Gove Week

Gove Week: I reckon the requirements for the foundation subjects in the new primary curriculum (2014) can be taught in just one week. Find out how I’ve got to this by reading on…

I’ve begun a process of curriculum planning with my staff this week. Two things have coincided to make this happen. Firstly there is a new curriculum which is mandatory for all state schools, commencing in 2014. Secondly we were getting a little tired of some of our old topics – they needed freshening up: both to maintain engagement for the children and the teachers.

I’ve seen a lot written about the new curriculum, some for and much against. But one of the things that can be said for it, is there is hardly anything to it – it is quite literally paper thin in some areas. Art and design, for example, has only 2 pages describing what must be taught for both Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 – six years of a child’s education.

The consequence of this is that there are loads of gaps to fill in – you certainly can’t expect the National Curriculum 2014 to define everything that should be taught within a school, and in fact the National Curriculum says this itself in its preamble (2.2):

The school curriculum comprises all learning and other experiences that each school plans for its pupils. The national curriculum forms one part of the school curriculum.

I’ll be writing more about the curriculum planning process we are using in my school over the next few weeks, but one idea that I’ve come across is the idea of Gove Week. It was first mentioned to me by a HMI whom we use as our school improvement advisor. She said she had come across a school who were going to teach Gove’s whole history curriculum in just one week.

But I would go further. I reckon you could teach the whole thing in just one week.

When I say the whole thing I mean history, geography, art and design, design technology, music and computing. You see, the language in the curriculum is all about what pupils shall be taught – there is no expectation to what standard they might achieve. This means you could run a focused week on those 6 subjects and get the whole thing done. Taught. Covered.

The impact on schools right now is that rather than going through a convoluted process of curriculum design (like I am doing), or indeed an expensive purchasing program of buying loads of schemes and materials to fill the gaps, schools could stick with what they are already doing and aim to cover the Gove Curriculum in a single week: Gove Week.

Michael Gove should trust Wilshaw more and League Table less

I’ve been reflecting on SATs in the light of Gove’s recent speech over the last few posts and today I received a tweeted reply to my most recent post from @janey23HT

@oldandrewuk @frogphilp what about the schools where over a third aren’t even at lv4 yet ofsted judge them to be doing an outstanding job!”

It seems a travesty doesn’t it? How can a school be awarded the best grade at inspection when a third of their pupils don’t even achieve the national standard.

But what if some of the children come into school at such a low standard that achieving the national standard 7 years later is a mighty feat. Is it possible that there could be that much of a difference in standards between 4 year-olds?

My school is a bit like that. Nearly half of our children come in ‘well below’ national standards. This means that at the age of four these children have not been exposed to books and libraries. Often these children are functioning like an eighteen month old with speech development far below that of the ‘average four-year old’. Sometimes their parents are just out of school themselves and have low expectations for what the education system can do for them.

For a school like mine, would it not be a good thing to educate these children so that they are only just below national standards? If we take children in who are already two years behind at the age of four and educate them so that they are only a year behind by the time they are 11, is that not a good job? Yes they might not achieve level four, but despite a lack of support from home they have caught up, and given the education from some of the fantastic secondary schools in my area, they will continue to catch up at secondary school.

Of course we don’t aim for just below national standards. We aim for higher. My school is not yet outstanding, but I can see how Ofsted might judge a school to be outstanding even if a third of their children did not achieve level 4.

And I think Michael Gove can see this too. That is why he has supported the pupil premium despite the cuts facing much of public service. It is the pupil premium in schools like mine that keep the resources to educate these children who are well behind at the age of four. That is why he speaks so passionately about high expectations – he knows we can do even better. Like Gove, I am not satisfied that some of my children are still behind where they should be when they leave my school. I want to find ways of improving my teaching so that my children do even better.

Of the accountability measures in place, it is Ofsted that has provided the best framework for improving my school. They have given us the advice that has shown us what we are doing well and where we need to improve. I agree with this week’s Secret Teacher at the Guardian that Ofsted can be used by school leaders to create a climate of fear, but it is not Ofsted itself that does that, it is leadership passing on their own fears to their staff. This often happens because of reference control (an idea I stole from Mick Waters).

Unlike Ofsted, league tables just increase role conflict, where the teachers are not sure what to serve – the success of the school or the success of their students. Yes Ofsted, may be a flawed system. It is humans monitoring humans after all. But without national data in the form of league tables, inspectors would come into schools and do proper inspecting – they would not be able to form any pre-conceived notions as the writer of the ‘Secret Teacher’ asserts. They would investigate performance management and discover whether teachers were being sufficiently challenged by school leaders, and likewise whether school leaders were being properly held to account by Governors.

Who would be brave enough to establish a system like this? A system based wholly on human to human interaction with consistency ensured by a proven successful school leader such as Michael Wilshaw?

School performance would be entirely dependent on inspection, the reputation of the school in the community and the rigour of the Governing Body.

It would involve a high level of trust in the success of the inspection part of the system, and maybe that’s something Michael Gove is not quite ready to do yet.

A third of children at level 4 aren’t

It is Monday morning. Today, primary schools across the country are beginning their week of judgement. Should their children in Year 6 do well in their SATs, then the primary schools will meet their targets – maybe be beating the floor targets; perhaps by demonstrating that all their children have made the required amount of progress; or possibly by beating their previous best and thereby showing year-on-year improvement.

Doing well could mean a higher place in the league table. It could mean families from more well-off backgrounds choose that school in the future. It could mean that the school scores well enough to avoid an Ofsted inspection (Ofsted undertake an annual risk assessment to establish which schools need inspecting). In short it can mean less stress and anxiety for teachers, and who wouldn’t want that?

Does anything sound wrong in what I’ve just said? That’s right – it’s all about the performance of schools and not about the performance of students. You would hope that the former is the same as the latter, but teachers, and especially school leaders, suffer a considerable role conflict in this. Is it possible that school leaders and teachers can behave in such a way that their school performance is enhanced whilst the learning of their students actually suffers?

No-one would do this intentionally, neither do I want to get into the how or why this happens, as I have blogged extensively on it in the past. However I have observed that the education secretary, Michael Gove has noticed something of a discrepancy between the performance of schools and the performance of students. In his recent speech he tells us:

Nearly a third of children who get at least a good level 4 in English and maths fail to go on to secure five A*- C passes including GCSE English and maths – the minimum level of literacy and numeracy required for future employability.

I find that statistic truly shocking. It means either that those third of children achieving level 4 are badly let down by the secondary schools, or that they weren’t actually performing at Level 4 in the first place. Sorry, that is a bit sensationalist. It could also mean that the whole system for leveling a child is wrong. Or that after primary school, a third of children lose all motivation and fail to perform for reasons entirely independent of their secondary school. Let’s be honest – education is complex and it’s probably some mix of all those reasons.

I was pleased to read therefore from Michael Gove “We’ve taken action to deal with this scandal.” The action seems to be twofold:

  1. introduce a phonics screening check for 6 year olds.
  2. introduce a grammar and punctuation test for 11 year olds.

In his speech Michael Gove then spends several sentences criticising unions and Michael Rosen for opposing these tests. Now I do not oppose those tests, but they don’t seem to me to be the kind of action to ‘fix the scandal’ of seemingly good performers at primary school under-performing at secondary school. The whole problem with SATs is that they are internally invigilated and then linked to whole school performance. The way to fix this is not to introduce more tests that are also internally invigilated and linked to whole school performance.

I would suggest that the way to fix this is to do some decent analysis of that third of students. Which of those four possibilities are true for them? Is it:

  1. They weren’t actually at level 4 in the first place (indicating too much support during primary schools SATs – you might say this a kind way of saying ‘cheating’.)
  2. The secondary schools didn’t do a good enough job.
  3. The system for leveling children in English and maths is all wrong.
  4. The students lost motivation completely independently of the education system.

Once this has been determined, some change of policy and practice could be put into place that would sort this scandal out, rather than just trying out another test in primary schools that might actually make things worse.

Guardian Education is Michael Gove’s ‘Michael Gove’

There’s an art to public speaking. You have to win your audience over – to get them onside. I can’t claim to be very good at it myself, but I have noticed a pattern in public speaking over the last couple of years, particularly when the audience are teachers.

To get a laugh, the speaker puts up a picture of Michael Gove.

That’s it. Just his face.

Often the camera has caught his lips at an unfortunate angle and he looks slightly ridiculous. Then all the teachers laugh and the presenter knows they have the audience on their side. Think about it – have you seen Michael Gove’s visage presented to you as an object of ridicule?

I noticed in Michael Gove’s speech that he does something similar. Except his object of ridicule is Guardian Education. Have a look for yourself – the reference comes early on in his speech before he gets on to his ‘meaty points’. Just at about the right point to get his audience on his side.

Now, two wrongs don’t make a right, but it’s interesting to me that these speakers I have heard, and Michael Gove himself, are all talking to teachers. Teachers who need to be very careful about using ridicule in their pedagogy. It seems to me that we need to be careful of listening to anyone who would offer up individuals as an object of ridicule – it’s not a good habit for the classroom.

It’s not about the curriculum

I read Michael Gove’s recent speech with a great deal of interest, partly because of the Mr Men thing but mainly because he mentioned one of my favourite bloggers, @oldandrewuk.  To me it shows the importance Gove places on argument and debate.

I’ve already poked a bit of fun at the Mr Men debate, because I think some people are missing the point. While it might be unfair of Michael Gove to single out one particular lesson, I think he’s making a general point about the need to raise expectations, or at least about the need for a debate about how expectations can be raised. My chosen Mr Man for Gove is not as others have suggested Mr Wrong or Mr Grumpy, but it’s Mr Tickle, because I think he’s trying to prod us and provoke us into debate.

When we debate education, it makes us more sure of our purpose and so we become better educators. I might fervently disagree with Gove or I might completely support his views. Either way, when I debate them, I become more dedicated to my chosen pedagogies and the children benefit – standards are raised. I know from this from my own personal journey – since starting blogging and tweeting about education I have become a far better teacher – I am more sure of what I am doing and more competent at doing it.

It’s tempting to hear Gove’s speech and think that he’s talking about his new curriculum. The history curriculum is one example that has been in particularly fierce debate (in what seems to me a bizarre reprise of a Mary Whitehouse’s experience’s 2 professors sketch).  Concerning history, Gove says:

And while some good individual points have been made by constructive critics of our draft, I have to record that, amidst all the debate which the draft history curriculum has stimulated, no coherent single alternative model has emerged as a superior rival.

From this one might suppose that it is Gove’s purpose to create one superior and coherent single curriculum for all students to benefit from. But this is not the case. Gove’s purpose is to raise standards. His strategy for doing this it increase autonomy for schools and the process he has chosen to do this is ‘academisation’. If Gove really believed that his new curriculum would raise standards for all, then he would make all schools do it. But no. The intention of the DfE is that all schools become academies, and academies do not have to follow the National Curriculum.

You might think it is slightly disingenuous, insincere even, for Michael Gove to spend so much time talking about curriculum stuff, when actually his key policy is academies. It could be that he thinks the academies debate is already won – academies will happen – it is just how we get there that matters now, and perhaps the new curriculum is just another tool for moving more schools to academies.

Gove says lots of things in his speeches that we can get terribly pedantic about. That is our job after all – some dictionaries say that ‘pedantic’ is defined as ‘school masterly’. For example his claim that infantilisation happens at primary schools is somewhat laughable, given that the bulk of primary school children are infants. However to focus on Gove’s mistakes can distract from the real debate.

This debate is not about Gove’s mistakes, nor is it about the new curriculum. It was, and it still is about academies. Should we have an education system of ever-increasing autonomy, or should we have a more one-size fits all approach? Academies offer the former; maintained schools offer the latter. Which is best for our society, our economy, our children and their futures? Don’t be distracted by the curriculum.

But we’re all cheating, remember.

So it’s great to see that more primary schools are meeting their targets. I love the way the BBC headline is phrased: “Fewer primary schools fail to meet their target.” Hooray: we have less failure. It shows what a glass-half-empty culture we’re in at the moment in education. We could so easily have said – Hooray: more success!

So I could go on about this over-negativity I suppose. Or I could make the ironic link between this and what Michael Gove said yesterday. Today the DoE tells us that: “Heads, teachers and pupils deserve credit for meeting the challenge head on”. Yesterday Michael Gove wrote to schools criticising an admittedly small minority of teachers for having a detrimental effect on their schools through working to rule.

However what I want to draw attention to is that today’s headlines come at a time when I believe we have an over-supportive assessment system in this country. Some people have pointed the finger at how the system has been geared to judge the school and not the pupil. Others have expressed their fears that our system is being ‘gamed’ – teachers and school leaders are ‘playing the game’ to make their schools look good, without actually doing the job of raising standards through good teaching. A helpful way of looking at this may be David Weston’s hastily but well-drawn graph of the continuum between teaching and cheating. Or you just might say that actually we’re all cheating.

You see, the BBC say: “The results are based on the national tests children in all state schools take in their final year of primary school.” But they don’t say that these tests are entirely self-invigilated. Unfortunately the phrase ‘national test’ distracts us from the fact that schools can sit their students with as many support staff as they want, in whatever group size they want, and nobody but the staff in the school watch them do it.

Yes there are one or two ‘invigilators’ that Local Authorities send out to schools on random monitoring visits, but they are so few and far between that school can pretty much guarantee that they won’t be there on the crucial day.

And who benefits from these tests being, shall we say, over-supportive? Schools do. When we read from the DfE:

“Schools with a long history of underperformance, and who are not stepping up to the mark, face being taken over by an Academy sponsor…” 

we begin to get get a hint of the intense pressure that schools are under. Headteachers and Governors are replaced in this process. Poor SATs results can trigger an Ofsted inspection bringing more pressure onto teachers. Surely if we just give one or two suggestions to those border-line children just to tip them over onto the right side of the grade boundary it won’t matter? Will it?

The problem with this approach is that it sucks the independence out of children. No matter what their ability these children expect the same level of support as they go into secondary school. Then to achieve their own progress measures, the secondary schools are under the same pressure as primary schools to ‘tweak’ their GCSE results just that little bit. And all along our students are losing their independence. We are creating a generation of exam zombies – education consumers who expect education to be done to them, not to be active participants.

Ever wondered why they need so many plagiarism checkers at universities these days? It’s not just the ease of access to online material – it is also the fact that our students expect to be supported. They do not expect to think for themselves. It is not a ‘thinking skills curriculum’ that fixes this. It is a rigorous, well-invigilated exam system that demands students think for themselves.

So unfortunately, even though I’d like to be glass-half-full about today’s announcement, celebrating with the many primary schools that, like mine, are now above the floor targets, all I can think of is the increasing amount of learners who will need support to hit their inflated targets throughout the rest of their education. It weakens us as an education system and it weakens us as a society, even though it might look good in the short term.

A greater stretch in mathematics? If only.

I read the letter from Michael Gove to Tim Oates about how the new National Curriculum Review would affect the Programmes of Study within Primary Schools with a great deal of anticipation, and then a growing feeling of disappointment. There are various areas that disappoint me, but the area of maths teaching is perhaps the greatest. I read:

In mathematics there will be additional stretch, with much more challenging content than in the current National Curriculum. We will expect pupils to be more proficient on arithmetic, including knowing number bonds to 20 by Year 2 and times tables up to 12 x 12 by the end of Year 4. The development of written methods – including long multiplication and division – will be given greater emphasis, and pupils will be taught more challenging content using fractions, decimals and negative numbers so that they have a more secure foundation for secondary school.

Minor Disappointments

Let me break this down then. Here are some of the minor points that disappoint me:

  1. Knowing number bonds to 20 by Year 2 – this is already the case. How can it be more stretching to maintain an expectation – surely the bar should be raised somehow.
  2. Times tables up to 12×12 by the end of year – this is a slight rise in expectation as children are currently expected to know up to 10×10, but in my experience it is not the knowing of extra times tables facts that hold back children in the latter part of primary schools, it is the lack of knowledge of corresponding division facts (which happens to be part of the current national curriculum).
  3. Greater emphasis on written methods (like long multiplication and division) – this sounds good, but it’s already in the current programme of study. Just saying something more doesn’t make it more rigorous, nor does it necessarily raise expectations. In addition, I’m all for children learning skills in school such as the skill of performing long division, but I had been under the impression that the new curriculum would be more knowledge based.
  4. Pupils will be taught more challenging content using fractions, decimals and negative numbers. Again, these are all in the current programme of study for children from the age of about 7. Whether children are taught these are up to their teachers and their schools.

So when I read the phrase “much more challenging content“, and put it next to the above examples of challenging content, I’m struggling to see the giant leaps in standards that Michael Gove would be hoping for when his new National Curriculum is implemented.

A medium-sized disappointment

A greater disappointment is to see the phrase “more proficient in arithmetic” without any reference to algebra. As I have written before, children start learning about algebra from a very young age when they start investigating concepts such as larger and smaller. It is the concepts involved in algebra, often linked with precise language teaching, that I think are under-taught or mis-taught at primary level. Teachers shy away from this vocabulary-driven area because it doesn’t feel like maths to them – there aren’t numbers and operations written in children’s books – it doesn’t look as good as arithmetic. When children leave primary school I think they are often under-prepared for algebra – it is in this area that I was hoping for higher expectations within our new National Curriculum.

If you’re good at arithmetic you can go to the shops. Or maybe become an accountant. If you’re good at algebra you can become a rocket scientist. Not that education should just be about gaining a decent job – Gove himself says he wants “a love of education for its own sake” – but I have a feeling that for many algebra isn’t the elegant thing of beauty that I perceive it as, but is a rather lumpy, ugly thing, ringed with fire and tears.

A major disappointment

Aside from my algebra foibles, there is a further disappointment that I think will have a wider implication on maths teaching: teacher subject knowledge. No matter how detailed a Programme of Study or a National Curriculum might be, neither address this problem: we have many teachers within the primary sector who do not have sufficient subject knowledge to teach mathematics effectively. Many primary teachers only have a grade C at GCSE and have had to repeat their mathematics test required by teaching training in order to pass their course.

I have no problem with teachers teaching mathematics concepts that they’re not to sure about, so long as they know what to do when they’re stuck. There should be an expert teacher within each primary school – the maths co-ordinator or similar – who can share their knowledge and expertise when others don’t know the next steps. Too often less-skilled maths teachers don’t seek help from their more experienced colleagues, but struggle with the text of the National Curriculum and any scheme books that support it. Not knowing what to do, they either miss the tricky areas or teach it badly – characterised by repeating themselves more loudly and more slowly, a bit like the traditional Englishman abroad.

It is not a new Curriculum that is going to improve standards in mathematics. We will stretch primary mathematics only by increasing subject knowledge within our teachers.

 

Is Michael Gove doing a good thing, but in so bad a way as to spoil its beneficial effect?

My title is a shameful paraphrase of Gladstone from his third Midlothian Speech (Tuesday 27th November 1879). What he actually said was:

 

Even, gentlemen, when you do a good thing, you may do it in so bad a way that you may entirely spoil the beneficial effect;”

 

and he finished his sentence by saying:

 

and if we were to make ourselves the apostles of peace in the sense of conveying to the minds of other nations that we thought ourselves more entitled to an opinion on that subject than they are, or to deny their rights – well, very likely we should destroy the whole value of our doctrines.”

 

The reason I’ve made this quote is that Michael Gove quoted this same speech in his recent address to Cambridge University. I understand that Gladstone was talking about foreign policy at the time, whereas Gove was talking about Education, but I wonder whether I can make a comparison with a speech that’s 130 years old. After all, Gove did.

 

Some real positives hit me from Gove’s speech, for example: I want to proclaim the importance of education as a good in itself. I want to argue that introducing the young minds of the future to the great minds of the past is our duty.” and I think any society is a better society for taking intellectual effort more seriously, for rewarding intellectual ambition, for indulging curiosity, for supporting scholarship, for feting those who teach and celebrating those who learn.”

 

These are sentiments that ring my bells – they make me think this is what I got into education for. They are: A. Good. Thing. I think it’s great that he doesn’t want to subordinate education to purely economic ends; that he believes our current generation of teachers are the best ever; that he wants us to be connected with communities of learning such as those at Google and Apple. Marvellous. FAB!

 

However I think Michael Gove is a bit disingenuous about some things and just plain wrong about others –  a bit like how Gladstone hints in his speech with the ‘apostles of peace’ phrase. You see Gladstone’s arch-rival, Disraeli had waited through the early 1880s as the Liberal party tore itself apart (partly due to the rigours of getting the country’s first Education Act through Parliament). Disraeli was offered the chance to form a minority government in 1883, but could see that the Liberals would only make it worse for themselves and waited for the general election of 1884 to form a majority government then. Disraeli seems to have been characterised as cunning and cynical and it was these characteristics that Gladstone was railing against.

 

Gove casts a vision of acadamies bringing the excellence into the education system. He talks about a 700% increase this year. But this is nearly all at secondary level, where a school’s large size can help undertake the structural change necessary to become an Academy. I don’t see a model which works for Primary schools unless there is a significantly active community group ready to support them. And this to me seems slightly cynical – he’s said what he wants(Academies) but for those who are in no position to attain it – like most Primary schools it’s like “Oh well, you’ll just have to be the have-nots” – he’s left the future of students and teachers in those schools in the ambitions of their tiny governing bodies.

 

What Gove doesn’t say about Gladstone’s speech is that there is a common theme of Christianity in it – there is an assumption that his entire audience are Christians. If you then look back at the Education Act of 1870 you see that at that time over the half the children in the country were being educated by the Anglican or Roman Catholic Clergy. The National Education League was set up by mainly secular industrialists, such as Joseph Chamberlain to demand a state education system for the benefit of industry. When the Act went through it was a victory for the League, but the first Education Boards were often dominated by non-conformist Christians such as the Quakers. So the motivation for providing schools was either from religion or from industry.

 

In Gove’s speech he talks about education for education’s sake – for the love of the art, or the music, or the literature and I want that as much as anyone. But it isn’t right to suggest that Gladstone’s audience thought the same thing. The ‘rude mechanicals’ would have valued education because of their religious beliefs, or because they wanted their own children to have a better quality of life than they, because of their education.

 

The ‘push’ for Academies that religious groups could have provided in Victorian times no longer exists – those Christian groups just aren’t there any more in large enough quantities. So it makes me wonder what will happen to the rest of schools when all those who can possibly convert into Acadmies have done so. There just won’t be enough motivation in our society to run all theose academies – so we’ll have to have a significantly-sizsed state school sector. When Gove says he’ll be putting greater demands on headteachers and academics, does that mean in supporting those schools within the state sector who aren’t yet elite so that they too can become elite? And is it elitism for everyone – so that when everyone is elite, nobody will be (I’d like to be quoting Aldhous Huxley at this point, but I realise I’m closer to quoting ‘Syndrome’ from ‘the Incredibles’.)

 

There is also the odd item in his speech that I consider to be just plain wrong. Like for example when he says that ‘children in Singapore are exposed to calculations involving the foundations of algebra’ before children in the UK. Our children meet their first algebra at the age of 4 – children in Singapore don’t even start school until they’re 5 so how can this be true? He also claims that the government are reforming the whole exam system and yet Key Stage 2 SATs remain unchanged. It is KS2 SATs where education starts going wrong for many of our young people, but I’ll be looking at this in another post.

 

The final thing that is wrong with this speech is the context. I have read at least three of Gove’s recent speeches and each one has impressed me – I love his ambition and the vision he casts in them – I want to be in the education landscape he paints. However the speeches I have read have been (a) to the Conservative party; (b) to the Royal Society; (c) to Cambridge University. It would be nice to see Gove trying to inspire (like I do) 60 young parents about the virtues of education – then I would see that he was not only doing a good thing, but doing it in such a good way as to enhance its beneficial effect.