GCSE results, I wrote a quick post about some of the things we had done as a department that I felt had made a difference and helped us go from getting “quite good results” to “really quite excellent results”. Since then people have asked lots of further questions that I have been pondering over for the last couple of days. This post is my attempt to answer the following question in a bit more depth.

How did we, as a department, go from several years of getting results that were broadly in line with the national average to two years of getting A/A* of over 50%, A*-C of over 90% and most pupils exceeding their targets? 

I think that improvements happen at three different levels: school, department and personal. 

School Level

It is hard, if not quite impossible, for a department to thrive in a school that isn’t working. The school creates the conditions in which we operate. Our school has created the perfect conditions for us to do our jobs. The changes we have seen over the last couple of years that I think have helped us:

  1. A focus on excellence. A quote by Aristotle greets us all as we come into school to remind us that excellence is a habit. Pupils are perfect reminded in all lessons that we have the highest expectations of them and that we need their focus and commitment.
  2. A focus on quality teaching. We are always reminded that our focus should be what we do in the classroom. There are no gimmicks or the need to follow restrictive practices but a freedom to do what we have found to be effective.
  3. CPD that includes: an increasing amount of time given to departments to work on their own priorities, collaboration time, sessions led by teachers explaining their own practice and innovation teams leading on different areas of school improvement. 
  4. A tight but loose approach. We have a shared culture. A focus on excellence, four pillars of teaching (Feedback, Independence, Challenge and Engagement) and a set of habits we feel are important but within that each department sets its own way of working and own priorities. 
  5. Supportive behaviour policies. Behaviour is impeccable from almost all our students almost all of the time. There is a very easy to use centralised detention system if we need it and a highly effective and committed pastoral team.
  6. A recognition that it isn’t all about the grades. We want excellent outcomes but that doesn’t mean there isn’t time for a huge array of extra-curricular activities: a radio station, a range of performances, music tours, sport, visiting authors, the list is just about endless as our end of term assembly demonstrated. Almost all pupils are very happy in school which makes our job a lot easier!

Department Level

A lot of this you can read about on this blog and in pieces I have written for TES and The Guardian but as a list…

  1. Redrafting work that isn’t up to standard.
  2. Spending time as a department sharing excellent work to raise expectations. 
  3. Pupils asking us to check work and make suggestions rather than telling us they are done.
  4. Modelling – live and through annotated displays.
  5. Contacting parents and sharing their child’s excellent work with them. Displaying this work at parents evening.
  6. Collaborative planning. Sharing the planning load means we have more time to spend on each lesson.
  7. A focus on immediate verbal feedback rather than lengthy and ineffective book marking.
  8. Frequent knowledge quizzes to help recall.
  9. Assessment designed to identify gaps in knowledge.
  10. Use of personalised learning checklists so that pupils know what they need to know and what they don’t currently know. 
  11. No general revision classes but targeted short term intervention to pick up on specific weaknesses with specific pupils.
  12. Using data to identify specific pupils who are falling behind. Using department time to discuss strategies. 

Personal Level

I also think that I have changed my personal approach over the last couple of years. I was getting bored of teaching and a bit frustrated. I had a choice, leave teaching or find a way to make it exciting again. Luckily at that time I picked up a copy of Making Every Lesson Count by Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby and I started seeing teaching in a different light. I threw myself into discussions on EduTwitter, started writing this blog on my reflections on what I was doing, started writing for TES and others and found teaching exciting again. 

I don’t spend any more time working than I used to but I do spend more time thinking about it and reflecting on what seems to be working and why. 


The last couple of years have seen some big changes but most of them have been about doing less but doing it better. The reason we have been able to do this is because we work in a school that creates the conditions for success and has a clear shared culture that creates a consistent approach. Everyone from pupils, parents, teachers and leaders knows what we are doing and why we are doing it. In this environment learning thrives. 

One thought on “What makes the difference?

  1. Pingback: What makes the difference? – CLW Academy Educational Blog

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