Monthly Archives: October 2016

You’re not still teaching that are you?

This has become something of a recurring refrain over my teaching career, and it always – always – frustrates me.

Nobody ever says it about Science: “Oh, you’re not still teaching solids, liquids and gases, are you?”. Or music: “Oh, you’re not still teaching standard notation, are you?” And yet for some reason it seems to abound in other areas – especially English.(Even maths seemed to go through a phase where the standard basics were frowned upon!) But such decisions are often distinctly personal.

The first time I read Holes by Louis Sachar, I couldn’t wait to get planning for it, and was desperate to start teaching it. Now, having taught it too many times for my own liking, I’m tired of it. I suspect that this will be my last year of tackling it because I’ve lost my love for it. But for my class this year, it was their first time of approaching it. It was fresh for them. The only reason to abandon it is that my waning love for it risks coming through in the teaching.

But that won’t stop somebody somewhere from saying “Oh, but you’re not still teaching Holes, are you?”

It happens too often.

Tonight I’ve seen the same said of both The Highwayman and the animation The Piano. Now for sure they’ve both had more than their fair share of glory, but there was a reason why they were chosen in the first place. I’m all in favour of people moving away from them, finding better alternatives, mixing things up a bit. But they don’t cease to be excellent texts just because they’ve been done before. Every Year 5 child who comes to them does so for the first time.

I’ve heard the same said before of The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch at KS1 -as though somehow the fact that a topic has worked brilliantly in the past should be ignored simply because a consultant is over-familiar with it.

Of course, there are reasons to ditch texts. Sometimes they become outdated. Sometimes they cease to match the curriculum. Sometimes the ability of the children demands more stretch. Sometimes something much better comes along. Sometimes you’re just sick of them.

I’ve never cared for Street Child even though it’s wildly popular. I’ve always found Morpurgo’s work irritating. But if others find them thrilling, and get great results with their classes, then so be it. Who am I to prevent them teaching them?

As somebody also responded on Twitter this evening: the best “hook” is the teacher. If a teacher feels passionately about a poem, a book, or a topic, then it can be a great vehicle for the teaching that surrounds it. And if we make them all ditch those popular classics merely because they’re popular, then you’d better have a damned good replacement lined up to offer them!

A consistent inconsistency

With thanks to my headteacher for inadvertently providing the blog title.

With Justine Greening’s announcement yesterday we discovered that the DfE has definitely understood that all is not rosy in the primary assessment garden. And yet, we find ourselves looking at two more years of the broken system before anything changes. My Twitter timeline today has been filled with people outraged at the fact that the “big announcement” turned out to be “no change”.

I understand the rage entirely. And I certainly don’t think I’ve been shy about criticising the department’s chaotic organisation of the test and errors made. But I’m also not ready to throw my toys out of the pram just yet. This might just be the first evidence that the department is really listening. Yes, perhaps too little too late. Yes, it would have been nice for it to have been accompanied by an acknowledgement that the problems were caused by the pace of change enforced by ministers. But maybe they’re learning that lesson?

For a start, there are many teachers nationally who are just glad of the consistency. As my headteacher said earlier today, it leaves us with a consistent inconsistency. But nevertheless, there will be many teachers who are relieved to see that the system is going to be familiar for the next couple of years.

It’s a desire I can understand, but just can’t go along with. There are too many problems with the current system – mostly those surrounding the Teacher Assessment frameworks and moderation. But I will hang fire, because there is the prospect of change on the horizon.

It’s tempting to see it as meaningless consultation, but until we see the detail I don’t want to rule anything out. I hope that the department is listening to advice, and is open to recommendations – including those which the NAHT Assessment Reform Group of which I am a member is drawing together over this term.

If the DfE listens to the profession, and in the spring consults on a meaningful reform that brings about sensible assessment and accountability processes, then we may eventually come to see yesterday’s announcement as the least bad of the available options.

Of course, if they mess it up again, I’ll be on their case.

The potential of Comparative Judgement in primary

I have made no secret of my loathing of the Interim Assessment Frameworks, and the chaos surrounding primary assessment of late. I’ve also been quite open about a far less popular viewpoint: that we should give up on statutory Teacher Assessment. The chaos of the 2016 moderation process and outcomes was an extreme case, but it’s quite clear that the system cannot work.

It’s crazy that schools can be responsible for deciding the scores on which they will be judged. It has horrible effects on reliability of that data, and also creates pressure which has an impact on the integrity of teachers’ and leaders’ decisions. What’s more, as much as we would like for our judgements to be considered as accurate, the evidence points to a sad truth: humans (including teachers) are fallible. As a result, Teacher Assessment judgements are biased – before we even take into account the pressures of needing the right results for the school. Tests tend to be more objective.

However, it’s also fair to say that tests have their limitations. I happen to think that the model of Reading and Maths tests is not unreasonable. True, there were problems with this year’s, but the basic principles seems sound to me, so long as we remember that the statutory tests are about the accountability cycle, not about formative information. But even here there is a gap: the old Writing test was scrapped because of its failings.

That’s where Comparative Judgement has a potential role to play. But there is some work to be done in the profession for it to find its right place. Firstly we have to be clear about a couple of things:

  1. Statutory Assessment at the end of Key Stages is – and indeed should be – separate from the rest of assessment that happens in the classroom
  2. What we do to judge work, and how we report that to pupils and parents are – and should be – separate things.

Comparative Judgement is based on the broad idea of comparing lots of pieces of work until you have essentially sorted them into a rank order. That doesn’t mean that individuals’ ranks need be reported, any more than we routinely report raw scores to pupils and parents. It does, though, offer the potential of moving away from the hideous tick-box approach of the Interim Frameworks.

Teachers are understandably concerned by the idea of ranking, but it’s really not that different from how we previously judged writing. Most experienced Y2/Y6 teachers didn’t spend hours poring over the level descriptors, but rather used their knowledge of what they considered L2/L4 to look like, and judged whether they were looking at work that was better or worse. Comparative Judgement simply formalises this process.

It particularly tackles the issue that is particularly prevalent with the current interim arrangements: excellent writing which scores poorly because of a lack of dashes or hyphens (and poor writing which scores highly because it’s littered with them!). If we really want good writing to be judged “in the round”, then we cannot rely on simplistic and narrow criteria. Rather, we have to look at work more holistically – and Comparative Judgement can achieve that.

Rather than teachers spending hours poring over tick-lists and building portfolios of evidence, we would simply submit a number of pieces of work towards the end of Year 6 and they would be compared to others nationally. If the DfE really wants to, once they had been ranked in order, they could apply scaled scores to the general pattern, so that pupils received a scaled score just like the tests for their writing. The difference would be that instead of collecting a few marks for punctuation, and a few for modal verbs, the whole score would be based on the overall effect of the piece of writing. Equally, the rankings could be turned into “bands” that matched pupils who were “Working Towards” or “Working at Greater Depth”. Frankly, we could choose quite what was reported to pupils and parents; the key point is that we would be more fairly comparing pupils based on how good they were at writing, rather than how good they were at ticking off features from a list.

There are still issues to be resolved, such as exactly what pieces of writing schools would submit for judgement, and the tricky issue of quite how independent the work should be. Equally, the system doesn’t lend itself as easily to teachers being able to use the information formatively – but then, aren’t we always saying that we don’t want teachers to teach to the tests?

Certainly if we want children’s writing to be judged based on its broad effectiveness, and for our schools to be compared fairly for how well we have developed good writers, then it strikes me that it’s a lot better than what we have at the moment.


Dr Chris Wheadon and his team are carrying out a pilot project to look at how effective moderation could be in Year 6. Schools can find out more, and sign up to join the pilot (at a cost) at: https://www.sharingstandards.com/

 

A sinister turn at the DfE

I had an interesting discussion this week with a colleague who – very reasonably – questioned the merits of blogging and tweeting about issues at the DfE. Indeed, sometimes I have myself felt a pang of guilt about my posts, and frequently some sympathy for those who work in the department. Nevertheless, my argument in favour of such posts and tweets – not just my own – was one of holding government to account. That seems all the more important in the current circumstances with the opposition parties. And even more so tonight.

The majority of my followers are probably primary school teachers, so at first glance this is a story that wouldn’t necessarily affect or bother them, but if that’s you, I want you to read this, because it matters.

People often thank me for saying what they – or their colleagues, or sometimes (somewhat hyperbolically) the whole profession – are thinking. I hope that in some small way my words might represent some views held within schools that the DfE ought to hear, and that they might sometimes reach those who need to hear them. But I also know that my input is limited.

For government to be properly held to account we rely on the opposition benches, the parliamentary system, and a free press. Except the first is a disaster area at the moment, and that last one is under threat.

It seems that the same governing party which felt it so important to defend the merits of a free press after the hacking scandals, has decided that such freedom to scrutinise things shouldn’t apply to those questioning the DfE. They have created new rules that insist that when organisations use DfE data, their findings must be sent to the department 48 hours before being published.

It may be the thin end of a very sinister wedge; it may just be a desperate attempt to cover-up some of the disasters that seem to beset the department, but it isn’t a legitimate part of democratic governance. It isn’t acceptable that a department be allowed to prevent publication – for whatever period – of evidence and argument merely because it might seem inconvenient or unwelcome to them. It isn’t acceptable that a press that is free to investigate other organisations or publish details of individuals private lives should not also have the freedom to publish evaluations of government action.

Organisations like FFT and its research arm Education Datalab do invaluable work in informing the profession, providing context for national policy, and providing evidence to challenge and support government policy. Newspapers like the TES and Schools Week play a vital role in ensuring that the public is well-informed about hugely important issues that might otherwise be ignored. To try to hamper that work because it presents inconveniences for the politicians is unacceptable.

At best it seems like a childish tantrum got out of hand; at worst, it has echoes of the very worst of governments that try to manage the media to suit their purposes. And like with so many things, if this is allowed to happen, then what is next?

See Schools Week article:

Academics must show research to government two days before publishing, say new DfE rules

How not to sell things to me and my school

Maybe it was just a matter of time. As I enter my third year in the same school, it seems that both my name and email address have made it onto sales lists in various places… and I’m not pleased about it. More to the point, I’m not pleased with the time it’s taking up. Not only mine – in deleting and unsubscribing to emails – but more importantly to colleagues in my school office who are now faced with phone calls asking for me by name.

Worse, some of those phone calls are made pretending that we have some sort of prior relationship. I deal with a lot of people, and don’t always recall every detail, so I am highly frustrated when I take such a call only to find it is a generic sales call. The same result is achieved when I open another email trying to sell me something that I have never showed any interest in.

Now, I realise this is futile, but my frustration has no other outlet, so from today I’m going to keep a record of those companies who have somehow got hold of my name/school/email address and use it to “spam” me or my school office.I will tell them each that it is not a good way to sell to me, but worse, that it actually puts me off buying from them at all – and maybe now I’ll put a few more people off too.

Buying my email address to send spam mail isn’t acceptable, and wasting the time of busy office staff in my school isn’t either. And these companies are to blame for it (this week alone so far!):

  • National Schools Partnership
  • ParentPay
  • GL Assessment
  • Eureka for Schools
  • eCadets
  • National Schools Training
  • Think Global Schools

 

Junk-Sign-800px.png