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.

On the teaching of handwriting

I’m writing this both as a parent and as a follow up to a previous post concerning roleplay in schools. You may ask what is the relationship between handwriting and roleplay? Well, I suppose I’m asking a wider question – what are schools really for?

When my son was in Reception, my wife and I were concerned about his letter formation. We told the teacher about it. She assured us it would be alright – he’s a boy after all – he just needed some time. She gave us some photocopied sheets of letters to practice at home .

When my son was in Year 1 we were concerned about his handwriting. We told the teacher about it. She told us that it was early days and he just needed some work on his hand strength and motor control.

When my son was in Year 2 we were concerned about his handwriting. We told his teachers. They told us there was still time. The important thing was getting him to write in sentences for his SATs. He was assessed at level 2B in writing, despite being level 3 in everything else. His handwriting had held him back apparently.

When my son was in Year 3, the teacher told us she was concerned about his handwriting. She implied that we hadn’t done enough as parents and we should be supporting him more at home. We too were concerned about his handwriting, but now we learnt that it was our fault, we gave him writing exercises and paid for piano lessons to build up his hand strength some more.

When my son was in Year 4, the teacher told us she was concerned about his handwriting. She put him in a small group so that during times when the rest of the class were doing something he was already good at (like reading, or maths), he could practice his handwriting. By the end of of Year 4 we were less concerned about his handwriting.

When my son was in Year 5, the teacher told us that our son was the best writer in the year group, but he did sometimes forget his capital letters and full stops. She didn’t mention his handwriting.

As parents we made the mistaken assumption that during his first years at school he would be taught handwriting.

As a teacher I know it is easy to assume that things like handwriting will just sort themselves out.

As a child educated in the 70s, I went to a school that, whilst it hadn’t completely sold itself out to ‘discovery learning’, it didn’t teach things like pencil grip or handwriting. My handwriting is pretty dire as a consequence.

In following up that post I mentioned on roleplay, my question is what are schools for? Should they ensure that children are brilliant at handwriting? Or should they make up for the lack of open-ended play that takes place in the modern home by focusing more on roleplay? Do I sound too much like Michael Gove if I suggest that schools should focus on academic skills such as handwriting, reading, mathematics, to the detriment of play?

In fact, I don’t think this is what has happened in the case of my son. I don’t think it was a war between play and academia. I think the school focused heavily on their needs to have my son perform well in various assessments – maths, reading or writing, and unfortunately handwriting is an insignificant part of the writing assessment.

Performance Related Pay

Like many teachers in the UK, I’m starting back this week under new legislation. One of the more significant ones is performance-related pay.

This year, UK state schools have to adopt a new policy that will set out how performance related pay will work. Up until September 2013 we have been working under a regime where teachers move up a national pay spine if they are successful in their performance management, but now schools have more flexibility – the pay spine has been replaced with a ‘pay range’, with the points on it being more for guidance than a yearly progression. In addition, a greater responsibility has been placed upon Governing bodies to make sure teachers are paid according to the policy that their school has adopted.

There are a wide range of implications with this new legislation, such as teachers not being able to guarantee their current pay when they move schools, or schools being able to offer more money to highly competent teachers irrespective of their years of service. I’m sure these implications will play out in big ways and little ways, in minor successes and personal tragedies over the next few years.

My main concern, however, is not the pay that us teachers get, but it is the impact on the education of our country. Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education has put government money into the Education Endowment Fund. But it is the same Education Endowment Fund, hosting the results from the Sutton Trust report, that tells us that performance related pay has zero impact on education for a moderate cost. My question: why put money into something that has zero impact?

Moreover the implications on Governing bodies are serious. Most governing bodies are made up of well meaning private individuals who want to make a contribution to society. I can imagine many of these governors may have some serious concerns about taking over the responsibility for the pay of teachers – a responsibility that had previously been held nationally in the Teachers Pay and Conditions Document. My fear is that many of these well meaning governors will step aside over the next few years, leaving a governance vacuum. And who could fill this vacuum? Academy Sponsors are an obvious choice. So could it be that with this policy we end up with an education system that costs more, is less good but has more academies?

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.

Which Mr Man is Michael Gove anyway?

For those who don’t know, the Mr Men are a series of books written by Roger Hargreaves for small children.

Some may read the news that Michael Gove has been criticising lesson plans that use Mr Men to teach history with resignation. Here he is again – the Mr Grumpy of education – taking all the fun out of our lessons.

But is that fair? He complains about the infantilisation of history teaching, so surely that makes Michael more like Mr Clever, trying to use his knowledge to benefit his fellows. But as we learn from the story –  Mr. Clever is also very smug. He believes that no one can get the better of him, because of his superior intelligence. That doesn’t sound like Mr Gove.

Others would like Michael to be like Mr Bump so that his next mistake might be one accident too many and cause him to lose his job.

From my perspective, I see Michael Gove as being more like Mr Tickle – he likes to gives us the odd prod every now and again, just to keep us on our toes.

Anyway. This is all silly – using fictional characters to represent real people? What next? Metaphor? Let’s just stick to the facts.

How about you, which Mr Man do you most associate with Michael Gove? If you can’t be bothered to respond to this post, you could always vote on this Guardian poll, although typically the Guardian haven’t provided the most pertinent choices.

Image cc geoftheref on Flickr at http://www.flickr.com/photos/geoftheref/2582801139/