9 – Rows and rows

After three month’s of on-line teaching, supporting students and their families, formulating centre assessment GCSE and A Level grades, thinking about a catch-up curriculum for those who have not been able to engage and formulating procedures for a safe return to school, this is the latest thinking from the Minister for Education to assist teachers.

Let’s be charitable and assume that Mr Williamson is stressing that teachers are professionals with voices that must be heard. They are in the best position to help students overcome the challenges of learning remotely over the past three months, away from friends and the usual learning routines, with varying levels of success and hugely different home lives, some untouched by Coronavirus and others suffering trauma of one kind or another. Teachers must be listened to and the way to do this is ……to rearrange the classroom furniture.

On this he may have a point. Any teacher whose classroom discipline is anything other than first rate will tell you that rows can engender a calmer atmosphere, affording fewer opportunities for low-level disruption and students being off task. If you have ample hips then movement around the room is easier, discussion can still take place and everyone can see the board. Equally, anyone who has spent time with young people will tell you that if they don’t want to listen, the shape and orientation of the classroom furniture matters little. His comments on rows started a bit of a storm and not a few blogposts on social media platforms, not least because it is a simple sound bite designed to show the Tory MPs to whom he was speaking that he’s tough on low level disruption  and that teachers have an easy job to sort it out. If teaching was as simple as shifting the furniture to get pupil attention there wouldn’t be so many teachers leaving the profession. Mr Williamson must know that. Mustn’t he? It’s just the other stuff is harder to fix. 

During the thirty years since I first set foot inside a classroom as a trainee teacher I have taught in rooms with desks in rows and in groups, in drama studios where there were no desks at all and even outside in the forest or school garden. I even tried out the ‘horseshoe of doom’ once, misguidedly thinking that this would encourage erudite discussion. In fact it just made it difficult to move around the room whilst providing ample opportunity for throwing bits of paper across the divide. When I shared a classroom and had to commute between sites half a mile apart, turning up at the same time – or later – than the students,  I inherited someone else’s layout – often different on consecutive days. It made me a more resourceful teacher and an advocate for effective partnerships. Teaching is a team sport, after all. Changing the layout of your room is a tiny part of engaging students who have missed out on a sizeable proportion of this year’s face to face teaching. There are more effective strategies and the common denominator is partnership.

Children and young people need

  • proper partnerships between parents and teachers, built on trust and mutual understanding of the difficulties faced on both sides
  • a safe classroom environment where children feel valued, clear routines are respected and expectations are reinforced by senior managers
  • an education secretary who works with the teaching profession, listens to their concerns and values their professionalism

Until this happens, where you put your desks is of little consequence.

8 – Live today, plan for tomorrow

In the interests of balance and practising what I preach to my students I’ve taken a few days off over Easter. Since the lockdown started in the UK, I have worked every day to get on top of new ways of teaching, complete marking and give feedback quickly to my students and consider processes for rank ordering my GCSE students and sending grades off to the exam boards. Whilst social media is full of friends spring cleaning and redecorating their houses, revamping their gardens, organising helpschemes for neighbours, coordinating volunteers to make scrubs for hospital workers, distribute palletloads of donated Easter eggs or just feeling bored, my life has changed very little, except that I’m doing it from home with all my family around me. Switching off and leading a balanced life is SO important.

Now that the Easter weekend is over, it’s full steam ahead to prepare for next term – teaching remotely but with one eye on returning to school before the end of term. I’m in the process of revamping the independent learning programme I introduced at the start of the year and organising some activities for our remote INSET day next week.

It’s a lot of work but the opportunity to rethink and redraft my original ideas is a positive. Proof that the best learning happens when you take some risks, recognise any mistakes you make, embrace them and are flexible enough to change and try something different. Students take note. When I finish the program, not only will I have learned a lot about myself and my leadership but there might be a book about independent learning in this.

If I can find the time to write it.

7 – Challenges


Dear Quaran-teens,

You know my expectations are always high but a modern day King Lear might be a step too far. If you were due to sit GCSE or A Level exams in a few weeks, you may be feeling a bit lost. I get that. Even last week your teachers may have been setting you work to complete before there was publication on Friday of the mechanism for teacher assessment.

You may well find that your school gives you the opportunity to sit some semi-formal open book assessments to mark the end of your GCSE and A Level courses. They may well get you started on preparing for your A Level or degree courses.

But what if you’re still at a loose end? What happens over the next few days and weeks?

First have a break. Be kind to yourself. Take stock.

Then get stuck into a new project.

If there is a last hurrah of GCSE and A Level type assessments you’ll be sent details over the next few days. I’ll be working on a preparation package for my GCSE students who are intending to study English at A Level. In the meantime, why not try these challenges, shared by the school my own children attend and slightly reimagined by me? Even your parents might like to join in.

I’d love to hear how you get on.

Mrs S

6 – Not going out

Dear Quaran – teens

Wouldn’t we all love to pop up a mountain like Julie Andrews on a day like this? There has been a lot of talk in the press and on social media about people breaking the lockdown and the social distance rules, getting out an about in the glorious weather this weekend. It won’t surprise you to hear that much of the criticism is levelled at young people. Hardly fair.

My own daughter is bemoaning the fact that we can’t do our usual picnic and jaunt round Stourhead on Palm Sunday today.

Another friend who was planning a family trip to New York and Washington over the Easter hols has come up with an ingenious way of going on their trip. Their entire itinerary (all first class of course) is posted online from their settee. Museums, art galleries, monuments, even restaurants and shops are posting virtual tours online and these are going up for us all to share in the trip with them, along with one or two photoshopped prints. Yesterday they rode down fifth avenue in a pink limousine. Like I said, boredom fosters creativity.

How you cope with the strange world we are now living in is up to you. Where are you on this diagram? I’m in the learning zone heading straight towards growth.

Keep in touch.

Mrs S

5 – Lockdown opportunities

Dear Quaran-teens,

Most Thursday nights I’m either watching my daughter play netball, in rehearsal for a play or catching up on my marking. Last night I sat down with a glass of wine and watched a live theatre production streamed to my pc – One Man, Two Guvnors – which I hadn’t found time or money to see before. What a treat. Next Thursday it’s the National Theatre’s innovative production of Jane Eyre, another one I had wanted to see but couldn’t at the time. (Blocked by a marking avalanche, I expect!)

Lockdown is not all bad.

There are umpteen opportunities whilst we are on an enforced absence from school that will make me a better teacher and you more independent and resourceful students.

I’ve done more reading and signed up for some free on-line courses on approaches to teaching drama and poetry and one about how we learn. Things I wouldn’t have had the headspace to research or follow a few weeks ago. I’m teaching my middle son to cook before he heads off to Uni (we hope) in the Autumn and my days have a new rhythm – work until early afternoon, then doing exercise or chores around the house and garden. In the evening I embark on something creative.

I hope by now you have found a new rhythm of life too. For GCSE and A Level students there’s a little more clarity about how your grades will be calculated and hopefully the ability to relax, move on and set yourself up for a fresh start in sixth form, college or University in the Autumn.

Boredom breeds creativity. Being stuck at home is a real chance to develop your creative abilities, a skill which employers rate highly and feel is in decline in job applicants. It said so in today’s press. And while you shouldn’t believe everything one reads in the newspapers on this one they can be trusted.

Keep in touch with each other and your teachers.

Mrs S

4 -New projects

Dear Quaran-teens,

In the strange world of social isolation and the no-man’s land of ‘what do I do now that my GCSEs and A Levels have been cancelled?’, it’s easy to lack a sense of purpose. This popped up in my timeline earlier from the English and Media Centre. I’d recommend it to any students who are thinking of studying English Literature at A Level or existing A Level students who love a bit of close reading.

Something to get your teeth into, hone your writing and close appreciation skills and get to read one of my favourite Bronte novels. Okay – just a small part of it but once you start you’ll want to read the rest. Trust me on that one.

And if you win you’ve earned yourself some cash.

What have you got to lose?

All details here.

Let me know how you get on.

Mrs S

3- What have you done today to make you feel proud?

Dear Quaran – teens,

It’s hard to get my head round that this is supposed to be the first week of the \Easter hols at my school. I’m typing from the garden wrapped up in a big scarf and admiring the cowslips. Still no word from the exam boards about what kind of evidence will need to be provided so for now it’s best to keep working on any assignments set by your teachers – including me. Thanks to the members of my GCSE classes who have already sent me their work today. Incidentally if you have papers from your mocks or marked assignments to hand, it might be a good idea to put them altogether in an envelope to send to your teachers, should they need them.

This limbo phase is particularly hard but you have some control over it.

Yes you do!

You can choose to make it easier for your teachers when they have to award assessment grades.


By providing them with the evidence rather than going to ground and hoping for the best.

Once the evidence collecting has happened you’ll be able to move on and choose whether to expend your energies revising for those optional exams in the Autumn (possibly) or preparing for sixth form or college (definitely more fun). Don’t worry. I have plenty of help to offer you when that time comes.

Other classes – have a holiday and prepare yourself for some exciting project work at the end of April. Those of you who missed the deadline for last week’s work. Where were you? I hope you and your families are well. keep in touch especially if you are struggling with the inevitable upheaval.

Members of the Lower Sixth? Yes, it is the Easter vacation and yes you deserve a holiday too. You’ll be coming back to remote lessons for a few weeks afterwards remember, so keep your work ticking over. You’ll never have a better opportunity to fully immerse yourself in a genre of literature during the whole of your A Level course. Read, watch films, check out documentaries, share ideas, keep in touch. Make the most of it.

So let’s move onto today’s mini-victories. No coughing or high temperatures in the house, successfully avoiding spring cleaning the bathroom for another day by pottering around the garden, sowing some beetroot, making a delicious soup, marking essays on duplicity in Macbeth and clearing out my work bag. Small achievements to be proud of.

No, of course I didn’t complete everything on my list.

What have you been up to?

Mrs S

2 – Home Learning – the new normal

Dear Quaran-teens,

Week two of lockdown.

I’ve done a lot of gardening and a lot of school work. It’s been great to hear from all my GCSE students and a fair few others. It’s pretty clear that trying to replicate the school day, whilst initially a good idea to establish routine in the midst of uncertainty, is not a long-term solution. Factor in the inevitable uncertainty about what happens now about calculating your grades (for Year 11 and 13) or exactly when you’ll be back at school (for everyone else) and it’s nigh on impossible. If I’ve taught you anything, it’s that too much screen-time is never a good thing, a little bit of what makes you happy is essential and that a teacher’s role is to light the touch paper whilst you fan the flames. With all that in mind, here are a few thoughts on how to handle the next few weeks, ace your independent learning journey and keep yourself and your families sane.

  1. Routine is important but make it flexible. So replicating the school timetable is a step too far, especially if you have intermittent internet connectivity and a shared pc, a number of siblings, parents who work from home and limited space. What you can do is get up at around the same time every day (trust me on this one!), create your own weekly timetable taking account of work that must be done, household chores, time to relax and be creative and time to catch up with friends or grandparents. Work in blocks, which could be moved around if circumstances change. When else are you going to be in charge of your own time? Step up to the challenge. Be proactive. Your parents will be delighted.
  2. Set manageable goals. These can be small but if you know what you want to achieve by the end of the day, you are likely to achieve it. Start with making your bed. If you can’t do that, how are you going to change the world?
  3. Teach yourself something then apply what you’ve learnt to your school work. When was the last time you wanted to get better at something? Learning to play the guitar, completing a Rubik’s cube in less than 30 seconds, sculpting a six-pack – whatever it was, you probably practised day after day, hour after hour. Back in the day I was a champion hoolahooper. Hours of surreptitious work after dark in my bedroom and popping down to the park with friends to hone my technique long before the days of YouTube videos. That’s the kind of behaviour to apply to your studies. Try to identify one area where you want to improve and apply the same strategy to that. Take some time every day to devote to improving in this one area.
  4. Stay connected One of the most challenging aspects of studying from home is feeling isolated. Keep in touch with your friends, classmates and teachers. Share the experience, ask questions, compare notes, divide up tasks between you and share the load.
  5. Be creative Creativity is one of the most underrated skills fostered in schools. These lockdown days are the perfect opportunity to right that wrong. Make something – it could be art, music, writing, cooking. Whatever it is, it’s good for you. Here’s why.

Until you know more about how teacher assessment is going to work for GCSE and A Level grades keep doing the work set by your teachers. If you are in other years at school, don’t forget to make a distinction between weeks when you would have been on Easter vacation and those when you would have been at school. Everybody needs a holiday but a permanent holiday is no good thing. Balance is everything.

Keep in touch.

Mrs S

1- Home learning – sink or swim?

Dear Quaran – teens,

So here is the benefit of my experience to help you get off to the best possible start on home study. It would be selfish of me not to share it with you, right?

Let’s face it – we may have longed for the Easter hols to come and the revision to be over but we never expected to be at home right now twiddling our thumbs and wondering what the next few weeks would bring. I hope you’ve settled into a new kind of normal at home. At Smart HQ we held a family meeting to plan our route through the next few weeks. It’s a mystery tour now that GCSEs, A Levels and University exams have been cancelled.

For many of you – even my GCSE and A Level classes – it’s important to keep working on something. Until you know exactly what kind of evidence your teachers need to provide to the exam boards to help them decide on your grades, then that should be your studies. There was a time, before I became your teacher that I worked from home every day. It was an adventure. My friends used to drop by for a coffee; it was easy to become distracted by the radio, the housework, the refrigerator or the garden. Nobody would know if I spent the whole day in my pyjamas. Guess what? On some days not a lot of work took place. That should not happen to you.

Here are my top tips.

  1. Stick to your timetable. When it takes three weeks to establish a new habit or routine, why wouldn’t you stick with your school routine? Hockey may be off but kicking a ball in the garden, walking the dog or going for a short run is not. If Chemistry is first lesson on Monday then spend that time doing Chemistry. Take 5 minute breaks between study sessions. Have a proper mid morning break, a lunchtime and a mid afternoon break.
  2. Sleep. As Lady Macbeth informs us, it’s “the season of all natures”. Whilst I wouldn’t hold her up as a role model, on sleep she was bang on.
  3. Eat properly If you’re going to feed your brain you need decent food. I’m sure your parents will help if you have an attack of the munchies but fuelling up with good food at mealtimes is THE way to go.
  4. Spruce up your work space Nobody wants to work in a dingy space. You may have a lovely desk and a beautiful view in your own private space. Or, like me, you may be working in the family kitchen. Wherever you’re based, make it somewhere you want to be.
  5. Replicate your school environment Studying is easier if you have your familiar things around you. Set your workspace out the way you do at school. The more things stay the same,the easier it will be to focus on what matters – your studies.
  6. Get dressed I have a friend who used to work from home in clothes that made him embarrassed to answer the door to the postman. I have another who gets dressed in her work clothes every day, leaves the house, goes for a short walk and then returns to her house 15 minutes later, ready for work. Extreme I know, but way more productive than the one who had to hide behind the sofa every time the doorbell rang.
  7. Have a goal Have an aim, a place you want to get to by the end of a study session, the end of the day or the end of the week. If a teacher sets you a deadline, stick to it. Even project work should be chunked into achievable tasks so that you know you’re keeping everything afloat without the daily checks, merits and demerits of your teachers. Give yourself a reward if you achieve your task. It will keep you motivated.
  8. Keep in touch Studying from home can be lonely. If your teacher hasn’t set up a Skype lesson then you’ll miss the business of the classroom and the opportunity to collaborate with friends, discuss your opinions or compare your answers. Set up a way of keeping in touch with classmates about work. Maybe FaceTime everyday at a set time. Set up a WhatsApp group. You won’t feel so alone
  9. Make studying active Before a remote lesson, think about what you already know, do some reading around the subject and after the lesson, evaluate and reflect on what you’ve learned. Try to add to your notes. That way you gain maximum benefit from the teacher contact you have. You can ask questions to clarify any points and move your learning on.
  10. Plan ahead Although you don’t know when home studying will end, plan ahead to the next holiday. Know what you’ve got coming up next week and the week after, just like you do at school for every half term. It will keep you focused.

Let me know how you get on and look out for my next postcard.

Mrs S

School’s Out

I may have wished for my independent learning program to have a real impact but I NEVER expected most of the children in the UK to have to develop their independent learning skills quite so quickly.

What a week! In the strange world of Social Distancing,this is my classroom for the foreseeable future whist I am teaching remotely. School’s out for now – for me, the students I teach and my own three children who have returned home early from Uni or had their A levels and GCSE exams cancelled. But the learning can’t stop.

This blog started as a way of documenting my school-based project but I’m repurposing it into a way for me to stay in touch with my students and offer some support to them through the uncertainty of the next few weeks and months. I’m going to try to offer hints and tips for any ‘quaran – teens’ to make the most of learning independently. So spread the word if you feel it helps.

Let’s do this.