Monthly Archives: March 2015

You can have too much of an Outstanding thing

I’ve never been a fan of the “Outstanding” label. I’m generally of the view that Ofsted would be much better focusing its energies on simply whether or not schools meet a required standard.
But in recent years the reverence afforded to schools which have at some point been graded as Outstanding has begun to far outstrip that which they necessarily deserve. And perhaps more importantly, the scrutiny which they are given does not match the freedoms they are afforded.
The decision to exempt Outstanding schools from inspection was always a mistake. We know from inspections forced upon previously Outstanding schools that they can slip from the pedestal – some dropping directly into RI or a category. Yet we continue to allow some schools to work for years unexamined. That’s particularly surprising considering the changes due to come in from September for ‘Good’ schools. The new ‘light-touch’ one-day review process could – indeed should – have been extended to all Outstanding schools too. Currently schools can trade for too long on an Outstanding label undeservedly. How soon would a desk analysis pick up weakness? When the school slipped so far as to Require Improvement? Only when things a more serious?
And perhaps none of this would be so problematic if it weren’t for the power we afford these schools. Teaching Schools must be Outstanding; when Ofsted looks for new additional inspectors, it turns only to Good and Outstanding schools; headteacher representatives on regional boards are drawn exclusively from Outstanding academies. If you’re fortunate enough to inherit a strong school, then barring disaster, the world is your Oyster.
But notice, none of these rules require Outstanding individuals. Rather it is those associated with Outstanding schools that are lauded. What of the excellent headteacher who has turned around three failing schools to make them consistently Good? Or the headteacher who leads his school through astounding challenges from external influences? Do these deserve less influence than the fortunate individual who inherits a school that happened to be Outstanding in 2007? How long can we keep this up. Is a ten-year-old Outstanding grade under completely different leadership still valid? Fifteen years?
The decision by Ofsted raises particular doubts. Most colleagues welcome the inclusion of more practising school leaders in inspection teams, but are leaders who are themselves exempt from inspection really the best candidates for the role? As the inspectorate attempts to salvage its reputation from the nonsense of preferred methodology and approaches, are the headteachers who profited under the older, increasingly discredited, system really likely to be the drivers of change?
Of course, there will be many headteachers who have turned schools around in difficult circumstances, and whose wisdom and experience we out to use art the system level. But let’s not confuse outstanding headteachers with Outstanding schools; the two are not always synonymous.

As an aside, it’s worth noting that the threshold to reach Outstanding may just become a little more challenging from September, in terms of inspection if not quality. Good schools will face a single day’s inspection to check they are still good before being hit with a further two-day visit to complete a full Section 5 inspection to consider whether they are outstanding. One might wonder if there aren’t incentives there for school leaders who want to be left alone to do their job well to ensure that they aren’t at risk of being thought outstanding. Increasingly we see good heads aiming for their own excellence rather than that of the Ofsted ilk. Might we miss out on more good systems leaders simply because they refuse to play the Ofsted game?

Why the Assessment Commission needs a teacher

I didn’t realise that this was going to be contentious.

I have stated already that I think that the new Assessment Commission is a good commission and I think the representatives included are good choices, but that it lacks the important input of a classroom teacher.

It seems that the reason for this isn’t always obvious to everyone, so let me set out my views clearly.

I have a lot of time for headteachers. I recognise that many of them have been excellent classroom teachers and that running a school well needs experience of a whole host of skills including good teaching and assessment. I recognise that the headteachers chosen for the panel have excellent records and doubtless are well thought-of by their teachers. I recognise that they will know well the challenges of classroom teaching from their own point of view and will be aware of much of what their own classroom teachers experience.

However, every headteacher I have ever worked for has also recognised that the roles are different. Indeed, more than one has stated that they no longer feel that they would be up to the job of a full-time classteacher. Of course, they’re probably wrong, but they recognise that their lack of recent experience of those demands of the role affect the matter. That’s not to say that they’ve become less skilled; it simply recognises that the demands on a headteacher’s time and skill are very different.

There are parallels to be drawn. I consider myself to be an excellent classroom teacher, but I recognise that a KS1 or Early Years specialist would bring very different knowledge and understanding about teaching & learning to a discussion than I would. Different people have different strengths, but also different viewpoints and experiences which are valuable.

Let me stress again, I have no complaint about the inclusion of any person so far on the commission panel. What I am concerned about is the lack of an actual classroom practitioner.

It’s worth noting that the other big focus of the department these past few months has been on workload. Assessment was identified as a significant factor in classroom teachers’ workload, and one of the conclusions of the DfE’s analysis was that in some cases decisions made by school leaders were causes of additional workload.

Again, I’m not suggesting that these particular headteachers are so out of touch as to have nothing to offer; merely I recognise – as, it seems, does the DfE – that the viewpoint of headteachers is sometimes different from that of classroom teachers. And I’d further argue, therefore, that the inclusion of at least one classroom practitioner would have been a valuable addition to the commission.

That isn’t intended to detract from the good work that the current members have done in the past, or to imply that they are incapable of empathising with and representing the views of teachers well. But the reality is that few of the members of the commission – if any – have recent experience of the actual tasks being discussed. Yes, they look at tracking data, and support teachers, but they aren’t responsible for the regular acting of setting tasks, marking work, making assessments, identifying next steps and targeting interventions. Those are the bread-and-butter of good assessment.

By failing to recognise the importance of the classroom teacher in the most important aspects of assessment, we undermine the most important message of this whole process: that assessment should be about what children can and can’t do, and not driven by the demands of data and tracking.

The inclusion of a practising classroom teacher would not just be a symbolic message (just as the non-inclusion shouldn’t be taken as one). It would be recognition that the work of a classroom teacher in making assessments of children should be at the very core of our aims in everything we do related to assessment.

There is no criticism from me about the people who are on the commission. I think they are good and will do a good job. But I think their work would be supported and strengthened by a practising teacher in their midst. After all, we were promised a teacher-led commission. Surely including a practising teacher isn’t too much to ask?

History Cheat Sheets – the complete set

A little under a year ago, I set out on a project to provide helpful ‘cheat sheets’ for Key Stage 2 teachers faced with tackling a completely unfamiliar curriculum. I had no idea quite how complex the task would be. I was (and indeed remain) no expert in areas such as 10th Century Islamic Civilizations, or the pre-Roman period of British History.

Thankfully, through the wonder of Twitter, I was able to enlist the generous help and support of a number of willing volunteers, and finally I am delighted to have published a full set of 12 support sheets for each of the statutory and optional areas of the KS2 curriculum.

Credit for their various efforts must go to those who went to the effort of researching, preparing and compiling the sheets for their various strands – it is no mean feat:

Ilona Aronovksy @aron_ovsky

Kim Biddulph @schprehistory

Dr Richard Farrow @FarrowMr

Alison Leach @StoneAgeKS2

Jo Pearson @JoPearson3

Tim Taylor @imagineinquiry

I am eternally grateful for their help, and I know that that will be echoed by many in schools up and down the country. The whole project feels like a testament to the profession, and I couldn’t be more proud!

The final booklet can be downloaded from this link, and can also be found on the Free Resources page along with various other bits and pieces.

I hope folk find it useful.

Dear Assessment Commissioners…

Today we found out who would be on the new Assessment Commission to support schools, and I’ll confess to being slightly disappointed. Not just because I wanted to be on it (any opportunity to make people listen to me!), but because having been promised a teacher-led commission, there isn’t a single practising teacher on the commission. Headteachers are all well and good, but the reality is that very few headteachers have direct responsibility for assessment; I’m not suggesting for a second that they don’t have a place on the commission, but someone who has actual daily responsibility for working with the ins-and-outs of assessment in the classroom seems to me a glaring omission.

I’m also disappointed that despite the primary sector making up 2/3rds of the relevant year groups for which assessment without levels, and the fact that levels was the basis of our statutory end-of-school assessment, the sector seems rather poorly represented.

That said, I do not suppose that the commission will be a bad one. I have a lot of time for many of its members, and know that representatives such as Dame Alison Peacock will serve the primary sector well. I am sure that they will all treat the role with the importance it deserves and attempt to do their best to support and enable schools. And it is with that mind that I offer unto them my thoughts on what they should and should not do as part of the commission

The biggest issue

I’ve done lots of work up and down the country this year looking at assessment without levels. In every case I’ve pointed out to schools, family groups, local authorities and others that the capacity already exists within the system for high quality assessment systems. Schools are already filled with qualified and experienced teachers who well know how to assess learning.

Yet there is still a sense of paralysis. School leaders are not yet taking the bull by the horns either to buy in or create assessment approaches. In almost every case, that paralysis is caused by the fear of accountability. Not because school leaders are fearful of being held accountable, but because they fear making educationally-sound decisions which then don’t marry up with the statistical demands of local authorities, the department and Ofsted. But at local authority level, the fear is the same: they daren’t advise schools about models or approaches, because they too are in the dark about what Ofsted will expect.

The issue that comes up time and again is measuring progress. Schools largely feel confident about assessing children’s learning. By and large they are happy about making judgements about attainment -although the changing goal posts of the Performance Descriptors haven’t helped that. What worries schools is the need to demonstrate progress between and within year groups across primary schools.

Note, the issue is not about children making progress, but about demonstrating it to outside agencies. We are so caught up in the APS model, and so used to being held to account on the basis of the tiniest blip in tiny samples of data, that everyone fears what might come next. It is all well and good for the DfE to say that schools should have free reign, and for Ofsted to say that they’ll work with what schools have, but until the days of the first inspection reports, school leaders feel paralysed.

Of course, the reality is that part of the reason for removing levels was exactly the crazy system of trying to measure progress through steps and bands. But schools did not impose that system upon themselves; that was driven by Ofsted and the department. The most pressing and urgent matter for the commission to turn its attention to is clarity from both overseers about what will be expected from schools.

School leaders are still fully expecting to be asked for half-termly data, showing steps of progress. They know that this is not how learning works – they always have – but the system has been in place so long that they cannot believe that it won’t be demanded again.

The commission should be honest about this. We know from publications from the new Education data lab this week that progress is simply not linear. If that is true over the long scale of several key stages, then it is undoubtedly more so over short periods such as a single term or half-term. The idea that progress can be measured in step every 6 weeks should quickly be debunked, and more rounded approaches put in place. That certainly makes things harder for schools in categories to show rapid improvement, and for external agencies to spot potential weaknesses… but the old system allowed those judgements to be made on the basis of very poor evidence.

Once that’s sorted…

If the issue of what will be expected in terms of demonstrating progress cannot be dealt with, then little else that the commission achieves will be worthwhile. The power of Ofsted to dictate practice – however unwittingly – cannot be underestimated.

So let’s presume that we get some clarity on this front. What else needs to be addressed?

Firstly, I’d like to see a set of meaningful principles set out that will help to guide school leaders. Naturally, I offer my own 7 questions as good starting point, but would welcome any improvement and addition to them that supported schools. Suffice it to say, I also think the DfE’s own effort could be improved upon considerably.

What else?

Importantly, the commission needs to recognise the weakness it suffers from in not having in practising teachers on board. We know only too well how work done in isolation can lead to a well-intentioned method becoming an unmanageable nightmare in practice. This could not be truer than with assessment. There are already plenty of good examples around of unwieldy systems that claim to be based on best practice, but which give little consideration to the workload of a typical teacher.

One of the mercies of the existing system was that – with experience – a teacher could bypass all the admin and simply use their professional knowledge to estimate a reasonable sub-level assessment. If some of the systems that provide endless ticklist items and minuscule ‘steps of progress’ are encouraged, then doubtless the nightmare of APP that Liz Truss was so happy to condemn will soon become a fond memory for teachers.

Dylan Wiliam explains this very well in his excellent article in Teach Primary magazine:

A school’s assessment system could assess everything students are learning, but then teachers would spend more time assessing than teaching. The important point here is that any assessment system needs to be selective about what gets assessed and what does not

This principle is particularly important because of the haphazard way in which the National Curriculum has been constructed. There is repetition in the English curriculum, and a lack of clarity between statutory and non-statutory content in the Maths. These two central elements of the primary curriculum are too jumbled in their statutory form to simply form the basis of all assessment.

The ‘Don’t do’ list

The commission must not recommend solutions. Guiding principles are great for supporting schools. However, if a DfE-commissioned group is seen to endorse a particular product, or group of products, then these will become the de facto expectations in schools. Schools which have good systems in place will feel compelled to throw out valuable work to conform to the recommendations. Good examples may well illustrate effective approaches, but the commissions reports must be careful to emphasise where these are examples, not exemplars.

Furthermore, the commission must not flinch from criticising approaches and methods which are unsound. I say this knowing that I have made my own suggested approach widely known, and yet recognise that it is flawed. The commission must not let its support be tempered by kindness to effort or concern for commerce. If a system is bad in some way, then it must be pointed out. If an approach has flaws, then we must be honest about them. The reality is that probably all assessment systems are flawed; it is only in recognising these flaws that we come to understand the strengths and weaknesses of what we’re working with.

The commission must not act as the DfE’s agent, or be fearful of encroaching on the work of Ofsted. If advice needs to be given to schools – or directly to the department or its agencies – then the commission must do so, and do so clearly. It will not have escaped the attention of the teaching community that many of the members of the commission are already well-known for working with the government and/or sharing its aims. The commission – if not teacher-led – must at least be seen to have the interests of the profession and its students as its first priority.

Finally, it is important that the commission is clear about the role of assessment. I have repeatedly revisited the mantra that Tracking is not the same as Assessment. The difference here is particularly significant given the role of headteachers on the commission. School leaders understandably have a desire and need for tracking data: their careers rest on the next set of results, and being able to predict them is important. However, the bread-and-butter of good teaching and learning is based much more on assessment – knowing what a child can and can’t do. The commission should primarily concern itself with assessment, before identifying how such assessments can be used to support tracking.

Is that it?

One final disappointment of today’s announcement is that we still don’t have sight of the terms of reference of the commission. This is significant, because the areas in which they could work are expansive. I hope that terms will be published imminently.

Doubtless that once they are, I may find new things that need raising, and similarly as any reports emerge from the commission, I am sure there will be more to say.

Of course, one advantage of not being on the commission is the ability to say these things with impunity, and to pronounce publicly on the outcomes of any reports. I wish the commissioners good luck with this mammoth task – and look forward to challenging them thoroughly and constantly to ensure that their work brings benefits for the education of children in our schools – and hopefully their teachers!

Sins of the classroom revisited…

Personalisation and differentiation is the order of the day isn’t it?

Imagine a year five classroom, where the teacher has identified the progress every child has made, and tailored the lesson for each of them. When the main input begins, some are straight off to a task, while others stay on for extra support after the teaching. In the main session some are working in small groups, others work independently but on a common task, while some have a specific task just for them to meet their needs, whether more or less able. Some form of self-assessment lets the children identify their own success, and when children struggle they can call on professional support for near-immediate personalised feedback; when work is progressing well, a new challenge is set.

Sounds almost too good to be true doesn’t it? An outstanding lesson, maybe?

Peak MathsIt describes some of my year five maths lessons pretty well. But I don’t mean my, naturally, excellent teaching… I’m talking about me, as a second-year in middle school under the tutelage of Miss Ashworth. With the aid of Peak Maths. The form of self-assessment we used was checking the answer book. And the personalised feedback? We could line up at the desk for help when we were going wrong.

We wouldn’t countenance it, would we? It’d be lucky to scrape RI, let alone outstanding. Can you imagine offering such an experience up for your appraisal observation? Although I can’t quite put my finger on why.

Now, I’m not proposing an “it never did me any harm” line here. I was only 9 so maybe I missed some aspect that would make it unacceptable. But doesn’t it show something about where we’ve ended up? There are plenty of schools who would happily demand 5 different activities for different abilities, why not 6… Or 12? You could do that with Peak. The kids who got it could get on, those who needed more support got it. It sounds almost idyllic.

Of course, reality is that times change, and every system has its flaws. But is it just possible that there were some positives here?

Would a couple of minutes waiting for personalised help in a queue (a sight you’d never see in today’s Ofsted-ready classrooms) be a better use of time than children working on a low-level task to ensure that enough levels of differentiation were evident?

Would a bit of time working from a text book be more constructive than rolling dice to make questions, the answers to which your teacher won’t check until the next day?

Might the opportunity for immediate feedback for all help to reduce the marking workload of teachers while supporting the learning of children?

I’m not suggesting we all run every lesson like this – Miss Ashworth certainly didn’t. But might we do well to stop and question whether or not our “improvements” are quite as great as we imagine? Maybe the occasional queue at the teacher’s desk might not be such a bad thing?