Why we’re done with ‘Book Looks’

I think I’m about done with ‘Book Looks’, work scrutinies and marking checks. I get it that looking in student books is often a useful exercise for a range of staff, from peers, heads of department and yes, even SLT. But I think we’ve been looking at and looking for the wrong things. We’ve been using this process as a judgemental exercise and ranking it against what may often be an unsuitable or unrealistic criteria and that’s not really helping students, teachers or, if they’re honest about it, leaders.

We’ve laboured under the misapprehension for too long that ‘progress’ can be seen via a teacher’s written marking and/or feedback and this has been another inaccurate and misleading hammer to crack the wrong nuts.

I’m speaking as a member of SLT and someone who has been on both ends of the procedures outlined above. I’ve had to explain misunderstandings about the state of my students’ books, when I’ve known the students are still making progress; and I’ve also held teachers to account about their books using criteria that suits some subjects and some types of feedback but isn’t appropriate at all for others. I regret both of these things.

The trouble is that, up until fairly recently, we were singing from Ofsted’s previously very discordant song-sheet on marking and feedback. And even when Ofsted published clear and very sensible guidance (read here for the Ofsted Myth-Busting document and here for the EEF’s report ‘A Marked Improvement’), many SLTs did not review their thinking accordingly and still have unrealistic and unmanageable marking expectations.

When considering our own marking and feedback policy, we’ve looked carefully at what the evidence tells us; we’ve encouraged colleagues to find methods that suit their subjects (especially now that books look so different these days with greater subject content and material that need to be used for revision).

With this in mind, we’ve been looking at how we can support departments in developing feedback strategies that work for them, while trying to promote consistency across faculties and adhering overall to our flexible whole-school policy. After a visit from our School Improvement Partner last term, I tried a few ideas with the departments I line manage and gained feedback from other heads of department after a group discussion.  We’ve agreed on something that will replace book scrutinies that I’ve named Book Talks. (Not entirely happy with the name but it does what it says on the tin, so we’ll keep it at that for now so we can all recognise the ‘shorthand’ across school).

Format for ‘Book Talks’

The teacher / HoD brings along a selection of books, of their own choosing to the book talk.

We agreed that this should be 3 to 5 books from the same class to include at least one disadvantaged student (but if possible don’t discuss which is their book)

Before looking through the books, ask:

  • What kind of marking & feedback intervention can I/we expect to see in these books/folders (e.g. marked for literacy/SPaG corrections? DIRT? Peer/self-marking? Any teacher comments? If so, to what end? (e.g. to direct improvements / for rewards / to promote confidence, etc.)

This is not a checklist – it is purely to ascertain what the HoD/teacher thinks is in there, hopefully which should correlate with the department feedback policy.

Then ask:

  • How do these books/folders reflect the progress made by students over time?

This is a thorny old topic, but basically: is the student’s work getting better and/or showing evidence of learning and applying more as the book goes on? That’s your evidence of teacher feedback having had some impact. You don’t need ‘verbal feedback’ stickers to show this – it’s obvious. Has the student’s work stalled or deteriorated? Are teacher comments routinely ignored and thus repeated as the book goes on? Then teacher feedback is not having any/much impact, so this probably needs to be addressed/reviewed/changed.

  • Will I/we be able to tell which of the books/folders belongs to a disadvantaged student? If so, how/why?

A discussion is useful here about what assumptions might be made about what a disadvantaged student’s work look like, e.g. untidy and/or inconsistent standards in presentation? DIRT not acted upon and perhaps most importantly, gaps indicating absences? Although this largely deals with stereotypical patterns, they are often true in students that are under-attaining, so this is very useful in starting off conversations about what we do as a school, in departments, and also what we do as teachers when this is seen. In doing this, it is often very clear to see why some disadvantaged students steadily slip through the net and under-attain. Where disadvantaged/non-disadvantaged students’ books are indiscernible, this is an excellent start.

Then look through the books together, discussing as you do with the teacher/HoD.

After looking:

  • What action/further discussion will follow this conversation?

This will be based on whether what the teacher/HoD expected to be in the books was actually there. And if it isn’t, it doesn’t get reduced to a cross in a box or a number, it leads to further discussion about why this might be. Why isn’t the marking & feedback policy working for this teacher / this subject? Is it too onerous, or does it actually do what we want it to, i.e. support students to improve their understanding and application?

Aim to make the outcome in notes, not tick boxes/judgements, based on the discussion. We can do this on our existing department development (DD) meeting sheets which are focused on teaching, learning and collaboration (copy here if you’re interested).

What we’ve discovered so far

In all the book talks we’ve conducted so far, some very interesting and useful outcomes have emerged, including:

  • Some teachers still doing far too much in the way of detailed written comments with little evidence of feedback being acted upon. This led to the teachers admitting that their time-consuming methods were not working, and they agreed to give whole-class feedback grids another go (they’d tried once but given up as they weren’t convinced it was personalised enough. Seeing that what they thought was working was clearly not doing its job gave them the motivation to try the grids again and discuss how they could be used more consistently).


  • Some concerns about the quality of student notes in a heavy content-based part of the curriculum for one subject. What could they expect in terms of checking the notes? How would they show students how to improve without marking everything? This ended up being a really useful discussion at the end of which the department decided they would spend their next meeting agreeing on what revision notes should include and should look like in their subject and sharing this criteria with students to adhere to throughout the year.


  • A disadvantaged student’s book showing periods of absence and missed work, a key factor in under-attainment over time. On investigation, we found out the student was being taken out of certain lessons to attend nurture groups to support his transition to year 7. We were able to use this as evidence to discuss at SLT about our intervention to balance pastoral and academic progress, and the student is now attending these lessons much more regularly.


  • An agreement in one subject that their interpretation of the whole-school policy was not having the required impact. We discussed what might work better, and adapted the department policy in agreement with the whole department.


  • The revelation that a variety of methods of feedback can work within the same department and that one teacher does not have to slavishly follow others if they don’t believe in the process – as long as their feedback is having an impact. Communication is key, and the element of discussion supports this.


What those heads of department who have tried the process with their line managers and within their departments have found above all is empowerment. They have found confidence to explain what can be found in their students’ books and folders and the conviction that they are choosing methods that work for them. This way, we have found there is much more correlation within departments: teachers seem happier that they are being given the freedom to provide feedback that is of higher quality, not greater quantity.

200 Word Challenges – sharing the love across subjects

We’ve been using the 200 word challenges as shared by the ever-generous and thoughtful Chris Curtis (@Xris32) for the past year now in our English department. They’ve gone down a storm at all levels. You can read about them here. As Chris stated originally:

“Now, here’s the thing: the students love it. They love the unpredictable nature of the task. They love the routine. They love the freedom of the writing. Yes, I have had one or two students have a mental block with a task, but usually they come back with renewed vigour the following week. They love it. The teachers love it.”

Eng 200wc eerie place
Example of a year 7 200 word challenge for English


We’re lucky to be able to share so many excellent ideas and resources through the amazing network of English teachers known as #TeamEnglish on Twitter. 200 word challenges have been adapted and shared widely since Chris first posted about them. We’ve really enjoyed tying some challenges to our schemes of work to encourage links, as well as using ‘random’ themes. The students like doing them, have clearly improved their techniques and skills in both content and form, and I think I can safely say that all students from years 7 to 11 at our school know what the 200 word challenges are. More importantly, perhaps, they know their own capabilities in writing now: what 200 words looks like in their own handwriting; how long it takes to create a piece with this word count (about 20-25 minutes) and they are used to being able to develop an idea into the 3 or 4 paragraphs required and the criteria we set for each task. Hurrah!

Recently, I was working with our dance department. They have gone to a 40% written element in their GCSE and have been trying hard to think about how they introduce this element into the year 9 curriculum so that students know that written appreciation is expected of them in dance and so they don’t find it too much of a shock to go from purely practical classes in year 9 to the demands of year 10 and its 60:40 split. At GCSE, the theory paper has a range of questions, ranging from 1 to 12 marks with a total of 80 marks possible, so year 10 and 11 students also need to be able to gain practice in writing dance appreciation in timed conditions.

I remembered the 200 word challenges that have worked so well in English and suggested to Abbie, our head of dance, that we try to create a short writing task that introduces year 9 students to critique and could be practised at set times in the year. It was also important that the students could peer mark the tasks, so they get to know the vocabulary and methods of appreciation and evaluation – and also to ensure it didn’t take up too much of the teachers’ time to mark them. They tried them out, using clips of dance performance from a range of sources (including Strictly!) as stimuli and clear criteria containing key words and they’ve worked really well. They will now use this format to support GCSE students answering the theory questions, adapting them to suit to mark scheme and timed allowed for each question.

Dance 200wc


We had a TED (Teacher Education Day) a few weeks ago and a significant proportion of staff have opted to take a teaching and learning focus for their CPD this year (as opposed to Pastoral/SEND or personal professional learning). Those of us focusing on T&L have been working on memory, retrieval and revision. As well as this focus, it struck me at this point that colleagues like those in PE, whose subjects have much-increased theory, and also those who have greatly-increased content such as history, geography and science, might benefit from the practice that the challenges provide.

A question we hear a lot from subjects with new specs is ‘How do we fit all the content in and then get the students to write about it successfully?’ For students starting out at secondary level, it will be easier as we are adapting our KS3 curricula to establish those baselines, but for students in the upper years, it’s been a tall order for many subjects. Some of these subjects are well-used to expecting extended written responses, but some are going from zero to a comparatively large amount. How do these subjects teach the students to expect to produce quality writing where traditionally none has featured? How do they give writing the kudos it deserves and needs?  I thought the 200 word challenges might help with this. I asked two of my brilliant English colleagues, Karen (@kec261) and Jo (@jbjuniper) if they could give this some thought and develop a workshop that would share the benefits we have found in our department, and discuss with colleagues just how transferable the challenges might be, helping them to create some if they wanted as part of the workshop.

The workshop content that Jo and Karen came up with was excellent. Jo even tried some of the various subject ideas out on older members of her Learning Mentor (vertical tutor) group. Student feedback was very positive and this added another valuable dimension to the session: ideas that the students had contributed to and were able to confirm that really worked. Here are some of the ideas Jo and Karen shared, including a Geography response that one of Jo’s group wrote.

Hist 200wc
PE 200wc
Food 200wc
DT Food
Business 200wc
Geog 200wc
Geog 200wc b
Geography sample answer by a GCSE student

Obviously, colleagues in other subjects will want to adapt these ideas, dependent on their exam board and deeper knowledge of the new specs than we may have after just a short time skimming the exam specs, but there is clearly much potential in this idea (how many times can we thank @Xris32?) Once you know what ‘perfect’ exam responses look like for those 6, 0r 8 or 12 marks questions, you’ll be able to set word and time limits. So, in History you might set 100 word challenges for a 4 mark question; in PE it might be 150 words for the 9 mark question, etc.

Establishing these as habit is crucial. Build them into your curriculum planning, interleaved with retrieval opportunities like low stakes quizzing, 5-a-day and revision grids, all of which have proven very successful in a number of subjects now. If you are able to do this, you can then do the ‘tablecloth trick’ with your tasks, gradually removing the criteria and key words and asking that students remember them independently.

And in case you are worried that this activity detracts from exam practice, you needn’t fret. As Chris states:

I think we have suffered ‘connection’ issues in English. We have felt that everything has to be connected. If students write, it is usually writing something connected to the main topic. You are studying ‘A Christmas Carol’ so the students will write a carol, a Christmas card, a description of life in the Cratchit house, a ghost story and so on. Four hours a week on the same topic for seven weeks can make lessons particularly beige. More of the same thing.” 

Same idea applies to other subjects. In discussing them with a range of departments recently, it is clear that the writing challenges also help students develop their subject knowledge in a flexible and creative way, using subject knowledge and expert terminology to problem-solve for a range of tasks. The challenges don’t need to resemble exam questions in order to have a high level of impact.

Having it all. (The guilt that is.)

Having young children is (mostly) ace, but it’s hard. Teaching is (mostly) ace, but it’s hard. Both together, hard squared.

My kids are a bit older now, both at high school and old enough to make their own tea and be left alone for enough time for me to go into town to wander about in shops gormlessly and at my own pace, or for A.N.Other and I to go to the pictures sans enfants. It means I can stay as late at school as I need to without worrying about collecting them from childminders or nurseries any more and I can also head off in the morning leaving them in the house to get themselves to school. I like being home to cook tea for everyone several times a week so we can eat together and catch up. But them being older means I have a choice, and that’s very liberating. When you’ve got little ones, you don’t have this freedom.

I line-manage four departments this year and each of those subject leaders has children, mostly the little or very little kind. They, and many of my other younger colleagues, carry around with them the burden of wondering whether they are good enough parents if they’re working so much of the time; good enough teachers if they come to school later or leave school earlier or have days off to care for sick children. In short, they are permanently tired and feeling guilty. Someone once told me when I had my first baby that the guilt a mother feels is somehow transmitted via the umbilical cord. PREACH!  Noone really warns you about that bit of parenthood. But I don’t know whether it’s necessarily a thing our own parents or grandparents felt when they had their children. I wonder if the absence of imminent danger and the survival mode that war and less affluence produced in the UK at least has meant we not satisfied with just getting through the day intact.

I do blame books and TV and t’Internet for this one. And ourselves of course. Much of the information for parents in the last 20 years especially produces an outcome more cruel and vicious than The Hunger Games: parents pitted against partners and fellow parents in bouts of Competitive Tiredness, Percentile-Growth Anxiety and Screen-time Battles to the Death.

Occasionally I will be posting about trying to balance teaching and life, including parenting, caring for and losing your own parents, and trying to be a happy teacher whether you have kids and/or parents or not. I’m no expert, just someone in their 25th year of teaching and 17th year of parenting and I’m not finished yet, in either job. All I can share are experiences; mistakes made and lessons learned so far, as a teacher, a mum, an orphan now, an AHT and a line manager. If anything I write here is of any use then I’ll be very happy.

sick kid

Teaching when you have poorly kids

As we know, in teaching, it’s always hard to be ill enough to not be in school. It’s often easier to come in and die at your desk than set cover work and send countless emails before 7.15am. But when you are off because your child is ill, it triggers a whole new raft of guilt. You aren’t ill yourself (fingers crossed) but you can’t do anything resembling work because you’re trapped under a feverish, sleeping/vomiting child; you can’t get to the TV controller or your now-cold coffee, let alone flip open the laptop and answer some emails, or mark a book.

You find yourself quietly plotting the downfall of the childminder/nursery/school because they won’t take your child back until they are 48 hours free of a vom (even though in a few weeks you will have uncontrollable RAGE when you hear another parent sent their child back in after just 39.5 hours in case they re-infect your child.) I once started work at a new school only to be off two weeks later for spells of two to three days at a time for the next three weeks when they had a sickness bugs which they shared with one another and us, and then one another again. I was mortified.

Here’s the thing: babies and young children are often ill. This is normal and it’s how they develop the defences to not be so ill later on. Hopefully, if you have a partner, you will be able to share nursing duties when they are poorly. Or you may be lucky enough to have relatives to hand that love your child enough to risk a bug or to cuddle them when they have a stream of snot resembling a candle coming from each nostril. And although you may be horrified, as I was, when I had to set so much cover work and miss so many lessons, it’s really not the end of the world. Far from it. You’re much better off just giving in to it. Great if you can share the load and make it in some days, but if you can’t it’s OK.

Keep in touch with your line manager. Try to set clear, easy to set and peer-marked work so you keep the cover staff on side. Don’t promise you will ‘definitely’ be in tomorrow when you’re not sure how your child will be. And stop apologising. Most of your colleagues will have either been there themselves and they understand only too well. Others haven’t but they will be sympathetic. And those that don’t seem particularly sympathetic aren’t worth worrying about. They are short-sighted, because one day they will be in your shoes, whether it’s with children or a debilitating bout of flu, or other difficult family commitments. And when they are, you can be kind and supportive and offer to help set cover with a saintly halo above your head.

Hold your nerve in the face of the guilt and try to say to yourself: ‘This is not my fault. I am being a good parent and caring for my child. This is a normal part of life.’ How would you feel if a colleague was in your shoes and worrying themselves sick about having to take time off? Be like this to yourself.

I once had a deputy headteacher that prided himself in only having one day off in his long career, and that had been the day of his father’s funeral. He had three children and had never helped his wife when they’d been ill. And he’d not been around to support his mother and come to terms with his own grief in the days after his father died. He was a poor role model for his staff and in the end I actually felt sorry for him. It’s a prehistoric way to act.

As the line manager or department head of teachers with sick young children, all you can do is be patient and supportive. If it’s looking a bit more long-term or it’s a regular occurance, it might warrant a face-to-face chat, but even then it should be to check up how everyone’s coping and what plans can be made to prevent any long-term disruption to classes. An effective and sensitive line manager will be able to tell if there’s something else going on and take it from there. There’s a level of professionalism that you can expect in terms of setting cover and communicating, but bear in mind your colleague may struggling to do things like access laptops and computer files. They might need to be in and out to get to the doctor’s, so don’t expect a hot-line to them. Hopefully, their department has cover work in place for such events but if not, offer to help if you can: it will be appreciated.

Hang on in there everybody – it does get better.