Platitudes don’t reduce workload

There’s no denying that workload remains a significant issue in our profession.  However, the solutions are not to be found in platitudes and pleasantries.

Two popular solutions have cropped up this weekend and both need dropping.

The first is slightly tangential, and focuses in theory on wellbeing. The problem with that is that the biggest threat to teachers’ wellbeing is workload. Reduce the workload, you’ll reduce the issue.

The TES ran a column this week that include ideas such as laughing yoga and ‘star of the week’. Now, if ‘star of the week’ is the sort of thing that floats your boat, then knock yourself out. Personally, I’d find it cringy or patronising. Similarly, with yoga, if that’s for you, then great. As a way of improving my wellbeing, it reminds me of the course I attended as an NQT where we were told that massage would be a good relaxation technique, before being paired up with complete strangers to practice massage techniques. I assure you, I did not feel relaxed!

If teachers want to use yoga to find inner peace and relaxation, then wouldn’t the best thing we could do as schools be to ensure that teachers have enough time left in their week to attend yoga classes in their own time?

The second solution which comes up every now and then is the barmy notion that Ofsted should judge schools on how they reduce workload. Can you imagine the nonsense of it?

As I’ve said before, in recent years Ofsted has done a good job of clarifying its expectations (both for schools and inspectors), so it is now rarely the cause of the problem.

However, Ofsted cannot be the solution either. Excessive workload is often a matter of weak leadership. Confident headteachers will make decisions about policies on things like marking, data and planning which focus on benefit for pupils in relation to time and effort costs, which align with the recommendations of the DfE’s workload reports. That’s great. But where weak leaders fail to follow such guidance, they’re also likely to get it wrong when it comes to Ofsted judging their efforts.

A poor headteacher who thinks that draconian marking or planning policies are useful, is just the sort of headteacher who might think that locking up the school at 5pm every night is a helpful workload-reduction technique. Just because you can’t be in the building doesn’t make that workload disappear, but it might appear a good strategy at first glance.

The problem is, with all the best intentions, as soon as you make a measurable goal of reducing workload, you actually create a task of headteachers being seen to act on workload. The school who never had a bonkers policy gets no credit, while the crazy head who insists on scrutinising every lesson plan gets to claim that he’s made it easier by allowing you to upload them rather than print them in triplicate.

As my TES column last autumn was headed: Want to reduce workload? Reduce work.

KS2 Writing: Moderated & Unmoderated Results

After the chaos of last year’s writing assessment arrangements, there have been many questions hanging over the results, one of which has been the difference between the results of schools which had their judgements moderated, and those which did not.

When the question was first raised, I was doubtful that it would show much difference. Indeed, back in July when questioned about it, I said as much:

At the time, I was of the view that LAs each trained teachers in their own authorities about how to apply the interim frameworks, and so most teachers within an LA would be working to the same expectations. As a result, while variations between LAs were to be expected (and clearly emerged), the variation within each authority should be less.

At a national level, it seems that the difference is relatively small. Having submitted Freedom of Information Requests to 151 Local Authorities in England, I now have responses from all but one of them. Among those results, the differences are around 3-4 percentage points:

moderated

Now, these results are not negligible, but it is worth bearing in mind that Local Authorities deliberately select schools for moderation based on their knowledge of them, so it may be reasonable to presume that a larger number of lower-attaining schools might form part of the moderated group.

The detail that has surprised me is the variation between authorities in the consistency of their results. Some Local Authority areas have substantial differences between the moderated and unmoderated schools. As Helen Ward has reported in her TES article this week, the large majority of authorities have results which were lower in moderated schools. Indeed, in 11 authorities, the difference is 10 or more percentage points for pupils working at the Expected Standard. By contrast, in a small number, it seems that moderated schools have ended up with higher results than their unmoderated neighbours.

What can we learn from this? Probably not a great deal that we didn’t already know. It’s hard to blame the Local Authorities: they can’t be responsible for the judgements made in schools they haven’t visited, and nor is it their fault that we were all left with such an unclear and unhelpful assessment system. All this data highlights is the chaos we all suffered – and may well suffer again in 2017.

To see how your Local Authority results compare, view the full table* of data here. It shows the proportions of pupils across the LA who were judged as working at the Expected and Greater Depth Standards in both moderated and unmoderated schools.


*Liverpool local authority claimed a right not to release their data on the grounds of commercial sensitivity, which I am appealing. I fully expect this to be released in due course and for it to be added here.

Some thoughts on the Primary Assessment Consultation

Pub Quiz question for the future: In what year did the primary assessment framework last not change? (Answers on a postcard, folks)

I may not always be the most complimentary about the DfE, but today I feel like there is a lot to praise in the new consultation on primary assessment. They have clearly listened to the profession, including the work undertaken by the NAHT assessment review, and have made some sensible suggestions for the future of primary assessment. As ever, I urge people to read the consultation, and respond over the next 12 weeks. Here, I’ve just shared a few thoughts on some key bits:

Assessment in the Early Years

For years, I feel like Early Years practice was held up as a shining example of assessment, as we were all wowed by their post-it notes and online apps, and all the photographs they took. I was never overly keen on all the evidence-collating, and I’m pleased that we’ve begun to eschew it in the Key Stages. It’s pleasing, therefore, to see that while the department is happy to keep the (actually quite popular) Early Years Profile, it wants advice on how the burden of assessment can be reduced in the Early Years.

I’m also pleased to see the revival of the idea of a Reception baseline. Much damage was done by the chaotic trial of different systems in 2015, but the principle remains a sensible one to my mind. I would much rather see schools judged on progress across the whole of the primary phase. It’s also quite right that baseline data shouldn’t be routinely published at school or individual level. The consultation seems open to good advice on how best to manage its introduction (an approach which might have led to greater success with the first attempt!).

Key Stage 1

I wasn’t certain that we’d ever persuade the DfE to let go of a statutory assessment, but it seems that they’re open to the idea. I do think that the KS1 tests – and the teacher assessment that goes along with them – are a barrier to good progress through the primary years, and I’d welcome their abandonment. The availability of non-statutory tests seems a sensible approach, and I’m happy to see that the department will consider sampling as a way to gather useful information at a national level. Perhaps we might see that rolled out more widely in the long term.

I’d have rather seen them take the completely radical option of scrapping the statutory tests straight away, but I can see the rationale for keeping them until the baseline is in place. Unfortunately that means we’re stuck with the unreliable Teacher Assessment approach for the time being. (More of that to follow)

Key Stage 2

Of course it makes sense to scrap statutory Teacher Assessment of Reading and Maths. Nobody pays it any heed; it serves no purpose but adds to workload. I’d have preferred to see Science go the same way, but no such luck. At the very least, I hope there is a radical overhaul of the detail in the Science statements which are currently unmanageable (and hence clearly lead to junk data in the extreme!)

There is also some recognition in there that the current system of Teacher Assessment of Writing is failing. The shorter term solution seems to be a re-writing of the interim frameworks to make them suit a best-fit model, which is, I suppose, an improvement. Longer term, the department is keen to investigate alternative (better) models; I imagine they’ll be looking closely at the trial of Comparative Judgement at www.sharingstandards.com this year. I’m less persuaded by the trial of peer-moderation, as I can’t quite see how you could ensure that a fair selection of examples are moderated. My experience of most inter-school moderation is that few discussions are had about real borderline cases, as few teachers want to take such risks when working with unfamiliar colleagues. Perhaps this trial will persuade me otherwise?

On the matter of the multiplication check, I don’t share the opposition to it that many others do. I’ve no objection to a sensible, low-stakes, no-accountability check being made available to support schools. I’d prefer to see it at the end of Year 4 – in line with the National Curriculum expectations, and I’d want to see more details of the trials, but overall, I can live with it.

Disappointments

Although it hardly gets mentioned, the opening statement that “it is right that the government sets a clear expected standard that pupils should attain by the end of primary school” suggests that the department is not willing to see the end of clunky descriptors like “Expected Standard”. That’s a shame, as the new scaled score system does that perfectly well without labelling in the same way. Hopefully future alternatives to the current Teacher Assessment frameworks might lessen the impact of such terminology.

Credit for whoever managed to get in the important fact that infant/junior and middle schools still exist. (Points deducted for failing to acknowledge first schools in the mix). However, the suggestions proposed are misguided. The consultation claims that,

the most logical measures for infant schools would be reception to key stage 1 and, for middle and junior schools, would be to continue with key stage 1 to key stage 2

While that may be true for infant, and potentially even junior schools, for middle schools this is a nonsense. Some middle schools only start from Year 6. How can it be sensible to judge their work on just 2 terms of a four-year key stage? The logical measure would require bespoke assessments on entry and exit. That would be expensive, so alternatives will be necessary. Personally I favour using just the Reception baseline and KS2 outcomes, along with sensible internal data for infant/first and junior/middle schools. The KS1 results have never been a helpful or reliable indicator.

Partly connected to that, I would also have liked to have seen a clearer commitment to the provision of a national assessment bank, as proposed by the Commission for Assessment without Levels, and supported by the NAHT review. It does get a brief mention in a footnote, so maybe there’s hope for it yet.

In Conclusion

Overall, I’m pleased with the broad shape of the consultation document. It does feel like a shift has happened within the department, and that there is a clear willingness to listen to the profession and correct earlier mistakes. There is as much positive news in the consultation as I might have hoped for.

If there were an interim assessment framework for judging DfE consultations, then this would have ticked nearly all of the boxes. Unfortunately, of course, nearly all is not enough, as any primary teacher knows, and so it must fall to WTS. Seems cruel, but he who lives by the sword…

Some clarity on KS2 Writing moderation … but not a lot

Not for the first time, the Department has decided to issue some clarification about the writing assessment framework at Key Stage 2 (and its moderation!). For some inexplicable reason, rather than sharing this clarity in writing, it has been produced as a slowly-worded video – as if it were us that were stupid!

Here’s my take on what it says:

Some Clarity – especially on punctuation

  • For Greater Depth, the long-winded bullet point about shifts in formality has to be seen in several pieces of work, with more than one shift within each of those pieces.
  • For Expected Standard, it is acceptable to have evidence of colons and semi-colons for introducing, and within, lists (i.e. not between clauses)
  • For Expected Standard, any of either brackets, dashes or commas are acceptable to show parenthesis. There is no need to show all three.
  • Bullet points are punctuation, but the DfE is pretending they’re not, so there’s no need to have evidence of them as part of the “full range” of punctuation needed for Greater Depth.
  • Three full stops to mark ellipsis are also punctuation, but again, the DfE has managed to redefine ellipsis in such a way that they’re not… so again, not needed for Greater Depth.

A bit of guidance on spelling

This was quite clear: if a teacher indicates that a spelling needs correcting by writing a comment in the margin on the relevant line, then the correction of that spelling cannot be counted as independent. If the comment to correct spellings comes at the end of a paragraph or whole piece, without specifying what to correct, then it can still count as independent.

No clarity whatsoever on ‘independence’

Believe me, I’ve re-watched this several times – and not all of them at double-speed – and I’m still bemused that they think this clarifies things. The whole debacle is still reliant on phrases like “over-scaffolding” and “over-detailed”. Of course, if things are over-detailed then there is too much detail. What isn’t any clearer is how much detail is too much detail. The video tells us that:

“success criteria would be considered over-detailed where the advice given directly shapes what pupils write by directing them to include specific words or phrases”

So we know specifying particular words is too much, but is it okay to use success criteria which include:

  • Use a varied range of sentence structures

Is it too specific to include this?

  • Use a varied range of sentence openers

What about…?

  • Use adverbs as sentence openers

There’s a wide gulf between the three examples above. Which of these is acceptable? Because if it’s the latter, then schools relying on the first will find themselves under-valuing work – and vice versa, of course. That’s before you even begin to consider the impossibility of telling what success criteria and other supporting examples are available in classrooms at the time of writing.

The video tries to help by adding:

“success criteria must not specifically direct pupils as to what to include or where to include something in their writing”

But all of those examples are telling children what to include – that’s the whole point of success criteria.

If I’ve understood correctly, I think all three of those examples are acceptable. But it shouldn’t matter what I think: if the whole system depends on what each of us thinks the guidance means, then the consistency necessary for fair and useful assessment is non-existent.

The whole issue remains a farce. Doubtless this year Writing results will rise, probably pushing them even higher above the results for the externally tested subjects. Doubtless results will vary widely across the country, with little or no relationship to success in the tested subjects. And doubtless moderation will be a haphazard affair with professionals doing their best to work within an incomprehensible framework.

And to think that people will lose their jobs over data that results from this nonsense!


The full video in all its 11-minute glory can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BQ-73l71hqQ

 

Teaching is complex – and that’s okay.

As another list of non-negotiables does the rounds, I find myself again in disagreement with those who would argue that a minimum baseline of expectations is a helpful or necessary thing. Unfortunately, like so many things in life, I don’t think we can distil what is a very complex operation down to few simple ‘must-dos’. Not least because as with all learning, teachers will be at very different stages of their expertise, and one size rarely fits all.

The problem with simple tick-list approaches is that teaching isn’t simple. It’s tempting to say that all lessons should begin with the Learning Objective being shared, but then we can all think of examples where that would ruin the wider structure of the lesson. It’s tempting to say that teacher talk should be minimised, but too often I’ve seen lessons where teachers, worried about time spent on the carpet, rush children off to a task they’re ill-equipped to tackle. It’s tempting to say that every lesson must include differentiated tasks, but then many of us have seen lessons where children are given work that is below their capability simply to show differentiation. Teaching is complex.

Some of the things that make for really excellent teaching are exactly the sort of thing you can’t tick off a list. I think that knowing your children is a key to great teaching and learning. Yes, some inspiring lectures can achieve great things without interaction of any sort, but for the most part, I know that I can teach my own class more effectively than I can an unknown group. But there would be no point in setting out a policy in my school that says you must know your children; that isn’t something you can tick off.

Equally, some of those things that seem straightforward, conceal a whole level of complexity that doesn’t feature on the tick-list. We know that feedback can be highly effective in further children’s learning, but that could come in the form of written marking, or comment in the lessons, or in the way the teacher reacts to off-the-cuff assessments from whiteboard activities. So we could add “You must give feedback” to a tick-list, but what does it mean?

The same is true of sharing Learning Objectives. Making children aware of what you intend them to learn is no bad thing. But what if you’ve picked the wrong thing at the wrong time? What if it doesn’t match the wider sequence? What if the task you’ve planned doesn’t really meet the needs of the learners, or the aims of the lesson? What if it’s something they already know? Sharing a Learning Objective is only going to be of any use if the objective is apposite and taught well.

One argument people make is that schools in difficult circumstances may require basic thresholds. Special Measures is maybe an excuse for such approaches. But in my experience, like in any class, in any school in a category you will find a wide range of ability among the teachers. For those who are teaching brilliantly against the tide, reducing their craft to a mere tick-list may only serve to stifle their brilliance. Equally, for those who are genuinely finding teaching a complex challenge and failing to serve their children well, insisting on a list of gimmicks will not improve practice.

I have seen plenty of lessons – indeed, I’ve probably taught plenty – where a Learning Objective is shared, tasks are differentiated, children are engaged with active learning, peer-evaluation takes place, mini-plenaries are dotted about life confetti… and the net effect on learning is negligible. Equally, I know that some lessons might do none of those things and  be just right for that group at that time.

If we really want to improve teaching and learning, no matter what the current standard, then we need meaty discussion about what we mean by that. For teachers who are struggling, they need to see good teaching in practice, preferably narrated by someone who can highlight its strengths; they need support to change their thinking.

For a teacher who really needs to improve their practice in the classroom, the damage a tick-list approach can cause is substantial. What if that teachers does everything that is demanded of him: his displays are beautiful, learning objectives shared, children think-pair-share, tasks are differentiated… and yet still, the lesson is poorly-taught or the progress is limited by lack of the required prior knowledge. How demoralising for that person to have spent hours refining exactly what you’ve asked, only to be told they’re still failing. Indeed, imagine the difficulty of trying to manage procedures for a teacher who is clearly ineffective, but is good at ticking the boxes you’ve set out!

Teaching is complex.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t try to articulate it. At my own school we have had time dedicated this year to discussing what we think ‘highly effective teaching’ looks like. We’ve discussed learning objectives, and differentiation, and feedback. But we’ve done so in a professional arena where we can unpick what we mean by those terms. We couldn’t reduce it to a simple tick-list, but we recognise some key areas we recognise are important factors.

If a school genuinely has some very weak teachers, then those teachers need specific advice, coaching and support to improve. Good teaching can no more be reduced to a simple tick-list than can good Year 6 writing… and look where that’s got us!

On joining the Chartered College of Teaching

After overcoming a few stumbling blocks, I’ve finally joined the Chartered College of Teaching. I say finally not because of the few days’ delay (my bank apparently thought my signing up might have been a fraudulent use of my card. Do they know me at all!?), but because it strikes me that this is something that’s long overdue.

I’ve always been a member of a teaching union – aren’t we all? – but like so many teachers, that was in part for the protection offered. Unions are there to protect and improve pay and conditions; while they may dress their arguments up in pedagogical terms, the bottom line is the same. And that’s all well and good: that’s their job.

But that conflict also makes it very easy for the government to dismiss what teachers say through their unions – not least the more militant groups with their outlandish demands at conferences. The profession more than ever needs a clear conduit for its opinions and expertise.

But a professional body has to cut both ways. As well as conveying views from the profession to the wider world – from parents to the DfE and Ofsted – it must also offer something to members. I’m pleased to see that the College will provide members with access to educational research, but perhaps more importantly I look forward to a useful professional journal that will help do the job of disseminating that research in ways that can have an impact in classrooms. We’re a time-poor profession as it is, and few of us have time to wade through academic journals on a regular basis;  an intelligent chartered college can be the medium through which teachers receive the very best of information on good practice – and also the very clearest of evidence to dispel the nonsense of the likes of Brain Gym and Learning Styles.

The key thing at this stage is to get people participating. If the college appears not to be the finished article, I’m hoping it’s because it isn’t. I hope, too, that that means teacher members will shape it.

So let me offer a few requests for Dame Alison Peacock and her team as she leads the College in its formative stages:

  • We need you to be brave, Dame Alison, on our behalf. Sometimes that will mean speaking truth to power; asking the difficult questions; putting politicians straight – saying the things we’re all thinking!
  • Focus on the classroom teachers more than the leaders. One of the toughest parts of the job is the solitude of the classroom. The College can be a way for teachers to get a sense of what is happening in other classrooms.
  • Remember the people that so many other organisations forget: the Early Years experts, the SEN schools, the sixth-form colleges, supply teachers, middle schools!
  • Put research and evidence at the heart of work to guide us and others, and be honest when the research doesn’t tell us enough to know.
  • Reach out across the profession, whatever teachers’ experience, across sectors, through the age ranges, the breadth of the country and those who aren’t yet convinced about the College: we’re stronger together.
  • (If truth be told, I’m not taken by the logo, but… maybe it’ll grow on me?)

If you think I’m right – or you think I’m wrong – perhaps you should put your own views across. Join the College at the start.


The Chartered College is currently signing up founder members, who must be teachers in schools, Early Years or post-16 settings: https://www.chartered.college/eligibility

 

National Curriculum Test videos

I’ve updated the videos I made last year to explain the KS1 and KS2 tests to parents. As there is an option about using the Grammar, Punctuation & Spelling tests in primary schools, there are now two versions of the video for KS1 (one with, one without the GPS tests).

Please feel free to use these videos on your school’s website or social media channels, or in parent meetings, etc. There are MP4 versions available to download.

Key Stage 2

Re-tweetable version:

Facebook shareable version:
https://www.facebook.com/primarycurriculum/videos/1311921482187352/

Downloadable MP4 file: https://goo.gl/b0Lo9v

Key Stage 1 – version that includes the GPS tests

Re-tweetable version:

Facebook shareable version:
https://www.facebook.com/primarycurriculum/videos/1311921482187352/

Downloadable MP4 file: https://goo.gl/jo18qk

Key Stage 1 – version for schools not using the GPS tests

Re-tweetable version:

Facebook shareable version:
https://www.facebook.com/primarycurriculum/videos/1311921482187352/

Downloadable MP4 file:  https://goo.gl/xMDFSJ

On Knowledge Organisers

When Jon Brunskill recently agreed to share his work on Knowledge Organisers in primary school, I was excited to see what he came up with. I wasn’t disappointed, and I’m sure many others have been looking with interest. I think there’s a lot of merit in the model, but inevitably I think there is some refining to do.

I say this not as an expert – far from it, I’ve cobbled together one Knowledge Organiser in my life and remain unhappy with it. However, having spoken briefly to Jon about his, I think we both agree that there is merit in unpicking the model further.

Firstly, with Jon’s permission, let me share an image of the organiser he shared (I highly recommend reading the accompanying blog before continuing further with mine!)

At first glance, it looks like a lot of content to learn. I think that’s partly because most of us have spent a good many years teaching broad ideas, and not expecting children to learn detail off by heart. I think there are also very few of us who could hand-on-heart say we know all this content to recall. But I think that represents the shift we need to make rather than something to fear.

That led me to question the purpose behind the Knowledge Organiser. I haven’t spent enough time thinking about them, and certainly not enough time using them, but when I have, I’ve usually considered it a vehicle for outlining the key information that I expect students to learn and retain for the longer term. Often over longer units of work these might include key ideas which are integral to later understanding, whether that’s later in the school year, or later in their education career.

By way of illustration of my thinking, let me share a knowledge organiser I constructed a couple of years ago for my Year 5/6 class

kodraft.png

My first attempt at a Knowledge Organiser in 2015

The differences are quickly obvious. For a start, mine is clearly based on a wider period of teaching, and perhaps more indicative of a basic revision guide, rather than providing content in advance of a unit. I think perhaps that’s also its biggest downfall. It’s worth noting that it’s something I tried and didn’t come back to.

But I think there is maybe a useful middle ground. In Jon’s case, much of the content set out – particularly on the timeline – is content that is useful for the purposes of writing an information text about the event itself (a task which Jon plans to do in his Y2 class). However, I don’t think he expects those students to secure that detail in the very long term. Arguably, this brings the organiser perhaps closer to the cramming model of revision than the more successful spaced practice approach.

Ruth Smith posted a comment on Jon’s blog saying she could imagine the organiser being used as a prompt during writing. While I can see the merits, I do think that the risk then – as Jon would rightly say – is that we replace the value of knowledge with the reliance on someone/something else to do the work for you. That’s not the aim here.

It leaves me wondering what the function of a Knowledge Organiser should be. I’m not persuaded of the value of knowing the date of leaving quarantine after the lunar landing. That said, the value of learning the word ‘quarantine’ is something I think is highly valuable.

The question for me becomes one of later testing (and let me be honest, I’m only at the very beginning of this journey; don’t for a second presume that I’m an expert. I’m a way behind Jon on this!)  In a knowledge rich curriculum, I think one of the key functions of a Knowledge Organiser is to set out the key knowledge that I want students to retain and that I will test for.

We know of the great merit of spaced testing to aid learning, and it strikes me that a Knowledge Organiser should aim to set out that content which would likely later form part of such tests. In the context of Jon’s organiser, I could see merit in testing much of the vocabulary, the date of the landing, and perhaps the names of the crew. However, I’d also want to include some wider context – perhaps a bit more detail behind the Space Race, mention of JFK’s 1960 aim, etc. Might these replace some of the less significant dates of 1969?

Of course, we’re talking about 7-year-olds in Jon’s context. They will lack much of the wider historical knowledge to place events in context, and so there is a risk of expecting too much. But equally, if we train children that knowledge is to be learned, then ought we not be training them to learn it for the long term?

The content I think* I’d like to see on Knowledge Organisers is the detail that I would also expect to use in a brief pop quiz a week later, but also on a test mid-year drawing on prior units, and again at the end of the academic year, or in the first days of the following September. There is a risk that using Knowledge Organisers to aim for short-term recall of detail that is later lost, will develop a cramming ethos, rather than one of long-term storage of information.

What does this mean for Jon’s example? I’m not sure. Maybe a separation of the content that he expects children to retain in the long term from information which would be useful in this context? There is certainly some merit in having this timeline clear in the child’s mind as they are writing – not least because it helps to build a narrative, which is a great learning technique –  but is it necessary for it to be stored in long-term memory? Indeed, is a two-week unit even long enough for such a transfer to be made?

Yet there is unquestionably information here which would be re-used in future that would allow such a long-term retention.

More thinking to do… but well worth doing, I think.


*I say I think, because I am not entirely sure that I won’t think completely differently in six months time.

If you haven’t already, I again recommend reading Jon’s original post here.

17 Twitter Recommendations for 2017

It’s three years since I last wrote a list of recommendations for who to follow on Twitter, and since then some have stopped tweeting, some have been promoted, some have even skipped the country – and of course, many new twitter folk have arrived. So I thought it about time for an update. I’ll try to limit myself to just 17.

School Leaders

Stephen Tierney (@LeadingLearner) – when I first heard Stephen speak at a conference up north, I thought instantly that he’s the sort of Headteacher I’d like to work for. Everything I’ve read of his since has confirmed that view. (It helps that’s he’s executive HT of a cross-phase group of academies).

The Primary Head (@theprimaryhead) – another Head for whom I suspect it’s great to work – I presume he’s not anonymous in his own school.

John Tomsett (@johntomsett) – a secondary head, and a voice of calm in an otherwise tumultuous Twitter world.

Jill Berry (@jillberry102) – Jill is a former headteacher who now shares her knowledge about the challenge of the role, and keeps a good eye on other developments in education.

Primary Teachers

Rhoda Wilson (@TemplarWilson) – this is a bit of a cheat, as I’m also married to her, but I do very much follow her on Twitter, and then steal many of her excellent ideas about teaching primary English, including whole-class reading (and often pass them off as my own!)

Sinead Gaffney (@shinpad1) – a hugely knowledgeable expert in literacy, and my go-to person when I need a KS1 expert, even though she’s moved to work with the big kids now.

Jon Brunskill (@jon_brunskill) – the sort of Key Stage 1 teacher who dispels any myths about infant schooling being warm, fuzzy and directionless!

Rachel Rossiter (@rachelrossiter) – a SENCo, which makes her a great port of call for all such queries, but mainly a genius at use of pun – what more can you want from Twitter?

Other Knowledgeable Sorts

Education DataLab (@edudatalab) – data experts from FFT who quickly shed light on topical issues by looking at the data to find answers (including those which are not always welcomed by the DfE, I’m sure). Director @drbeckyallen is also worth a follow.

Jamie Pembroke (@jpembroke) – on the data theme, Jamie is my favourite sort of data expert, in that he recognises the many flaws and limitations of the stuff. His wisdom on sensible use of data is welcome in today’s climate.

Daisy Christodoulou (@daisychristo) – sometimes people refer to me as an expert on assessment; I’m far from it. Daisy is absolutely that: she has spent time thinking about assessment in depth in ways that have completely changed my thinking. Look out for her new book in the spring too.

David Didau (@LearningSpy) – after a brief spell of being banned from Twitter, it was a relief to have David back. A man who speaks confidently about what he understands of education – including honesty about when he’s got things wrong. We could all do with such a balance of knowledge and humility.

Sean Harford (@harfordsean) – few people have done so much to transform the damaged reputation of Ofsted, and Sean has done it largely by thinking and talking common sense. The more people who are following him, the more we can #HelpSean to  spread better messages to schools. It’s probably also worth following new HMCI @amanda_spielman.

Sam Freedman (@samfr) – a director at Teach First who has connections and insights at the highest levels of policy that are often insightful. Tends not to get involved in the nitty-gritty of classroom practice, but expert on how teachers can best get government to work for them!

Micon Metcalfe (@miconm) – the School Business Manager to beat all School Business Managers. Knows pretty much all there is to know about managing  a school, academy, chain or nation – and keeps a watchful eye on news on related matters too.


You can access an easier-to-follow-from full list of the 17 recommendations via my Twitter list: https://twitter.com/MichaelT1979/lists/twitter-recommendations

The impossibility of Teacher Assessment

I’ve said for a fair while now that I’d like to see the end of statutory Teacher Assessment. It’s becoming a less unpopular thing to say, but I still don’t think it’s quite reached the point of popularity yet. But let me try, once again, to persuade you.

The current focus of my ire is the KS2 Writing assessment, partly because it’s the one I am most directly involved in (doing as a teacher, not designing the monstrosity!), and partly because it is the one with the highest stakes. But the issues are the same at KS1.

Firstly, let me be frank about this year’s KS2 Writing results: they’re nonsense! Almost to a man we all agreed last year that the expectations were too high; that the threshold was something closer to a Level 5 than a 4b; that the requirements for excessive grammatical features would lead to a negative impact on the quality of writing. And then somehow we ended up with 74% of children at the expected standard, more than in any other subject. It’s poppycock.

Some of that will be a result of intensive drilling, which won’t have improved writing that much. Some of it will be a result of a poor understanding of the frameworks, or accidental misuse of them. Some of it will be because of cheating. The real worry is that we hardly know which is which. And guidance released this year which is meant to make things clearer barely helps.

I carried out a poll over the last week asking people to consider various sets of success criteria and to decide whether they would be permitted under the new rules which state that

independent

So we need to decide what constitutes “over-aiding” pupils. At either end of the scale, that seems quite simple.Just short of 90% of responses (of 824) said that the following broad guidance would be fine:

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Simplest criteria

Similarly, at the other extreme, 92% felt that the following ‘slow-writing’ type model would not fit within the definition of ‘independent’:

8

Slow writing approach

This is all very well, but in reality, few of us would use such criteria for assessed work. The grey area in the middle is where it becomes problematic. Take the following example:

5

The disputed middle ground

In this case results are a long way from agreement. 45% of responses said that it would be acceptable, 55% not. If half of schools eschew this level of detail and it is actually permitted, then their outcomes are bound to suffer. By contrast, if nearly half use it but it ought not be allowed, then perhaps their results will be inflated. Of course, a quarter of those schools maybe moderated which could lead to even those schools with over-generous interpretations of the rules suffering. There is no consistency here at all.

The STA will do their best to temper these issues, but I really think they are insurmountable. At last week’s Rising Stars conference on the tests, John McRoberts of the STA was quoted as explaining where the line should be drawn:

That advice does appear to clarify things (such that it seems the 45% were probably right in the example above), but it is far from solving the problem. For the guidance is full of such vague statements. It’s clear that I ought not to be telling children to use the word “anxiously”, but is it okay to tell them to open with an adverb while also having a display on the wall listing appropriate adverbs – including anxiously? After all, the guidance does say that:

guidance.png

Would that count as independent? What if my classroom display contained useful phrases for opening sentences for the particular genre we were writing? Would that still be independent?

The same problems apply in many contexts. For spelling children are meant to be able to spell words from the Y5/6 list. Is it still okay if they have the list permanently printed on their desks? If they’re trained to use the words in every piece?

What about peer-editing, which is also permitted? Is it okay if I send my brightest speller around the room to edit children’s work with them. Is that ‘independent’?

For an assessment to be a fair comparison of pupils across the country, the conditions under which work is produced must be as close to identical as possible, yet this is clearly impossible in this case.

Moderation isn’t a solution

The temptation is to say that Teacher Assessment can be robust if combined with moderation. But again, the flaws are too obvious. For a start, the cost of moderating all schools is likely to be prohibitive. But even if it were possible, it’s clear that a moderator cannot tell everything about how a piece of work was produced. Of course moderators will be able to see if all pupils use the same structure or sentence openers. But they won’t know what was on my classroom displays while the children were writing the work. They won’t know how much time was spent on peer-editing work before it made the final book version. They won’t be able to see whether or not teachers have pointed out the need for corrections, or whether each child had been given their own key phrases to learn by heart. Moderation is only any good at comparing judgements of the work in front of you, not of the conditions in which it was produced.

That’s not to imply that cheating is widespread. Far from it: I’ve already demonstrated that a good proportion of people will be wrong in their interpretations of the guidance in good faith. The system is almost impossible to be any other way.

The stakes are too high now. Too much rests on those few precious numbers. And while in an ideal world that wouldn’t be the case, we cannot expect teachers to provide accurate, meaningful and fair comparisons, while also judging them and their schools on the numbers they produce in the process.

Surely it’s madness to think otherwise?


For the results of all eight samples of success criteria, see this document.