Monthly Archives: May 2015

Top dog? No, thanks!

This morning, Sean Harford posted a fascinating question on Twitter:

And so I wrote this:

When I was looking for a deputy post, I couldn’t help but notice how few there were compared to the number of headships being advertised. I came to the conclusion that many people were reaching the position of deputy… And then sitting tight.

I deliberately sought out schools that Ofsted deemed to Require Improvement. Having been on the journey to Good as a middle leader I’d eventually enjoyed the challenge and the pleasure of reaching that goal (if not necessarily the whole journey). So now I am deputy in an RI-graded school, trying to do everything I can to help the school to improve.

I’m prepared to put in the hours. I’m certainly open to new evidence and approaches. I’m trying as hard as I can to strike the right balance between challenge and support of my colleagues in school.

But you can be sure that if my school’s headteacher decided to pack it all in tomorrow, I wouldn’t be putting my name in the hat!

That’s not to say that I’d never want to be a Head: my mind changes on that pretty much weekly. But who in their right mind would take on that challenge in the knowledge of what fate might befall you if things take a badly-timed turn?

Consider an example RI school. It’s not on a rough inner city sink estate or anything of the sort, but it has its challenges. Attendance is definitely a tougher challenge than in many schools in leafy suburbs. Attainment is definitely lower on intake. Parents naturally want the best for their children, but are not always able to provide it. Recruitment is hugely challenging.

Raising standards in these schools takes the work of the whole school community. But the buck stops in one place.

Imagine such a school gets an unexpectedly bad set of results one year. We know it happens.
And imagine it then gets a badly-led inspection team visit that year. We know it happens.

What then, the consequences for a headteacher who has perhaps been in post for 20 months? The stakes now are massive.

Of course, I’m not arguing that leading ‘Good’ schools is easy. But look at the data on Ofsted outcomes compared to intakes and you can see why the risks might at least be lessened. And true, there’s the risk of being deemed to be coasting now, so perhaps all headships will become equally unappealing in due course, which I guess certainly alters, if not solves, the problem.

But there is a reality to face about schools in challenging circumstances. Firstly they’re not rare. The catastrophic environments that make the press might be, but there are plenty of schools dealing with challenges in their communities and trying to do the best by the families they serve. Secondly, there’s no over-supply of excellent leaders ready to leap in and save them.
And high stakes inspection isn’t always helping.

So what should Ofsted do?

Firstly, I’d like to see new leaders given time. Not unfettered freedom to fail, but time to make the changes that will lead to visible impact before inspectors are forced to nail colours to the mast, and leaders to the cross.

Ideally, Ofsted would still have an involvement with the school. I think the link between an RI school and its HMI should be strengthened. In fact, ideally, I’d like to see all inspections led by an HMI who then remains responsible for any schools put into a category or RI. And that responsibility should be greater than a single check-up after twelve weeks. I’d like to see HMIs visiting at least termly to provide the robust challenge and guidance that may well be needed. That way, the same inspector who made the initial recommendations can also follow up on progress. There is still an issue of HMI having to judge progress against recommendations which they might not really agree with. And perhaps still a case of too many lead inspectors writing reports offering spurious targets for improvement, safe in the knowledge that they’ll be somebody else’s problem.

If inspectors stayed with a school on its journey to Good, then they could offer both challenge and support to leaders – particularly new ones – for up to 2 years before a new inspection takes place.

Of course, schools shouldn’t be allowed to avoid ever being inspected by repeatedly replacing the headteacher. But a linked HMI could recommend further inspection at any time if s/he felt it were needed or appropriate. If a school can be turned around in 12 months then early confirmation could be welcomed; if an HMI recognises progress towards Good is being made at an appropriate rate, then delaying an inspection to allow the school to focus on the task at hand ought not to be feared.

Of course, that means having enough high quality HMI available, and I don’t know if Ofsted yet has that capacity. But if not, perhaps that should be a priority?

Do I think that these changes alone will magic away the recruitment challenge, and encourage all those sitting deputies to step up? Probably not – there’s a lot more needs to be done by DfE ministers to change their tone in that respect… But it would certainly go a way to reducing the risk that we might one day end up with a nation of sitting deputies!

Plus ça change… plus c’est la même chose

The French phrase seems entirely fitting when talking about tackling ‘assessment without levels’. Increasingly it has become clear that having seen levels clearly rejected by experts like Tim Oates and even the DfE themselves, most schools have found themselves re-creating a system in its image. And so it was that I set out to survey a not-entirely-scientific group of twitter users about their tracking systems.

In fact, I was disappointed to be pleasantly surprised by the results of my little poll. Firstly, the easy bit – what tracking programs are schools using? Obviously, on a relatively small sample (325) taken from a poll on Twitter, this isn’t entirely representative, but may be indicative:

TrackersIt’s clear that there are some very popular products, but interesting to see that 6% of responding schools had designed their own system, and over 10% had no system at all. It isn’t clear, of course, whether this 10% have made a decision not to buy something in, or simply haven’t decided which other product to purchase yet.

Removing those who had indicated that they had no tracking system, I then looked with interest at the progress measures used. My fear has been that most schools would have replaced the old system of 1½ sub-level / 3 APS points a year with something very similar. It was for that reason I was so pleasantly surprised that the most popular response from the survey was that systems required no set measure of steps each year. However, those are closely followed by the 3- and 6-step models:


In fact, when I looked more closely, it soon became clear that steps have remainder the dominant model, and the familiar ‘one step per term/half-term’ approach remains the most popular. In fact, this approach accounts for almost half of those who gave an answer, with steps models making up around 2/3 of responses altogether:


In many ways I was reassured by the 1/3 of responses that indicated that there were not a fixed number of steps expected each year. Of course, this may mask systems where people hadn’t realised that would become a factor, but interestingly just in asking I also attracted attention from users and producers of tracking systems who both explained that while systems allowed it, they did not compel it. Indeed, some of the “none” responses indicated that although the system had it as an option, their school had chosen not to use it.

So perhaps we’re seeing the start of a change? The Classroom Monitor twitter feed offered a glimmer of hope:

[tweet 603139342882713600 hide_thread=’true’ align=’center’]

It seems that – as is inevitably the case – providers initially created products that matched schools’ desires for something familiar. But perhaps, now, there will be an opportunity to wean schools off such approaches? Perhaps.

But in the meantime, it seems that a lot of schools have replaced a system of points of levels with something that looks alarmingly familiar.

As I’ve said before: to my mind, the Assessment Commission cannot report soon enough. Let’s hope it puts to bed some of the myths that make schools feel compelled to adopt such systems.

The danger of the ‘expert’

Back in 1998, Andrew Wakefield caused a stir when he produced a long-since discredited article suggesting a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. What resulted included a long-running debate, the retraction of the article by the publishing journal, and the striking off of the surgeon behind it.

But the damage was done. The fact that the original doctor behind the report has been struck off has not removed the problem from history. The reality is that when an ‘expert’ speaks, the average listener does not question his credentials, or investigate their own research: we rely on those offered up as experts to do this work for us and to guide the rest of us.

Now, my point is far less serious than that posed by the MMR controversy, and the mention of it merely illustrative. But there is an issue with ‘experts’ in our profession offering solutions which may actually cause more harm than good.

This week I was attending a conference in London hosted by The Key, at which I was speaking about my approach to assessment without levels. There were other schools represented, also sharing their own models, some of which I thought brilliant, others of which were – to my mind – awful. If nothing else, such events serve to ground me and make clear that I am no oracle.

However, at the same event, David Driscoll – an education consultant who also works as an additional inspector and as an “associate education expert” for The Key – was asked to speak on the topic of “Inspection of Assessment”. He was listed in the brochure as an expert, and the intention was clearly to provide leaders with guidance on managing new assessment systems in an Ofsted-friendly way.

Now, the fact that such reassurance is needed suggests that Ofsted’s messages about not having a pre-determined view on what assessment systems should look like are not yet trusted by the profession; the presentation given by this particular lead inspector demonstrates exactly why that is the case!

To credit Mr Driscoll, he did at least once state the official Ofsted view. However, he then proceeded to explain to delegates that data ought to be presented in standard forms, and that schools would be best advised to keep levels and simply re-write the descriptors.

I was astounded.

He continued to explain that schools needed to choose a starting and end measure and define a fixed measure of expected progress, saying that “you need a number”. Now, perhaps this was evidence of his own limited concept of how assessment and progress works, but it certainly isn’t a message that fits in with the direction of travel in education at the moment. Or at least, it oughtn’t be. But, of course, the problem is that he is “the expert”. And every headteacher there will have had at the back of their mind the realisation that he could have been the lead inspector of their next Ofsted visit.

Worryingly, he also stated with some aplomb that there was only one statutory requirement for reporting to parents (namely that we report on the progress a child has made). Clearly he isn’t familiar with The Education (Pupil Information) (England) Regulations 2005.

This was different to the usual doubts I might have about another school’s approach to assessment without levels. This was not some practising school leader musing on his current thinking (in fact, it appears from his website that Mr Driscoll hasn’t taught for over 25 years). This was someone presented as an expert, offering guidance on how data ought to be managed and presented for the purposes of Ofsted. It was advice that was likely to take priority over much of the other content of the day (including excellent presentations from people such as Katharine Bailey of the CEM at Durham).

It’s true, the problem is not a patch on the risks of poor advice about vaccinations or such things. But the root of the problem is the same: ‘experts’ with a poor message can present more danger than no message at all.

I live in hope that the Assessment Commission set up before the election soon helps to bring some guidance to the profession that quashes the nonsense spouted by ‘experts’ such as this, and ensures that Ofsted is supported to keep its inspectors in line!

For teachers unsure of how best to move forward with assessment, I cannot recommend strongly enough the article by Dylan Wiliam in Teach Primary magazine from last autumn:

Planning Assessment without levels – Dylan Wiliam

Dear Parents…

Dear Parents,

When you receive your child’s report this year, things might not look as clear as they once did. Having spent years getting your head around levels and sub-levels, I’m afraid they are no more. And as much as this might come as a shock to you, believe me, we as a profession were no more prepared for it.

It comes at a time when – as you’ll know – so much else has changed in our schools. Teachers the length and the breadth of the country have been doing our utmost to provide the smoothest and most effective transition for your child as we move from one national curriculum to another, but it hasn’t been easy.

It means that when you receive the report on the attainment of your child at the end of this academic year, the picture may look very different from the past. Children who were comfortably on track for their age will suddenly and unexpectedly appear to be falling behind. Those who were flying high may seem no longer to be.

Your child’s school may well try to explain this in its covering letter. Please be reassured that they are not simply covering their backs, or trying to paper over cracks. The reality is that the goalposts have moved so significantly that it has been impossible to keep on track. Your child may well have made excellent progress this year, and yet still be showing as not yet attaining the required standard.

Treat that with the caution it deserves.

Let me illustrate with an example. In the past, KS2 children who were achieving well in maths might have explored the notion of probability, allocating fractions to likelihoods of events and working out the chance of things occurring. All of that work is now ignored: the new curriculum does not include it, and so the attainment scores will not recognise it. That your child may well have excellent knowledge and skills in this area would count for nothing.

Instead, those same children are now expected quickly to fit in three years’ worth of fractions work that never previously existed. Content that was previously covered in Year 7 and 8, is suddenly now expected of our 10-year-olds. The issue is repeated for aspects across the subjects, and age ranges.

Be reassured too, that as a profession we don’t warn you of these things because we have low expectations or don’t want to strive for these new challenging goals. Already schools are doing their utmost to fill those gaps, to adjust their curricula, to provide the extra direction and support pupils need. But Rome wasn’t built in a day. And similarly, a four-year Programme of Study cannot be covered in 30 weeks.

In time, all of our children will work through the national curriculum at the expected rate, and numbers  of children working at the expected standard will rise. This won’t be a reflection of some brilliant work achieved by the government, but rather of teachers adjusting what they teach to meet the new requirements.

So apologies, parents. We recognise that it’s confusing, indeed worrying in cases. We’ve been confused and worried too. Doubtless your child’s teacher will be able to reassure you of the progress they have made this year, and their school will be able to explain how they’ve set out to change things to meet the new requirements.

But this year more than ever, I’d urge you not to panic when you see the score, or tick-box, or highlighted grade. Take time to read the paragraphs so carefully drafted by your child’s teacher that highlight what your child has achieved and where they need to go next.

There is no need to presume that anyone has failed your child. As ever, teachers will be doing the best to provide the best possible education within the parameters set by the government. If you have worries, then of course, ask. As a profession we don’t yet have all the answers (we’re still waiting, too!) But the teachers who work with your child know much more about them than any grade, score or tick-box will ever tell you.

So read the report, take note of the assessments, but most importantly, think back to how your child has grown this year, and what they now know and can do that is new to them and you. And share your pride with them of what they have achieved.

Let us do the worrying about how we pull together the curriculum to meet their needs: we promise – we’re experts at it.

Teachers tackling the new curriculum and its assessment may find my free resources useful.