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.

The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions


The Road to Hell
The Road to Hell

Professor Nick Lee of Aston University used a football analogy to explain how role conflict can engender unethical behaviour.

Think of a footballer who cheats in a game. Why does he do it? He has two roles – one is to play as a sportsman the very best football he can. The other is to win games for his multi-million pound organisation. Do these roles ever come in conflict? If he can cheat to win a game then yes they do.

So if the footballer cheats, what happens? His manager says he will watch him more closely. His manager proceeds to watch him more closely. Will this correspond to his unethical behaviour being reduced? No – because the manager represents the multi-million pound organisation.

Nick Lee was giving his inaugural lecture at Aston University on Tuesday evening. This was the fourth of four points where he was illustrating that common sense doesn’t work when looking at how to manage and lead people.

His point here is that a manager may think that by watching his employees more closely he will reduce unethical behaviour, but actually Nick Lee’s research shows that the opposite is true. When role conflicts exist, more observation from a manager actually increases unethical behaviour.

The day after that lecture, the report from the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust Public Inquiry was published. I haven’t read the report, but hearing about the conflicts that existed between patient care and meeting targets really got me thinking. Was it here, to quote Nick Lee, that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions? Was it that the initial good intentions of the nurses, doctors and managers to meet their targets led them down the road of more and more observation, putting the organisation before the patient, until those dreadful events happened there?

And then that got me thinking about schools. For schools, the league table is the constant observer. It is the yearly reminder that you must meet your targets. Does this create a role conflict for headteachers? Could it be that headteachers might put their school’s position on a league table ahead of the educational needs of each individual student? Could this then lead to cheating?

Image Courtesy of AtomSmasher.org – make your own Road Construction Sign at: http://atom.smasher.org/construction/?l1=The%20&l2=Road%20&l3=to%20&l4=hell

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.

Over-supporting is a nice way of saying cheating

 This helpfully drawn graph by  David Weston on today’s blog post at the Teacher Development Trust has helped visualise a problem that has been growing in my mind for at least ten years. I referred to it obliquely in a previous post entitled “Moral Purpose” when I mentioned the notion of Game Theory in assessments. Game Theory is one of those things that I haven’t really understood until now, but a really helpful post from maths teacher Owen Elton this morning has helped me understand it better, and in particular how it applies to the particular situation in the English education system.

It started in a Year 6 class I had a decade or so ago. I’d been in the school in a deprived part of Birmingham for a couple of years and we had had a new headteacher that year. The head, who hadn’t shown much interest in my class for most of the year, took a sudden and very intense interest in the class during SATs week, including offering to help read the questions to the children in the maths SATs papers – as everyone knows, maths is not a test of reading and children who can’t read so well shouldn’t be disadvantaged in their maths just because odd their poor reading skills. So in that first test, I saw the headteacher position himself next to a girl who was very border line between level 3 and 4. He read the questions, yes, but then went on to talk her through the steps to solving the problem. He didn’t actually tell her the answer. Then in the next test, which was a mental mathematics test read by a lady on a cassette tape (a voice that all teachers in England will know very well), he stopped the tape. After the first 5 questions the children were allowed some ‘extra thinking time’ – and likewise after the next 10 questions.

I felt really uncomfortable about what had happened, so the next day, before schools started and before the final test of the week I went to the headteacher to express my discomfort. “Did we go to far?” he asked, smiling. I felt that we had and we agreed not to support the children so much. Relieved, I went away to prepare my children for the final test of their SATs week. And after it, I remember he called back into his office, I thought to ask me how I thought the week had gone. But no, he told me that he had seen me playing too roughly with the Year 6 boys at playtime during football. I should be careful not to do that he asserted. I knew what he was saying – don’t grass me up and I won’t grass you up.

It was a difficult time for me – I spent the next year or so really struggling with my practice and it was only when I moved schools that I started to regain my confidence.

But aside from that, it was my first experience of the grey area of over-support. The facts are:

  • There are no entirely externally assessed national tests in England.
  • Primary schools are held accountable by national government using the results of their tests.
  • Teachers are held accountable by their schools using the outcomes from tests.

As Owen Elton says when analysing the ‘teacher’s dilemma’ in the blog post I referred to above, teachers “should mark generously”. He was referring to coursework, but translating that to SATs tests in primary schools, teachers should give whatever support they can to their children.

Now, I would maintain that stopping a mental mathematics test to give children more thinking time is cheating, but there are grey areas of support, which as David Weston says would be called cheating by some, but not by others. Here are some:

  • test papers can be opened up to an hour before the test by their teachers – but should they be?
  • children can be placed in different rooms and group sizes around the school to give them different levels of emotional support – but should they be?
  • teachers can read test questions and instructions to their children – but should they do so?
  • Children are allowed to sit in the same room where they have done their learning – but should they?

For each of those examples above I can think of examples where the regime has been abused. For example:

the deputy headteacher who opened the writing tests an hour earlier, saw that the test was on a certain form of writing and spent the next 45 minutes reminding children about features of that kind of writing…


the school where a friend’s daughter was placed in a room with only two other students and found that the atmosphere was a lot more conversational than previous tests had been…


my son reported his teacher had raised her eyebrows and pointed at an answer in a maths test…


the headteacher who accidentally left the science display up in the classroom where the science test was being sat…

And of course, when a teacher has stepped into the grey area one year, is it easy to step back from it? Doesn’t the grey area get bigger?

My second clue that a grey area of over-support existed was in speaking to a colleague from a university a few years ago. She had noticed that the year that they had had to introduce plagiarism checkers as standard was the year that corresponded with the students who had sat the very first SATs back in 1996. She also noticed that it was that same year group of students who suddenly demanded far more from their tutors. It was like they had lost their independence and almost needed their studies doing for them.

My third clue was looking over the shoulder of my mother who is still a marker for one of the exam boards. She was marking a set of maths coursework, and each one was virtually identical. Some of the names and places and numbers were slightly different from each other, but the format and the nature of the maths represented was identical – no child seemed to demonstrate any independent thinking or mathematics. But I suppose is there any wonder that secondary school teachers need to over-support their students if their students are assessed in an over-supportive way at primary school?

The final pointer towards over-support has been the GCSE English fiasco that has been debated long and heard over the last few months. Who is the wrong? The schools? The exam boards? The politicians? I think we all have to take some of the blame. And hears why:

When I hear students say things like “the system has let me down”, which is a quote I’ve heard from the news in recent weeks, that’s when I have to think that actually we all share some of the blame. We have created an assessment culture that is at best over-supportive and at worst is cheating. Michael Merrick foretold this in his post back in March, when he asked the question: “When primary responsibility for success or failure is taken away from the student and placed instead on the shoulders of teachers, what effect might this have on the education system? ”

To me it is inevitable that we have come to this point – we are so lost in ‘playing the game’ or ‘keeping the Ofsted wolf from the door’ that we have forgotten that an education system should be built to let individual students triumph. Is ours? Is it really?

I don’t do a good job by moving my school to outstanding, or moving my school up the league table – I do a good job by moving my students from consumers to contributors, by educating them so they can achieve for themselves. Yes, hopefully those 2 things are synonymous. In an ideal world they would be. But in the real world (to quote Michael Merrick once more) “that murky landscape of educational ethics comes into view, with exhausted and anxious teachers straying over the once clear demarcation lines, in the process creating a culture that absolves students from real responsibility (and even, sometimes, effort) in their own learning and achievement.”

And to quote Frank Zappa, which is becoming a bit of a habit at the moment: “go to the library and educate yourself if you’ve got any guts.” And he said that in 1966.

Moral Purpose

What is the new fad in school leadership? What is the phrase that will be top dollar in jargon bingo? Will it be ‘whole school A4L’ or ‘Personalised learning‘? Will school leaders be asking their staff to ‘think outside of the box’ or engage in ‘blue sky thinking’?

Nope. None of the above. The phrase that I can guarantee you hearing from your school leaders over the next few months is ‘moral purpose‘.

I remember many years ago being in a school where we had significant staff training about assemblies. One of the phrases that came up over and over again was ‘awe and wonder’. It seemed that somebody from up on high, maybe even the government, had decided that schools were the best place for children to experience awe and wonder. Therefore a mandate had been issued to headteachers who were to engender this experience within their schools. Assemblies were the target. A week or so after our training, I remember the headteacher starting an assembly by lighting a candle. He had never done this before. He then told the children that they were experiencing awe and wonder. I could immediately see his logic. If the children knew they were experiencing awe and wonder they could tell the imminent Ofsted inspectors all about it. Hmmm.

Now it seems that moral purpose is the thing we will all be working towards. It seems that many people in education are concerned that school leaders have being sucked into something called game theory. A bit like those badminton players at the Olympics who played within the rules, yet against the spirit of the game, to achieve what they thought would be the best outcome… So school leaders, it is thought, may be ‘playing the game’ of education.

It’s as though getting your school higher up the league table is more important than the outcomes for individual children. It’s almost as if achieving the top grade in Ofsted is more important than children being able to independently achieve the top grade possible for each of them in each subject they study. Of course many people would argue that these things are synonymous. A high league table position means that all children achieve their full potential. Or does it show that the leaders within those schools are merely good at ‘playing the game’? Some people have even suggested that there may be cheating going on.

The new teacher standards demand more. Honesty and integrity are explicitly referred to. High standards of behaviour both in and outside of school are implied in the preamble. For teachers to achieve this, leaders need a sense of ‘moral purpose’.

Now I’ve got a whole load of mixed feelings about the word ‘purpose’ and even more about the word ‘moral’. There are lot of assumptions blithely made about shared morals that I’m not entirely sure are true. I’ll need a few more posts and conversations with folk to crystallise my own thoughts on the subject.

However I am sure that it will become an important phrase, having heard the likes of Mick Waters, Tim Brighouse, John West-Burnham and Steve Munby all mention ‘Moral Purpose’ in separate addresses in recent weeks. Perhaps all those ‘keynoters’ are using the phrase because Michael Gove used it back in April.

Does anyone have any school leaders who are quick off the mark and have already begun a new mantra of ‘moral leadership’? Does anyone think it’s important? What morals should we subsribe to anyway?

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