I am feeling paralysed. Too many upsetting, infuriating things have happened this week.  Some in the world. Some just in my head.

Too much to think about. Too much to say. Too much to do. Overwhelming.

But on my angry, tear-fuelled cycle ride just now, I have realised. They are connected.


Miss Bell is a newly qualified teacher on a temporary contract teaching German in a secondary school. She is trained
to teach French but did German as a second subject in her degree and hopes that this job may lead to a permanent post in the new academic year. Today is the last time this term she will teach her Year 8 class. She has not had an easy ride with them; at first she found the class a challenge but she worked hard to get to know them and to understand their needs and recently she has grown to love teaching them.
Today she has planned a special treat. The lesson started as normal: structure, learning intentions, success criteria and a task whereby they presented a short speech, prepared for homework and based on the learning of the term. And they have aced it; every single pupil has presented to the best of his/ her ability and there has been collective and well deserved praise and pride. One pupil in particular has earned Miss Bell’s admiration and respect; Molly has out-performed all her peers even though she has ADHD and sits at the bottom in assessments in all of her other classes.
Miss Bell of course doesn’t make a huge fuss about this in front of the class because Molly would loathe that. But they have shared a secret smile and understanding.

And now the treat time has come. Miss Bell has long talked about a song which only very special classes get to hear when they have worked really hard. She has has said that it is her ‘German Winner’s Anthem’. And today the time has come for this class to hear it: Culcha Candela’s ‘Von Allein.’ It is a catchy hip-hop, rappy celebratory song and the video is a cool celebration of European culture and passion.

She has bought Gummi-Bärchen. (Not chocolate, as Jake is allergic and she does not want to draw attention to that.) She lets the class sit round the smart board and watches as they get to hear the song. She smiles as they spontaneously start to dance along and she encourages them to wave their arms along to ‘Deine Fahne in die Luft’. (Your flags in the air).
She smiles at their exuberance and wonder. She feigns refusal when they ask for a second playing but gladly gives in. She wonders what anyone passing might think at seeing pupils dancing and waving but then decides that seeing happy engaged pupils is entirely ok.
And then she steps back and feels overwhelmingly sad. Sad that she may not get to continue teaching this class. And sad that the multi-cultural diversity that is celebrated in the song playing and in her teaching of foreign languages is now threatened by the referendum results announced overnight.

Mrs Carter is exhausted. She has been up for all but three hours watching the referendum play out. She is shocked, depressed, angry. She also has too much to before the end of term. Staffing is a nightmare. Two English teacher posts still need to be filled after re-advertisement and the German situation rumbles on with Mrs Kawohl sending in sick notes but never actually admitting that she needs to retire. There is a girl in doing a good job on supply but she will probably get snapped up by another school….
And then there is Molly’s mother’s complaint to deal with. ‘Why aren’t teachers enabling my daughter to succeed? Do they even know she has ADHD?’. Well, Mrs Molly, maybe if you imposed some boundaries at home, Molly’s so-called ADHD would disappear and she would stop disrupting the learning of all the other children I the class…
Why did being a head teacher ever seem appealing?

She walks down the corridor, head pounding and hears the noise from the class. Music blaring. What the …..?
She looks through the glass in the door of the class. Kids out of their seats, jumping, waving their arms. Molly pirouetting madly.
Is the teacher even there?

She storms in. “What is going on?” She shouts. “Molly, what on EARTH are you doing?”
She spots Miss Bell at the back, looking somewhat upset and surprised.
“Molly, are you chewing? Spit it out NOW!…..Don’t you DARE answer me back! You know that we have a zero tolerance rule on chewing…. What? … My office. NOW!”

She turns to Miss Bell. “Sorry about that but Molly needs to learn some boundaries. Once again she has shown a complete lack of respect for my authority. I’ll take it from here”.

She leaves the class with Molly.

The atmosphere is flat and even the beat of the song still playing can’t get things back to where they were.

Miss Bell apologises to the rest of the class and tells them how much she has enjoyed teaching them and how much she has learnt from them.
Ending A
After the pupils have left, Miss Bell sits at her computer and emails Mrs Carter to thank her for giving her such a great learning experience in the school but stating that she will not be back next term.

Ending B
Mrs Carter leaves the class with Molly and realises at once that she has made a huge misjudgement. She knows from the expression on Miss Bell’s face and the empty Gummi-Bärchen packets on the desks. She walks with Molly to her office where she sits Molly down. “I owe you a huge apology”. She says. “I am tired and grumpy and I took that out on you by shouting. I made a judgement based on the fact that in the past you have been cheeky to me but I did not give you a chance to explain today. I am very sorry. I will not shout at you again.”

When the bell rings, she goes back to see Miss Bell. She explains that she has apologised to Molly and goes on to apologise to Miss Bell.
The two women have a mutual moment of weeping over the referendum result.
Mrs Carter then asks Miss Bell if she’d like to stay next term.
If they can’t change the world, maybe they can try to change things for the pupils in their school together…..

Miss Bell goes home overjoyed.

School is both a preparation for life and life itself. The relationships between staff and pupils, staff and staff and pupils and pupils are real and human.

We can use them as learning opportunities only if we admit to getting things wrong sometime and asking forgiveness.
Those in power need to be humble and see the truth of situations before making decisions that can have immeasurable consequences.

In a room somewhere, important men and women could now get together and apologise and learn from a huge error of judgment. There could be an ending B in the European story too.

Those in power need to be humble and see the truth of situations before making decisions that can have immeasurable consequences.

If ever I run a school or the world, these will be my non-negotiables:

Everyone must be willing to self-reflect and learn.

We don’t shout at others.

We all get things wrong and need to be able to apologise when we do.

We are all human and being in a position of authority does not mean you are better than anyone else.

Everyone needs to take time to see the reality of a situation and not fall into making judgements based on half-truths, prejudice or stereotypes.

Everyone is worthy of love.


An open letter to Mr John Swinney

12th June 2016

Dear Mr Swinney

Yesterday I went to an inspiring conference about education called #northernrocks in Leeds. You can read about it in my blog here:


But the blog post does not mention one really crucial part of the day,  which was a debate entitled ‘Can tests and exams tell us what we need to know about children’s progression and the effectiveness of our education system?’

I wanted to write and tell you about this because I believe that it has implications for us as we introduce the Scottish NIF (National Improvement Framework).

Lots of us in Scottish education have said a lot about this already, as you will know. I wrote this a while back, for example: https://lenabellina.wordpress.com/2016/03/05/statistics-data-and-assessment-or-weighing-pigs/. George Gilchrist and James McEnaney are others who have written knowledgeably and eloquently on the subject.

I was born and educated in England and taught there until 2007. I was well-acquainted with standardised tests; I was a Key Stage Three Strategy manager tasked with closing the gap amongst eleven to fourteen year old and raising SATS (Standard Attainment Tests) levels was key. But my school had a sensible, inclusive approach to use of data and a commitment to measuring added value; comparing a child’s progress to an individual baseline, rather than to an age- or stage- related baseline. We used programmes such as Alis, Yellis and MidYIS from the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University to achieve this. As a drama teacher, I was initially a cynic: “How can you tell me that a test taken with pen and paper can predict success in a practical, creative subject?” I scoffed. But the tests were actually sophisticated enough that they could, so I was largely converted.

On moving to Scotland I was surprised at the lack of any common approach to tracking and use of baseline data. I was told that it was not in the spirit of Curriculum for Excellence but that some schools used data such as CATS tests (Cognitive Abilities Tests) and PIPS and InCAS (also from CEM at Durham) but that there was no national requirement to do so.

I was also aware of an element of benchmarking and league tabling in the senior phase through STACs (Standard Tables and Charts) which have now been superseded by Insight (also from CEM).

When I first heard about the plan to use more data in Scotland I thought that it may be helpful; I shared my positive experiences of value-added tracking with people and was optimistic.

But there was and is a big caveat in my optimism and yesterday’s debate reminded me of this.

In the debate, Laura McInerney, journalist for Schools Week and The Guardian broadly spoke ‘for’ testing (replacing and partially representing Amanda Spielman, new chair of Ofqual (The English Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation) who had pulled out).

Kevin Courtney, Deputy Secretary of the NUT (National Union of Teachers) broadly represented the ‘anti’ lobby.

Laura spoke of the need for accountability and said that tests and exams can tell us a lot, but not everything. She said that if we take people’s money and children, we have a duty to show what we are doing with them.

She spoke about two examples of how tests can be used.

Firstly, driving tests are useful in that they show that people are safe to be on roads. They are not there to help us judge the driving instructor, however.

Secondly, phonics tests show whether a child can do something specific in relation to literacy. If not, the test results should encourage us to consider what resources and support are needed to make it better for the child.

Laura felt that in general, tests can be useful but that in England, scores are being used to drive political agendas and for the wrong sort of accountability.


Kevin emphasised the negativity and stress amongst teachers, learners and families that has been created by the current high-stakes testing in England and spoke of a crisis; good tests can do some good things but the ones in English primaries just now are spectacularly failing and things are ‘beyond breaking point’. His comments receive great applause from those present.

He stressed that educationalists have been working on getting testing right for years, even if the DfE (Department for Education) has not.

He quoted research by Wynne Harlen and Cambridge University into the English 2014 SATS and urged that the conclusions of this research are not overlooked, as they point to important factors that should encourage a rejection of high-stakes standardised testing such as SATS.

He said that he liked the idea of looking at how the driving test works but added that the driving test is criterion-based, so that potentially all can pass; plus the instructor puts you in when you are ready and not because of some age-related structure of testing.

He explained that as school tests are currently norm-referenced, not criterion-referenced, they create a culture where someone HAS to fail. This in itself leads to a climate of negativity.

Kevin summarised by pointing to the research which shows that we need to be clear about whom tests are for and what the information gathered is for. If tests work, they need to link clearly to:


Teacher judgement;

Banks of materials that people use to judge standards.

I was encouraged last month to hear that those working on the NIF have agreed that teacher judgement is key and that we need to consider carefully how the information from national tests will be used in Scotland.

But yesterday made me want to write to you to urge that they really are serious about this.

I love England. I love lots of people who teach and learn in England. I have learnt a lot from teaching and from teachers in England. But I hate what they are going through at present. I also love Scotland and the Curriculum for Excellence.

A wise man learns from his mistakes. A genius learns from the mistakes of others. We have a moral duty in Scotland, in the interests of learner- and teacher-wellbeing, to learn from England’s mistakes.

All of the other delegates yesterday were given a postcard to send to Nicky Morgan (your counterpart in England) with a message from their profession. She may well get around 495 postcards next week.

You may not get any other messages as a result of yesterday so I urge you, please, to heed mine.

Thank you for taking the time to read this.

Kindest regards


PS If you get a chance, I would recommend that you get to know a young man from Edinburgh called Chris Kilkenny. He left school with no qualifications and referred to himself as a ‘chink’ in his school’s perfect data. At 21, he gave the opening speech of yesterday’s conference to 500 educationalists and he was phenomenal. A credit to himself and Scotland. He is a voice to be heard.

Getting it right.

I am in England. I am in Leeds. I am a few hours away from #NRocks. I am very excited.

That was my tweet last night.
Whilst all true, it also hides a lot. I am exhausted; at that point where I crave rest but am functioning on adrenaline. I am suffering all sorts of self doubt after a week at school where lots that I believe in has been challenged. And I am very scared about the day ahead; meeting new people who will have an impression of me because of my blog but who will realise that ultimately, it is all a bit of a cover up.

Chimps, avast.

Focus needed.
The exhaustion seems to come with the territory of being me. I have been here before and survived.
It was inevitable that my return to school would upset the apple cart and, whilst I vowed to watch and listen, my impatience has made me wade in on some things where I probably should not have. (Then again isn’t time for the young people in our care too precious I for us to ponder about whose job things may or may not be?).
And the experience of today is of course no different really from that of all our new first years who came to school this week for induction. They survived the experience of meeting new people and making first face to face contacts and if they did it, so can I.

And so back to writing to help me focus. To help me remember what I believe and who I am.
This week I spoke to our new parents and carers about the pastoral care that their children can expect in our school. In Scotland, this now falls within a national practice model called GIRFEC (
Getting it Right for Every Child) which has been implemented for at least 5 years in many authorities but has also become cemented in legislation through the 2014 Children and Young People’s Act, (the last parts of which we have to become compliant with by 31st August 2016.)
There are three main aspects to GIRFEC:
-it streamlines communication between all those working to support a child through a shared language and philosophy of wellbeing. Agencies, parents and children talk the same talk, use the same key questions to interrogate and have a common vision and focus
-it brings all planning around the child into one format. Education, health, social work have one plan, one meeting framework which clarifies and cements relationships.
-it ensures that every child and young person in Scotland has someone who knows them well, looks out for them and is the single point of contact and information for parents, carers and other agencies. This is called the Named Person and in spite of a lot of fear-mongering in the press, is nothing more than the key person in a child’s pastoral care has always been. Not a legal guardian, not a replacement parent/carer but someone who puts the child and family at the centre of the process.
The primary head teacher, the secondary guidance teacher (cf the English head of year), the health visitor. Nothing new, just a formalisation of the best practice that has existed in the past to ensure an equity of provision across Scotland.

Of course there having been teething problems. Workload issues, training and confidence in something new.

But I really believe in GIRFEC. Wellbeing at the heart. Communication, relationships, shared vision.

Getting it right for every child? Why wouldn’t we?

Listen and watch

So that was the week that was. 

One week down as DHT after a year and a half of being seconded and on the whole it has been an absolute pleasure to be back. Staff and students have made me feel very welcome and mostly it has been like getting back on a bike. Passwords have defeated me and new systems have baffled me but it is mainly as if I had never been away. Except of course I have. And there are differences; different staff, different systems and of course different pupils as well as the same pupils and staff at different places on their journeys; I have realised that I need to be sensitive to this. My motto for these few weeks leading to the holidays is therefore to listen and watch.

Someone also pointed out to me the other day that I am not the same DHT who left the school a year and a half ago. I have learnt a lot during my secondment but also forgotten a lot about the reality of life in school. 

Listen and watch.

I have been back in class and it seemed to go ok. I have maybe become too soft and perhaps need to review the trad/prog debate before next week. 

I have managed some crises and on the whole retained composure.

I have felt exceptionally anxious about everything, slept badly and suffered an almost crippling stomach ache all week but I am not sure anyone would have known.

And yesterday I gave an assembly to my S4. In Scotland we roll the timetable after exams and start the new year in June and my return to school coincided with that. I wrote a script to help reduce my anxiety and had a rather smart PowerPoint to go with it. They listened in what seemed to be an attentive fashion and I tried to remember Tim O’Brien’s advice that it was about them, not me.

I got no feedback and am hoping they don’t now view me as some mad old bird.

Because I am exhausted, I am going to cheat and make my script the rest of this post.

I believed every word.

I hope they will.

I wanted to take this opportunity to reintroduce myself to you as stage head for s4.

Obviously nearly all of you know me and I know you from when you were in s2 and I taught you for French and in some cases Drama.

But that was a long time ago and one of the things that has struck me is that when I left here you were children whereas I have returned to find young people who really are on the edge of adulthood.

I feel really lucky that I am getting to teach half of you for PSE and some others of you for skills for work. As I have taught you again for the first time this week I have been really amazed by how much you have changed and developed and gained maturity. I have found you to be polite, helpful and welcoming. And I thank you for that.

Perhaps for some of you gaining that maturity has been easy but I am sure that for others it has taken a real effort and a decision to grow up and leave immaturity behind. You deserve real credit for that. I

Maybe others of you aren’t quite there yet, still have a foot in the childhood camp and need a bit more support in getting to be ready for adult life in terms of your attitude or behaviour.

And supporting you is my job, alongside your guidance and class teachers over the next twelve months. To support you all in becoming healthy, happy and achieving young adults.  

Some of you will choose to leave school in just twelve months. Others will be here for another two or three. Whatever the case, we need to make the most of the next year so that you have the skills and qualities you need to make it in the wider world when you leave school.

You are all individuals and every one of you will be on a slightly different journey. Some of you will be aiming to get all A’s at national five because you want to go into a profession like medicine. Others will be aiming to get your employability skills like communication and creativity developed and evidenced so that you can get straight into a job.

Some of you (and maybe lots of you) may not have a clue about what you want to do and so you need to keep your options open and get as much from school as you can.

I mentioned happiness earlier and I know that you might be wondering about that. Being a teenager and being happy don’t always seem to go hand in hand but now is a really important time in your life for starting to work out what makes you happy, what really matters to you and who you are. 

Because although friendships and relationships with others are really important in life and really important to you at the moment, the one person that you need to have a relationship and be happy with for the rest of your life is your self. Because there is a truth that we all know but sometimes need to be reminded of: the one person who is guaranteed to be with you for the whole of your life is you. Others may be with you for some or most of the journey but the only certainty is you.

To me, knowing and being happy with yourself is one of the most important things we as teachers can help you to learn about.

Because if you get that right, all the other stuff like passing exams, getting jobs and getting on with other people will be so much easier.