SSAT National Conference 2017: an ‘advent calendar’ of reflections

Reading time: 4 minutes. Relevant event: SSAT National Conference 2017: Illuminating learning

Rachel Lowrie, KS3 Leader of Learning for English, Churchill Academy & Sixth Form, a Leadership Legacy fellow, uses a seasonal medium to give her highlights of the National Conference

This year I forgot to get an advent calendar.

Silly really as I’ve been in the festive spirit for weeks. Teaching A Christmas Carol always does that to me.

Luckily for my tutor group they haven’t gone without as I’ve shared Dave and Charlotte Gale’s amazing ‘kindness’ advent calendar with them. Scrooges we won’t have!

But in the absence of an edible countdown of my own, I realise I was given a different kind of gift this year. On the day before advent I was lucky enough to visit Manchester for the SSAT’s National Conference, ‘Illuminating Learning’.

Here are 25 little bit(e)s of information that I gained during my time there:

  1. Choirs rule. As I walked into the foyer of Manchester Central I heard the stunning sounds of the Wright Robinson College choir singing Don’t Look Back in Anger. Everybody was moved, some to tears. And this was only the beginning of a day of talent showcased by students from all over the UK. It reminded me just how lucky we are to have such a fantastic music department at Churchill, and how collaborating creatively can bring together people from all walks of life. I’m pleased our students have this opportunity.
  2. We need all of our students to be literately confident. Ok, this is obvious. But it was brought home to me by Hope Academy when they shared the results of a number of studies they conducted in order to raise attainment. They found that teachers of every subject wanted their students to sound like experts in the topics they taught them, and the only way to guarantee this was to ensure high standards of reading. In response they had a number of their staff trained to deliver Sound Training, a six-week intensive programme that claims to raise literacy ages by as much as four years by taking learning to read back to basics. After all, students who struggle to read are not necessarily going to just ‘pick it up’. In fact, they are more than likely going to do the opposite. I definitely want to find out more about Sound Training and attended their free webinar on Wednesday 6th December.
  3. Verbal confidence is just as important. Mike Doody, from Talk the Talk, undertook the challenge of explaining in a mere seven-minute session what his charity-funded workshops can do to raise self-belief in young people. Although he confessed to being more ‘average’ Mike than ‘magic’ Mike at school, he reminded me to keep an eye on the quiet students (like he once was) as they have often checked out of the learning process.
  4. Quality is a culture. We need to demand, expect and support it.
  5. As emphasised by headteacher Helena Marsh, we need to celebrate teaching as a profession. Scaring the best and the brightest away from choosing this career path could put out the fire we should be igniting in the world of education.
  6. Growth mindset needs to be modelled by all. The senior leaders at Blackfen School for Girls, the only non-selective school in its area, realised they had to convince some their staff before any real alteration in attitude would be noticeable in students. They admitted to needing to adjust their own method numerous times while implementing this, so in fact displayed a growth mindset themselves. It was practitioner-led research that finally won over, allowing teachers to see the benefits of this approach to learning first-hand.
  7. Think outside the box. Dame Alison Peacock made a bus into a library because why not? It got kids reading.
  8. We’re just people, standing in front of people. Graham Moore, Director of humanutopia (who sponsored the conference), had a group of young people he works with come on stage and tell the audience what their school had done to help them get the most out of themselves. The bottom line was that someone had told each of them that they could achieve. So inspired was one SSAT fellow that he came up on stage to share a resolution – to ask at least five students a day how they are and to speak to them on a human level, putting results and data pressures on the back burner during that time.
  9. The best of intentions are sometimes just that. The pile of marking I meant to do on the train made me feel travel sick, so in the bag it went (that’s the students’ work, not anything else).
  10. Give students opportunities to have their voice heard, says Graham Moore. We need to create a climate where sharing is expected. Thought-processes. Feelings. Successes and failures. Let’s get it all out there.
  11. Those ‘moments of awe’ we aspire for in the classroom don’t always equate to amazing learning. Trust, consistency and repetition of the important stuff gets the job done just as well.
  12. For teachers across the country, the struggle is real. Chatting with others in the education sector allowed me to gain an insight into the profession in different regions. It turns out that everybody finds keeping up with the expectations put on teachers a challenge.
  13. For leaders across the country, the struggle is real. In Diana Osagie’s talk she expressed the surprise she had when on the second day of her first headship she was informed that the school had a deficit of £450,000. She had to make redundancies from every department in order to protect the rest. She decided the only way to get through it was to choose to be strong, even though she often felt like crying in a ball on the floor.
  14. Making it your mission to expose truth is a triumph universally acknowledged. Professor Phil Scraton received a standing ovation following his talk on the injustice surrounding the Hillsborough disaster. I knew it was a scandal but little did I realise the extent of the dishonour inflicted on the victims of the tragedy. He relentlessly fought to have their voices heard. His struggle to do so is in part what inspired the film of that name.
  15. We all have those ‘argh!’ moments. While bonding before the main event, a few other SSAT fellows and I gathered round to exchange educational horror stories. I learnt about an A-level student who completed a question on a novel they hadn’t even read due to being put off by one word in the question about the text they had studied. This further reinforces point 3, I believe.
  16. We are all fabulous. Diana Osagie made us stand up and chant it so it must be true.
  17. Twitter is useful. So many of the new innovations being shared, such a knowledge organisation, is already being implemented at Churchill. In the English department, Dave attributes this to extensive reading on Twitter. I’m in a faculty full of members of the education Twitterati and they are constantly sharing incredible ideas. I don’t claim to be part of this illustrious group yet but hope to keep catching advances using the ‘net.
  18. The science of learning must not be underestimated. To be fair, I am privy to this already due to my colleagues above. Dame Alison Peacock, CEO of the Chartered College of Teaching, emphasised the need to understand cognitive load theory, the importance of retrieval practice and interleaving, as well as self-regulation, executive function and everything in between. If you’re keen to learn more about this please see blog posts by the likes of Sue Strachan, Dave Grimmett and Chris Hildrew. There may be more I haven’t read yet so please let me know if you have done work on this too.
  19. Double grading is worth a try. Blackfen School for Girls give their students one mark for before improvements are made and one for afterwards. Nearly all want to complete the extra work to gain that higher mark.
  20. The sound of the bell and an image of an exam hall evoke different emotions for different students. Graham Moore reminded me that some want the bell to go and others don’t. Some see an assessment as an opportunity and others see it as an exercise designed to trip them up.
  21. It’s not just rats and fleas who have been used in experiments about growth mindset. I learnt about a study by Rosenthal in which teachers were given the names of a few students who had been identified as gifted and likely to ‘bloom’ in the upcoming year. The students who were singled out, despite being chosen at random, ended up with higher grades and developed into more successful students.
  22. Let’s put pupils in the pit. Hope Academy do this by making work challenging, acknowledging this with students and then giving them the tools they need to succeed. Self-talk, which involves asking questions to yourself aloud, is one strategy.
  23. Resilience rather than ability is key to transition. Martina Vale, from ASDAN, explained the merits of Lift Off – a project-based transition unit to help students with low confidence prepare for secondary school.
  24. We are influenced by geography. Katrina Morley said that her background in the industry-based Middlesbrough made her steely. I believe we live in an area of creative thinkers. Thatchers (cider) and Yeo Valley (yoghurt) are just two examples of companies taking a local product and making it their own.
  25. Last but not least, I need to say thank you for being given the opportunity to go. I realise not all teachers get the chance to gallivant up north mid-term and have the chance to soak up all things education.

Please contact me if you would like more information about what I’ve written in this blog post, or indeed anything to do with the SSAT Leadership Legacy fellowship I’m undertaking. Email me

I hope you’ve enjoyed this window into my mind – and that it hasn’t taken you 25 days to get through!

Thanks for reading.

This blog was originally posted on the Churchill Academy & Sixth Form Teaching and Learning blog. Get in touch to share your articles with the SSAT network by email

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