Monthly Archives: April 2014

Assessment: It’s been a long journey… and we’re not there yet!

Just over three years ago, in the early months of the coalition government, Michael Gove appointed an expert panel to advise him on the development of the National Curriculum. It included in its remit the requirement to consider “what, if anything, should replace existing attainment targets and level descriptors to define better the standards of attainment children should reach, and be assessed against, at various points through their education“.

In December 2011, (after some controversy) the Expert Panel reported and made some clear statements and recommendations:

We […] emphasise the importance of establishing a very direct and clear relationship between ‘that which is to be learned’ and all assessment (both formative and ongoing, through to periodic and summative)

Taking this approach has much greater technical and practical integrity, and is likely to improve both learning and assessment. The key challenge will be to write Attainment Targets that are as few and concise as possible in the choice and expression of ‘essential’ learning outcomes. We do not want to encourage the promulgation of huge numbers of atomistic and trivial statements of attainment that characterised earlier versions of the National Curriculum.

The focus of ‘standard attained’ should be on these specific elements, rather than a generalised notion of a level. In plain language, all assessment and other processes should bring people back to the content of the curriculum

As the research on feedback shows, summary reporting in the form of grades or levels is too general to unlock parental support for learning, for effective targeting of learning support, or for genuine recognition of the strengths and weaknesses of schools’ programmes

It seems quite clear that what was intended was an assessment structure which allowed attainment to be recorded with specific and clear reference to material covered and learned, that clear objective-focussed assessment would be more effective in all manners than levels or scores.

However, what we saw in the last few weeks proposed by the DfE for assessment at the end of each Key Stage, and implied for the intervening years, was a replacement of levels with scaled scores. Rather than moving from broad assessment focuses to specific one, the direction of travel has been reversed, moving from broad descriptors to unrelated figures. One can only presume that the members of the expert panel have long side given up any hope of their words being heeded, since so many of their recommendations have already been disregarded.

This leaves us at a worrying fork in the road, and a fork at which school leaders must decide whether to take the Secretary of State at his word – and take the responsibility he claims to offer for teachers to take the lead – or to be led by the department’s misdirection towards a strictly numerical threshold for recording achievement. The challenge is great. As schools are under increasing pressure to meet standards set by the department, many leaders will fear to tread in an innovative direction that is supported by the evidence, only later to find themselves castigated for doing so.

We might reasonably have expected by now that some guidance might have been given about assessment systems. The DfE have managed a measly single A4 sheet with vague statements of guidance which offers little. I suggest my own 7 Questions to ask of any new assessment scheme. Hopefully we might this week hear about who has been successful in applying for the rather tardy Assessment Innovation Fund, but even then, the time it will take for those schemes to come to useful fruition.

This is already a challenging time for schools, and government has made it no easier for us to chart a path through the stormy seas ahead. One thing is certain: as I have said many times before, we must as a profession take the Secretary of State and his department at their word.

Earlier this month, Liz Truss gave a speech about the freedoms the department intend to provide. Let’s take up the offer:

Teachers have more influence than ever over their own profession.
And that means they can focus on what really matters: a better education for our children.

Optimus Education Conferences: Effective Primary Assessment after Levels

I will be presenting a keynote speech on primary assessment after levels as part of a training conference organised by Optimus, which also features Mick Walker (former QCDA Director of Education), Caroline Barker (DfE Policy Lead for Assessment) and various other speakers from schools who are already working on alternative assessment schemes. For details of the day, see the link here.

Readers of this blog who wish to attend the conferences in either London (21 May) or Birmingham (18 June) can obtain a 20% discount by booking with promotional code: MTIDD

Free Schools, Ofsted and Twitter (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly*)

*not necessarily in that order

Talk on Twitter tonight is of the newly-released Ofsted report which indicates that Greenwich Free School requires improvement. I don’t know the school at all, and don’t, therefore, intend to argue the rights and wrongs of the situation. Nevertheless, a few things spring to mind.

1. Free Schools have a tough audience

This is not their fault. Unfortunately, the way in which the Secretary of State for Education and his colleagues spoke about Free Schools before they were even up-and-running implied that they would, by the very virtue of their existence, be better than “ordinary” schools, raising standards all round and suchlike. Unfortunately, this inevitably upset and alienated may in the state sector who interpreted as a denigration of the work they did.

Reality has, rather unsurprisingly, indicated that free schools are – like all schools – liable to come in all forms and have all manner of amounts of success. The unfortunate consequence of the government’s claims for its schools is that any indication of this normality is ceased upon by opponents. It isn’t fair, but I’m afraid the blame lies squarely in the government’s court on this one. They started it.

Some of the ‘gloating’ that has been described on Twitter is a shame, but it is also wholly predictable. Many of those people will only see their shouts in the calling out the Emperor as he stands in his “new clothes”.

2. Internal data is always tricky

Many of those who support the work of the GFS are keen to point out the challenges presented by having only two year groups in school, and a lack, therefore, of any external data. I’m afraid my sympathy here is limited. I am a middle-school teacher by training (and heart), and so have only ever worked in schools where internal data has been key in determining progress and outcomes, and where Ofsted judgements could depend heavily on an inspector’s interpretation (or even notice taken) of that data.

There are middle schools in the country which are judged on data from KS2 tests after they’ve had their children for just over 2 terms. Everything for their remaining 6-10 terms is necessarily internal. It means middle school leaders have to work hard to ensure that their data is reliable. It means the National Middle Schools’ Forum has had to collate its own data to support schools about outcomes. It means that as a leader I scour all manner of sources to desperately try to find data against which we could reliably compare our school. It means I sought out supporting evidence from partner schools about moderation and other work we’d done to demonstrate the robustness of our internal systems when Ofsted came to call.

So it’s quite possible that GFS were caused unreasonable damage because of the lack of national systems to account for schools that only go up to Y8. But it certainly isn’t the first: every middle school in the land faces that battle.

3. Year 7 (and 8) data is tricky too (with or without levels)

One of the documents I picked apart as a middle school middle-leader was the thrillingly-entitled DfE Research Report “How do pupils
progress during Key Stages 2 and 3?” (DFE-RR096 if you’re interested). When final outcomes for a school are your Y7 pupils, then national comparisons are hard. There is lots of evidence about a ‘Year 7 dip’, but much less detail about how it plays out in schools and classrooms. But those comparisons were vital for us. It was essential that I knew that progress is significantly more ‘dippy’ in Reading than Writing or Maths. I had to scan every table and chart trying to interpret data in ways that were meaningful for comparison within just KS3. I also spent a great deal of time looking at assessment structures, discussing with other schools and finding out as much as I could about the progress children make in reality during Year 7, as opposed to the straight-line imagined from KS2 to KS4.

Whether GFS had used National Curriculum levels or not, the challenge for any school using non-standard outcome points (i.e. not KS1, KS2 or KS4) is to be able to know the story of your students *and* to know the comparison with others nationally. It’s much harder than the (relatively) simple task of comparing national results, but it is not less important. Perhaps it is even more so?

4. Playing the long game can backfire short-term (Be warned about PRP!)

Perhaps it’s inevitable that a new school looks to build itself over the longer term. Perhaps at the start of the GFS the focus was so much on setting the groundwork for outstanding learning and progress over the five-year period up to GCSE and beyond, that some short-term actions didn’t necessarily lead to short-term gains. There are plenty of examples of things teachers and schools can do to boost their results in the short-term, that don’t necessarily pay off over a period. Equally, there are good actions that could be taken for which rewards might not be reaped for some years. Maybe when their first cohort reaches GCSE, the evidence will show that the judgements made were right, and Ofsted’s interpretation was wrong. Perhaps that should be a warning to all of us of the risks of performance-related pay amongst other things?

5. Some things are universal

Greenwich will not be the only school to have had progress of particular groups highlighted as an issue. In this case it seems both internal data and the Ofsted judgement identify weaknesses in progress for various groups. The most recent frameworks have been very hot on this, and all schools – no matter how small their cohorts – face the same challenges. It doesn’t make this judgement any more or less fair than any other. It’s just the nature of the beast at the moment and isn’t unique to (or absent from) free schools.

6. Parental support counts for a lot

This is generally true in any case, but perhaps particularly when Ofsted come calling. If the parents are supportive of the direction of the school, then an RI judgement will be far less problematic than otherwise. Many of those parents will consider that Ofsted has its own failings and will continue to work with the school. If parents feel that Ofsted has confirmed their fears about a school and its leaders failing, then you’ve really got your work cut out.

7. All in all, a school’s a school

This is just a personal opinion, but no label, no status, no structure, no leader even, is enough on its own to create an exceptional school. And it’s even harder to do so overnight. Time will tell, but it’s quite clear that free schools are not some panacea to the problems of state education. They’re just schools.


KS2 History ‘cheat sheet’ resources

This is an old blog post. The full History Cheat Sheet Resource set can now be downloaded from the Free Resources page.

Download the Prehistory example

Download the Prehistory example

With the significant changes coming into the primary history curriculum from September, I am aware that I have several gaps in my own subject knowledge and know of many colleagues who feel similarly. Having been pondering this for a while, I set out to try to create a sort of “cheat sheet” of key facts about some of the historical periods.

I created a sample A4 page of information about the prehistory period to see what people thought, and it was widely welcomed. Since that time, a few other kindly folk on Twitter offered up their time to work on other periods, such that we hope to produce 12 such spreads.

Thanks to the excellent work of Kim Biddulph of @schprehistory, Tim Taylor (@imagineinquiry), Rich Farrow (@farrowmr), Ilona Aronovsky (@aron_ovsky) and Jo Pearson (@jopearson3)many of these have now been completed, and so I’ve provided them here. Hopefully further examples will appear over the coming weeks. Eventually, we hope to complete a full set of 12 spreads about each of the statutory and optional units.

British History (all statutory)

Unit 1 – Prehistory
with thanks to Kim Biddulph of

Unit 2 – Roman Britain
with thanks to Tim Taylor of

Unit 3 – Anglo-Saxons & Scots

Unit 4 – Anglo-Saxons & Vikings

Ancient Civilizations (schools must teach Greece and one other)

Unit 5 – Ancient Greece

Unit 6 – Ancient Sumer

Unit 7 – Indus Valley
with thanks to Ilona Aronovsky of

Unit 8 – Ancient Egypt

Unit 9 – Shang Dynasty of Ancient China
with thanks to Kim Biddulph of

World Civilizations (schools must teach one)

Unit 10 – Early Islamic Civilisation (Baghdad)
with thanks to Rich Farrow

Unit 11 – Mayan Civilisation
with thanks to Rich Farrow

QTS as a ‘Good Thing’

This topic comes round every now and then, usually when brought up by a politician. As ever, there are those who will argue on both sides, but as so often is the case, there is a confusion surrounding what is being argued about – probably not helped by a 140-character limit for those debating on Twitter. So here’s my two-penneth.

Firstly, there is a great lack of clarity at every level, from parents and classroom teachers, right through to Secretary of State: QTS is not training. QTS is not synonymous with PGCE. If there are arguments to be had, then we need to tackle these things separately.

Qualified Teacher Status is awarded to those who are deemed to meet a set of required standards. Over the past ten or so years, there has been a boom in the number of routes available to QTS, all with their proponents and detractors. But the common core is the list of 8 teaching standards:

  1. Set high expectations which inspire, motivate and challenge pupils
  2. Promote good progress and outcomes by pupils
  3. Demonstrate good subject and curriculum knowledge
  4. Plan and teach well structured lessons
  5. Adapt teaching to respond to the strengths and needs of all pupils
  6. Make accurate and productive use of assessment
  7. Manage behaviour effectively to ensure a good and safe learning environment
  8. Fulfil wider professional responsibilities

Surely nobody is suggesting that any of these is superfluous to good quality teaching? Or even detrimental to it? Perhaps those who argue for (or support) the removal of the QTS requirements ought to be asked to identify exactly which of those 8 requirements it is that they are opposed to?

In fact, the appraisals regulations for maintained schools require that those standards be considered for all teachers, not just those qualifying. It seems to me that they are a perfectly reasonable set of requirements for teachers to meet.

With regards to training routes, my view now is that the route you take into teaching is of no interest or significance to me or really to anybody else. However, if you cannot demonstrate that you can meet those standards, then I also wouldn’t want you teaching any child of mine.

There may well be arguments to had about the relative merits of training routes, balance of time in school and at university, links to meaningful research, etc. But those are other issues, not related to whether or not we require QTS in our schools.

I do not believe for a second that there are excellent teachers out there who feel unable to work in schools because of ‘burdensome’ requirements. The QTS requirements are straightforward, reasonable and, in my opinion, appropriate.

If there are problems with training courses and routes, then by all means let’s tackle them – but here is definitely a case where the separation of baby and bathwater is key.

New Primary Curriculum: Collected Articles

Download the booklet and please share freely

Download the booklet and
please share freely

Over the last year I have put together several posts on this blog which have hopefully supported some schools in preparing for the new curriculum. However, I’m becoming increasingly aware of how many schools and school leaders are not yet at all engaged with Twitter and blogging and so are not really accessing such things.

In an effort to reach that wider audience (and maybe bring a few more teachers & leaders online) I have compiled a short booklet containing four of what I think are the most useful blogs I’ve written about the new primary curriculum, and some signposts for other information.

Please, do encourage people to share the link to this page, or to download the booklet and email it on to others, or even to print out copies to share if it’s convenient!

You can download by clicking the image, or directly from this link:

Preparing for the new curriculum booklet

The rights and wrongs of Truss on Teaching, Testing & Textbooks

Last week I was on holiday. I was happy to be, but it meant missing the opportunity to meet with Liz Truss and a team at the DfE. A few days later, Mrs Truss gave a speech which clearly outlined her views. It’d be easy to say she was wrong about everything, but I’d like to unpick a bit more about it – even if it is a week old now!

APP – right, but for the wrong reasons.

Firstly, APP did not appear with the National Strategies in 1998. In fact, it was around 10 years later that – with the best of intentions – the Assessment for Learning strategy set out on creating the behemoth.

And here’s the problem. It’s all very well of a minister to say that the government no longer requires things – or to claim to have got rid of them. But the reality is that Ofsted even now are well known for expecting lengthy paper trails of evidence to support judgements. Mrs Truss can argue all she likes – quite rightly – for the return of teacher professionalism. Unfortunately for her, few of us worry about her turning up in our classrooms to judge us! Her claim to be freeing up teachers is well-intentioned, but meaningless.

Testing – more wrong than right.

Mrs Truss is quite right to explain that level descriptors “didn’t relate directly to what pupils had been taught” and that this made them unhelpful. However, she is quite wrong to suggest that the new scaled score of 100 improves matters. For a start, let’s be clear that telling a parent that a child scored 101 on a scaled score test gives no more information than telling them they had achieved Level 4. Indeed, arguably the veneer of precision only muddies the water. After all, if a child scores 101 on one test than 99 on the next, has his performance or ability worsened? What of the child who scores 110 and then 90? At what point do the figures become significant?

Of course, the reality for parents will be that the figures only become significant in one of two ways: by comparison to 100 (with 101 deemed positive, 99 perhaps less-so), or by comparison with peers.

What worries me most about what Mrs Truss said, though, was in a small comment that perhaps belies her true intentions:

“And it’s consistent across year groups.”

National government only has the remit of setting assessment methods and outcomes for the end of each Key Stage. How does she know whether it will be consistent across year groups? Surely that would be for schools to decide? Of course, the reality is that many will look to Ofsted and the department because they know that it is their expectations against which they will be judged. Publishers, too, will look for a lead from ‘authorities’ before selling their products. Mrs Truss tells us that it’s “a much more sensible way to track progress”. She offers no evidence for this claim: I suspect there isn’t any, but you can guarantee that publishers will follow her lead rather than mine.

Mrs Truss should be under no illusion: levels were not perfect, but scaled scores achieve no improvement on the old system at all: they offer no clarity about what has been taught or learned; an old problem remains in that it was “unclear what counted as which band”, as Mrs Truss complains was the problem with levels; and parents will continue to struggle to make sense of them as before, where they: “struggled to understand how their children were actually doing”.

Of course, if government really wanted to leave teachers professionalism at the core, then they would recognise that the business of judging schools and national standards is quite separate from the process of assessing individuals, and should firmly keep its nose out of the latter.

That’s not to say that tests can’t be a very useful tool in assessing progress; indeed I’ve argued before that they can be. I’m merely pointing out that if Mrs Truss is serious about “enabling teachers to take the lead”, then she is going the wrong way about her announcements.

Textbooks – mostly right.

Mrs Truss is quite correct in her claim that there has been something of an “anti-textbook orthodoxy” in the UK, and I would say it is particularly strong in primary schools. The data from TIMSS seems pretty clear about its impact.

I’m not a massive fan of textbooks, but I would probably find myself more in the pro than anti camp. I don’t ever imagine myself following a textbook scheme page-by-page, but then maybe that’s just because I haven’t yet found one that thinks about its teaching sequence very much!

In maths they are probably more common than many other subjects, but the quality is variable. Too often the emphasis has been on colour, or imagery, or ease-of-use rather than quality of material. What I want from a good quality textbook is a well-thought-through bank of questions, exercises and activities. Not pages intended to “teach” – I can do that far more effectively than an expert in a distant office. But I do find some materials – such as the excellent MEP KS3 maths textbooks – really useful. They provide a full range of questions that allows me to provide suitably-differentiated activities without hours of effort.

Textbooks can offer a massive time saving to a teacher if they are used well, and if they are of high enough quality. Unfortunately, the quality is probably suffering because of the small purchasing audience. But even when I look at disappointing textbooks, I can’t help but bear in mind the resources shared on websites such as TES Resources, the quality of which can most favourably be described as inconsistent.

Textbooks themselves are not bad; indeed I would say they can – and should – be an excellent resource in a well-managed classroom.

That’s not to say I support Mrs Truss’s claim that “Teachers now have the freedom to look at the evidence on these materials and others – to work out how to learn from the best – and get on with it.” Teachers have no more “freedom” than they had before, but publishers are probably rubbing their hands with glee: One thing you can certainly say about textbooks is that they are not cheap!

As I’ve said already: Mrs Truss may have the best of intentions about freeing up teachers to act professionally. This speech has not helped her cause.

Mastery Maths in KS2

Around this time last year I started reading about the work of the Ark group and Mathematics Mastery. So it was that as I moved to KS2 in September, I set about leading my year team – and an adjoining one – on a mastery maths journey. We’ve not reached the end-point yet, but it seems to be a hot topic at the moment, and following on from Bruno Reddy’s great blog about how he’d tackled mastery maths at Secondary, I thought it would be worth sharing what we’d done in KS2.

My initial thinking was led by what I’d read about the Ark scheme, and then built on by what I read in Dan Willingham’s excellent “Why don’t students like school?” about how children learn. It was soon put into context by my early experience in KS2. Having moved from KS3 I had previously taught maths sets; now I would be teaching a mixed ability group at a very different level. In KS3 I had previously moved towards what I’d considered to be longer blocks of two or sometimes three weeks on a unit. That had worked quite well for the high ability groups, but it had become clear for others it had still been too much too fast. I hadn’t previously been dealing with the need to teach and learn tables, or introduce area, but it felt like this was a good way of getting it right!

As the new curriculum was on the horizon, it was a useful starting point, and seemed to fit rather well with the mastery approach anyway. I began by mapping out broad units, using a model based very loosely on the Mathematics Mastery secondary curriculum map. It has’t held fast all year, but it provided a perfectly good starting point.

Year 5 Mastery Overview draft

Year 5 Mastery Overview draft

It meant that the first half term of the academic year was spent almost exclusively on place value and addition/subtraction. Within that we drew in elements which related to those skills. So, it seemed a sensible time to tackle in aspects like calculating perimeter, or finding missing angles on a straight line. Interestingly, there are plenty of similarities between our plan and that of KSA, particularly in that first term. See also what it says about separating minimally-different concepts (such as area & perimeter!)

In the Spring term, we took the step of spending a whole half-term on fractions. I’ll be honest, I was nervous about it. It’s never been my favourite area to teach, and rarely is it students favourite area to study. However, the system seems to have paid off. Knowing that we had weeks to spend on it meant that we weren’t afraid to take the time to secure the basics before launching into the higher level skills suitable to their age. And we weren’t abandoning it for another topic just as they were getting into things.

thinkingblocksWhat’s more, I drew on the things I’d seen of the Singapore bar method to really secure understanding of fractional calculations. We’d been using in school as a general problem-solving tool, but it seems that for fractions this approach really comes into its own. It allowed the children clearly to visualise the problems we were tackling, and to secure a much clearer understanding of why mathematical approaches worked. I cannot speak highly enough of the bar model in the context of mastery!

We haven’t been working on this approach for anything like as long as Bruno Reddy’s school, but initial results look positive. We’ve trialled the approach in Years 4 and 5 and seen a substantial improvement in ability to master the key methods, as well as spending more time to drive a focus on number bonds and tables. It seems that the approach will likely be even more successful in data terms once the new KS2 tests begin with the additional arithmetic paper!

Although it’s early days for us, some of the most significant evidence of success has come from the teams teaching the curriculum. Not all were sold on the idea at the beginning, but it has garnered the support and enthusiasm of those involved because it’s working! You can see it in the progress made by groups who traditionally do well, but perhaps more importantly in the successes of those learners who might traditionally have found making progress more challenging!

There’s still plenty to iron out and tweaks to be made over the coming years as different cohorts come up with different experiences. I still don’t think I’ve spent enough time and effort on securing number bond and tables knowledge – despite finding myself in every week’s work saying at some point “Now, can you see why it helps to know your tables?”. I still think we can do more to incorporate the important stages of concrete and representational development before the abstract. It’s not perfect yet.

But I can no longer imagine teaching any other way. Five years ago I was arguing that we needed to move away from week-long planning for maths; now I’d argue that anything less than six weeks is probably doing our students a disservice!

Ask me next summer how it’s paying off in terms of KS2 results!