Tag Archives: leadership

Another damned expectation

I think one of the most useful qualities a headteacher can have is the ability to leave concerns behind at work. It’s never perfect – as I’m sure my family would attest – but if as a class teacher you find it hard to stop thinking about work in the evenings and weekends, then headship will only add to that challenge.

This weekend’s publication of a plan for music education feels like it was deliberately sent to test that ability.

True, you could say: never look at the news at weekends and never check your emails, but it’s not realistic. And so, early on Saturday morning I was presented with yet another document from the DfE telling me I’m failing. For that is how it feels.

Schools are different, so whatever you do, there will always be some school doing something better. Indeed because of the sheer volume of schools, you can usually guarantee that literally anything you do in a school will be done better somewhere. But as a head, so long as you can look at your own school and feel confident that you’re doing everything you can to offer the best deal on your priorities, you can live with that knowledge.

It becomes much harder when the government handpicks a small selection of examples and then tells every school in the land that what was the exemplar is now the expectation. It becomes an impossible task.

A couple of the case study examples in the new music plan talk about £20,000 annual budgets for music education in their schools. I just don’t have that money available. When I looked, half of the schools mentioned receive over £1000 more per pupil than my school: if someone put an extra £300,000 into my school next year, rest assured I’d find £20,000 for music!

Some of the (mostly urban) schools appear to be full, or even over subscribed. If each of my classes of 26 or 27 suddenly became 30, I might have another £60,000 in my budget which could certainly help music provision. But short of attempting to poach children from neighbouring villages or encourage more baby-making locally, there aren’t many options on that front.

None of which is to criticise what those schools achieve. The sharing of their practice is to be welcomed. We can always learn from other schools’ approaches, and can always strive to match those offers. But it’s not a level playing field.

So for government documents to state things like

The case studies included with this plan illustrate how excellent music education is being delivered now across the country within existing school budgets

is at best, unhelpful, and in truth disingenuous. Yet the DfE has chosen to all but insist that schools now create plans to bring their music curriculum up to the standard on offer in those schools.

Or, in fact beyond it. Even in their exemplar schools, not every one of the DfE’s bullet point list is met. Now you might argue that it’s important to be aspirational, but at what point are we setting people up to fail?

Music isn’t the only priority in schools. In the current climate, the massively underfunded need for recovery from the pandemic often tops the list; the near collapse of mental health services places a huge cost on schools both in terms of time and funding; demands for 90% attainment in English and maths will absorb both time and money. And neither of these things are in plentiful supply.

There isn’t a primary head in the land who wouldn’t like to give every child the opportunity to become proficient at piano. But for many, their first priority is ensuring that every child is fed, in a safe home, attending school in the first place, and hopefully mastering the basics that will set them up for their next steps.

None of that will be improved by a music development plan. Yet now school leaders will be forced to take time and money for other priorities to focus on this.

It’s demands like this that make me wonder how long the job is sustainable. Not because I don’t want to improve music education, but because I’m tired of constantly failing.

I’ve failed to get every child to attend school regularly.

I’ve failed to get 90% of my school working at the expected standard in maths.

I’ve failed to provide enough curriculum time for whatever subject Ofsted has lately pronounced upon.

And now I’ve failed to ensure that my school has enough practice rooms for music.

Never mind the fact that it doesn’t have enough space to provide calming spaces for all those children who need them because a special school place can’t be found for them. Never mind the fact that we don’t have enough teaching spaces to deliver decent interventions for those who desperately need to catch up. Never mind the fact that half of school leaders’ time is taken up with plugging the gaps left by failing local authority children’s services.

Now I must write a plan for how I’m going to create new practice rooms. Oh, and remove some teaching time from another subject to make room for more music lessons. Quite which subject they think we’re teaching too much of, I don’t know!

For me, this is the stuff that makes the job intolerable. I don’t mind there being SATs or an inspectorate. I can live with having to balance a challenging budget so long as it’s enough to pay for the basics. I can even cope with being on call on Christmas Eve to fill the gaps in the government’s pandemic strategy. But I’m tired of constantly being told to do more.

It’s exhausting to be told time and again that because one school has managed some accomplishment in some tiny part of their overall role, that we must now all do the same and more “within existing school budgets”.

When my time comes to jack it all in and walk, it won’t be the behaviour, or the parents, or the SATs that push me over the edge: it’ll be another damned expectation.

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!

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.