Monthly Archives: October 2013

On the workings of parliament

I like to think of myself of political aware, if not necessarily political engaged. I tend to have reasonable faith in politicians to be genuine in their desire to improve things, even when I don’t agree with how I go about it. I tend to think that our parliamentary democracy works generally well, and I have a reasonable amount of time and sympathy for those who take on the role of MP which then brings them an unreasonable amount of loathing.

However, watching the debate on QTS in the House of Commons today was a wholly unsatisfactory experience. Laura McInerney has done an excellent job of summarising the debate with storify, so if you missed it you may want to catch up with that first – or you may not!

During the debate I tweeted something which I later realised wasn’t entirely true, but was representative of my frustration at the time:

On reflection I realise that I should have retained my wrath for the common debates, since I have actually seen some excellent scrutiny work taking place in committees, and that should not go unnoticed.

However, commons debate is clearly a major part of our parliamentary system, so what does it offer us?

In today’s debate, you could argue that it was an opportunity for the various sides to present arguments which might sway voting MPs towards an opinion. That was clearly not the case. Relatively few MPs turned up and those that did had largely made up their minds and wished to present arguments (related to the debate motion or otherwise!) which they felt were worth airing. I rather suspect that no minds were changed, and no-one went with the intention that theirs might be.

So perhaps the point was for views to be debated publicly so that the wider public know where the parties stand. Except, we already knew that. We knew before the debate that the Conservative party thought QTS an unnecessary hurdle, that Labour thought it an essential threshold, and that the LibDems thought different things depending on who was asking and so would have no conclusive view on the day.

The debate might have been an opportunity to bring some clarity to the rationale behind the various policies, but in fact it quickly became clear that very few members had an anything more than a rudimentary understanding of what QTS is. I can’t help but think that there were some civil servants somewhere with their faces in their palms as they despaired of the misunderstandings being thrown back and forth across the chamber.

As far as I can tell, over an hour of parliamentary time, with some very highly-paid members, clerks and the like, was a largely pointless exercise. Now admittedly, this could be because of the nature of a debate being brought to make a point. But what makes this debate different from others?

What stands out for me is the difference between the processes involved in the commons to those in committees. In the former, 600-odd professional politicians barrack one another and score points while pretending to run the country; in the latter small groups of politicians – who in many cases have some specialised knowledge or at least keen interest in an area – are able to challenge the professionals in their fields to provide the answers to questions which might actually drive forward change.

The parallels with school governance (or perhaps, lack of them) intrigued me. Schools are often very clear about the different roles of governors and headteachers: governors set the strategic direction; heads manage the school day-to-day. But importantly, heads are usually part of the governing body, and governors are expected to draw upon the qualified expertise of the headteacher and other professionals in their decision-making process. I can’t help but fear that the civil servant is being pushed out of government, and replaced by SpAds and professional politicians. All well-meaning, I’m sure, but then I’m sure so were the governors of the Al Medinah school.

Certainly, my perception of today’s debate was of a group of under-qualified amateurs trying to argue about a decision that they weren’t really best-placed to make without some proper advice from more knowledgeable experts, who sadly seem to be out of fashion.

What hope for this system?

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Effective marking: a primary slant

This blogpost is part of the October #blogsync initiative. You can read other blogs from the set at blogsync.edutronic.net

I love the #blogsync project, and always look forward to reading blogs on the theme. However, too often I find myself nodding along, agreeing, and then wondering how much of the wisdom really applies to my own students. Already this month there is a balance of blogs which reflects the more secondary-based balance of bloggers. It’s inevitable, and I certainly wouldn’t want to discourage any blogging, but there is sometimes an issue when the focus is largely on students at the upper end of that phase. As such, my blog will be less about specific examples of making marking work, but more on the generalities of how it applies to primary level teachers and their students.

There has been a great deal of advice and ideas about how to make marking more effective, and the use of focussed feedback and DIRT time is certainly recommendable. However, as students get younger, so the challenges of these approaches become greater. I teach Year 5 at the moment, so am in something of the middle ground, but you can imagine how difficult it might be to expect a Year 2 child to read and respond to written feedback in a meaningful way.

Does that mean that marking is less important in KS1/LKS2? I would argue not, but that its focus is necessarily different.

The nature of development of both students and teaching means that we rightly expect more independence of older students. When I taught KS3 I found marking feedback could often be reasonably complex and still be understood and acted upon by students. For example, when marking Year 7 history essays, I could comment on the need for a clearer explanation of a point, and expect the student to be able to consider that for themselves and edit appropriately. The challenge is very different when the main area for feedback is the need to use paragraphs appropriately, or to use the column method of subtraction.

Often with younger students the focus of marking is necessarily more on the work of the teacher. Interestingly, this seems to be a key area of assessment that is too easily overlooked. It also seems worthwhile to note, therefore, a tweet posted by Dylan Wiliam this week, when asked for an example of a mistake he had made which led to learning:

For primary teachers, particularly those with younger students, a lot of the process of marking needs to be about responsive teaching.

Take an example from my own recent assessments. I have used some processes not unlike those suggested in other blogs, such as formative use of a summative test (as suggested by @headguruteacher, Tom Sherrington), and the use of symbols and DIRT time (as championed by @Shaun_Allison). In some cases that has allowed students to act for themselves to improve their work or their understanding. However, the most important outcome of those processes has been my own awareness and understanding of what has been understood.

If I take a shortlist of key things I’ve taught so far this year, I can very quickly use my marking (and elements of my feedback) to identify my own areas of success and development. Column addition and perimeter have been well understood; multiplying/dividing by powers of 10, less so. Most of the students are confident with text-level structures of the non-fiction genres we’ve studied, but structuring paragraphs is going to be a target. The majority can recall the French subject pronouns in ‘order’, but fewer can correctly select the correct one on demand.

These aspects of feedback are not part of my written comments on students’ work – they are far too broad for that. They are elements which form my own feedback; the aspects which must guide my teaching over the coming weeks. They are areas which will benefit from re-visiting as a class. Alongside those are some more specific areas for individuals and small groups. Some of these can be tackled in brief discussions, others will need more focussed intervention, but all of these decisions should be outcomes of the marking process.

Sometimes I appreciate the superficially easier process of marking the work of younger students, but it’s clear that the younger the students, the truer Wiliam’s words are that formative feedback is as much about responsive teaching as it is student responses.

It’s perhaps worth noting at the end of this blog that the real challenge for me now is the management of these necessary interventions in a way which supports those who need it, while continuing to allow those who have secured the necessary learning to continue to make progress. Answers on a postcard?

The scourge of differentiation

Let me start straight out by saying that differentiation can be a good thing. Indeed, it is a key part of good teaching in most cases. However, it is only a means to an end; or at least it ought to be.

In recent years, however, it seems that in too many cases the act of differentiation has come to be valued above the purpose. I have been meaning to blog about this for some time, and was prompted by the first part of a two-part blog by Rachael Stevens (@murphiegirl) – DIFFERENTIATION: Whatever people say it is, that’s what it’s not – which highlights a perfect example. Well worth a read, and look out for part 2!

A quick scan of the TES Primary forums will often bring up messages from teachers who explain the situation in their schools:

“We have detailed daily plans, differentiated three ways “

“differentiated activities ( at least 4 ways) showing activity”

Note how nothing here indicates any awareness (or need for awareness) of the capabilities of the students. Rather, the goal has become to demonstrate that differentiation has taken place. I suspect that this is one of those things that has emerged from the need of SLTs to feel that they are covering all Ofsted criteria. The perception seems to be that if lessons are being differentiated 3, or 4 or even 5 or more ways, then all students must be receiving a personalised curriculum. But, of course, that’s nonsense.

What the current criteria for Outstanding lessons actually says is much simpler

Teachers use well-judged and often imaginative teaching strategies, […] that, together with clearly directedand timely support and intervention, match individual needs accurately.

There is no stipulation about the number of different thresholds which must be met, or the ways in which activities must be set. Merely that teachers must match the needs of the individuals in their class accurately. It is only through misunderstanding (wilful or otherwise) of that statement that schools could end up with policies that stipulate evidence of differentiated activities in every lesson. But it is clearly the case that in some schools lessons are judged – at least in part – on the basis of teachers providing clearly identified differentiated tasks for different groups of students. Of course, this is much easier than judging whether activities are well-matched to individual needs, but as is often the case, we fall into the trap here of valuing what is measurable, rather than attempting to measure what is valuable.

How often, in schools with enforced policies regarding visible differentiation, are students being artificially held back because the teacher has a need to show that they have given easier work for some than others? And how much teacher time is being spent on creating such activities, that could otherwise be much better invested in targeting support and tasks more effectively through knowing the students and their achievements well.

As I said at the beginning, differentiation is unquestionably a key teaching skill. Being seen to differentiate? That’s just jumping hoops.

The future of primary assessment

This post is in part in response to Alison Peacock’s blog on Developing primary assessment systems.

Primary teachers today are only too aware of the need for assessment, feedback, tracking and data. However, the current system of levels, tests, APP and teacher assessment have become something of a jumble that could easily mislead one into thinking that they were all part of one and the same thing. This blog is my call for those involved in designing the primary assessment systems to go alongside the new curriculum to recognise that this is not the case.

Assessments take place in schools all the time, but for different reasons. The KS2 tests in primary schools serve relatively little purpose to the schools (or students) themselves. They have uses for accountability and for secondary colleagues to some extent, but limited use in the schools they are taken in. But this is only the extreme. There are other assessments too which we undertake which are important, but different from those which really matter.

There is a great deal of evidence to support the value of formative feedback for students. Teachers recognise this and the past few years have seen an increasing focus on providing this in schools. At the same time there has also been in increasing focus on tracking the attainment of students. There is some overlap between these tasks, but not as much as some would have us believe.

The government sponsored approach arrived in the form of APP. The theory is comforting. We can set targets in numbers, and then use breakdown statements to set targets for individuals in meaningful terms. The theory being that the formative feedback process becomes united with the tracking process and all are happy. However, the reality – as so often with education – is rather more complicated.

For example, one of the assessment criteria in English writing on APP is the use of speech punctuation. It would be very easy to review several pieces of a child’s work, highlight several criteria, and then identify that speech punctuation remained unhighlighted and set a target accordingly. However, what if the curriculum had provided no opportunities for speech punctuation in the period covered? Or more concerningly, what if the next period of teaching did not provide them. A child is left with a target on which he has no opportunity to work.

We must divorce the need for tracking students’ progress in numerical terms, from the process of setting targets for the short- and medium-term. Targets that we give to children should be firmly based on the curriculum covered, and the curriculum to come.

Of course we need to track progress towards end-of-key-stage outcomes (whatever they might look like in the future), but there needs to be a sensible way of doing this. In recent years too many Ofsted reports have either praised or requested systems which include tracking at 3- or 6-weekly intervals. No requirement that these processes are formative, but merely that scores are collected. The task is purposeless.

If we are to make the most of this new-found freedom for assessment in the primary phase, then teachers must take ownership of the target-setting and assessment at classroom level. Clear objectives set out in the medium-term planning should then be assessed at appropriate intervals (e.g. half-termly). Where students are set targets, it is important that these are linked to knowledge & skills that they will have the opportunity to practise in the coming weeks. Students should not have targets in the form of “To reach Level 5 I need to…”, but rather statements such as “To improve my use of punctuation, I need to…”, or “To improve my number work I need to…”

Of course teachers will have an eye on the longer-term goals, but that is their burden to bear, not that of their students. If we are to make feedback a meaningful process, it must be personalised not only to the child, but to the school, the classroom and its curriculum. The only way we can achieve that is to divorce it from the numerical key-stage measures.

That’s not to say that tracking towards end-of-key-stage outcomes can’t happen. Merely that it ought not take precedence over the important process of personalised target-setting. I see no reason why an annual assessment of progress towards KS outcomes should not suffice, if a sufficiently effective process of teacher assessment and feedback is in place throughout the year.

The new curriculum & assessment regime opens up new opportunities for school’s to personalise their processes. Let this be our opportunity to separate out the personal from the school-level targets once and for all.

If Ofsted inspected government departments…?

Not entirely serious. Probably.

DfE Ofsted Report?

Why is Mastery just for Maths?

The trouble with failing to lay proper foundations.

The trouble with failing to lay proper foundations.

With the new National Curriculum, and a whole host of new players in the field of education, it is certainly a time of innovation of sorts in our schools. I have been interested in the work being done by Ark and others looking at mastery in mathematics. It seems that their approach – based in some part on that used in Singapore and like places – is built on the premise of covering fewer topics in greater depth each year, with the intention that over the course of a child’s education they receive a thorough education in each stage of the process.[1]

This strikes me as sensible. Too often I have taught children at KS3 who have raced through the curriculum, picking up bits of skills, but for whom the basics of number knowledge and calculation are still insecure. The comparison to the end-moments of the game, Jenga, is too often fitting: students who lack the secure base on which to build their higher knowledge soon come crashing down.

It has meant that this year I am approaching my teaching of maths with something of a mastery model.

But I’ve got to thinking. Why does it need only to apply to maths?

I’ve also, this week, seen students in my class complete an unaided writing task in which it seems they ignored everything they have been taught this half term and just jotted down notes at random. After some initial frustration (as is common), I soon realised that the fault here was mine (as is also common).

I have taught them a good deal over the past few weeks in terms of writing skills. But I’m not convinced I’ve given them enough time to really securely practise and secure their use of those skills. And so, just like the kids who can’t do their tables in Y10, I’ve got students who haven’t applied even half of what they’ve learned.

I suspect that my model of teaching is not unlike that of many other primary teachers. We’ve looked at a particular genre, linked to a theme we’re studying, over a couple of weeks, and I’ve used that vehicle to teach some appropriate structures and techniques. However, I fear that the downfall of the process has been the movement on to another genre and another set of techniques for the next fortnight. Indeed, I know many schools where each block lasts a week before moving on.

What I’ve begun to consider is not yet a fully-formed idea, so excuse my thinking ‘out loud’, but I’m wondering now if maybe I need to re-think how I tackle these things. What if next half term I identified just a handful of core skills that I wanted to really allow the children to explore and embed. My initial thoughts are to select just three issues from text, sentence and word level (à la Literacy Hour 1998)

So, for example, I might decide that next half term I’m going to focus on:

  • Developing fuller/more detailed paragraphs
  • Variety in sentence length
  • Use of verbs

Those key ideas can be woven through the themes and genres we’re looking at in a variety of ways, but importantly, in ways which complement one another, and which allow the children to become more proficient at each of them, rather than flitting from one idea to the next. They’re sufficiently broad to allow for a sensible amount of development and differentiation, while still providing a sense of connected learning and practice for all.

My units planned so far for next half are likely to be ghost story-writing, creating a narrative from a comic strip, and then some form of descriptive writing about the locality. Each of those would easily lend itself to all three of those skills – with some particularly strong in different areas – and so perhaps by the time we reached Christmas I might have some students who were really secure in some of the elements of that, rather than having had a taster of lots of techniques, few of which have stuck.

Like I said, it’s not a fully-formed idea yet, so I’d be exceptionally glad of any thoughts and experiences from others who have tried similar things – or think it best avoided. All comments welcome!

[1] If you aren’t already familiar with the Ark Mastery Project, it’s worth taking a look at their website for a brief insight: http://www.mathematicsmastery.org/

Why I’m Striking – the letter I’d like to send to parents

One of the challenges of industrial action is ensuring that the message a group gives is clearly received by the necessary audience. Unfortunately, this is a difficult one for teachers. Firstly, we are generally not in the habit of discussing politics with the parents of the students we teach; much less with the students. Secondly, most Heads – quite reasonably in my opinion – don’t wish to engage with political and industrial issues through the school newsletter other than with the necessary facts. Since teachers are unlikely to start leafleting outside the school gates (although the thought had crossed my mind!), it means that the message parents receive is usually simply that teachers are striking.

So here, addressed to no parents in particularly, is the message I’d like to convey.

Dear Parents,

It is with great regret that I am writing to inform you of my absence from school this week due to industrial action. I realise that this causes considerable inconvenience to you, and for that I am sorry. Unfortunately I feel that my colleagues and I have few other options remaining to us to make clear to the government our concerns.

I have spent a good deal of time this term impressing on your children the importance of learning. It is that value which keeps me teaching each day, and which drives me to provide the best possible lessons I can for your children. I frequently appreciate the value that you as families also place on learning and the work which we undertake in school. Sadly, such support has not been felt from the national government.

Pay is rarely a draw in teaching. Few teachers would rate its importance in choosing their careers, and frequently I am told by parents and others that no amount of money would bring them into the profession. Nevertheless, like all other professions, ours is feeling the squeeze. Teachers understand that in times of austerity pay rises are rare, and indeed pay freezes common. However, in the case of teachers the central government has long been able to plunder the teachers’ pension fund for its own end and now expects teachers to make up the shortfall. Or rather, to continue to top up the treasury. Tens of billions of pounds more have been paid into the teachers’ pension fund than have been paid out, yet some teachers are being asked to double their pension contributions, work for several years longer, and receive less in their pension in return.

But pay, as I say, is very rarely a key factor in a teacher’s role. Rather, most teachers I work with are keen to do as much as they can to support your children’s learning. Sadly, this too is undervalued by the current government. I will be spending my “strike day” fully engaged in work. I shall be able to dedicate time to detailed marking, feedback and target-setting for the children in my class. This is an essential part of my role, but one for which the current Education Minister does not think teachers need time. Currently teachers receive some protected time to ensure that this vital work is done. It is usually less than 3 hours per week; a small amount in the 50- or 60-hour week of the average teacher, but vital time all the same. Removing this entitlement would only worsen my ability to help your children make progress.

In addition, the government would happily see changes that removed teachers’ right to a lunch break, to demand that teachers cover lessons at short notice in subjects which they have no knowledge of, and return to spending their time on administrative tasks like collecting dinner money and filing attendance records. All of these tasks, while important to the running of our school, would only have a negative impact on the time and energy teachers have available to plan lessons and support students.

It is always difficult for a teacher to take action which they know could be detrimental to the students in their care. Equally, few employees of any sort can afford to take unpaid time off. However, on this occasion my colleagues and I have decided that the loss of pay is a sacrifice worth making to make clear our point that we wish to be supported in providing the best possible education for your children. We can only apologise for the fact that this on-going refusal of government to engage teachers and their unions has led to this action.

I shall, of course, look forward to welcoming back your children on Friday and continuing to pursue our shared goal of providing them with excellent, well-planned learning opportunities. I hope you will feel able to continue to support us in that work.