Testing Times

Two days ago, Northern Ireland teachers woke to the surprising news (as, in its timing) that Peter Weir, the new NI Education Minister, had issued guidance regarding primary schools preparing children for entrance tests to Grammar Schools. This was in the same week that Theresa May announced the expansion of the Grammar School system in England. I went through a Grammar School – I have mixed feelings about it – but I know that I was inspired by some, particularly one, of the teachers there. But I was equally shunned and left cold by its, at times, elitist values.

Testing, Testing 1…2…3… (4 and 5)

I oppose the selection process at the age of 11 in Northern Ireland for a number of reasons. However, and with the demand of parental choice, I had been preparing children for these tests over the past 8 years – going in the face of Departmental policy and Trade Union advice. There was a promise from me that the quality of the education in my class wouldn’t be compromised and I feel that I have lived up to that promise in this time – through the testimonials of children and parents alike and my own personal educational achievements – regardless of a child’s intention to sit an entrance test to a grammar school. A lot of this has involved unpaid after school revision classes, as well as marking and evaluating practice papers in my own time and running two days of classes in the October Mid-Term break to ensure that the children felt confident facing the series of a potential 5 tests over a 4 week period. That adds up to hundreds of unpaid hours dedicated to this testing regime when I could have been planning even better lessons and having more inventive ideas for the whole class.

The announcement of Peter Weir to not penalise schools for preparing children for these entrance tests should have been welcomed by me – shouldn’t it? I can now legitimately prepare the children in class time, as well as running revision classes in curriculum time – and having the opportunity to drive the children even further because the Education Minister has given me permission! No more worrying about when I can fit in the practice tests – I can now do them whenever I want – the Minister said it was fine!

Instead it filled me with a real sense of depression. My Facebook post ran my initial thoughts:

Hurrah! Rejoice! The Education Minister has endorsed a two-tier approach to education!! What a great guy, building his policy on research and international studies into selection and its implications. So excited now to be able to reclaim my afternoons from getting and organising past papers, analysing results and not teaching a revision class / giving unpaid tuition or interrupting my Mid Term break for more unpaid tuition! I’ll now be able to do it all legitimately during school time and ensure that the curriculum is scrapped to clear the way to legitimately gear children up for a series of unregulated tests that are being further endorsed by our (loosely described) ‘education’ minister…. Yes, NI does have the best pass rates at GCSE and A-Level… What’s under-reported is the highest rates of adult illiteracy and innumeracy in the UK in an education system that’s supposed to be the envy of others. I’m sorry, but all I want to do is give the best to the WHOLE class, not just those who are being prepared for a test that the ‘education’ minister has just now legitimised. NI education is just another political football for a bunch of people building their power base on fear and anger. Rant over… Now to actually go and try to make a difference…

(In) Sensitivity

It is all around us – that feeling that we must ‘do others over’ to get on in the world. I get a real sense that we must be better than ‘the other person’ to have something that they will be envious off – whether it is the materialistic drive in our consumerist society or the ‘right’ to a Grammar Education. I despair at the legitimacy the ‘Brexit’ vote gave to some of the xenophobic and racist people around us (and this DOES NOT mean the vast majority who voted ‘out’ because of their own concerns about EU policy) – the rise in hate crimes; the joy these ‘people’ have at shouting abuse at their neighbours, telling them to ‘go home, we voted out’; the air of superiority in the ‘Little Britain’ mindest and how, as the dawn broke on the 24th, the main leaders in the Brexit campaign melted away realising that there was no way they could live up to their promises. Look at how quickly the Conservative government are backing away from the extra funding on the NHS and education that was promised and how the ‘Points-Based’ system on immigration is being very publically dismissed. It is a sense of pointing the finger of blame that is giving Donald Trump some level of legitimacy and garnering support – blame, blame, blame…

Grammar schools in Northern Ireland are not the panacea of Education that some will have you believe. Yes, if you are allowed to take the top 25% of high performing children at the age of 11 – then you are almost guaranteed to be getting better results than non-selective post-primary schools – but at what cost?

My own experience of a grammar school as a parent didn’t get off to the best of starts when in the Year 8 Parent/Teacher meeting I was told to expect my child ‘to regress for the next 3 years as we need to teach to the average.’ The drive is purely on results in GCSE and A-Level – and all schools should be accountable but, again, at what cost?

In a recent survey carried out in 24 countries last October the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development ‘found that England and Northern Ireland was ranked 22nd for literacy and 21st for numeracy’, surmising that ‘this low level of adult skills inevitably impacts on the success of the economy as a whole.’

We do have excellent performing students in the top areas but we have a woeful ‘tail of under-achievement’ that needs to be tackled to truly make Northern Ireland fit for the 21st Century.

Private Concerns

My concern is that the Minister’s guidance will now give some schools permission to ‘fire ahead’ with Entrance Test preparation to the detriment of those children in the class who don’t want to be involved or can’t be involved. I can only hope that this doesn’t happen but as more and more expectations are heaped onto classroom teachers, I fear that this test preparation is going to be prioritised as schools chase the ‘Gold Medal A Grades’ to show how good their pass rates are for the selection tests. Now, we will be faced with more weekends of marking and analysing practice and past papers for tests that have no regulation, run by private companies that are charging up to £48 for the privilege (£72 if it is a late entry!). Personally, I would rather be researching and planning lessons; working on improving my own practice and marking to improve the academic performance of all of my class in this time, instead of marking for these tests.

And don’t think that the burden of blame for children not performing in these tests won’t shift. In this unregulated system, before the Minsiter’s decision, parents looked for the support of schools to assist them in the decision to prepare for the entrance tests. It will now become expected that this is all done in school now – changing the dynamic. Trust me, I’ve already been privy to an email already…

I hope I am proved wrong but in the prevailing wind, I don’t think so.


Have You Ever…

…written a eulogy for a 6 year old god-daughter?

Not the opening line of a blog post that is expected, but one with resonance, I’m sure.

I was sitting watching the spectacle of the SuperBowl 50 half time show on YouTube this evening and deliberately wanted to catch the Coldplay set, just after watching ‘The Programme’

Interestingly, there was a video that let me watch the set WITHOUT the Coldplay opening and it got me to thinking…

Soundtracks to our lives

I remember, as clear as today that has just passed, lying on my parents’ bed writing the eulogy to my 6 year old god-daughter who had been killed in a RTA in 2002, with ‘Yellow‘ on constant repeat in headphones. It’s not something that I reflect on a lot, however, the omission from the stream tonight got me thinking… She loved the colour yellow and the song was so timely in what it portrayed and the impact that it has had on my family over the intervening 13 1/2 years.

Everything that defines the family has a yellow tinge… it is always on the periphery of our lives, waiting to remind us of the fragility of life. We are not special, but we have gone through a lot – more than the majority – and still I watch the pillars of my parents coping with the resilience that we try to ‘teach’ people today. Nobody ‘taught ‘my parents that resilience and I can firmly assure that I wasn’t ‘taught’ it either…. However, I watch them from afar being the ‘Yellow’ in their daughters’ lives… The constant, the ‘everything you do’ with  some guilt and much admiration. Being the counsellors and the ‘ass-kickers’ – the models of determination and the guides…

I can remember, with all too familiar clarity, standing at the pulpit, looking down on the Chapel, with the small, yet spectacularly large, white coffin below me trying to convey the feelings and emotions of a family in as a concise and meaningful way. (This was before the time that my ‘Church’ decide to do away with such ‘personal’ tributes). They all watched and waited for the words that were, ultimately, not mine. In my words was a simple tribute wrapped up in the creativity of others – the words of Christina Rossetti in ‘Remember Me’ struck the deepest chord as it hinted at a life not yet fulfilled yet extinguished… And that was then reflected in my own rewriting of ‘Without You’ by Adrian Henri where I added the last line that’Without you, Coldplay would have one less song to sing at their concerts.’


Coldplay isn’t everyone’s ‘cup-of-tea’ which is fine, but the creativity of the writing can not be dismissed so easily. So be it…

I love the risks that Chris Martin and the band take… albeit that they are in a much more comfortable position than we will ever be in – however, there is evolution in the music and passion in the lyrics. That’s why it annoyed me this evening when I had the option to skip over Coldplay to see ‘Beyoncé’ and ‘Bruno Mars’ in the half-time show. Because, when I clicked on the link for the whole show, Coldplay opened with lines from ‘Yellow.’

Personally, I feel that we are all born with genius potential and it is our responsibility as educators to ensure that our children have the opportunity to realise their ‘genius.’ That’s not to say I don’t mess up – of course I do, and I’m sure that for every child that has gone through my class successfully, there’s another saying that I didn’t encourage their potential – so be it…

I have written about my Dad here before and following him up Alpe ‘d’Huez on a bicycle – with the revelations that Armstrong divulged. It is with honest regret that I have a photograph at the top of the mountain with the jersey He wore… however, that is what happens…

When you apply your principles to others, you are inevitably disappointed. When you stay by you own, and when they are validated, you can’t go wrong.

That’s why it annoyed me tonight – we live in an opinionated age. However, when Coldplay, as a band, wrote and composed ‘Yellow’ they never had any inkling of the impact it would have in somebody’s life. The band never knew that 10 years on in Belfast – that the capturing of 2 yellow butterflies in the Odyssey Arena from the show would mean so much to one person…

So, be careful, people..

We never know the impact we make on people nor the legacy we leave.

All I know is that whenever I hear the opening chords, I don’t see a beach… I see a coffin, and several hundred people waiting for me to say the things they are feeling….





Pro-Test Song

After receiving an email during the week informing me that I had been chosen by Microsoft Education as a Surface Expert for 2016, I have started to reflect more on the use of the device in the classroom. As well as this, it has been watching a colleague (who came from a centre of excellence for the use of Apple devices) quickly turn to seeing the beauty of the Surface 3 / Pro 3 in the classroom.

Pros (and cons)

I have found my Pro 3 to be a fantastic piece of equipment that does the thing that the iPad is renowned for… It just works! Windows 10 has made the experience a slicker one and it is a heck of a company that takes the criticism of W8 on the chin and changes it so quickly – but that’s another debate!

But it really does work! As a productivity device, the Office suite is, of course, second to none – but it’s getting better with the Office365 integration and ease of use of OneDrive, for example. The education App store is (slowly) growing and apps such as Explain Everything that I listen to iPad users eulogising over being readily available. Of course, the ready made iOS apps of GarageBand, iMovie etc are always going to be difficult to replicate but, there is some comfort in knowing that the skills driven programmes of MovieMaker and Audacity still have a priority in classroom use. However, there are more and more App driven solutions appearing on the Microsoft App Store (Thankfully)

As a broadcast device – the use of the Miracast stick has been a revelation in the classroom – literally ‘plug and go’ connectivity. This is especially useful given the unreliability of our current wireless provision. The Miracast device has taken all the pressure off and it has never failed me! Equally useful, of course, is that the children can easily share their work from the Surface 3 devices to the screen, when asked, and it has been pretty seamless. And, given that it is HDMI connectivity, the sound streams effortlessly too!

I have had a great opportunity from Microsoft to showcase the device through the #SurfaceExpert programme and I definitely think that this strategy is working. When colleagues see the device in action, they are bowled over by its ease of use. They are not having to wait for training afternoons to see the potential of the device, they are seeing it in use on a daily basis. Whether it is through the simple broadcast of the screen or to the use of Interactive Whiteboard software with the digital pen; the potential of Office Mix (which I STILL have to realise); through to using Sway from the tablet; or, of course, the ever expanding and conquering OneNote; the Surface Pro 3 has more than delivered. It was what made me use the Surface 3 devices in the classroom for my children – and they love them too! (Especially the digital art!)

It has been an interesting week as my colleague (an Apple devotee) has really had his head turned by the continuing potential for the device. The daily exposure and witnessing the device in action has made him really think about getting one (which I know will happen if I get a Pro 4).

There is little doubt over the number superiority of iPads in Northern Ireland classrooms and this is in large part to the work of a local company (iTeach), and one man’s determined vision, in promoting the use of the tablet in the classroom and how it can change lessons. The focus on training and demonstrating the devices to their potential, gave schools an insight to how iPads could work.

As well as that, there has been the plethora of support for the iPads from App developers who have created some wonderful apps which, in the hands of some truly superb educators, have made a wonderful difference to teaching – especially the ease of use of Green Screen and Augmented Reality Apps – which encourage so much literacy. I just wish that these were available on the MS store and it is still a glaring gap in the offering… There is little doubt that the explosion of technology in the classroom through the initial phasing in of technology through the C2K framework, through to the investment by individual schools has changed the landscape of teaching in a short period of time. The biggest challenge to teachers has been keeping up with these changes and ensuring that the pedagogy being delivered through the use of any device is high quality.

Tough Nut To Crack

Of course, it is well documented that there have been ups and downs regarding the device strategy of Microsoft – you only have to look through a range of comments on social media to get a prevailing idea. However, more and more these comments are becoming more and more redundant. I feel that the current strategy of letting a large number of educators use the current range of devices through the #SurfaceExpert programme in schools has been a game changer for many places. Not least, when they are in the hands of experts who use them on a daily basis and demonstrate their capabilities.

Everything is Relative

I love that phrase and keep it at the forefront of everything I do. No matter what I achieve, there is always someone that step ahead. No matter how we decry technology issues in the classroom (and, trust me, there are loads here) we must always think about how fortunate we are compared to the majority of teachers around the world. When I got accepted onto the programme, the Surface device became ‘another’ piece of equipment in the school. However, I know that for some of our educators it became ‘THE’ piece of equipment in school – and I am always mindful of that. These educators are truly changing the face of education in their schools and districts. We are fortunate enough to become almost blasé about our range of devices available.

It is easy to forget with the proliferation of iPads in the NI classroom that these are still high-end devices and, as with any purchase, we need to demonstrate their usefulness and value for money. In some of the great pedagogy in our school, there is little doubt that this spend is being justified, But, I wonder, if we always remember this responsibility to the public or get lost in the blizzard of tech available.

One final thought is that ‘who knows what the future might hold? I have had a feeling that 2016 might be a defining year and it has certainly got off to an interesting and exciting start….’



One Friday afternoon in February 2010 I took a phone call from Tom Jackson to congratulate me on a winning entry to the Microsoft Innovative Educators competition. It was a last minute thing putting a spotlight on some of the work that I was doing with Home-School partnerships – the use of a VLE, etc. I didn’t think it was much – just a way of trying to boost engagement in school.

innovativeWhat I didn’t realise was that this was the start of a fantastic journey that has taken me around the world to meet and be inspired by wonderful educators and a network of enthusiastic supporters within the Microsoft family. It’s the photo at the top of my page – Cape Town as viewed from Robben Island.

It was a direct link to engaging with an outstanding and inspiring group of teachers in Northern Ireland through the formation of the Northern Ireland TeachMeet community; developing the NIedchat community and, ultimately, Niedcamp which ran in August this year. I have made close friendships, which I hope will be lifelong, and have been fortunate to have been asked to speak to teachers to try to engage them in training and their own professional development in a wide variety of situations. I have also been able to meet, and converse with, decision makers within Northern Ireland and have felt that my opinion has been listened to. My Facebook and Twitter feed is full of updates from wonderful people that I have met from around the world as they continue to update their work and how they are trying to change lives.

All this, and more, from a simple little project and my continued trials and tribulations in the classroom. I don’t think I’m that good, to be honest (and, no, that’s not an open invitation) and according to the modern standards by which I would be judged – planning, administration, follow-up, tracking, etc. – I’d probably be a long way down that list – but I also know and appreciate that teaching is far more than that and I do my best and (think) I work hard.


WP_20140311_10_27_53_ProThe Expert Educator programme has opened my eyes to a lot more than just these things. It has shown me that Ireland and Northern Ireland, that tiny little outcrop in the North Atlantic, can be seen to be amongst the world’s best in education and has some of the best educators – I’ve seen them in action and they are remarkable!

I mention this because it is coming close to the deadline for teachers to apply for this year’s programme. I would like to encourage as many of my fellow colleagues to apply and see how you can have your faith in the profession restored and your horizons widened.

It is a wonderfully visionary programme from the Microsoft team and I say that without WP_20150121_13_14_43_Proany bias. I do get teased, rightly, regarding my loyalty to the company – whether it be through my use of the software, the devotion to OneNote; the MS Band on my wrist, the Lumia phone in my pocket or the Surface Pro 3  upon which I am currently writing -(Currently open to offers for upgrading all of them, btw😉 ) – but, you know something, people like Tom Jackson and Anthony Salcito have changed my life in many ways so, hey, there you go.. brand loyalty for a reason!

But the Expert Educator Programme has always been about much more than that and I have always been impressed by seeing the passion in the company about how they can improve the lives of teachers and students. People want to help, developer teams want to listen, staff want to engage – all for the purpose of being able to support teachers to make the lives of their students better. Of course, Microsoft products are at the heart of it – and rightly so – but they want to see how their creations are used and adapted in the classroom and beyond.

I have been encouraged to take risks for learning – my own and the children’s – and to grow as a teacher and a person.

The programme has given me the confidence to tell others and, hopefully, give them the confidence to take risks and improve their experiences and those of their pupils.

And to just try to do things better!


I would encourage any teacher who is engaged in this way to apply for the programme this year, If you don’t think that you can begin the process now, talk to Tom about looking at next year – about getting your ideas together and about how best to approach the project. But, if you can, go this year – you’ll love the pressure about meeting the deadline!🙂 And I’m more than happy to offer any help that I can.

WP_20140311_09_23_58_ProIt used to be said that you should join the army to see the world – but I managed it from my own little classroom, in the middle of nowhere, on a tiny island that would fit into the palm of your hand! So, if I can do it… you definitely can!

Rewriting the Rule Book

My post below was posted on niedcamp.org on the eve of our #niedcamp day on 18th August in Stranmillis College.

I’m proud to be a teacher and I’m proud of the profession I serve. I really think that there’s no greater gift to give to a fellow person than enabling their child to achieve their potential; see their possibilities; to give them aspirations… It’s what the profession should be about.

I’m not naive enough to think that everyone feels like me, nor am I naive enough not to realise that there are a number of teachers who like getting paid each month without pushing themselves… We’ve all had those days, it’s worse when it becomes weeks.


I’m also tired of excuses… Teaching never was an easy job and it isn’t getting any easier. But remember this, teachers have engaged in third level education and are supposed to have proven themselves to be academically capable.

This is why I don’t understand the resistance to change and to be flexible in the job. This is why I don’t understand why there are those teachers who won’t give their all to make a difference to their practice and, ultimately, to their children. It’s not, and never will be, an easy job…


There are teachers in Northern Ireland who are determined to abolish the myth of short days and long holidays.

There are teachers who are prepared to give everything… And then a bit more… There are teachers who are prepared to look colleagues in the eye and respond to that question:

‘Why could you be bothered?’


‘Why aren’t you?’
Have you met Pamela?

Have you met Jacinta?

Have you met Dáithí?

Have you met Tim?

Have you met Corinne?

Have you met Amanda?

Have you met Dessie?

Have you met Heather?

Have you met Ciarna?

Have you met Simon?

Have you met Beverly?

Have you met Donna?

Have you met Heather?

Have you met Alastair?

Have you met Dessie?

Because, when you do, you’ll understand why I’m proud to be standing shoulder to shoulder in this #niedcamp movement to show how important professional development is to teachers. When Sir Ken Robinson talks about ‘surrounding yourself with your tribe’ these are the very people he means! We are the ones who talk shop when we go out because we know that’s where the best ideas grow… Why do you think there are pool tables and relaxation zones in all the best companies?


There are the ‘Naysayers’ who think we’re foolish and letting the government off the hook. You know something, we may well be doing that but at least we’re not sitting at home ‘tutting’ about the state of the system! We are affecting change…

We are doing something…

We are resolute in our determination…

We are growing…


You look at it, this positive militancy that #niedcamp is, showed that there are good people prepared not to be side-lined and who, ultimately, are trying to make things better for the children in their daily care.

With #Niedcamp about to launch – it is this team of teachers who are prepared to improve the lives of their colleagues, their children and teachers whom they have never met!


Because they are proud to make a difference;

They are proud of the profession;

They are proud of their professionalism.

When we think about teaching in Northern Ireland – these are the people that we should be thinking about. People who can, and do, make a difference. People who are prepared to give that extra bit to improve the lives of those around them.

This is the team that is raising the standard high – and carrying it proudly.

I look forward to #Niedcamp and how we can show that with a bit of flexibility, a positive approach and attitude; a lot of teamwork and focussed leadership – we can use one day to make a difference.

#niedcamp have a plan


Following my most recent blog and @MrMalcontent ‘s call to arms. The teachmeet Belfast team (alongside a few welcome newcomers) have got together and are beginning to make #niedcamp a reality. We met up on Friday night and we have a plan! The website, twitter and Facebook profiles are already up and running. The venue should be confirmed this week.

So get behind us, reclaim the professionalism we deserve and sign up to http://www.niedcamp.org/ Tweet and retweet. Like and share.

We need as many teachers as possible to support us. So please start talking about this event in your staffroom before the end of June and sign up.

We also need confident professionals to step up and be presenters for the day. Please don’t be shy about applying to do this afterall, we stand in front of an audience ready to learn everyday of our working lives.

Be a…

View original post 4 more words


thNo, not a rallying call for any of my readers (and why do I have readers?) to go and seek out Lloyd Cole’s most recent album – though it is rather marvellous!

I’m always reminded of Sir Ken Robinson’s famous (now infamous) TED talk where he mentioned that (paraphrase) in governments’ drives to raise standards, he was yet to come across a teacher interested in lowering standards…

In light of the recent decision of the RTU to cancel the traditional, and as far as I amCapture aware – over subscribed, series of Summer Schools in Northern Ireland for teachers, there has been the groundswell amongst the proponents of TeachMeet in Northern Ireland, to grasp the opportunity to provide an alternative for teachers.

This is truly raising the Standard for teachers, and by teachers. In harking back to the Roman raising of the Standard, we are now seeing a rising amongst the teaching fraternity to take ownership of their CPD and map out their career paths by offering the same opportunities to their colleagues.

Nobody HAS to go to a TeachMeet, however, over the past number of years from the tentative original 50-60 people squeezed into a lecture theatre in Stranmillis College to 120 in St. Mary’s College a couple of months ago, there is a continuing drive to develop the movement of self-directed CPD in teachers. It’s by no means perfect, and not everyone will be interested, but if we can grow to where we are now on word-of-mouth and social media from 5 people meeting in Starbucks (Where’s the blue plaque?) I think there’s an opportunity to give teachers the impetus to come with us in raising our own Standards.

By seeking out the classroom practice of colleagues through attending a TeachMeet, these teachers are also interested in raising the Standards in the classroom. Sometimes, they’re not always objectively measureable but the impact can be seen on a human level through engagement and creativity. But, the teachers are there; on their own time; under their own direction and wanting to learn. They are bearing their own Standard – going back, sharing the practice, taking the risks by trying something new and spreading the TeachMeet message. We don’t always get it right but, on most occasions, I think we do…

I’m not a Standard bearer – at times I think I’m just shining a light into a dark corner that needs explored but I come back to Sir Ken Robinson and how he suggests that we should surround ourselves by ‘Our Tribe’ and I am so proud to be even associated with the dynamic, wonderful, driven, focused, passionate, intelligent, thoughtful, caring and downright brilliant people that have taken up the TeachMeet Standard in Northern Ireland and truly believe in the good that it can do!

Follow the Standard or carry the Standard?

As the Roman armies were able to follow their own Standard on the battlefield, we have taken up our own Standard to shine bright this summer. We are nearly there; the meeting is happening and, it looks like there might be something special in August from the team. #NIEdcamp seems to be the perfect vehicle to explore all the areas that come up in TeachMeets for teachers, for whom that 7 minutes makes them wanting to hear more! I hope it will happen. I know that there is the goodwill amongst us to work on this over the next few weeks to make it happen and let teachers know about it.

So, @CurriculumNI let’s all carry the Standard; raise it high; show that the CPD of teachers is vital in this fast-changing educational world and make Northern Ireland the educational Standard that others follow!