In some recent posts, I’ve been hinting at a broken logic that exists behind many schools marking policies. This logic looks like this.
We must do brilliant feedback because the Sutton Trust says it’s the most effective way of making a difference to the education of our students.
Marking is the same as feedback so we must do brilliant marking.
We must write a brilliant marking policy so that all teachers do the same brilliant marking.
We must beat our teachers with metaphorical sticks when they fail to comply with the marking policy.
I heard the privilege of listening to one of Her Majesty Inspectors for schools recently. These are like the ninjas of Ofsted inspectors. She explained that when Ofsted visit a school, they are charged with investigating how well the teachers comply with the marking policy of the school. They do not judge the quality of the marking policy. Maybe they should.
It’s a bit like if someone has a cold trying to make them better by observing how they wipe their nose – more broken logic – it’s so many steps away from the thing that actually matters: the quality of the feedback.
As you know, all we do in Primary Schools is colouring. No primary school classroom is complete without felt tips or a child whose job it is to sharpen the pencil crayons (The Pencil Crayon Monitor). In fact you can tell how classy a school is by whether it uses pencil crayons or not. And when it comes to extension for the more able, well obviously the first challenge is to draw a picture; the second is to colour it in.
And yes you’ve guessed it, my lesson to avoid embarrassment on the quiet coach was ‘colouring in’. Twenty minutes into the journey, I whipped some felt tips and paper out of my bag (much to the bemusement of the nearby commuters) and not long after that, all the children were colouring in.
But this was no colour by numbers exercise. Oh No. We were heading to a computing workshop at Microsoft and I didn’t want my children going in completely cold. So I told them some rules to follow and asked them to come up with their own four colour sequence. The rules went like this.
Colour a single square in the middle of the paper with the first colour of your sequence.
Colour the squares that adjoin by a single straight line with the next colour of your sequence.
Go back to 2.
I then demonstrated (with the model pictured above) what the sequence would look like after you run it through a couple of times. The children were all of one mind which I would sum up as “Wow! I want to have a go at that.” I’m always amazed at the power of colouring in. This is what happened:
Jules didn’t get it. He suffered from something that I call the ‘Asimov effect’ and produced this:
I know that in Ofsted terms, Jules made no progress whatsoever. That would be the case if the learning objective was ‘to use rules to describe a sequence.‘ No WALT or WILF achieved here. But as the actual objective was ‘to maintain quiet for the benefit of the other commuters on the coach and therefore minimise my embarrassment’ then I feel vindicated in the effort that Jules put.
His work demonstrated much of what we do in the English education system: when we make a mistake, we pretend we haven’t noticed and keep on making the same mistake, believing that the end product will still look fine. As you can see. Robert’s colouring looks fine, but he completely failed to follow the sequence after about the fourth iteration.
Sarah’s work, much like Robert’s demonstrated a lack of self reflection. She did get slightly further before the first mistake was made (look at the purple layer on the 9th iteration). But believing that was doing fine, she carried blindly on for a while. I am slightly encouraged that she didn’t go to the edge of the paper like Robert did. This indicates that her enthusiasm was fading somewhat, which is what should happen if you’re doing something wrong. She didn’t however think about checking with me to put her back on the right lines. It’s still a nice picture though, right?
Meanwhile Ebony-Rose’s was much better than those that had gone before. Unfortunately I don’t have the image, because we seemed to have misplaced it somewhere on our travels around London. The main reason she did better was that she kept asking me what the next step was. Remember that Ebony-Rose is the real special needs child in the group, working over 4 years behind where national average is. I need to write a separate blog post to describe the interesting things I observed as Ebs undertook this process.
Melissa and Luke really got it. Melissa did keep asking me if she was on the right lines, but Luke just flew. He seemed to really grasp the logic of the sequence and if you look carefully at his drawing, you can see he made virtually no mistakes, even when he was on the iterations where he had to colour hundreds of purple squares.
I was especially encouraged by this and I can’t help finding it really interesting that a child who in all practical terms can’t read, can find it so straightforward to follow instructions that produce a sequence as complex as this one.
After 4 years in my role as deputy headteacher, grading every lesson I observed, I finally moved to ungraded lessons this term. I’d like to explain the context of my school here, but for various reasons, not least the brevity of this post, I’m going to limit this post to the things I learned; the ‘why move to ungraded lessons’ can wait for another time.
Teachers talked to me more about their weaknesses. We might dress it up in management-speak ‘areas for development’ but let’s face it, we all have weaknesses. And for the first time in forever teachers were able to talk to me about them. “Maths is not my strong point,” said one teacher, honestly. “No, I find teaching the less able children really hard,” said another. This helps me help the teachers. It means that pride we can adopt based on our last observation is put to one side. We can let it go.
Teachers were more experimental. Previously on a ‘round of observations’, I wouldn’t have seen anything other than quite formulaic: introduction-main activity-plenary lessons. But in this round I saw split introductions where teachers introduced a harder topic for more able children after they had already sent the other groups to the main activity and I saw a lesson which the teacher extended by 20 minutes just because she thought it was going well.
Mistakes were celebrated. I saw a lesson that completely bombed – the teacher and the children knew it. The pitch was all wrong and far too challenging for each group. When I went in later that day the children all told me ‘FAIL – First Attempt In Learning’. They had a laugh about it and went on to having better pitched lessons for the rest of the week.
I noticed things that I hadn’t noticed before. For example in one year group in which I really rate the teacher because she engages the children so well, I noticed a couple of misconceptions that she was teaching the children. They were minor examples of misteaching but would involved some reteaching by another teacher higher up the school at some later date.
There are still some teachers who want to be graded. Some prefer the contentment of knowing that their last lesson was ‘outstanding’. I found it hard to stop myself from confirming an ‘official’ grading and one occasion (slapped wrist, Steve) I did so. Must remind myself to be more determined to remain unjudgemental next time…
I’m speaking for a few minutes at WeTweetEd #5 at BETT on Thursday. The subject is on data, and I’m essentially going to say three things:
Processes on data are only any good if they have an impact on teaching and learning.
Efficient data analysis that takes the minimum amount of time helps everyone.
Moderation should be treated as data’s beautiful bride, and not its jilted lover.
However, for now I’m going muse on this thought: it is more important to have a person in your school who is a good with data, than a good process for handling data.
The reason for this is that the amount of data we have to process each year increases. RAISEOnline gets larger and the emphasis on what kind of data is important changes.
Recent changes to curricula – EYFS, National Curriculm; and also to Special Educational Needs, means that new systems have had to be developed on an almost yearly basis. Yet the core process remains pretty constant:
teachers assess where their children are at;
we give these assessments numbers;
we use maths to analyse the numbers so we can maintain a big picture of what is going on
we target school resources appropriately, both at a classroom and a whole school level.
However because of almost yearly changes to the context of most school schools, the numbers change. And the contextual data changes. So a person is needed to manage these changes and make them work for each school.
I’ll give you an example:
In our last Ofsted we knew our school was good and we had the data to prove it. Even better, the teaching in the classrooms was so good it was almost irrefutable.
The Ofsted inspector was looking for numbers that we didn’t quite have. Instead of in-year numbers, he wanted numbers that showed progress of the last year (i.e. from February to February instead of September to July).
It took me 6 hours and quite a bit of jiggering around with formulae to make the spreadsheet do what I wanted it to: the 363 calculations that would generate the 363 numbers the Ofsted inspector required. I learnt a lot about ‘countif’ functions that night. Without that spreadsheet, though, it would have taken a lot longer, probably 3 days, and we wouldn’t have got the data done in time.
Now Ofsted is an extreme example, but with changes and more changes to how we assess things, the tweaks that are needed to keep data processes working in a school could grind a school to a halt without the right person in place.
Today Ofsted tweeted the following quote from Michael Wilshaw:
@Ofstednews: Sir Michael reiterates Ofsted guidance – “we do not, let me repeat, not, have any preferred teaching style” #neec2014
However, this is not the experience of many. I’ve seen various tweets and posts from disgruntled teachers who have experienced an inspector that does have a preferred teaching style.
Whilst I’ve not had any negative experiences of that myself in recent years (I feel I’ve been lucky to experience some fair and highly effective inspectors in my own school), that can not be said for everyone.
My children’s school were recently inspected, and while the school came out as ‘Good’ there were a couple of references to (I think) certain teachers that are negative. One quote in the report is this:
In a few lessons, teachers’ explanations are too long and limits the time pupils have to get on with their own work and find things out for themselves.
Aside from the bad grammar, I also think this is contradictory to Wilshaw’s stance. What is this inspector saying here? Children can only learn if they find things out for themselves? Are long teacher explanations inappropriate?
I think the inspector is missing the point – long explanations are only inappropriate if they are (1) boring or (2) lack accuracy and if this is the case, the inspector should say so. The first indicates a need to develop pedagogy, the second indicates a need to improve subject knowledge.
By not being specific, the inspector is allowing teachers to go under the misapprehension that long talks are always bad; and short talks with plenty of time for children to find things out for themselves are always good.
Furthermore I think I know the teacher that the inspector is referring to and he is legend. He’s one of those older teachers who has given his all to teaching for many years and has lots of interesting life experiences to share. My children love having him teach them; they always remember his lessons; they come home with the same spark in their eyes that he has when he teaches.
I don’t think inspectors have the right to take this away from my children.
I’m no expert at leadership, and so I read @oldandrewuk’s post, How to be a Bad SMT, with a wry smile and a deep sense of sadness. Firstly – it caricature’s the very worst extremes of leadership in our schools; secondly many teachers experience much of what the blogger says on a daily basis.
My counter-list isn’t as comprehensive as the post which inspired this one. That’s more down to my lack of experience in leadership than the ease we Brits we find in being critical.
How to improve teaching and learning
Judge teaching based on the teacher standards, not on Ofsted criteria – this implies an emphasis on the long-term: on lessons sequences over one-off lessons; on consistency over flashiness; on substance over style.
Release staff to teach to their strengths rather than to conform to one single style – the strength of our education system is in the individuality and autonomy of teachers.
Never use the word ‘delivery’. While the postal service is incredibly valued, teachers aren’t posties. Don’t dumb down teaching with the word ‘delivery’.
Take the Teacher Standards statement “demonstrate a critical understanding of developments in the subject and curriculum areas, and promote the value of scholarship” seriously – this means allowing teachers to research good and outstanding teaching for themselves, rather than reducing it to a checklist.
Allow teachers to take part in non-judgemental peer review. This may involve self-sacrifice as you may have to cover lessons yourself to allow teachers to collaborate with each other.
Don’t call yourself SMT: call yourself SLT. It might seem to be mere semantics, but if you call yourself ‘management’ than you will only ever focus on doing things right; whereas if you call yourself leadership you focus on doing the right things. Even better, leadership teams may even learn to do the right things right.
How to improve behaviour
Make sure transitions are your top priority. Be high profile at any point that children are moving into classrooms, or from one classroom to another.
Allow teachers to contribute to the shared behaviour policy. Be aware that adjustments may need to be made depending on the age of the children – sanctions for 3 year olds may not always apply to 16 year olds.
Take your responsibilities set in the behaviour policy seriously – don’t shy away from speaking to parents or reinforcing sanctions that teachers have enacted.
Be prepared to shout occasionally. It’s not ideal, but if you don’t, your teachers will have to, and that’s worse.
Respect the teachers who want to sort out the behaviour within their own classrooms, but offer support even if they don’t want to.
Exclude when all other sanctions have run out – a clear, consistent message helps teachers, children and parents alike.
How to improve morale
Be consistent in relationships, especially with middle leaders, who are still learning a new set of skills and will make a whole load of mistakes.
Be self sacrificial – do an extra cover for in your department at least once a half-term.
Take the lion’s share of assemblies and playground duties.
Listen to staff. When they suggest that a new initiative might be too much, consider what they say and remember that the main thing is your teachers’ teaching. If the initiative won’t help, don’t introduce it. Even better release staff to design and introduce the initiatives that they want to happen.
Don’t go straight to your office each morning, but spend some time in your colleague’s classrooms first. Follow up at the end of the day if teachers are having a tough time.
Apologise when you’ve made a mistake, or even if you’ve been a bit grumpy.
Now I’m not saying I’m God’s gift to leadership. I can honestly say that I have made at least three of the mistakes that are on oldandrewuk’s list in the last six weeks. But neither is the list above pie in the sky – I have done every one of them in the last 6 week’s also.
“@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.
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:
introduce a phonics screening check for 6 year olds.
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:
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’.)
The secondary schools didn’t do a good enough job.
The system for leveling children in English and maths is all wrong.
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.
This week could be a good week to be inspected by Ofsted. That is, if the lead inspector is Welsh.
Some time in the not too distant past my school was inspected at around the same time that the Six Nations Rugby tournament was on. Our lead inspector was Welsh and it was in one of those years that Wales won the Grand Slam.
I remember that at the start of the inspection we had proverbially shot ourselves in the proverbial foot. Although we knew we were doing a good job and had the evidence to prove it, we had toned the achievement section of our self-evaluation from ‘good’ down to ‘satisfactory’. It is not a wise idea to be self-deprecating in these documents. The first thing the lead inspector said was – “so as a leadership team you claim to have moved the school’s achievement from ‘good’ to ‘satisfactory’. I that’s true it would mean that you have inadequate leadership, so I must put you into a category.”
We spent the next two days proving that our achievement was actually ‘good’ and as a consequence came out with an overall outcome of ‘good’.
The point of me saying all that, was that our inspector had given us a chance to get right what we had got wrong in our self-evaluation. I have spoken to other school leaders who have told me that their inspectors would never have given them such a chance. Our inspector was fair to us, generous even, some might claim, in giving us that chance. Was this because he was a nice guy? Is it because all Welsh people are nice? Or was he in a more positive mood because Wales were winning in the rugby at that time? Or could it even be that actually most Ofsted inspectors are actually pretty fair people?
Looking back over the Ofsted inspections I’ve been through – eight in total – I have to say that most of my experiences have been pretty fair. I’ve been praised for good stuff and criticised for under-performance. There are one or two disappointments – like the time when I saw the inspector coming to watch my outdoor PE lesson, but it was a grizzly day – he just stopped in the corridor for a minute or two and then moved on. Or the time when Ofsted came a-calling in the penultimate week of the Summer term. I was teaching Year 6 at the time and my plans revolved around perfecting the Leaver’s Production. Neither the inspection or the Production went particularly well for me that year.
Back to the inspection in question and I happen to know that the lead inspector wrote up his report over the same weekend that Wales won the Grand Slam. He wrote words in his report such as ‘blistering pace’ to describe one particularly good lesson. His report was particularly effusive I thought – colourful even. Did this partly result from his positive mood caused by Wales winning? It could well have contributed something. Yet, he was also fair with his criticisms and gave us good guidance on how to improve the school.
We have to face facts – Ofsted inspectors are individuals not robots. They have real lives with ups and downs just like the rest of us. Some of them will even have favoured teaching styles that they prefer to see. Catch them on a bad week and you might have to work harder to convince them of the job you are doing. But the inspection system is still in the main doing a good job, a far better job than the other main accountability measure – league tables. All league tables do is make schools turn the assessment system into a game to be won or lost, rather than use it for individual students to measure their success.
If you get the call this week, good luck and remember to stay positive. I even hope your inspector is Welsh.
If you’ve spent much time reading the educational news over the last few days you would have seen and heard lots of debate and discussion around the curriculum. The DfE’s consultation on the new programmes of study is out. It is important yes. But it is not the main thing.
What we teach has a significant impact on our young people, but I would argue that it is not as important as who teaches it. Evidence presented to parliament back in 2012 shows the importance of having the best teachers in front of children, and conversely the negative impact of the weakest teachers. We all remember the best teachers, not the idiosyncracies of the curriculum they were teaching.
Yet the people who make money from education – publishers, advisors, subject experts – they all have a vested interest in the curriculum. And so we hear more debate about the nature of the curriculum, not the quality of teachers who teach it.
The teacher standards that became law in 2012 are an incredibly ambition document. Personally, if I had been under those standards when I started teaching I wouldn’t have made it through my NQT year – it was a few years before I became better than ‘satisfactory’. However, now, the old ‘satisfactory’ means ‘requires improvement’. Newly Qualified Teachers aiming to pass this year can’t do it unless they’re ‘good’. The standards are a real statement of intent – “we want the best teachers in this country.”
This means that the processes within schools have to be really good at developing teachers. Performance management, CPD, monitoring all have to contribute to developing our competence. And with Ofsted now looking at performance management when they inspect schools, headteachers now have two reasons to make sure their performance management processes are working.
So here’s what I suggest if you’re in school leadership: put the new programmes of study in your staff room and collect a school response to the DfE consultation. Don’t rush out and spend a load of money on the latest materials to teach the curriculum. Remember, the effectiveness of your teachers is governed by their own confidence, their motivation, their pedagogy and their subject knowledge. Will Ofsted be most concerned by us rigorously sticking to every clause of the new curriculum, or will they be more impressed by amazing teaching.
Yes, understanding and getting to know the new curriculum will help, but it’s not the main thing.