Delivering CPD workshops online – what’s worked for me

We are now well into the coronavirus lockdown arrangements and we’ve seen big changes in the education sector and widescale adoption of distance learning. The reduced social contact also limits our ability as a CPD provider to deliver face to face CPD.  Now is the perfect time for online CPD but how best to deliver it?

The tools?

As a facilitator of CPD, I’m used to a certain level of interactivity with the teachers I work with. As well as the basics I take for granted such as being able to see delegates smile/nod/yawn or seeing if they are paying attention, the ability to ask targeted questions and act as a catalyst for group discussion is crucial. It is also easier to distribute materials – for example, a reflections/next action sheet where attendees crystallise their ideas and consider the next steps. Even giving out slide handouts and taking the register is a lot easier in person.

Because I’ve used video conferencing before, I was fortunate to already own the right equipment – a USB microphone and a reasonable webcam (only 720p but as I appear not much bigger than a 1 inch square in most meetings this is more than adequate) I did buy an additional piece of software called XSplit Vcam which allows me to change the background without using a green screen (my desktop PC only has a core i3 processor which isn’t powerful enough for the option built into some of the video meeting software packages). If you don’t want to pay for software, you might find  Snap Camera does what you want instead.

I haven’t felt the need to buy noise-cancelling software but a lot of people have been using Krisp during the lockdown (and a limited free tier is available)

Why Zoom?

Having spent a large amount of time using Zoom I chose this as my tool of delivery because of the wide range of facilities it offers – both when organising meetings and the ease of use as a participant. I have access to tools like Google Meet/Microsoft Teams but these have more limited feature sets compared to Zoom.

  • The video/audio quality is always reasonable in the meetings I’ve attended and I like the fact that so many faces can be seen at once (other platforms have copied this feature)
  • It works across most platforms (including mobile) and there is also a web client for those who don’t want to install the software
  • Microphone management is good – you can mute all of the attendees as the host, and decide if they can turn their own microphones back on.
  • You can enable a waiting room, ideal for marking attendance registers, seeing who is yet to arrive (or stopping people entering who have acquired the link from another source thinking they can sneak in unnoticed – yes this really does happen!)
  • I can easily put people into random breakout rooms (setting up manual ones can be tricky to do while you are talking to delegates, and if you set them up in advance you aren’t sure who will show up – you don’t want a breakout room of 2 people). I’ve found breakout rooms of 5 or 6 people is optimal for letting everyone contribute but still allowing for those who are uncomfortable with turning on their microphone/webcam.
  • Screen sharing easily lets you share system sounds – so you can show short video clips embedded in your presentations
  • I haven’t used tools like meeting recording, raising a hand or reactions (e.g. clapping) but they are also built into software if you need this functionality
  • You can download a list of attendees quite easily (be warned, you will also capture delegates email addresses which might not be the work email address you are expecting to see)

Replicating the face to face experience?

Distributing resources. Perhaps you want to share the slides from a presentation or distribute in advance for delegates to look at. You can email these out but it’s easier to share a folder using a cloud tool like Google Drive, Microsoft Onedrive or Dropbox. If you are sharing resources during a workshop, you can paste the link into the chat window but shortening the link with a tool like Bitly and giving it a custom memorable URL will make it easier for delegates to note down (you can also add a QR code which they can scan if they have a modern smartphone)

Interactivity. Sometimes you want a show of hands or to ask a simple question for feedback. I’ve used PollEverywhere to take feedback from participants (there are similar tools like Mentimeter) and this feedback can take the form of a poll (this functionality is also built into Zoom for a more seamless experience) or a range of other activities such as ranking statements to replace a simple card sort. Be aware that you are limited to a relatively small number of respondents on free tiers (and you can’t download the responses unless you pay) These tools also work well in a lecture type environment when you want some interactivity (and where I found out about the cap the hard way when four times the expected number of delegates turned up)

Taking feedback and capturing dialogue. Breakout rooms are great for getting delegates talking to each other, but how to share the feedback when this will benefit other groups? It can be hard enough getting people to feedback orally when you can see them in person so I’ve adopted text-based feedback instead. Some platforms make better provision for this (I’m thinking of Adobe Connect) but I used a template in Google Docs with a custom Bitly link. Each group types their feedback into the same template as they discuss an activity and this is visible to the other groups (it can be a little distracting to see several other people typing on the same document but my delegates soon got used to this) You can also easily download this document and share it as a file.

Working with Post-it notes and cards. I like post-IT notes because they are a convenient size, they stay in place and you can move them around. The best online tool I’ve found for mimicking this functionality is Google Jamboard. Jamboard is an online whiteboard that can be shared with up to 50 people. Whilst the tools it provides are limited, it lets you create sticky notes and move them about. There are also mobile versions of this tool (I found I could annotate the whiteboards easily using my Apple pencil on my iPad)

Gathering ideas before or during an event can be a challenge. I’ve used Padlet to gather feedback before workshops, and this feedback is used in the following workshops. You can also allow delegates to comment underneath comments other people have left, and to give a thumbs up/down comments which can be useful feedback tools. You are limited to three Padlet boards on the free tier.

Suggestions based on my own experience

If you are using PowerPoint through screen sharing, it is much easier if you have two screens and use the presenter view. I always share my second screen and have the presenter notes, together with an image of the next slide on my first screen. I can easily move web pages (for example shared feedback activities) onto the second screen if I want delegates to see them. This is the same way I use PowerPoint when I deliver face to face CPD, and also how I used it as a teacher with my projector.  Google Slides also has a presenter view if this is your preferred presentation tool of choice.  If you use Adobe Connect and upload your slides you miss this functionality but you can use your spare screen to keep open a copy of your presentation along with any notes. If you haven’t got a second screen but you have got a tablet, you could try an app like Duet Display or Spacedesk (Mac users can also use SideCar) Duet Display even responds to touch commands and an optional subscription lets you use your Apple pencil.

Do your housekeeping announcements at the start, just as you would with face to face CPD (only your focus will be on microphone/camera etiquette rather than fire alarms and toilets – I would hope the delegates know where their toilet is!)

Make sure you know how to use the tools you are using. It makes sense to start with a smaller number of delegates before you run CPD for a large number – especially where there might be a risk of reputational damage!

I always include a graphic for discussion where I intend delegates to discuss something. Teacher professional development is more effective if teachers take part as a group and the breakout rooms allow group work to happen successfully.

Check how many people can use the tools you are using. In the past, I’ve hit the limit on the free version of PollEverywhere when more people than expected turned up to a meeting. Recently I found out that Google Jamboard has a 50 participant limit (I had 70 delegates for that workshop)

Use the chat feature. This can be distracting as delegates often talk to each other in the chat window as well as talking to the facilitator. I write down key points to return to later if it isn’t convenient to pick them up. Zoom saves the chat at the end of the meeting so you have a record of any useful resources or comments that come up (that includes private messages sent between delegates)

Like with face to face CPD, ask delegates to reflect on what they want to take away from the CPD and what their short, medium and long term actions will be. This reflection (with the possibility of discussing it with other delegates) will make it more likely to have an impact going forward. Teachers are very busy professionals and it’s easy to forget these actions once immersed back in school life.

Update: I’ve added this paragraph as a result of recent experience. I had just started my presentation when somebody in the audience managed to scribble all over my slides (by accident one would hope!) and clicking forward through the slide deck didn’t remove the marks. Fortunately, a quick scan of the menus in Zoom revealed the option to delete the annotations. After the session, I found out that I had enabled the option to allow anyone to annotate shared screens – make sure this is set to only allow the person sharing their screen to annotate by default. It is quite disconcerting to see someone else drawing over the slides you are sharing with your audience…

I’m not sure if presenting live is better or worse than having a pre-prepared course that delegates follow at their own pace (we call this synchronous vs asynchronous delivery) but it is much easier to talk to a PowerPoint than it is to create a full course. It also allows you to customise your workshop in response to your audience. I don’t think I’ll ever want to stop doing face to face CPD, but I hope that we will continue to deliver some courses online when social distancing measures are over.


Reading magazines and newspapers for free (or low cost)

About 5 years ago I wrote a blog post about how to read magazines (like the New Scientist) for free. Rather than update the original I’ve created a new article adding how to read newspapers for free.

Using your library membership – Magazines through RBDigital

The days of the walk-in library service could well be numbered but you should be using the service that your tax contributions have paid for. Lots of local authorities buy into a service where you can check out magazines and read them inside an app – this can be on a tablet, phone or laptop (or all three!). I would suggest that you start on your county library pages where they will have instructions. New Scientist is only one of the magazines you can check out, others include BBC wildlife, National Geographic and even computer magazines.

This image shows the RBdigital app and some of the magazines available through the Derbyshire Library service. These can all be read for free. The app also lets you read in a text format rather than the magazine layout and you can copy and paste text (handy for those shared reading activities with your learners)


Using your library membership – newspapers (and magazines) through PressReader

This service isn’t quite as convenient as the one above because you have to sign in every 30 days but offers newspapers and a selection of magazines for free. I was surprised to see the TES on this app as well as many of our most popular newspapers. Again you download these to your tablet and a text view is available (and this can be read to you using the built-in text to speech facility, but I prefer to scroll through as you would do with a paper copy.

As with the RBDigital app, all you need is your library card/number to sign up for the service.



Readly – like Netflix but for magazines (not free but reasonably priced)

I discovered Readly years ago. Basically it is like Netflix for magazines where a flat fee (£7.99 a month) gives you access to dozens of different publications. You can even change the country in the app and read American magazines if this floats your boat. Titles of interest to the teacher include Teach Secondary Magazine, the Sky at Night and many others.

I’m sure that some of these magazines are available through your library service for free, but the sheer quantity of magazines and the fact you can have up to 5 devices on your subscription mean we continue to renew our subscription (watch out for promotions on their gift cards throughout the year, simply buy and apply to your own account!)

You can get a free month by using my referral link here.

All information correct as of April 2020

Writing for special learners: what do lower attaining students require from their resources?

This blog post first appeared on the Oxford Education Blog and the text is reproduced with their permission.

GameCity7 - World's Largest Practical Science Lesson!
When I started teaching students with special educational needs, the educational landscape was a different place. Special schools and mainstreams were separate entities and what happened inside special schools was an enigma to mainstream teachers. For me, the transition from mainstream to special education was a challenge, and I learned from many mistakes. Fortunately the education world is much more interconnected now and practice is shared between special and mainstream sectors.

When OUP contacted me about writing a workbook, I was given a free hand (within the limitations of the format) to write a book that would be suitable for special learners and those with prior low attainment. I thought about the features I wanted to include based on my twenty years of teaching students with special needs. Here are some of the things I knew would be important and which you might want to think about when teaching these kinds of learners.

  1. Plenty of white space. Although a book crammed full of text might be good for an advanced learner, SEND students need more white space as many have weaker literacy skills or low reading confidence.  Dense text is harder for these learners to access.
  2. Low literacy demands. We want SEND students to be able to demonstrate what they know about science without being bogged down by having to write lots of text. When students are asked to write, we scaffold so that they are challenged with the science and not the structure of their answer. Whilst it is important to develop literacy within science, it should not be a barrier to students learning. We can remove the scaffolding later as their literacy skills improve.
  3. An accessible font that has letters that are easy to read. (I know many of these learners will have to transition to ‘exam fonts’ but that process is unique to each setting). The font also has to be large enough to read easily.
  4. Different types of activity – including matching, labelling, sequencing, tick boxes/multiple choice questions as well as traditional questions. These are all activities that allow SEND and lower attaining learners to demonstrate their learning without being too repetitive.
  5. Key words for each section that learners might need to use in their exams. Students can check they know these important terms.
  6. Practice assessment material to build confidence and embed learning.
  7. Plenty of diagrams. Many of the diagrams used in the workbook were custom drawn to suit the content and allow learners to demonstrate their knowledge. Using diagrams also reduces the demand on literacy.
  8. Answers that students could use to check their own work so they learn from their own mistakes and build confidence.
  9. Self-assessment checklists so students can see how they are doing and what they need to focus on to improve.

Most importantly I wanted the workbook to be something I would have used with my own learners. I’ve tried to condense what I’ve learned over 20 years of teaching special learners into a workbook.  I hope learners across the country find it helps them with their ELC and GCSE qualifications.

Find out more about Rob’s workbook and the matching student textbook.

Rob Butler was a special school science teacher for twenty years, with the last six as a deputy head. He’s worked with mainstream schools as a former AST and has also been on the TES science panel. He’s a field officer for the ASE and sits on their 11-19 committee, keeping his finger on the pulse of science education. Rob now works with his local science learning partnerships (Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire). As well as being the author of Oxford’s AQA GCSE Foundation: Combined Science Trilogy and Entry Level Certificate Workbook, Rob has also written ELC/1-3 materials for Kerboodle.


Image © nottinghamgamecity shared under Creative Commons

How much money does your science department get?

I was asked by one of my heads of science how much funding other science departments received – so I asked my network.
So far I’ve received about 20 responses. The questionnaire is still live so you can still contribute if you want (the graphs are live so should update as more people complete the questionnaire)

It was also interesting to see how many schools thought they had enough technician time (important link to the Gatsby practical science report)

And how many schools have enough subject specialists

Feel free to add your data to this collection by following this link.

What should a KS4 science curriculum look like for SEND learners?


I’ve been reflecting on the curriculum for SEND learners, and regular readers of my blog will know that I’ve written lots about the KS4 curriculum before. Previous posts have been written from the point of view of a classroom practitioner but now I’m looking in from the outside. I’ve met lots of teachers and school leaders over the last year and have pulled together my thoughts and reflections after speaking to them.

Many departments will be reviewing their curriculum offer as a result of the proposed Ofsted framework (not the aim of the new framework but an inevitable consequence)  For those late to the party, the new framework is built around the 3 I’s – intention, implementation and impact. I believe the first of these is where things for SEND learners starts to go wrong.

As a special school our ‘intention’ (our ethos & school values) revolved around preparing students for life after school. High aspirations and high academic performance are an important part of this (as long as they are realistic) but our intention also extended to the life skills and opportunities that are needed to make the most of those qualifications. I’ve written before about the implementation (approved and backed by our governors) of our curriculum, which trod the difficult line between the needs of the learners and accountability measures (especially as a special school in a mainstream MAT).  We were fortunate that Ofsted wasn’t interested in Progress-8 as a special school, although we still used it to benchmark ourselves against mainstream schools and obsessed about it (to a lesser extent than mainstreams) in our frequent data drops. Having met many teachers and leaders over the last year (whilst wearing a variety of hats and representing different interests & organisations) I’ve collated my thoughts below

Barriers to a full GCSE curriculum

  • Covering the content – the quantity (getting to the end of the specification)
  • Understanding and engaging with the content
  • Recalling the content taught over two (or usually three) years
  • Exam technique
  • Exam pressure (having to sit so many exams for one subject)

Model 1 – Entry level certificate (ELC)

There are many learners for whom ELC would be an appropriate pathway but they are prevented from following this option by the need to study a qualification that contributes to progress 8 data. I’ve met subject leaders who have gained permission for this route but most are accrediting alongside another option. In my mind ELC is KS3+ and there isn’t as much overlap with GCSE content as many would like.

Would I recommend this option? Over my last few years in special education, I could count on my fingers the number of students whose accreditation journey stopped at ELC (but of course that was under a system where they could take a single science exam each year)

Model 2 – co-teaching ELC and GCSE

This is a preferred option of many including the exam boards, but it could also be the most expensive and time-consuming of the options. The content isn’t a problem but you have to make sure you find time to fit in the classroom based assessment (as all the assessment for ELC happens in school).  

This modular nature of this option has the advantage of building confidence and self-esteem of your SEND learners over the course. It’s also an easier sell to SLT who will still have the GCSE to count in those all-important performance tables.  With many schools aiming to complete GCSE by Christmas of year 11, learners would have a qualification under their belt before sitting the GCSE exams.

There are plenty of published resources to support this option, with more coming on the market this year (this is where I should declare that I have written a workbook to support this option) If you do go down this pathway, make sure you have assessment points and a clear understanding of timelines at the start of your course.

Model 3 – partial GCSE

This is a model that I’ve seen increase in popularity over the last year. The premise is simple – rather than superficially teach 100% of the content, you teach part of the course in greater depth and miss out some of the content that learners might not need. Some subject leaders gasp in horror when I mention not teaching all the specification, but this the way I’ve taught GCSE for many years. The foundation textbook from OUP follows exactly this approach and is AQA approved (so it isn’t a forbidden practice)

I’m sure that many learners could benefit from the extra depth and reinforcement that this method offers.

Model 4 – full GCSE

I don’t really need to say much about this model as just about every science teacher must have experienced it and be aware of the pitfalls. It does ensure that there won’t be topics on the exam papers for which learners haven’t been taught.

Model 5 – alternative qualifications

It’s interesting that the only schools I’ve come across who don’t follow a GCSE/ELC pathway are PRUs and special schools (which harks back to what I said at the start about performance measures)

The best model?

The best model is the one which meets the needs of your learners and could be a combination of the above.  It has to be a decision that is taken locally, and with the approval of SLT and the governance structure of your school.


GCSE 1-3 students – the forgotten cohort?

The entries for AQA are summarised below:



















































I was interested to see that the take-up for Synergy was much lower than I was expecting. However more interesting is the difference in single biology compared to single chemistry/physics. I’ve spoken to several schools who have entered SEND students for single GCSE biology – and whilst this might not account for all of the difference in entries it is certainly a contributing factor.

I did some ‘back of a fag packet’ calculations using the percentages of grades awarded and a significant number of students gained grade 3 or below (figures in brackets include those with 4:3)  These figures won’t hold up to rigorous scientific scrutiny (in my defence I was probably paying more attention to the Apprentice on TV than the scribbled figures on my notepad) but they do give an idea of the percentage of the cohort that isn’t reaching grade 4.

% of Foundation

% of total entries











55.5% (72.5%)

29% (40%)


29.4% (40%)

40% (52%)

Total exams

17% (21%)

I hear of schools putting all of their efforts (CPD, development plans etc) into getting students the 7-9 grades whereas the equivalent percentage of students getting grade 7 or above (calculated using the same method) was only a few percent higher.

Given that lots of students fall into the 1-3 bracket we need to pay more attention to how to support them. I’ve seen GCSE 1-3 CPD from STEM learning and the Science Learning Partnerships  (I’ve even run the course myself!) but my experience is that schools aren’t booking on these courses (perhaps because of a shortage of money or perhaps because of a shortage of capacity?)

I’m pleased that Oxford University Press is looking at this issue across the board, not just in science.  Their English Catapult scheme looks just as good as their new ELC/1-3 foundation tier GCSE textbook. They have products in development for your ELC/1-3 learners (but not all schools are able to afford them) If you haven’t seen their Foundation GCSE textbook, check it out (and also look at the principles behind it – and it is AQA approved)

Please make sure you focus as much attention on your 1-3 foundation learners as you do your 7-9 learners. They might not be EBacc students or have a full quota of Progress-8 buckets, but the success they experience in science might be every bit as life changing and motivating as hitting a grade 9 is for a higher tier student.

Life after teaching – two terms on.

I wrote several posts about leaving my job as a deputy head in a special school – you can find them  here, here and in the TES here (although I didn’t write the headline!)  I’d been with the school a long time, and more recently on a journey as deputy head from special measures through to good with outstanding features.

As many teachers do, I found myself questioning the hours I was working and the tasks that filled up my days. There was never a question of not being able to do my job, more an issue of not being prepared to do it any more.  I had hoped that exiting special measures would bring about an end to the relentless demands of the job but being so close to getting an outstanding judgement led to an increase instead of a decrease in workload. Rather than be signed off work, I thought a swift (and unplanned) exit would allow me to look for new opportunities that being off work with exhaustion would not.

As my leaving date drew closer I pinned my hopes on the hope that I’d be able to use the network of contacts that I’d built up and the fact that my face is known to many people in the world of science education. Having no mortgage I set myself an income target and started searching through online job adverts to see what was out there.

The Christmas holidays were barely over before I’d bagged my first interview after being sent an advert by a friend. It was at that point that I started to think that I might be employable and perhaps I wouldn’t end up on the street begging for money to buy dog biscuits! I was keen to maintain my salary level and to work fewer hours than before (after all I didn’t want to jump out of the frying pan and into the fire) This would seem to rule out a return to teaching as it would be a similar workload but on a vastly reduced main scale salary.

In the seven months since my leaving day I’ve learned some important lessons:

  • Don’t look back. It’s hard (I was at my last school for twenty years) and they will keep going without you. Break the connection and move forward. I have mixed feelings about my last employer – I feel resentment that they had a corrosive work/life balance (they were far from the worst school for workload but no trailblazer either!) but I still miss the pupils (and being a teacher)
  • Don’t expect the people you leave behind to miss you – they are too busy carrying on. I still hear from some of them with moans and gripes but on the whole, that chapter of my life is behind me.
  • There are very few posts for an ex-deputy head at even a teacher’s salary, let alone a school leader’s salary…
  • Very few employers want part-time workers. Many of those that do expect you to be self-employed (with all the admin and insurance that brings with it)
  • Working from home is hard. There are many distractions and setting up a workflow takes time. Harder still when you have to juggle several different employers (and a string of email addresses that require my attention)
  • Accepting part-time opportunities limits your options – for example, I have dates in my diary all the way through to next March. This could make it hard to accept jobs that are full time or that aren’t flexible. I’ve already withdrawn from one interview for this reason.

So what did I end up doing?

  • A local authority ran my DBS check and sent me into a school as an associate member of staff to support the leadership team. That was brief but provided the kick-start that I needed.
  • I wrote ELC and GCSE 1-3 resources for Oxford University Press on their Kerboodle platform (and also their blog)
  • I joined the Derbyshire Science Learning Partnership as their secondary lead. I also became a facilitator for them and have presented several times across our region. I’ve met lots of great people from across the STEM learning network whilst doing this.
  • I work for the Science Council and I run workshops for them across the country promoting their Professional recognition for scientists (I’m a Chartered Science Teacher myself)
  • I’ve presented several times for the ASE with positive feedback
  • I’m joining the ASE to help promote the Annual Conference which is in Birmingham next year (and promises to be better than ever)
  • I’ve had more time to attend CPD related to my role as a trustee for Global Education Derby
  • I’ve also spent more time walking the dog (a minimum of five miles a day) but I’m no thinner than this time last summer!

So the world keeps turning and I’ve carved myself a niche outside of teaching, although on a fraction of the salary (but working a fraction of the days). I’ve spoken to other teachers (some that left the same school and many that left others in similar circumstances) and realise that I’ve been fortunate in pursuing avenues that interest me and not having to turn to minimum wage employment or supply work to make ends meet.

I don’t know what the future holds. Most of my contracts have an end date and I can feel my credibility slipping further and further away as I spend longer and longer outside the classroom. I could return to teaching but it would have to be the post in the right school with the right department (and I’m not keen on starting at the bottom again!)

What advice would I give to anyone thinking of doing the same? Be prepared, start to pay down your mortgage and save up so you have a financial cushion if you need it.  Speak to other people inside and outside of the profession. Scan vacancies inside and outside of education so you know what the likelihood of finding another job will be. There’s lots of good advice in the guidance from the ASE (much of which applies to teachers of subjects other than science as well)

The Gatsby Good Practical Science Report

We’ve discussed the Good Science report several times at various committee meetings of the ASE. If you haven’t heard of it you must have been living in a remote cave or out of the country! A copy was sent to every school (I received one as the DHT) but quite often these haven’t been passed on. If you haven’t seen a copy before then you can download the report, summary and appendices from the Gatsby website. It is worth a read.

The authors of the report looked at practical science across the world and set out ten benchmarks for schools to use when planning how to do practical school. A school that achieves all ten should be delivering a world-class science education.

The reasons for doing practical science are

  • Scientific enquiry
  • Improve understanding through practising experience
  • Teach specialist practical skills
  • Motivate and engage
  • Develop higher level skills like teamwork & communication

The ten benchmarks for good practical science are:

  1. Planned practical science
  2. Purposeful practical science
  3. Expert teachers
  4. Frequent and varied practical science
  5. Laboratory facilities and equipment
  6. Technical support
  7. Real experiments, virtual enhancements
  8. Investigative projects
  9. A balanced approach to risk
  10. Assessment fit for purpose

I was fortunate to be able to attend an excellent CPD seminar this week organised by the RSC, Nottingham EIB and the Gatsby Foundation. The event was structured to help participants benchmark practical science provision in their own schools and start to develop an improvement plan.

The scene was set by Professor Sir John Holman who was one of the authors of the report.

We learned during the keynote that teachers around the world value practical work in science. They told the report

  • Teachers don’t interpret the purposes of practical science in exactly the same way as official documents.
  • Practical work creates a shared experience – or a level playing field (regardless of science capital)
  • Practical work is good for learning languages, through concrete experience
  • Practical work helps to understand the links to real life
  • A computer can’t reproduce the unpredictability of a live experiment that you get from practical work
  • Practical work can foster a respect for living things

So if you are part of a busy science department where do you start? With GCSE and A-level results out soon that need unpicking and analysing, schemes of work that need updating and timetables that need final tweaks there isn’t much time to look at ten benchmarks in detail. Schools are advised to focus on benchmarks 1,3 & 6 as these are enablers to the other benchmarks.  These are

(1) Planned practical science

(3) Expert teachers

(6)Technical support

which will help meet the target of 50% of science lessons containing a practical activity. Quite often 3 & 6 are out of the hands of the science department and are issues for government and the DfE.

Questions asked during the afternoon of the expert panel

The expert panel consisted of Professor Sir John Holman (Report author, RSC) John Dexter (Nottingham EIB, RSC) Marianne Cutler (ASE) Miranda Pye (Pye Tait Consultancy) and Dave Mangan (Nottinghamshire SLP)

Q – Are there any statistics/papers that demonstrate the impact of practical work in those schools or countries that do practical Vs those that do not?
A – There is very little quantitative evidence (partly because it is unethical) Practical work is intrinsic to science work -would you teach a language without speaking it? Is all we want to score highly on GCSE or should we be encouraging learners to follow a science career or to study science further? Do you worry that our curriculum is too narrow? They can pass exams but can they work as a team or present the results from something they’ve done to an audience. Practical work helps with preparing students for life after school for a productive life and to contribute to society and the economy.
Q – Has there been any interaction with Ofsted.
A – John Holman” be careful what you wish for” Matthew Newberry has fed back that Amanda Spielman knows about the report. Amanda had spoken about a change in the balance to the quality of the curriculum.
Q – Technicians – are there any academic references to the impact of technicians on outcomes?
A – John Dexter – unlikely to be any because of other local factors. ASE has technicians survey.  Could we do more to find out? John Holman – could a study put unnecessary pressure on technicians. A potential study wouldn’t work on exam results (too crude) but could on the retention of staff
Q – Do all countries do less practical in biology?
A – Biology practicals typically have a long setup, can be unreliable, take longer to run. There is a role for guidance from subject associations. Germany doesn’t do any microbiology because of health concerns so situation varies locally.
Q – Is this down to KS2?
A – Quality of science provision at KS2 depends largely on staff but some very creative work. More secondary schools are coming back to KS3 and looking how to bridge the gap between KS2 and ks4.  ASE resources for primary on their website. John Dexter mentioned the wasted years report.
Q – Will there be guidance about lab design for Benchmark 5.
A – John Holman had visited lots of labs and UK ranks well above average. Not the highest priority issue but with reconsidering in lab design. If you have world-class science labs, why aren’t you funding the staff & skills required to use them to their potential? Dave Mangan – it is possible with creative timetabling to share a smaller number of labs around a larger number of teachers.
Q – Why use the word policy? Why not a practical handbook or mission statement?
A – ASE writing policy with 12 schools. Card sort around what is a policy and what are procedural documents. Policy underpins what you do in your school and your setting. For the purposes, nature, planning and implementation of practical work. Health and safety is a supporting document. Those that already have a policy document were focused on administration and running practicals rather than the principles that underpin. Needs to involve all members of the department. John Dexter – Ofsted might go to policies if they don’t see good science in the classroom – ditch the admin in department meetings and talk about poetical work
Thoughts from the group I facilitated during the afternoon
  • A model policy must be usable, short and not long, waffly and full of gobbledegook.
  • We need time for CPD and to share information and good practice between departments
  • Needs to go back to ITT, one school reported they are worried about SCITT students and exposure to practical work
  • One school said they would share a practical session to department meetings as well as sharing good practice
  • Technicians – increased funding won’t be ring-fenced so unlikely to reach science departments. How do you convince SLT (who often don’t understand what they do) of their worth?
  • Would be useful to have specific examples of best practice in practical work
  • Are departments becoming more compartmentalized as more subject-based teaching happens at KS4? Is this getting worse with the shortening of KS3?

Anecdotal reports are coming through of Ofsted inspectors asking about the report, however, this is likely to depend on the background, awareness and subject specialisms of the individual Ofsted inspection team. I would strongly recommend that heads of science are familiar with the content of the report and have started to consider its implications for their own departments.

Global education and science – refugees and migrants

In recent years several high profile celebrities and politicians have used derogatory and inflammatory terms to describe refugees and migrants. As the opinions of young people are influenced by the media, their family and their peers, we decided to celebrate Refugee Week to counter this negative images.

In the run-up to Refugee Week teachers were asked to drop in references to global education (and the odd disaster) and we came together at the end of the week to compare experiences.

Not every school will choose to follow this approach but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for learning about the lives of others in other countries. In the few weeks we had to prepare we:

  • Looked at the availability of drinking water and how some people have to carry it for miles back to their homes.
  • Looked at famine and why some charities give out sachets of peanut butter
  • Researched the speed of earthquakes & tsunamis. Could you outrun one?

Oxfam has produced an excellent science specific resource which is available to download from here. More general guidance for all subjects (including a useful progression of knowledge and opportunities) can be downloaded from this page. You can find out more about Refugee week here (including more resources) ready for next June.

The photo shows students carrying water around the school (they struggled to carry it more than half a mile, even taking turns!)

Building relationships with parents

Note: I wrote this blog post a couple of years ago but it sat unpublished and moved down the lists of posts on my site. Rather than delete it (it is a little old) I decided to hit publish in the hope that somebody finds it useful.

It doesn’t matter whether you are a teacher in a small school or part of a large department in a huge school.  Relationships with parents are important and can make or break a school.  The principles of communicating with parents remain the same whether you are running a page on behalf of a school, a department or a class.

A huge part of building that relationship is getting your message out to parents. There are positive messages and negative messages, both need communicating but in different ways.

Positive messages usually celebrate success or things that have gone well.  Good work, competition wins and good results are all examples of successes that should be shared with parents and the wider community. Personal experience tells me that parents don’t visit the main school website unless they are looking for a school place, and so you have to take the message to the places they are – on social media.

Setting up a school Facebook or Twitter feed is not something that should be done without the express permission of your school leadership team and clear policies in place. Find examples of schools that use social media well and show them to your leadership team and governors.  Pick trusted members of staff who will be responsible for posting to these sites and monitoring them for feedback from parents.  By using a service like WordPress or, news articles on your website can be syndicated to Facebook or Twitter with the minimum of effort (as long as it has an RSS feed)

Using social media is a bit like gardening.  A good school page needs nurturing, it needs pruning and weeding if you are going to get the best out of it.   Posts that get the best responses will typically include a photograph and information about school students.  If you are posting information posts, try to make sure these aren’t the only kind of post you make otherwise parents quickly lose interest.

Text messages are an amazing resource and one of the best ways of communicating a short message either to an individual or group of parents. We use a system integrated into SIMS and stores messages in communication logs etc.   An example of when I use text messages is to send reminders to parents, for example, a reminder about celebration assemblies and performances at the end of term (attendance is typically higher following a text reminder) Text messages sent in this way tend to be restricted to senior staff (because of the cost) but emails can be sent through the same system for free.

Phone calls are a good way of passing on bad news as they are less likely to be misinterpreted. They are also an excellent way to pass on good news, a phone call home is worth a dozen stickers in a school planner. Think of a phone call as putting fertiliser on the garden, you don’t see the benefit for a long time.  With some parents, it is best to have an exit strategy before you call, for example, call just before the lesson change bell goes so you have an excuse to hang up.  My great Dragon’s Den idea was an app for teachers to play various sounds (fire alarm, smashing glass, screaming) which could be played down the phone as an excuse to end a call.

Of course, these are just the mechanisms with which you communicate with parents. What you say to them is more important than how they are delivered.  An unanswered email or an unreturned phone call gives an extremely bad impression, whoever it is from. These tools have the potential to work wonders with parents, but if not used well can have the opposite effect.

I’ve worked in a school where parents had a negative impression of the school and shared it freely. By following the strategies in this blog post we were able to change the opinion of parents so they actively recommended the school to other parents.