Department Improvement, inch by inch 2016-17

So, this is my version of an end of year DIRT task; an opportunity to look back on my first year as HoD. There is a klaxon of a theme that runs through all that I’ve learned this year, that will lead to ongoing improvement: routines and consistency. Once you have the big stuff in place, it is by sweating over the details that you start to move that really entrenched old school C/D borderline.

Learning Questions

This was the year I ditched Learning Objectives and replaced them with Questions. My department have heard more than enough about this, as have my students. The outcome, I think, has been lessons with a very sharp focus on the key learning, with activities, vocabulary and tasks that meaningfully link to it. If it doesn’t help answer the question, it shouldn’t be in there. This does mean a lengthy pre-lesson, pre-SoW process, but the clarity and understanding the teacher has of what, why and how is vastly improved. Gone are random worksheets that ‘relate to the topic’ and in their place are slow deliberate, consolidation tasks that check understanding and highlight gaps.

Schemes of Work

Watching my class of Y7 this year confidently identifying anaphora & hypophora, discussing to what extent Brutus is a tragic hero in Julius Caesar, deciding on Beowulf’s flaws from Seamus Heaney’s translation and reciting Ozymandias, you realise that the only ceiling over children is the one we construct. I don’t doubt that there are some things we could deliver better or differently, but we are much more confident about the challenge of material that students can successfully work with.


Quite possibly, in my humble opinion, the most powerful differentiation tool in a teacher’s armoury (with not a Red Amber Green/Bronze Silver Gold/Must Should Could in sight). Teachers need to think through who to ask which questions, when to use pause and collaboration, how to not let a student off the hook and when to include evaluative questions that extend the learning for the HA students. It is an excellent area to develop and reflect upon as a teacher at any stage of their career.


We have generated ambitious and sophisticated vocabulary lists from KS3-4 which we pre-teach each term and are part of the end of unit success criteria. They are in context of the unit and are modelled by teachers in delivery of the content. This is consistent across the whole year group. The challenge now is to make sure, as a department, we establish routines for explicit vocabulary testing.  Developing excellent MCQs for every unit is a long process and one that we’ve started. It is an area I want to prioritise next year and ensure the department feels knowledgeable and confident about effective explicit vocabulary instruction.

Profiling students:

I want every student to be reading age tested, handwriting tested, SPaG tested and vocabulary tested in September. Our wonderful Inclusion department does this as standard for the incoming Y7s, but I want to create a detailed profile of every student from Y7-11. The reason for this is two-fold. My strong suspicion is that it has been too easy for some students to slip under the net, that a single test in Y7 does not accurately inform us of who is in our classroom by the time we get to Y10. With the new GCSE in mind, I want to know, for sure, what we dealing with in a single tiered system, that requires all to access the same text. The second reason for creating a detailed profile is that it will help inform an intervention programme that I’m keen to set up. We will have a much sharper focus of how to group students according to need and address some of their literacy barriers, in similar groups. Something to tackle before, in the blink of an eye, we are attempting to analyse Jekyll and Hyde extracts and write extended responses.


So how does intervention look in reality? Like almost every school in the UK, our senior leaders are stripping meat from the bare bones of the teaching staff, as budgets dictate. There is no slack. There are no light timetables. But in English, we do have  staff with odd hours here and there. The square pegs and round holes of the timetable jigsaw.

Intervention has always been problematic. We have only been able to offer piecemeal support for small numbers of students, and there is always a push and pull with the curriculum and removal from key content.

But I think I have a solution. One of our department goals is to embed the weekly write, 200 word challenge, brainchild of @Xris32 and developed by wonderwomen like @heymrshallahan. I plan for this to be a rolling programme to maximise exposure to unseen, unknown tasks: unseen fiction, unseen non-fiction, unseen poetry, creative/descriptive writing and writing to present a viewpoint. This embedded, writing curriculum, throughout every year means that while the class is engaged in these tasks, students with an intervention need can, for a short time, be matched to a ‘free’ English teacher, with a ‘free’ period (below quota) for small group A side/B side intervention. No content is missed, no conflict with the SoW. Students grouped according to their profiled needs, and protected by being timetabled.


Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the department is the team – the house that we have built. We’ve been through a very challenging period as a school and by and large, no-one wants to leave the department. It seems like we’ve now got the timber frame, and in 17-18 we’ll be working on the doors, wallpaper and floors -not a 60 minute makeover, but a model for sustained and visible improvement.

5 thoughts on “Department Improvement, inch by inch 2016-17

  1. Hi Kate, I was wondering if you would share an example of a learning question that your department uses with me? I have long been disillusioned by the objective/outcome conflict and would love to try a different method. I need to convince my HOD to run with it!

  2. Pingback: Educational Reader’s Digest | Friday 9th June – Friday 16th June – Douglas Wise

  3. Pingback: Towards a vocabulary rich KS3 | gettingitrightsometimes

  4. Hi Kate. Your blog is amazing!! I’m a parent of a year 7 child, trying to improve her literacy level with high vocab/ reading a variety of texts etc. Unfortunately she only likes reading a certain type of fiction books hence lacks good vocabulary and has generally slipped down in terms of her literacy level. Any guidance/ tips and resources would be appreciated. If you live in London can you please tutor her, or know someone who can? Please email me at
    Thanks a lot!

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