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.

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

  1. Fran 15 April 2014 at 6:19 pm Reply

    A very interesting blog, Michael – thank you.

    I was particularly interested in your comments about the use of textbooks. In terms of developing reading and writing at KS2, where do you think the gaps are? I write my own stuff and might have resources that could plug other people’s gaps!

    • Michael Tidd 15 April 2014 at 8:18 pm Reply

      I’m the wrong person to ask, Fran – I’m a mathematician🙂

  2. Helen Rogerson 15 April 2014 at 7:46 pm Reply

    The comments about textbooks are driving me around the twist. Schemes of work created by publishers are being done in a rush. They’ll never be the quality I expect, and therefore I can use straight out of the box/off the CD, if the time for a curriculum change over is as short as this has been.

    • Michael Tidd 15 April 2014 at 8:21 pm Reply

      You make an excellent point, Helen. Such a short implementation period has been disastrous, particularly if publishers are to be expected to fill the void. How long must it take to bring together excellent quality resources – certainly more than a few short months!

  3. Ian Lynch 15 April 2014 at 9:12 pm Reply

    Why not write your own text books? If several colleagues have notes that when combined cover the syllabus you just need to edit and publish on Lulu.com. It’s free. ISBN, professional finish. You only pay for what you print. And of course if you license it for sharing others can up date and edit it and you can also have a web version with dynamic links from key words. If Wikipedia can do it why not the professional teaching community for text books? The you would be free form dependency on publishers and the government for ever.

    • Michael Tidd 15 April 2014 at 9:27 pm Reply

      It’s a tempting suggestion, but it runs the risk of TES-like quality control challenges.

      • Ian Lynch 15 April 2014 at 9:48 pm Reply

        Wikipedia doesn’t have that problem with factual material. I’m rather surprised subject associations don’t take a lead. There are risks in any change, it just depends on how badly people actually want to take back professional control. Truss et al could easily be sidelined with some moderate professional determination, I just think there is an illusion that this dependency on central government is inevitable. It’s a case of if you think you can or think you can’t you are probably right.

  4. Tim Taylor 15 April 2014 at 9:19 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on Primary Blogging.

  5. teachingbattleground 18 April 2014 at 10:06 am Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  6. […] 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 […]

  7. […] seemingly ignorant of the restrictions that the latest release would bring. She also reignited the debate about textbooks with a simplistic call in support. The QTS debate rose once again – rather tiresomely. The […]

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