Category Archives: leadership

Teachers aren’t that special

We’re a funny lot, teachers.

It’s different to most jobs I guess. For a start, we get 13 weeks holiday a year. We also work in strange circumstances that are simultaneously both very public and quite private.

We also seem to have an on-going struggle with what it means to a profession, that doesn’t seem to affect other roles. Or rather, an on-going clamour to be considered a profession, without being clear about what that means.

The College of Teaching has served to highlight some of those troubles, but also one other: we seem to have reached a point in the profession where “leaders” can be lumped together as a “them” who are not in any way connected to “us” at the chalkface. (Disclaimer: I don’t know which group I end up in according to those determined to divide in this way)

I suspect that this is based, in part, on a truth: some school leaders are awful. Some who reach the position of headteacher (or Executive Head for that matter, I suspect), probably weren’t very good classroom teachers, and aren’t very good leaders. They can damage schools, teachers and pupils in the process. But to presume that such negative experiences mean that all those who have a leadership responsibility are in opposition to those who teach in classrooms is childish. Not least because it fails to account for the huge number of people – particularly in primary schools – who manage both leadership roles and considerable classroom teaching commitments.

This has come to a head from the small group of vocal opponents to the College of Teaching, particularly since the appointment of a very experienced headteacher to the role of Chief Executive. For some, led by Andrew Smith (@oldandrewuk), only a practising classroom teacher would have been acceptable to lead an organisation that they don’t even think should exist.

The problem with that argument is clear: what experience does the average classroom teacher have that would equip them to lead a significant organisation? There will, of course, be a handful of classroom teachers who have prior experience in other roles that might match the job description, but they are rare. And often such people would quickly take on leadership roles within schools, hence disqualifying them from this very narrow field.

What’s more, I’d argue that being the CEO of a large organisation doesn’t require the skills of a classroom teacher, any more than running British Airways would require you to be trained pilot. Running large organisations requires  a specific skill-set, and if the College is to be a success, then it needs the right people with those skills at its head. The fact that within teaching we have excellent school leaders who have the appropriate skills means we are able to appoint the combination of leadership and teaching experience.

Looking at other professional organisations, there is a mix  when it comes to the CEO role: the CEO of the Law Society is a trained solicitor with considerable leadership experience; the CEO of the Royal College of GPs has a background in social work and charities and isn’t medically trained at all; the CEO of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors has a background in marketing. I haven’t yet found a single professional body that has an entry-level professional at its head.

The reality is, teachers aren’t some superhuman species imbued with some professional brilliance that makes them better than GPs or Chartered Surveyors. We are trained for a job. And all the while that some of those teachers also acquire the skills to lead large organisations, it is great that we can have a qualified and experienced teacher at the head of a professional body; but let’s be serious: it’s not the talent for imparting phonics knowledge that is required to manage a large charity.

Of course, the real issue here is not the appointment of  the CEO. Those who are wholeheartedly opposed to the College – or who object to the way it has been developed – would likely have opposed any appointment, just as those who object to the existence of the BBC would never welcome a new Director General.

For those of us who would like to see if this thing can work, it strikes me that you would struggle to find a better starting point as CEO than Dame Alison Peacock – an experienced teacher and headteacher, a strong figurehead who is widely supported by the profession, and someone who has publicly spoken in the past against proposals from government.

Some will always be happy to throw stones, just as there are those who continue to criticise the BBC. Personally I hope that both groups are proven to be in a minority.

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A foolish consistency – the Primary School disease?

Let me start by saying that I think consistency is vital in schools. Pupils need to know that the behaviour policy will apply equally to everyone, and be applied equally by everyone. If a school has a uniform, then rules about it should be fairly and consistently applied to all. Children in Year 4 are entitled to just as good teaching as children in Year 6.

But there are limits. And it seems that too many primary headteachers cross them, to my mind. Not all, of course, but too many. On Twitter today a perfect example was shared by Rosie Watson (@Trundling17):

There is a headteacher – or senior leadership team – somewhere that thought it was an useful use of its time to come up with a list of 30 “must haves” that include how the classroom door must be signed, and that pegs must be labelled in week 1.

I wasn’t even that surprised when I saw it, because I’ve known far too many schools get caught up in such nonsense. Display policies can sometimes be the most read in a primary school, and I’ve known them include things like:

  • drapes must be used to soften the edges of displays
  • all work should be double-mounted
  • topic boards must be changed at least every 2 weeks
  • all classrooms must display a hundred square
  • all staples must point in the same direction

The point is that none of these things is necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, the one about staples appeals to my slightly frenzied mind. But to dictate it to a staff of highly-trained professionals? To expect teachers to spend their time and energy on such things rather than planning and preparing for learning strikes me as crazy.

What surprised me most about Rosie’s post, though, was not the content –  I fear that’s all too common – but the fact that some headteachers then tried to defend such approaches. The claims were that it was a useful reminder, or helpful for new teachers.

I have two issues with this. Firstly, the list is very clearly presented as a list of expectations to be met and judged against – not just helpful reminders. Secondly, these are not all good uses of someone’s time. If they were recommendations that I was free to ignore (and believe me, I would ignore a good number of them), then that’s fine, but that’s clearly not the case here.

If a school is insistent that its classroom doors have name labels in a certain style, then it should organise this administrative task, not simply demand it of teachers. Teachers’ time should be spent on things that directly impact teaching and learning, and precious few of these do.

Sadly, such “non-negotiables” seem to have become something of  a norm in school, with headteachers thinking that the way they ran their classrooms is now the way that others should follow suit. But it’s madness.

Headteachers are well aware of the strategic/operational divide between governors and heads, but they should consider a similar separation from the involvement in classrooms. Absolutely it is the place of the headteacher to lead on matters of curriculum and learning, and even to set the broad principles and expectations for the “learning environment” (oh, how I hate that term!), but that’s not the same as specifying the date by which your pegs are labelled.

The only other argument that was tentatively put forward was for schools which are in “a category”. Now here, I have some sympathy with heads who take on a school where things are a mess. Sometimes a clear list of expectations helps to brings things out of a pit – but that clearly isn’t the case here. If classrooms are untidy, it’s reasonable to expect that they be tidy; if disorganised cloakrooms are delaying learning, then it’s reasonable to expect something to be done about it. But no school was ever put in Special Measures because boards were backed with ‘inappropriate’ colours, or because  a Year 6 classroom didn’t have a carpet area.

And if  a school is in measures, then it probably shouldn’t be wasting its attention on how the classroom door is labelled! Both the leadership team and the teachers more widely should be focusing on the things that make the most difference to teaching and learning. Of course expectations should be raised, but that doesn’t need to be done through a foolish consistency.

Headteachers and Senior Leadership teams: you are busy enough – don’t sweat the small stuff, and certainly don’t make others sweat it for you!

(P.S. I’m a real rebel: I don’t label pegs at all!)


For an indication of some of the mad things that are dictated in primary schools, take a look at this Storify in response to my tweet:

RSCs… you ought to know better!

This week, Schools Week also have an article sharing the news that Russell Hobby of the NAHT has made a similar point to RSCs, but probably far more professionally. You can read the article here:
http://schoolsweek.co.uk/rscs-and-councils-ask-schools-for-impossible-primary-assessment-predictions/


 

Last month I wrote about how I feared that Local Authorities were preventing schools from moving confidently away from levels.

Today, I have Regional Schools Commissioners in my sights. I’ve been concerned about this for a while because increasingly I see people who are doing their best to cope in a world without levels suddenly faced with demands for data from external agencies.

And in the case of Regional Schools Commissioners: they ought to know better. Yet clearly they don’t, otherwise we wouldn’t be seeing queries like these:

“We’re asked to predict progress for current Y6 (by RSC). How would you suggest we go about it?”

One of the most significant changes in the world after levels is the way in which progress is to be calculated across primary schools. It has deliberately moved away from a threshold model, so that schools can focus on improving the attainment of all pupils, instead of focussing disproportionately on those who are close to a threshold. It’s a shift that I happen to think is an excellent idea.

But it’s also a shift that means that it’s very difficult to predict outcomes, and impossible to predict progress measures. Attainment is hard to predict because we don’t know where the thresholds will lay. You can estimate what you think children need to be able to do, and guess where the threshold might be set, and then try to estimate which children are on track… but that’s a lot of approximation.

For progress, there is simply nothing you can do. Your school’s progress score will depend not on how many cross that magic 100 threshold, but on exactly how many marks each child gets on each test. And then on how every other child in the country scores. Even after the tests are completed, it will take the DfE months to calculate the first sets of progress scores; what hope has anyone got of predicting a measure based on so many complex factors?

The problem, of course, is that these people are still stuck on “old thinking”. Of course you can attempt to replicate the old systems. You can look at the number of children working at Level 2 in KS1 who you hope will reach the expected standard. But that brings us back to the guesses about attainment. You can look at the number of children who were working at Level 3, who you hope will reach some greater measure… except no such threshold exists. And even if we did know the thresholds, they’re virtually insignificant. The difference between a child getting 99 or 100 is far less important than the difference between another child getting 91 or 97 – even if they don’t meet the “expected standard”.

The aim of the new system is to stop schools from focussing on borderline pupils. To do that, you have to remove as many borderlines as you can. For RSCs not to understand that is concerning, and for them to put additional pressures and demands on schools for imaginary data that won’t help school improvement at all is unacceptable. Indeed, far from helping, they may end up driving exactly the sort of flawed behaviour that went on before that we’re trying to get rid of!

Or as Jamie Pembroke put it far more succinctly than have I:

 

The appraisal elephant in the assessment room

One of the most useful things in the recent Assessment Commission report was the clarity with which it set out the three main purposes of assessment:

3types

It’s quite clear that the purposes of day-to-day assessment (which I like to call ‘feedback’) and summative assessment are separate. The formative stuff is about what happens in the classroom: the information the teacher needs, the impact on the pupils. The summative stuff is simply that: a single data point that gives us an indication of outcomes.

When it comes to appraisal, many schools are struggling to work out how to replace the sorts of targets that used to be based on levels and sub-levels. Personally, given the choice, I’d scrap them altogether, but I realise that’s a long way off in most schools. So what in the interim?

Historically, teachers used their on-going assessments in the classroom to fill in things like the APP grids. Then the judgements they made fed into an overall level for each child, and summary data was thus produced, collated, and turned into an outcome on which teachers were judged. And in many cases, teachers would tick or untick as many boxes as it took to make the official judgement match the level they had already decided upon. I know it happened: I’ve seen it done, and I’ve done it plenty.

If we try to use our formative assessments to create a summative judgement against which we can judge teachers, then we have no hope of maintaining that separation of formative from summative. I don’t think that teachers are out to cheat the system in the slightest. Nor do I think that teachers will do anything for a pay rise. But I do think that the judgements made in appraisal meetings weigh heavy on teachers’ minds, and that consciously or otherwise these are likely to affect the accuracy and integrity of teacher assessment data. Not because they want the pay rise, but because they want to be thought of as good teachers.

If we insist on setting data-based targets, then surely it is much clearer and fairer to separate that judgement of the teacher from the teachers’ judgements of pupils. All the time we use teachers’ own assessments as a tool to judge them, we can only expect one to influence the other. If we just have data targets, then lets use a simple baseline and end-of-year test, where teachers know that the expectation is to improve attainment in a key area, but aren’t then expected also to produce the data that proves the impact they’ve had.

Otherwise, no matter how good your assessment system’s design, it’s destined to fail.

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!

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?

The Challenge for the DfE with Workload

Who’d be a politician, eh?

You get the blame for everything, and yet relatively little power to do much about it.

It seems that the response to the Workload Challenge has not been received with great joy… but then, was it ever going to be? The results of the survey speak for themselves. Over 40,000 teachers responded, and the two biggest drivers of workload according to those responses? Ofsted and School Leaders, neither of which are directly within the control of the department.

The two most often-mentioned tasks that added to workload? Excessive data and excessive marking. No prizes for guessing who the main drivers of those excessive demands are.

One has to ask what people were really looking for from the DfE in response to these challenges.

cartoon_6

The reality is that the DfE had tasked itself with a mission of improving something that it really couldn’t control. It’s true, they’ve worked with Ofsted to take some small steps to try to alleviate that problem, continuing in an existing vein, but they have gone to some lengths over recent years to stop micro-managing school leaders.

The sad truth for teachers is that the vast majority of the excessive workload we suffer is caused by school leaders, trying to dance to the tune of an inadequate and inconsistent inspectorate.

So what of the proposals from the response? When taken in the context of what the department can actually control, it’s a mixed bag.

Some things to welcome:

  • Minimum lead-in times for major changes – one of the worst things about the current government’s approach has been its endless rush to change things, without any thought about the impact on schools, or any preparation itself for implementation.
  • No changes to examination subjects during a course cycle – it’s frankly a disgrace that this would even ever be in doubt, but certainly a relief to see that it’s here.
  • Commitment to improved Quality Assurance for Ofsted reports – a major issue, although QA for the whole Ofsted process is probably just as necessary
  • Focus on coaching of headteachers – too many of the workload demands in our schools are caused by ineffective school leaders trying to cover all bases with paperwork. We need to support good headteachers more effectively, and challenge weaker ones.
  • Work with the EEF to link research to more practical advice about implementation – feedback has become king on the back of research, but is too often interpreted as “more marking”. We need more direction for schools – especially those with weak leaders – on what these things look like.
  • DfE taking a closer look at data collection and analysis challenges – it’s an on-going challenge, again driven by Ofsted and weak leaders, so evidence of effective practice that isn’t unmanageable should be welcomed.

Some missed opportunities:

  • The minimum lead-in times have too many caveats, and significantly leave out the key elements of assessment; assessment is such a driver in schools now that the lead-in time should include it and all parts of policy. I’d also have liked to have seen a longer period, and much higher expectations that no changes are made that affect students within a key stage. No change is that important educationally; it’s only politics that forces the rush.
  • It’s a shame that there isn’t a role for Ofsted in providing good practice evidence of manageability of workload; the department can say all it likes about workload, but until the inspectorate is singing from the same hymn sheet, schools will still feel compelled to produce more and more paperwork to satiate any of the random selection of inspectors they might be faced with.

So, no, the department won’t get praise from every quarter – they never would have. But we’ve made some small steps of progress, and it seems that there is a genuine understanding that this is a serious issue that needs tackling. As professionals we have a duty to begin to get our own house in order, but certainly as a member of the Teacher Reference Group I’ll also be pushing for workload to remain on the department’s agenda, and to see more changes in the future.

At least we’re heading in the right direction.

 

Is Ofsted leading schools to mis-direct their energies?

There is much to be said for Ofsted’s willingness to change over recent years, and for its recognition of the limitations of its capability. Its decision to bring all inspectors in-house should probably be welcomed; its abandonment of lesson gradings has been widely praised… but is it actually achieving its purpose of raising standards?

As both inspections and reports become briefer, there is a risk that the guidance that schools are given on improvements, rather than raising standards may actually serve to distract a school from the work of improving its provision. After all, 10 hours is barely long enough to get any idea of what a school is like, let alone to accurately work out what it needs to do to improve. Yet, for some reason, inspection reports now insist on setting out what needs to be done.

This is a relatively recent phenomenon, and one that seems only to have arisen as inspections have shortened. Take one school as an example – a primary school in my hometown. When inspected in 2004 it was satisfactory, ten years later it requires improvement. Reading of the reports suggests that the reasons are similar in both cases: progress in core subjects was not good enough (and hence outcomes not high enough given the favoured intake).

In 2004 it was inspected by 5 inspectors over 3 days (15 inspector-days in total, still a reduction from earlier inspections); in 2014 it had just 3 inspectors for 2 days – less than half the time. In 2004, inspectors limited themselves to indicating what needed to be improved, based on its more thorough inspection: it was for the governors (supported by the professionals who knew the school well) to set out a plan of how this was to be achieved:

2004

Compare this to the 2014 inspection, where after just 6 inspector-days of work it seems that Ofsted feels that it can tell exactly what needs to be done:

2014

Notice that the essential problem was the same: children were deemed to be making insufficient progress from their starting points. In the former case, it was for the school to set about improving that: Ofsted merely reported what it found. By 2014 Ofsted seems to see its role as directing those improvements.

This is almost certainly an understandable reaction to claims that Ofsted merely sat in judgement and failed to support schools to improve. However, does this really achieve that?

It strikes me that if children are not making enough progress during their primary years then the issues may well run deeper than making sure they’ve understood tasks in lessons and responding to marking. In fact, I’d argue that the first bullet point would be a ridiculous claim to make on the basis of a few lesson observations over 2 days. But isn’t that exactly the problem? That’s all the inspectors had to go on.

And so, no doubt, that school will now be investing its time and efforts into the bullet points put forward by Ofsted. When inspectors next return, tasks will be well-explained (although not necessarily well-chosen or used), mini-plenaries will abound to check that children know what they’re doing (although not necessarily learning), a new marking policy will have been developed (with the resulting dialogue, despite the recent clarification) and leaders will be checking on the quality of teaching and learning… by checking that tasks are being explained and mini-plenaries used.

Nowhere is there any advice that the school might look at the quality of its curriculum provision, or evaluate the relative strengths and weaknesses of its teaching and set out a plan accordingly. No: Ofsted has made its judgements on the basis of a few drop-ins, and that will now direct the school’s efforts for the next 2 years.

The fact is, two days is not long enough for an inspection team to ascertain what needs to be done to improve provision in a school. If it were, being a headteacher would be easy; consultants would be redundant; school improvement would be a picnic. By imagining that an inspection team have the knowledge or understanding of a school’s situation to effect improvements, we are being fooled. And by letting them dictate the direction of school improvement, how much time is being wasted in schools up and down the country in making changes to meet the bullet points, rather than to improve provision?

Increasingly it is becoming clear that flying inspection visits are not adequate for the real detail of school improvement; they can provide but a snapshot – even over a week. That’s not to say that the snapshot might not be useful; merely to note that an identification of the issues is not necessarily enough to propose a cure.

Maybe a medical model is worth considering? Inspectors can do a fair job as General Practitioners: brief check-ups and dealing with minor ailments, but where a school really needs improvement, perhaps it should be referred to the appropriate specialist for further examination and treatment. Otherwise we risk simply issuing the same simplistic treatments to everyone for everything.


Doubtless in many other schools there are teachers who know that they’re focussing on the wrong things because of Ofsted ‘bullet points’ – I’d welcome your comments telling me about them (anonymous comments welcome)

Getting started with Twitter

Whenever I speak at conferences or Inset sessions, I always drop in a recommendation that teachers and school leaders should sign up to Twitter. Naturally, it’s not the main thrust of my presentation, and so I move on, but I thought it would be useful to have a post to direct people to, with suggestions for getting started.

Because of the work I do, the suggestions are probably more useful for school leaders, but for classroom teachers getting started I’d also recommend Mrs P Teach’s blog on inspirational teachers to follow.

Firstly, some words to reassure:

  • You can register completely anonymously
  • You don’t have to ‘say’ or ‘tweet’ anything if you don’t want
  • It’s nothing like Facebook

The main reason I recommend school leaders in particular to sign up for Twitter, is the ability to keep track of changes in education, which no-one can deny are frequent and rapid. Often now, news of significant changes is available on twitter well before it reaches the usual channels via Local Authorities or even proper press releases. If nothing else, leaders would be wise to have access to the main threads of key organisations.

Below is my guide to getting started in brief, with some key recommendations for individuals and organisations to follow to keep up to speed with the latest changes in education. For each of the main steps I have also provided access to a step-by-step guide for those less confident with technology and those particularly concerned about privacy settings.

Getting Started

The first step is to sign up. It’s dead simple and all you need is an email address. If you’re particularly concerned about anonymity, then you can sign up with an anonymous username and never add a picture, but I’d recommend signing up with your personal details and then protecting your account.

One thing I do suggest is ignoring all the recommendations that Twitter makes for you. It’s too easy to end up following 40 people you’re not interested in and then having to wade through rubbish to find the important details. Instead, once you have signed up and the recommendation lists appear, simply redirect your browser to twitter.com to see your main page. At first it will be be fairly blank, but that’s just how we want it – that way you can choose the content that you want to see rather than just what Twitter thinks you might like!

Download the step-by-step guide to setting up a Twitter account

Securing your privacy

I suspect that a large number of teachers and leaders avoid social media because of the fear of causing an accidental stir somehow, or opening up unwanted communication channels. That’s easily avoided on Twitter by protecting your tweets – even if you don’t intend to post anything ever (and that may well change!). Do this straight away to give yourself some reassurance.

Once you’ve signed in to Twitter, simply click on the egg next to the Tweet button (or on your photo if you’ve added one) and choose the ‘Settings’ option. On that page is a section for Security & Privacy which will allow you to tick the ‘Protect Tweets’ option and look at other options for securing your account.

Download the step-by-step guide to altering Twitter privacy settings.

Following useful streams

To me, the key advantage of twitter is being able to keep up to speed with things that affect my role. To that end, I recommend following the ten accounts I list below to see new information when it first appears. (see the link at the end for the easiest way to follow them all)

DfEtwit

Department for Education
The department is actually a very good user of Twitter for publicising new information, consultations, etc. They are also reasonably good at responding to requests for information & clarification.

ofstedtwitOfsted News
Another organisation that is beginning to learn the power of Twitter. The main feed itself provides the key information as frameworks change, but is not yet used for responding to queries very much. For that, see below:

harfordtwitSean Harford
Mr Harford is the recently-appointed National Director for Schools at Ofsted. He is an active user of Twitter and is often seen engaging with discussion & debate about the inspectorate’s work.

myatttwitMary Myatt
Mary is another member of the Ofsted world, this time a practising lead inspector. She offers an honest and open view of inspection from ‘the other side’ and also updates on changing frameworks. Mary also does a good job of re-tweeting useful blogs.

nahttwitNAHT News
The NAHT is a useful source of information for primary school leaders particularly. It also references other blogs and information sources that might be of use, and so is a great starting point.

c2gtwitShena Lewington (Clerk to Governor)

If you’re not already familiar with the www.clerktogovernors.co.uk website, then bookmark it now. Shena is an invaluable mine of information about governance matters of all sorts.

sdtwitSchool Duggery (Education Matters)
This feed does a great job of keeping on top of announcements and changes in education, and holding those in power to some account with accuracy and precision. Well worth following.

bytwitBeyond Levels
In the ever-changing ‘life-after-levels’ landscape, it’s good to have an eye on what’s happening elsewhere in the sector. This account provides links and references to what’s going on in schools nationwide.

ajjtwitAndy Jolley
One of the headaches of school leadership is changes that appear in non-educational areas such as food standards! Andy has done a great job in holding the government to account over UIFSM and provides regular updates on related matters.

michaelt1979twitMichael Tidd
I couldn’t not include myself! If you’re a primary leader with any need for information on curriculum, assessment or on-going changes from the department, I do my best to keep people informed and engaged!

list

The easiest way to start following all 10 of these people (and to see some other recommendations I’d make), is to access my list at this page. This will present a list of over 20 recommendations, including those above, each with a handy “follow” button next to them to allow you to add them to your account.

So now you’ve no excuse!

The reality sets in (relaxing the privacy)

The chances are, some folk who read this will set up an account and then never access it again. Others will use it to follow and never interact. But I wouldn’t be surprised if a small majority end up hooked and find themselves taking part in conversations, or asking occasional questions. Remember that if your account stays protected then people can’t see your posts or questions, so you may want to choose to relax that in future. My experience has been fine – a few pupils have found my account, one even followed me for a while once. But the reality is expressed well by the conversation I overheard in school as one Y6 child told another of her discovery: “I found Mr Tidd’s page on Twitter… yeah… it’s really boring!”

Whose data is it anyway?

I caused a bit of an upset today. As too easily happens, I saw a conversation via Twitter that raised concerns with me, and I rushed in with 140 characters of ill-thought-through response.

Some very knowledgeable experts in the field of school data management were trying – quite understandably – to get their heads round how a life after levels will look in terms of managing data and tracking in schools. As David Pott (@NoMoreLevels) put it: “trying to translate complex ideas into useable systems”.

My concern is that in too many cases, data experts are being forced to try to find their own way through all this, without the expert guidance of school leaders (or perhaps more importantly, system leaders) to highlight the pitfalls, and guide the direction of future developments. That’s not to say that the experts are working blind, but rather that they are being forced to try to work out a whole system of which they are only a part.

Of course, the problem is that without first-hand knowledge of some of those areas, the data experts are forced to rely on their knowledge of what went before. And as seems to be the case in so many situations at the moment, we run the risk of creating a system that simply mirrors the old one, flaws and all. We need to step back and look at the systems we actually need to help our schools to work better in the future. And as with all good design projects, it pays to consider the needs of the end user. Inevitably, with school data, there are always too many users!

Therefore, here is my attempt – very much from a primary perspective, although I daresay there are many parallels in secondary – to consider who the users are of data and tracking, and what their needs might be in our brave new world.

The Classroom Teacher

This is the person who should be at the centre of all discussions about data collection. If it doesn’t end up linking back to action in the classroom, then it is merely graph-plotters plotting graphs.

In the past, the sub-level has been the lot of the classroom teacher. Those meaningless subdivisions which tell us virtually nothing about the progress of students, but everything about the way in which data has come to drive the system.

As a classroom teacher, I need to know two things: which children in my class can do ‘X’, and which cannot? Everything else I deal with is about teaching and learning, be that curriculum, lesson planning, marking & feedback, everything. My involvement in the data system should be about assessment, not tracking. I have spoken many times about this: Tracking ≠ Assessment

Of course, at key points, my assessment should feed into the tracking system, otherwise we will find ourselves creating more work, but whether that be termly, half-termly or every fortnight, the collection of data for tracking should be based on my existing records for assessment, not in addition to it.

We have been fed a myth that teachers need to “know their data” to help their students make progress. This is, of course, nonsense. Knowing your data is meaningless if you don’t know the assessments that underpin it. Knowing that James is a 4b tells you nothing about what he needs to do to reach a 4a. A teacher needs to know their assessments: whether or not James knows his tables, or can carry out column subtraction, or understands how to use speech marks. None of this is encapsulated in the data; it is obscured by it.

My proposal is that classroom teachers use a Key Objectives model for assessing against specific objectives. Pleasingly, the NAHT appear to agree with me.

Students

Children do not need to know where they are on a relative scale compared to their peers, or to other schools nationally. What matters to children in classrooms is that they know what they can do, what they need to do next, and how to do that. All of that comes directly from teachers’ assessments, and should have no bearing on data and tracking (or perhaps, more importantly, the methods of tracking should have no bearing on a child’s understanding of their own attainment).

Too many schools have taken the message about students knowing where they are and what to do next as an indication that they should be told their sub-level. This doesn’t tell children anything about where they are, and much less about what to do next.

The School Leader

As a department, year team or senior leader, it is very rarely feasible for any one person to have a handle on the assessment outcomes for individual students; that is not their role.

This is the level at which regular tracking becomes important. It makes sense for a tracking system to highlight the numbers of children in any class group who are on-track – however that might be measured. It might also highlight those who are below expectations, those who are above, or those who have made slower progress. It should be possible, again, for all of this to come from the original assessments made by teachers in collated form.

For example, if using the Key Objectives approach, collation might indicate that in one class after half a term, 85% of students have achieved at least 20% of the key objectives, while a further 10% have achieved only 15% of the objectives, and some 5% are showing as achieving less than that. This would highlight the groups of children who are falling behind. It might be appropriate to “label” groups who are meeting, exceeding, or falling below the expected level but this is not a publication matter. It is for school tracking. There is nothing uncovered here that a classroom teacher doesn’t already know from his/her assessments. There is nothing demonstrated here that impacts on teaching and learning in classrooms. It may, however, highlight system concerns, for example where one class is underperforming, or where sub-groups such as those receiving the pupil premium are underperforming. Once these are identified, the focus should move back to the assessment.

In the past, the temptation was to highlight the percentage of children achieving, say L4, and to set then a target to increase that percentage, without any consideration of why those children were not yet achieving the level. All of these targets and statements must come back to the assessment and the classroom teacher.

Of course, senior leaders will also want to know the number of children who are “on-track” to meet end-of-key-stage expectations. Again, it should be possible to collate this based on the assessment processes undertaken in the classroom.

What is *not* required, is a new levelling system. There is no advantage to new labels to replace the old levels. There is no need for a “3b” or “3.5” or any other indicator to show that a student is working at the expected level for Year 3. Nobody needs this information. We have seen how meaningless such subdivisions become.

Of course, the devil is in the detail. What percentage of objectives would need to be met to consider a child to be “on track” or working at “age-related expectations”? Those are professional questions, and it is for that reason that it is all the more important that school and system leaders are driving these discussions, rather than waiting for data experts to provide ready-made solutions.

Ofsted

Frankly, we shouldn’t really need to consider Ofsted as a user of data, but the reality is that we currently still do. That said, their needs should be no different from school leaders. They will already have the headline data for end-of-key-stage assessments. All they should need to know from internal tracking and assessment is:

  1. Is the school appropriately assessing progress to further guide teaching and learning?
  2. Is the school appropriately tracking progress to identify students who need further support or challenge?

The details of the systems should be of no concern of Ofsted, so long as schools can satisfy those two needs. There should be no requirement to produce the data in any set form or at any specific frequency. The demands in the past that schools produce half-termly (or more frequent!) tracking spreadsheets of levels cannot be allowed to return under the new post-levels systems.

Parents

Parents were clearly always the lost party in the old system, and whether or not you agree with the DfE’s assessment that parents found levels confusing, the reality is that the old system was obscure at best. It told parents only where their child was in a rough approximation of comparison to other students. It gave no indication of the skills their child had, or their gaps in learning.

For the most part, the information a parent needs about their child’s learning is much the same as that that their child needs: the knowledge of what they can and can’t do, and what their next steps are. Of course, parents may be interested in a child’s attainment relative to his/her age, and that ought to be evident from the assessment. Equally, they may like to see how they have progressed, and again assessment against key objectives demonstrates that amply.

 

So where next?

We are fortunate in English schools to be supported by so many data experts with experience of the school system. However, they should not – indeed they must not  – be left to try to sort out this sorry mess alone. School leaders and school system leaders need to take a lead in this. Schools and their leaders need to take control of the professional discussions about what we measure when we’re assessing, and about what we consider to be appropriate attainment based on those assessments. Only then can the data experts who support our schools really create the systems we need to deliver on those intentions.