Monthly Archives: June 2015

What does the expected standard look like?

The DfE won’t have complete performance descriptors available until September, but today they did release the test frameworks for the creators of the National Curriculum tests. And like it or not, we know that the tests will be the all-important markers of attainment at the end of KS2, so the content of the performance descriptors for the tests is important.

So, what will children be expected to be able to do in order to reach the “expected standard” in the KS2 tests? Perhaps it’s easier to pick out some of the content which is not likely to be required. The performance descriptors within the test framework (which are expressly not intended for teacher assessment) outline the “typical characteristics of pupils whose performance in the key stage 2 tests is at the threshold of the expected standard”

Notably for KS2 maths, the performance descriptor doesn’t contain any mention of the following elements of the Year 5/6 mathematics curriculum:

  • Use the rules of order of operations
  • Identify prime numbers (other than knowing those up to 20)
  • Multiply/divide fractions*
  • Convert between metric and imperial units
  • Calculate the area of parallelograms and triangles
  • Calculate, estimate and compare volume of cuboids
  • Illustrate and name parts of circles
  • Recognise vertically opposite angles
  • Recognise and use cube numbers
  • Read Roman numerals (other than on clocks)

That’s not to say that none of these things will come up on the tests. Simply that they don’t feature in the performance descriptor for threshold of “the expected standard”. Presumably, therefore, such things are indicative of students working at a higher level than just meeting the expected standard.

This isn’t to suggest that such things needn’t be taught. Far from it. But it’s worth knowing that in that unmanageable list of things that need to be covered by the end of KS2 (particularly challenging for the current Y5s who’ve had less than a year on the new curriculum), there are some which are perhaps marginally less vital than others!

It’s interesting to make a comparison to the performance descriptor which appears in the Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling test framework. Here virtually the entirety of the Year 6 curriculum content features in the ‘expected standard’ descriptor. The only things I can see that are not include are the subjunctive form, and the use of brackets. It doesn’t seem to leave a lot of room for higher attainers to have any room to demonstrate their additional skill.

It’s interesting. I make no promises though. What you do with this detail is entirely up to you, and I accept no responsibilty. If you want to compare the criteria yourself, the National Curriculum content can be found at www.primarycurriculum.me.uk, and the test frameworks at www.gov.uk/dfe


* The performance descriptor for the tests does include the suggestion that pupils should be “becoming more confident with more complex fraction calculations” – without defining what this means. 

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When is a question not a question?

New test frameworks were published on the GOV.UK website today, setting out the requirements for National Curriculum tests from 2016 onwards. And they contain a couple of surprises to those of us who consider ourselves to be speakers of the English language.

For it appears that no longer is a question defined as “A sentence worded or expressed so as to elicit information”, as your old-fashioned ‘dictionary’ might imagine, but rather as a specifically-structured sentence that meets the need of writers of tests.

“Nonsense!!” you might exclaim. Except that’s not an exclamation either.

“Not an exclamation?” you might ask. But you’d be wrong to do so, since that is no longer a question.

For it seems that the DfE have deemed that exclamations must begin with the word “How” or “What”. So while your dictionary might think that an exclamation is a sudden remark or cry; while the world at large might include “Hello!”, or “Utter nonsense” in this group, it seems that we are collecting in error.

exclamations

So rather than teaching children the real meaning of the word, or bothering the good people at Oxford dictionaries with your queries, remember now that exclamations begin with “how” or “what”. No further questions necessary. (And don’t ask what type of sentence that last one was: it doesn’t exist!)

And as for question… if you thought that intent was what made a question, you’re quite wrong. Questions are only formed in one of three ways.questions

So if you were thinking of teaching any meaningful understand of what a question is, stop yourself right away. That is not your place. Your role is teach the testable definitions. Now, behave!


If you want to put yourself through reading the test frameworks, you can find them after much hunting on the DfE part of the gov.uk website:

https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/national-curriculum-assessments-test-frameworks

Stop teaching simile!

Just this week, the Guardian published an article under the headline: National curriculum is damaging children’s creative writing, say authors.

It struck me as a fairly reasonable article setting out the weird ways in which primary school teachers have ended up teaching creative writing, in order to reach the necessary criteria in the National Curriculum. I would actually argue that the new curriculum – and the removal of levels – has done something to remove those perverse incentives, but it’s going to take a while for change to filter through the system. So I’d like to start with a small step of advice for primary teachers up and down the country:

Stop teaching simile!

I would, under the same heading, stop bothering with metaphor and personification too, naturally. I’d actually like us to stop lots of things, but this one is clear-cut for me, despite being equally unpopular with the vast majority of my colleagues it seems.

Spend a year in almost any primary school classroom, and you can all but guarantee that simile will be taught at some point, whether it’s 6-year-olds or Year 6. It seems easy at first glance. In fact, children naturally use simile in their speech, so why would we not teach it as a writing tool?

The problem is, while the structure of simile is simple, the function of it is highly complex. When Dickens uses simile to describe a vision, he explains it “like a picture impossibly painted on a running river” – a phrase which conjures up a whole depth of feeling and transience; when a Year 4 child describes the man as being “as tall as a tree”, very little is added to the reader’s understanding.

The reality is, while it’s important that we introduce children to these techniques as readers, and help them to understand the subtle nuances of meaning and additional depth they provide, the skill of actually writing a useful, meaningful simile that adds to the reader’s understanding or engagement is way beyond that of the typical adult. A well-written simile can separate the greatest writers from the merely average; it does not differentiate such potential among 10-year-olds.

And don’t let’s even get started on metaphor or personification. Teaching such things to eight-year-olds is much like teaching Pythagoras’ theorem to them. Yes, it’s possible, and certainly it’s achievable to have a technically accurate result on the page. But this appearance of understanding is illusory.

Similes are not alone in this way. Teachers, schools and publishers have worked up all numbers of tricks and techniques to teach the necessary strategies to achieve a higher level. Our system demanded it. But the new one doesn’t. It’s notable that the word ‘simile’ appears only once in the new primary curriculum, to state that children should be taught the term in Year 5/6 to support their understanding of reading; there is no expectation anywhere that they write them.

Of course I’m not arguing that they should be banned. But in an education system where there are never-ending complaints about an over-crowded curriculum, this is one of many aspects that we can safely cut out and nothing will be lost. Indeed, maybe we might just save creative writing from further damage?

And if I never see “as fast as a cheetah” or “as cold as a block of ice” every again… then all the better.

The guide to preparing for Ofsted

So we’ve got a new handbook, but it’s a lot to wade through, so how’s this for a shortlist?

Things to do to prepare for Ofsted:

  • Steal a British Values policy from someone else’s website. Change the school name.
  • Get a British Values display up somewhere. Flags compulsory. A picture of the Houses of Parliament a bonus.
  • Teach the kids the British values. (Not necessarily in any depth, after all they’re meaningless… but make sure they can crowbar “the rule of law” into pretty much any answer they give to an inspector)
  • Teach the governors the British Values (see above)
  • Teach the governors everything in Raise. Everything.
  • Create some assessment without levels data. (You can achieve this by taking your old levelled data and changing the levels into some new code; they don’t need to understand it)
  • Teach the governors the new code
  • Make sure you prevent at least a couple of people moving up the payscale. This shows rigour.
  • Buy in enough tippex to anonymise the appraisal data for the last three years, but not so much that you can’t see that you prevented someone moving up the payscale.
  • Scour every book – ensure that every other page has a detailed comment, with pupil response (left-handed writing may help here)
  • Look closely at the marking quality in your school; re-write your policy so that it matches what inspectors will see. They can’t get you on that one, then.
  • Upload your curriculum, pupil premium policy, SEN policy, behaviour policy, sports funding report, governor checklist, QTS qualification, birth certificate and last will & testament to the school website.
  • Stick labels on pupil premium pupils’ books, trays, chairs, tables and ear lobes.
  • Print off your attendance data. All of it. At least thrice weekly, just in case.
  • Gather a shortlist of supportive parents. You may want to call them on the morning to ensure that they are available to loiter on the playground and say the right things

Oh… and if you can teach the kids well, all the better!

Confessions of a primary school teacher

There’s nothing like not meeting the norms of a community to make you feel like you don’t belong. I think half the reason I originally went for middle school training was because I knew I didn’t really fit in with primary school teachers. Not because I’m male, but because of so many other things that I think or do that just don’t… fit.

So here go, my list of confessions. Reasons why I’ll never really belong.

1. I like a bit of blank space on the walls

I’m not a big fan of putting up displays, much less of constantly updating them with children’s work every few days. And don’t even get me started on those folk who like to plaster every wall and window, and even hang things from string across the room! Set aside the fact that I’m just short of 6′, and often find such things dangling in my way, or trying to strangle me; what’s wrong with a bit of white space? I’d much rather see a bit of magnolia paint than another pre-printed display!

2. I use pen in maths

This is tantamount to sacrilege in some quarters. When I once posted about it on Twitter I was accused of being an arrogant bully! But nobody yet has given me a convincing answer as to why it is that all primary schools pupils must use pencil in maths. Nevertheless, it remains a widespread norm. In almost every case, schools expect pupils to progress to pen during Y2-4 in other subjects, but for some reason pencil is king in maths. Personally, I’d prefer to see kids recognising that in maths mistakes are made… and that’s part of the process, than ever reaching for the rubber.

3. I hardly ever laminate anything

How did schools ever cope before laminating pouches? Now displays all over are covered in that shiny glaze. The most common argument is I’ve heard is that it means the resources can be re-used. But most primary school children are past the stage of unexpected vomiting; surely a piece of paper can be stored from one year to the next much more easily if it fits into a simple A4 plastic wallet – something you can’t do once it’s been laminated!

4. I think stand-alone grammar lessons have a place

One of the great difficulties of teaching older children about interesting writing, is that they lack the vocabulary to talk about it. Interesting variety of sentence structures can be achieved through the use of verbs or adverbial phrases as sentence starters. But a child who isn’t clear what an adverb is cannot possibly understand how to replace it with an adverbial phrase, let alone re-order the word sequence for effect.

5. I don’t collect things as I go about my life

There’s many a teacher who finds themselves picking up odds and ends while on holiday, or just about town on the premise that “it will come in handy” for some school project. Some teachers’ classrooms are filled with knick-knacks that they’ve gathered over the years because they suited a particular topic, or would be a great resource for some project or other.
When I moved out of my last classroom, I had about 3 boxes of books and that was it. I just don’t seem to think of such things, much less collect them!

Of course, I do like a bit of stationery, so I’m not a complete misfit.

Herding cats would be easier.

When I posted yesterday, I genuinely wanted my post to be about the important aspects of feedback as opposed to marking. I only made a mention of the challenges of Ofsted because I knew that otherwise that would be the response I’d get.

However, as so often is the case, far from being the hidden elephant in the room, Ofsted is fully on display and always up for discussion.

It’s only fair to say that I really appreciate the direction in which the inspectorate appears to be moving, and I genuinely believe the intentions of those at the helm. But it’s the troops that worry me. For just as there are bad teachers (and probably more than many of us would care to admit), so there are bad inspectors that wield more power than any of us would care to have to deal with. And there are many, many inspectors.

Following the post, Sean Harford pointed out the clarification document (which I think is great), and Paul Garvey tried to persuade me that I should have the courage of my convictions. But as I said yesterday, I just don’t. I can’t. And I’m in the fortunate position of being only deputy – imagine how hard it might be for a Head to have such courage.

For the reality is, for all its claims about not having preferred marking styles, and not expecting detail dialogue and many other things, it’s hard to see change on the ground. I wrote only recently about one inspector who proudly tells audiences that they should stick with levels. Any school inspected by him can hope that he follows the guidance about not prescribing a system – but he made equally clear what he’d be looking for. Why would any head of an improving school take the risk of not providing it?

Of course, the reality is that the majority (probably the vast majority) of inspectors are excellent professionals. But we ask them to do a mammoth task. Not only must they judge the current success of a school, they must also ascertain whether or not it is improving, and if not, what is holding it back. All in the space of a few hours. Inevitably there will be obvious places to look, but they’re not always the right places.

I’ve been at my current school 9 months and I’m now confident that I have a grasp of what its needs are as part of its school improvement journey. They’re not the same things that I thought back in September, and they’re certainly not the same things the Ofsted team recommended when they visited before I arrived. Of course, now my colleagues and I have to strike the right balance between doing what is right, and doing what the last team said we must do.

The trouble for inspection teams looking for areas for development is that 2 days is no time at all. It inevitably leads to the obvious conclusions. As I explained to Paul Garvey, in my experience curriculum development and structure is massively undervalued in schools and so means that children don’t make the progress they might. But when was the last time anyone ever saw that in an inspection report? It’s much harder to pin down. Much easier to stick in a statement that says marking could be improved. Who could ever argue with that?

Paul’s argument was that it would have to be supported by evidence; mine is that such evidence doesn’t exist. We cannot possibly point to a causal link between any form of marking and resultant learning/progress. Of course you can ask children, or look at books, or speak to teachers, or a whole host of other things. But the reality is, unpicking why children do or don’t make progress is hard. As David Didau says: we’re using a metaphor to map a mystery whenever we make such judgements.

So when a lead inspector decides that marking should be blamed for poor progress – or even in an excellent school is a good reason for withholding the Outstanding grade, how can anyone argue? If the inspector chooses to state that infrequent, or imprecise or brief feedback is to blame, what possible evidence can you provide to contradict it.

It is easy for a lead inspector to draw the conclusion that if marking were “improved” (of course, without stating how), that progress would also improve. Yet we actually know next to nothing about the link here. We talk about feedback as a great intervention, yet we know little of the detail of what that should look like. I have never seen any report, review or research state how often written feedback should be given, or in what style. We simply cannot be that precise.

But Ofsted reports imply that we can. If an inspector has a preconceived idea of what marking should look like, and doesn’t see it, then there is nothing stopping him from putting that as a recommendation. It would be easy to find evidence to support it, since any such evidence is inevitably subjective; it’s much harder to prove that it’s wrong.

It’s worth stating again, I think Ofsted is trying to change. I also think they usually get inspection judgements right. But the recommendations – that’s much trickier, and yet has such an impact on the profession as a whole. So our whole system is built upon the recommendations of the best intentions of inspectors who all have their own opinions – and years of experience – of what marking (and many other things like it) should look like.

And trying to change that? I’ll stick to herding cats.

Is marking the enemy of feedback?

I’ve written before about the error of thinking of marking and feedback as synonymous. Too often the focus is on the former – perhaps because it’s far easier to measure than the latter.

I’ve written too, about all the hidden feedback that goes on in classrooms. But increasingly I’m coming to think that the focus on marking is not only struggling to have impact; I think it might actually be hindering good feedback.

I think it’s always worth remembering some key overlooked points about feedback from the Sutton Trust/EEF toolkit. The first appears in the “What should I consider?” box on the website, where it states that to be effective, feedback should:

be given sparingly so that it is meaningful

I think it’s important to contrast that with the many policies that require feedback for pupils on every piece of work.

The second, I think, is more significant, and it appears in the first line of the webpage about feedback:

Feedback is information given to the learner and/or the teacher about the learner’s performance relative to learning goals.

The highlighting here is mine, because I think too often we overlook this part. Feedback is not a one-way process; some of the most useful feedback about learners’ performance is provided to the teacher.

Every time we pick up a book and look at a piece of work, we can draw huge inferences about what that child is capable of, what they’re struggling with, what help they might need, or where there might be room for challenge. In fact, I’d argue that the most powerful and valuable feedback occurs in the first few moments of looking at a piece of work. Every moment spent thereafter on combing though, adding red pen, or forming detailed comments, is likely to produce a diminishing return.

Of course, that’s not to say that we should never do it. But we ought to be aware of the cost.

I think that sometimes the focus on the marking is actually preventing good feedback. We are so preoccupied with ensuring that the correct colour highlighter is used, or the learning objective is ticked, or thinking up a comment to ensure that everyone is occupied in ‘DIRT’ time, that we sometimes miss the most important things that would re-shape our own teaching.

Sometimes, the most important feedback from 30 books is that you need to start again. Writing advice doesn’t help; annotating doesn’t make it any better. The feedback needs to lead to actions on the part of the teacher.

As it is, I’d argue that a good proportion of DIRT-type activities – at least at primary level – are busy work. If learning were as simple as telling someone what to do, and then they automatically learned it, then we’d have given up on teacher training years ago.

What if we just changed our feedback policies to say that every piece of work should be seen by a teacher? What if feedback to the teacher was as important as writing comments to the pupils? What if we saved written comments so that we were giving feedback sparingly using specific, accurate and clear guidance once a fortnight? And what if we used the feedback that we gained from looking at work to tailor teaching?

I know what you’re thinking: “It’s all very well saying this, but what about Ofsted?”. And I agree. That’s the real barrier. Because as I’ve said before, it’s the evidencing that’s the problem, not the evidence. And I know that as a deputy of a school currently graded as RI, it would be all but impossible to persuade my colleagues of such a radical departure; I don’t think I could even persuade myself. Because the ogre remains all powerful.

Some schools have gone some way towards this model, through use of things like coloured dot marking. I’ve only seen this is secondary schools so far, but perhaps there are some brave primaries somewhere doing clever things?

But the point remains, that whatever the next Ofsted inspector who walks into your school might think, there’s an important issue here that we ought to be addressing:

Might marking actually be stopping us from making the most of the power of feedback?

Most primary teachers’ planning is poor.

I figured that since this is going to be an unpopular blog, I might as well start off with the worst of it and prepare myself for the flack.

I re-tweeted an article from today’s TES written by Kris Boulton in which he considers the possibility that teachers ought to increasingly be consumers of well-designed curricula, rather than being responsible for all aspects of teaching themselves.

Now, as with any piece, I’m sure he’d have loved to have discussed the finer details at some length – and he certainly hasn’t said it’s a done deal – but as equally often happens, there are those (particularly in the primary sector) who are quick to denounce any change to the status quo, as if we’d somehow achieved perfection in our education system.

I rather suspect that the use of the word “planning” in my tweet confused the matter. So let me try to set out more what I took from Kris’s interesting article.

As I’ve said in the title, I think that most primary teachers’ planning is poor. I don’t mean that teachers are bad at their job, but rather that the nature of the job – in which there is always too much to do – means that planning has to fight for its time against everything else, and so is too often focussed in the short-term.

Of course, it’s absolutely right that individual classroom teachers should be the final arbiter of what occurs in any given lesson. And when primary teachers use the word ‘planning’, I think this is what they think of. They might consider a scheme of work of a few weeks, but rarely anything on a larger scale. And that’s great – that’s absolutely where the focus should be.

I’m not arguing – as Nick Gibb once did – for the nonsense idea that teachers should be able to laminate their plans and never change them. Far from it. In fact, I often argue that writing individual lesson plans is probably one of the most wasteful things teachers do. I’m arguing that because of the demands on our time in the here-and-now, it is impossible for teachers to devote time to thinking of things on a longer scale.

I’ve spoken before about my preference for ‘mastery’ approaches that organise learning in larger blocks. But I’m also aware that in constructing my own school’s curriculum, I am frankly just an amateur. Now, I can’t imagine anyone who knows me suggesting that I know nothing about curriculum planning, but the reality is that I’m not an expert in the best ways to sequence content, or organise the major blocks of work. I’m a mathematician by training, but even then there is much that I don’t know about the best sequence for a curriculum.

What I am good at (I like to think) is judging how most effectively to convey ideas to the pupils in front of me; how to adapt my teaching to their responses; how to identify those who need a challenge or a hand; how to ask just the right question at the right time.

I don’t want anybody to provide me with a plan that says what to say, when. I don’t want the list of prescribed questions to ask. I don’t even want a weekly plan that tells me what objective to teach each lesson.

But I’d love a framework that clearly sets out what has been found to be the most effective time to introduce fractions work, and what key learning should be secured first to underpin it. Even better if it came with some clear examples that would help to build in the sort of intelligent practice that we now know makes sense.

Of course I want to be able to deviate from it. Of course I need to be able to plan how I organise my week, and to decide the specific contexts I use. Of course I should have the final say about the way in which the children in my class are taught. But as Bodil Isaksen once wrote in her blog: A lesson is the wrong unit of time.

“Planning” – in the sense of the act of sitting down each week with your team partner and deciding what next week’s lessons will look like, should absolutely remain in the control of the classroom teacher. But the framework that underpins it is too often a secondary thought at the moment (if it exists at all) – and I don’t think we should rule out the possibility that a thoroughly researched and designed framework might improve the quality of our planning by providing the expertise that we cannot all have.

I don’t imagine my explanation will have made my view any more popular. But if just a few read it and it calms their initial irrational disregard for the possibility, then maybe something is achieved.

If not, I’ve just garnered a few more enemies in the sector I love.