An excerpt from my book Lessons Learned? A life in education

GCSE and examination reform.

At a time when the future of GCSE is being widely discussed , the Rethinking Assessment movement is considering urgent and indeed fundamentally important questions about assessment and the even the Secretary of State who implemented it is arguing for change, here is an extract from my book written in 2017 . Footnotes and references have been removed.

There could not be a starker contrast between the implementation of that qualification (GCSE) and the reforms implemented from 2010.

First of all there was considerable buy in from the profession for the new qualification. The O Level was outmoded and largely inappropriate. Decades later those with experience of that qualification have not been listened to when policymakers rushed headlong into the ‘rigorous’ linear GCSEs first examined in 2017. If there was ever an example of lessons not being learned it is this. 

I was an O Level examiner and smile when I hear people harking back to those good old days. To pass the O Level in German one of the main things you had to do was to learn parrot fashion a large number of phrases or idioms which you could put into a 150 word composition about something exciting like a picnic in the country or a lost dog. 

Copying the lead of other experienced teachers and examiners who were mainly from the independent sector I culled a list of these phrases from scripts I had marked knowing that these all attracted marks and placed them all on a Banda sheet (remember those?) Each lesson we started with a test to see how many had been memorised. Let me give an example: ‘Trotz des schlechten Wetters’ means ‘in spite of the bad weather’. Since there was often a thunderstorm in the picture sequence for these stories this was a useful phrase to include. However I remember a chief examiner explaining to all of the markers that this showed that the student had not only mastered the fact that the preposition ‘trotz’ is followed by the genitive case but that (s)he had also mastered adjective endings and the fact that masculine and neuter nouns add an s in this case. This is of course rubbish. The students like mine had been given a Banda sheet of such phrases and learnt them off by heart. Gaming the system? Academic rigour? Many of the other phrases were highly amusing, most were not ones that would routinely have been heard in conversation in the last hundred years. I have had many fun conversations with my German friends sharing some of these archaic idioms.

The  other reason for buy in to GCSE was the O level / CSE separation. We desperately needed one examination, suitably tiered, which could be attempted by the majority of pupils and welcomed the fact that the specifications were very clearly defined building on the best practice from the graded objectives movement. Unlike O-level we knew exactly what we had to teach, what a grade meant in terms of learning outcomes and could therefore prepare pupils more effectively. Although Ofqual has disputed this[1] the examinations were largely criterion referenced. It was absolutely clear to teachers that, if a student demonstrated mastery of clearly defined elements they would achieve a given grade.    In my subject the examination gave equal weighting to all four skills enabling us to give the appropriate priority to the vitally important skills of listening and speaking as well as reading and writing.

To put it another way GCSE was not norm referenced as O Level had been. This meant of course that , there was no cap on the number of students achieving a grade leading to claims about grade inflation. These missed an important point. If grades were improving due to poor practice or overgenerous marking this was of course unacceptable and needed to be addressed. If however standards were genuinely improving then it would have been helpful for employers and higher education institutions to know. At present they do not.  And if genuine improvements had occurred a decision to reflect these improvements and raised expectations in future examinations would have been justified. What we were left with by 2017 was firstly that for every school that improved its results another had to go down and secondly that nobody can possibly understand what a particular grade means in terms of learning outcomes. The same student who was awarded a grade 3 one year might have been awarded a 4 or 5 if (s)he had been in another cohort.

Wisely, when implementing GCSE the government recognised the fact that teachers would need adequate time to acquaint themselves with these very different qualifications and planned for this. Unfortunately, the so called ‘Baker Days’  where schools closed for training were taken out of holidays to the anger of the profession. Nevertheless, having overcome that I was asked to host the session for all language teachers in Surrey. After presentations about the new qualifications we were given ample time to work in departments looking at each of the different specifications for our subject, the very high quality specimen papers and the detailed vocabulary and grammar listings. This enabled us to make an informed choice in good time to prepare our teaching programmes and purchase any relevant resources. It also brought subject teams from different schools together to share ideas and foster new and valuable links.

The new courses were a breath of fresh air and I and colleagues thoroughly enjoyed teaching them. That of course rubbed off on the students who made good progress and developed listening and reading comprehension and speaking skills that bore no comparison with those who had prepared for O Level.  Our A Level uptake increased substantially as a result. I would however emphasise that the majority of GCSE candidates do not study the subject to A Level. It is important that the tail does not wag the dog as it did with O Level. There is plenty of time in year 12 to make the transition.  

At this time there was also a tremendously useful organisation called the Assessment of Performance Unit (APU) which operated under the auspices of the Department for Education and Science (as it was then called) and the National Foundation for Educational Research. This unit sampled the performance of 13 year olds in a range of subjects  and published really helpful, concise reports for teachers explaining the findings and offering useful guidance which were a powerful resource for departments to discuss. Because these were not accountability measures for the individual schools and were administered externally and therefore without any risk of teaching to the test they were incredibly useful.[2] Yet again a really worthwhile resource disappeared into the black hole of policy memory. 

The point about all of this is that there was a educational rather than an ideological rationale underpinning the changes and thought was given to their implementation. Not rocket science, just managing change effectively. 

I often contrast this with the 2010+ reforms. I don’t think anyone would have disagreed that GCSE was ready for a review. It had been in place for more than 20 years – a time of massive change in education and society and of a sea change in standards of attainment. When GCSE was introduced grade F was supposed to be the national average. That would be unthinkable now and quite rightly so. It had also also been right for an A* grade to be added to highlight top achievers. Of course it needed to be reviewed. Unfortunately, Michael Gove missed the opportunity to take the profession with him by involving them properly in the review of qualifications and the design of the new ones. Linear qualifications replaced coursework, not for any educational reason but because of an unwillingness to seek a way forward with appropriate safeguards to enable the profession to be trusted.


Lessons learned about examinations:

There are therefore some very serious points here:

The first is that our obsession with examinations for 16 year olds in this country is actually a barrier to real learning. Inevitably students are taught to pass the exam. Some commentators use the ‘gaming’ rhetoric to blame teachers for this. The reality is that teachers are hardly likely not to do everything they can for high stakes examinations upon which both their and their students’ futures depend.

The second is that examinations only sample knowledge and understanding. As the stakes have risen they have dominated the curriculum.

The third is that all of this discourse is actually a distraction from the fact that there are things that need to be learned off by heart and there is nothing wrong with that.  Some advocates of ‘powerful knowledge’ assume that they have invented this.

Fourthly the primary purpose of examinations should be to test students’ knowledge and understanding of the course. If the primary purpose becomes to hold institutions to account the focus shifts from the individual learner to the institution. When the Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman criticised the fact that too much time was spent preparing young people for tests she was on one level correct[1]. Sadly though she missed the point by directing the blame to schools.  If she is serious about changing this she will need to convince policy makers to step back and find better ways of holding schools to account. I will return to this later. 


There are big questions about the rationale behind the 2016 reforms. Fundamental questions should have been asked about the purpose of GCSE in the context of the fact that even before the raising of the participation age most young people were continuing in some kind of education or training beyond 16. 

Lessons learned for policymakers:

  • Qualification reforms cannot be rushed.
  • There is an urgent need for a fundamental rethink of the relative positions of formative and diagnostic assessment as an integral part of the learning process, summative assessment to measure students’ attainment and progress at the end of a course or key stage and assessment for accountability purposes including evaluation of the effectiveness of education policies. 
  • For any reform to be successful you have to get buy in from those who are tasked with implementing it.
  • It is teachers and school leaders who will make any reform work.
  • Teachers and school leaders want to do the best for their young people. As the reformed qualifications have been implemented they have felt deeply disempowered for the reasons I have described. I know from countless conversations that this is one of the major causes of disaffection and barriers to retention within the profession.
  • Assessment is a professional matter. Policymakers have been too closely involved in the detail in recent years.
  • The rationale behind any reform needs to be based on evidence and meticulous research.
  • We need to learn and heed the lessons of the past.
  • Any reform needs to be underpinned with a carefully researched impact assessment which considers all of the potential unexpected outcomes. Matthew Syed’s idea of a pre-mortem[1] is a powerful model.
  • Secretaries of State and their Ministers are not professional educators. They should focus on governance and strategic leadership of the education system. 
  • Policies that cap numbers of grades that are achievable directly undermine policies that promote social mobility. 
  • The disconnect between the comparable outcomes methodology that seeks to maintain similar proportions of each grade between years and the allocation of specific learning outcomes to a grade explains why the issue of re-marks has been so controversial. This needs to be addressed in order to rebuild confidence in the marking process.  
  • There needs to be a radical rethink about the systems in place for marking examinations. 

How did we get here and what next?

At present the top priority is rightly to address the immediate needs of the 2019-20 cohort.  At the same time we cannot afford to lose sight of the needs of the 20/21 cohort of students. As with other effects of the pandemic about which I have written elsewhere[1] it will be essential to step back and assess what needs to be done for them.

In the growing likelihood of further disruption to the forthcoming school year it appears that ministers continue to see exams as the only valid form of assessment. The only proposals that have come forward appear to be looking at little more than tweaking at the edges of our current system. Failure to address this will set our schools and colleges up for another disaster next year.

In order to understand the perfect storm surrounding this year’s examination results and explore ways forward it is necessary to consider how the current situation arose. Contrary to popular views, the pandemic has been a symptom rather than the cause. The cancellation of exams has brought the shortcomings of a dysfunctional system into sharp focus.

Let us explore this in more detail:

For some decades the assessment of learning in English schools has been undermined for the purposes of external accountability. This can be traced back to as far as the 1988 Education Reform Act intensifying at various stages since then.

Here are some of the steps of that process:

  • With the introduction of open enrolment, local management and stronger governance schools were incentivised to recruit as many pupils as they could and were publicly held to account about their outcomes. Few would argue that increased accountability was unnecessary. The problems that followed arose largely from the unintended consequences or perverse incentives of policy decisions that followed.
  • Performance tables presented further levers to incentivise schools to focus on particular grade thresholds such as the C-D borderline at GCSE. These incentives led to the creation of qualifications which made the achievement of those grades easier to achieve. High profile celebration and praise by successive governments singled out schools which achieved high results in such qualifications. There were  examples of schools with superficially stellar GCSE results whose students were completely unprepared for further study. Schools that resisted such qualifications found themselves penalised in performance tables and sometimes in inspections which correlated closely  to those indicators.
  • This led to the discourse of ‘gaming’ and ‘grade inflation’. There were undoubtedly schools that chose particular qualifications in order to enhance their position in performance tables rather than for sound educational reasons. This should not have happened but the lever was not one they designed. That discourse deflected the blame away from government at a time when a culture of denigration pervaded the language of policymakers. Talk of ‘failing schools’, ‘enemies of promise’ etc. together with the consignment of many experts to the ‘blob’, the dissolution of bodies like the ‘Qualifications and Curriculum Authority’ and the asserted need to restore knowledge into a curriculum allegedly designed solely around skills reinforced the message that rigour was being reintroduced.  Ironically the late decision by government this year to award the higher of the CAG or algorithm grade has led to some seriously inflated grades which schools would not have recommended and students could not have accessed if the examinations had taken place.
  • There is an elephant in the room here. A considerable number of members of the teaching profession have been complicit in the discourse I have described.. Some have participated in a polarised characterisation of teachers as ‘traditionalists and progressives’, others have allowed the unethical practice of a minority to generalise accusations of ‘gaming the system’ and that minority have let down the rest of their profession. Much of this has been a function of the levers pulled by the accountability system including the vulnerability of senior leaders jobs. Both those working in our education service and those in government must rise up to the challenge of moving on from this toxic culture.
  • From 2010 the coalition government promised the reintroduction of ‘academic rigour’. Though there was no question that rigour had been lost from some courses which needed to be reformed an assumption was made that academic rigour can only be assessed by examinations, that coursework and modular courses were the cause of the problem and needed to be eradicated rather than reformed. Teachers could not be trusted to assess their students accurately. The fact that just about every university course relies on such approaches and that many of the highest achieving countries in the world rely on them was quietly ignored.
  • The reformed exams therefore relied entirely on assessment through final exams. Whereas previously assessment had taken place throughout the course everything depended on the summer examinations. If this had not been the case we would have had a much more reliable basis for judgements at the end of the course in 2020. A Level students who have ended up with ungraded results and nothing to show for two years of work have been left particularly disadvantaged.
  • In order to establish standards for the new examinations which were comparable with the achievement of previous cohorts the ‘comparable outcomes’ system was put in place[2]. Legislation had been passed in 2009 under Labour[3] to ensure that standards were maintained between years and the comparable outcomes methodology was implemented from 2010 for new GCSEs with a ‘standards advisory group’ formed by Ofqual to oversee this from 2012 and beyond.
  • The basic premise is that a grade achieved in one year would have the same level of currency as one achieved the year before[4]. The approximate profile of grades would only change if there was evidence of system wide improvement preventing ‘grade inflation’ from taking place. It is interesting to reflect on that term. Whereas in England a rise in higher grades is referred to as grade inflation, other countries refer to it as improvement. To date no effective method has been found of assessing that and no change has been made to proportions of grades since the reformed exams were introduced even though a National Reference Test was introduced to this end. Each year we are told that standards have been maintained because across the system the overall percentages at key grades have been manipulated to remain stable. The flaws in this system are twofold: first the method for reaching this is a statistical one. It is not about the knowledge and understanding students have gained; the examinations are not criterion referenced. This means that a grade 9 in a subject does not tell a prospective employer or post 16 tutor what that means in terms of Mathematical knowledge and understanding but simply that the student was in the top X% of the cohort. An equally brilliant student in a stronger cohort may not have gained the same grade.  We know that the reliability of exam marking is weak[5]. Appeals over recent years have meant that even when marks were upgraded the statistical process did not change grades. Second, that statistical process is largely predicted on ‘prior attainment’. For GCSE this means key stage 2 tests – eg a test sat on one day in two subjects when the pupil was 10. Anyone who has worked in a secondary school knows how students can change over the five years of schooling. Most significantly an inbuilt characteristic of this system is that a given percentage referred to in a seminal report published by ASCL as the ‘Forgotten Third’[6] will always fail to reach the required pass mark of a grade 4.  The experience of the algorithm this year has brought this somewhat esoteric proccess into sharp focus and raised a level of public awareness which had not existed hitherto.

What appears to be holding ministers back from creating  an alternative long-term plan for assessment is that such a plan would have some radical elements including a major shift of culture, trust and the locus of accountability. It would require brave decisions by ministers and return major professional responsibilities onto the teaching profession. Instead of assuming the opposite they could and should rightly expect the profession to  rise to the challenge with the support of high-quality professional development and courageous leadership by a united education community working in true collaboration with policymakers. That is the true moral imperative facing the teaching profession and government. The Chartered College and Ofsted could play a major part in this.

Though a long-term plan is needed to do justice to this major task, the experience of this year has demonstrated why we cannot wait and do nothing. The arrangements made this year are not sustainable in the future. At the time of writing we do not know whether it will be practical to run examinations in 2020/21 or the extent to which schools will be open all year for all students. Nor is it realistic to look backwards and expect to revert to the previous arrangements or reintroduce another algorithm,

As we must make a start what might a stepping stone look like for this year’s students? Here are some initial suggestions. I would propose this whether or not examinations take place next summer.

  1. Schools embed regular low stakes assessment into all teaching building up a picture of what students know and understand. The creation and implementation of appropriate assessments needs to be a major priority for professional learning in all schools.
  2. At regular points in the year schools set formal tests allowing them to place their students into a rank order and collate areas of relative strength and weakness in order to plan the next stages of teaching.
  3. The above could be supported by some standardised assessment tasks that enable schools to benchmark the knowledge and understanding of their students against an agreed standard. It is most important that the design of these tasks would not be about jumping through hoops of answering a particular question but a genuine assessment of their mastery of the content against clearly specified criteria. This would begin to return us to a situation when a clearer picture of what our students know, understand and can do began to emerge.
  4. At an appropriate stage of the year all of the above data could be collated into a summative and evidence based professional judgement about the overall attainment of the students.
  5. This should be moderated within school by a rigorous process involving all members of a subject department and senior leaders all of who should have a strong shared understanding of the department’s strengths and weaknesses and knowledge of their classroom practice.
  6. There could be a degree of external verification conducted by moderators who could be Chartered Assessors with expert knowledge of assessment. Their job would be to validate the school’s processes and help to achieve some sort of consistency across the system. Where a school’s grades appeared out of kilter with previous performance this would be scrutinised This is where the accountability could sit. There is a cost to this. I would strongly advocate that government moves rapidly to put this in place.
  7. At the end of this process a Centre Assessed Grade would be generated. Whether or not examinations take place grades produced would have a far greater degree of reliability when underpinned by a well-planned process of this kind.

It is worth noting that none of the above is rocket science. Most of it reflects existing best practice. In order for it to be effective there is no time to be lost. This approach has to start in schools from the beginning of the Autumn term alongside planning and detailed consultation with teachers and school leaders in the DFE for the standardisation procedures.

It would make no sense to compare the profile of the 2020-1 grades with those of previous years or to place artificial constraints on the proportion of students achieving each grade.  Much has been written about the risks arising from that process. Even before the pandemic the cracks were evident in a system built on retaining comparable percentages of grades from year to year.  We really need to start with a blank sheet so that schools are not constrained by a strait jacket or postcode lottery and every teacher and school leader has to rise to this challenge.

I don’t expect every reader of this to agree with my analysis or that my proposals are a perfect solution. What I hope however is to promote some discussion in the fervent hope that we do a better service to our young people during the next academic year.

Brian Lightman August 2020

[1] https://brianlightman.wordpress.com/2020/06/04/what-next-early-thoughts-triggered-by-school-responses-to-coronavirus-crisis/

https://bigeducation.org/lfl-content/without-proper-evaluation-and-evidence-we-wont-learn-the-real-lessons-from-lockdown/

[2] https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2009/22/section/128https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/451321/2015-08-05-summer-series-gcse-as-and-a-level-grade-standards.pdf

[3] https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2009/22/section/128

[4] It is worth noting that this comparability related to the overall statistics rather than comparing the relative difficulty of individual subjects. This has led for example to a lengthy debate about the ‘severe grading’ of modern foreign languages

[5] A vast amount of research has been undertaken about this. Here is a good summary of the issues dating back to 1996 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/604938/0596_Wilmut_et_al_A_review_of_research_into_the_reliability_of_examinations.pdf

[6] https://www.ascl.org.uk/Our-view/Campaigns/The-Forgotten-Third

What’s in a grade? Some uncomfortable truths

Recently I have written two blogs (1)  (2) about next stages after COVID-19. Both have considered all kinds of fundamental questions about what our education system might need to look like in the future and how school leaders can harness what has been learnt.  They have been well received and I know are being considered carefully by school leaders.

But there are some really big and uncomfortable questions which school leaders cannot answer on their own and which have to inform future education policy.

This is an attempt to consider one of these in as objective a way as I can. This is not about taking a partisan view. No party has addressed these yet and all are going to need to consider them carefully.

When schools were closed for the majority of pupils one of the greatest challenges facing decision makers in England was the timetable of summative tests and externally administered examinations.  Unlike most other countries which base all judgements about student’s attainment at least up to the age of 16 on teacher assessment we are entirely dependent on externally set and marked examination conducted during a very narrow window of dates.

In contrast to other countries where teacher assessment routinely takes place throughout the year and summative grades could easily be collated and evidenced, a different solution was therefore needed this year in secondary schools in order to enable students to be awarded a grade. I do not envy Ofqual in the decisions they had to make in order to find a workable solution for this year and can understand why the proposed arrangements received little opposition from professional associations who saw them as the ‘least worst’  pragmatic solution.

Some weeks down the line the cracks have begun to show. When teachers attempted to calculate evidence-informed centre-assessed grades there were clear difficulties in some cases. There were even threats of challenges and even legal action from anxious parents and real worries in many schools about whether this system will short change any of their students.

A major challenge arising from this situation is the policy imperative of ensuring that grades are comparable from year to year. The standardisation process is bound to produce some results which do not reflect the judgement of their teachers. Some will argue that this has always happened with exams and indeed that it protects some students from decline.  That is true. However, the difference is that this year’s system explicitly bases results on individual schools’ as well as national patterns of prior performance and does not allow for local improvements.

A well researched FFT report  showed that grades submitted by a large sample of schools to a  statistical moderation exercise ahead of the deadline represented a significant uplift from previous years.  The report is rightly cautious in drawing conclusions that assume these would be the final grades the schools submitted stating that ‘they may have used the reports they were provided with to amend the mix of grades they were proposing’.

It has nevertheless been understandably clear that many teachers have felt seriously conflicted by this process. There are several reasons for this:

  • Some schools which had been underperforming in previous years had strong grounds to expect a significant improvement this year but knew that such predictions would be downgraded. They therefore had to submit lower grades than they knew the students deserved and felt deeply uncomfortable about this.
  • The importance of previous individual schools’ and national patterns of results in the process means that the so called ‘Forgotten Third’ will automatically be perpetuated. Teachers who have made such efforts to address this for those students find themselves deeply discomfited when forced to lock a proportion of their students into that category.
  • Some schools lack the robust internal assessment processes to make predictions backed up by trustworthy evidence.
  • There is evidence that in some cases senior leaders fearful of accountability pressures have expected their teachers to submit unrealistically high grades.

But there is one specific reason that overrides all of these in making this process difficult.

The centre assessed grades are not a professional judgement about what students know and understand. They are a judgement on the grade a student might have achieved. These two things are  very different from one another.    From year to year students whose papers meet the marking criteria identically might not achieve the same grade due to the standardisation process which requires approximately the same proportion of students to achieve each grade unless there have been significant changes in the prior attainment of the cohort.

So, two students’ whose mastery of the subject matter is identical will not necessarily receive the same grade from year to year. Some labelled as failures in one year would not have been in another.  No teacher can second guess this because it is entirely dependent on the comparable outcomes or standardisation processes.  This has been extremely difficult to communicate to parents, employers and, I suspect, some policymakers. The system was introduced to ensure comparability between years across the examination reforms but also reflects a fear in official circles of grade inflation which is not matched by a fear of failure to recognize or indeed identify system-wide improvement.

That might explain why, for several years, there has been widespread denial about this uncomfortable truth.

It is therefore hardly surprising that teachers are have struggled with this process. If, when the results arrive, some of their students have been given a lower grade than the centre assessed grade they will be powerless to address that. In some cases they may well use their own judgement to decide for example whether that student should  be admitted to an advanced course in that subject. That will of course be easier in a school with a sixth form than in an 11-16 institution where decisions on admissions to advanced courses are made elsewhere.  It is very likely that some fundamental questions will be asked when results are published.

The other consequence of this approach is teaching to the test and narrowing of the curriculum.  Though the Chief Inspector has frequently expressed disapproval of this the fact of the matter is that the outcome of a GCSE course is highly dependent on a student’s ability to jump through the hoops of the examination markscheme. For schools the stakes in the accountability system are so high that they cannot  ever afford to take their eyes off grades. The examination becomes the de facto scheme of work. At the time of writing it is reported that one large academy chain is considering narrowing the curriculum in order to prepare students for examinations.

As someone who visits numerous lessons in a range of schools I frequently see reference to meeting one of the examination specification’s assessment objectives as the aim of the lesson. In spite of the cancellation of performance tables and inspection this year this practice remains very evident in many examples of virtual lessons and work set during lockdown.    If that practice happens to coincide with mastery of the subject matter that is an added bonus. The sad reality is that in many cases the examination paper is the learning objective rather than the intrinsic content of the subject matter itself. In no subject is this more evident than in the reformed English GCSE.

If there is one lesson from lockdown that will improve the life chances of our young people if will be to restore the rightful position of professional teacher assessment. Reintroducing some form of controlled assessment to GCSE as some have proposed may be a step on the way but will be a red herring if we cannot move to a situation where summative assessment actually provides a clear picture of what students, know, can do and understand. That kind of information would be very different from an examination grade, much more useful for prospective employers and admissions tutors and therefore a far better preparation for adult life.

In view of the extent to which teaching has been dominated by an exam-based system based entirely on external assessment the scale of the cultural shift cannot be underestimated.  In order to move to a position in which teachers are trusted and empowered to make such professional judgements that culture change will need to embrace parents, the pupils, government and the media as well as the teachers and school leaders themselves. In addition to significant training needs there will be significant ethical responsibilities to which the entire education profession will have to commit.

Other jurisdictions do this. Why can’t we?

WHAT NEXT? EARLY THOUGHTS TRIGGERED BY SCHOOL RESPONSES TO CORONAVIRUS CRISIS

If you always do what you‘ve always done, you‘ll always get what you‘ve always got.” Henry Ford.

Introduction:

Suddenly many of the established ways in which our schools have operated for many years have had to either cease or adapt fundamentally. All of this has had to happen with minimal preparation because of the speed of escalation of the emergency. There is no question that our key workers including those who work in education have risen to this challenge admirably demonstrating commitment, determination and generous leadership.

One thing that is absolutely certain is that the world will not be the same after this event. Every one of us has lessons to learn. What does that that mean for our education service? Will it, can it, or should it ever try to revert to its previous configuration? Or should this crisis be the catalyst for some fundamental questions? However awful the current situation is, are there perhaps hidden opportunities?

I would argue that it is incumbent upon us to consider these questions in an objective, non-partisan and dispassionate way. Many people are asking similar and complementary questions on our social media. Some are challenging fundamental aspects of existing education policy; others are highlighting those strengths that should not be lost. Some examples are included at the end of this piece.  Let us all engage in the conversation.

The aim of this piece is to contribute to an agenda for a discussion which has to take place  when this crisis comes to an end and we have had an opportunity to evaluate properly the educational and social impact on our students and staff. I am not sure how or where this discussion should take place. All I know is that it is essential.

To be clear it is not

  • an attempt to place education on a pedestal in any way undervaluing the massive efforts of so many other public servants in different sectors.
  • an attempt to supply answers to a rapidly evolving and unfinished event.
  • about seeking to analyse or criticise the way any aspect of this crisis has been managed.

On the contrary. If we are to learn anything from what happens we will have to  understand that the only way to move forward will be with humility and an open mind.

Questions to consider

Here then is a first set of questions about some of those systems and routines that have been dramatically affected.  Many of these will be as uncomfortable for me as they are for others and there will be gaps that I have not yet thought about. I hope that readers will add further questions or amend some of mine to fill in those gaps.  If any of the questions imply a point of view that is not my intention. In the interests of our young people we must be bold enough to consider all of them objectively and seek evidence to inform our findings.

I would warmly welcome feedback and opportunities to discuss this further either via social media or my direct email lightmanconsulting@btinternet.com

  1. Use of time

The school calendar and  fixed daily timetable of lessons for groups of students and the whole school

  • What have we learnt about the way students have used their days during the closure?
  • What impact has that had on their styles of learning?
  • In many cases students have had a significant element of flexibility over when they have done their studying and how their days have been organized. What have been the advantages and disadvantages of this and the impact on students’ learning?
  • Schools were asked to be open in the Easter holiday period. What has this taught us about the current shape of the school year?
  • Is there a case for reconsidering any aspects of the school day?
  • What have we learnt about the examination timetable and its impact on the school calendar?
  1. The curriculum and educational vision
  • Which aspects of the curriculum were taught during the closure?
  • How are we going to assess the impact of that?
  • To what extent was work given to students due to the closure based on what we would have done if open and to what extent was it based on the new uncharted circumstances?
  • What gaps did we discover?
  • What have we learnt about curriculum content that needs to be continued?
  • What implications are there for PSHE / skills for life/ wellbeing and other cross curricular aspects?
  • There have been impressive examples of collaboration in curriculum planning across schools, trusts and more widely. What are the lessons from this and are there aspects that we could continue?
  • Are there lessons for the future for students who for whatever reason cannot attend regularly?
  • How inclusive was the work we set or were certain groups unintentionally disadvantaged.
  1. The use of technology as a virtual learning tool
  • What lessons have we learnt from the use of remote learning platforms during this period? What don’t we yet know?
  • How are we going to assess the impact of the work students have been given during the closures?
  • What is the equality impact of the types of learning that have taken place during the closures?
  • What are the lessons regarding the disadvantaged?
  • What are the implications in terms of future provision/policy.
  • Before the closures much has been said and written about the negative aspects of smartphones. During this period they have been the main tool for communication with most students. What are the implications for the future?
  • What have we learnt about the ‘digital divide’ and what are the implications?
  • What is the feedback from students? What do we need to teach young them in order to ensure that they have the essential knowledge and competence to make use of remote/online learning resources?
  • What lessons have we learn about preparing students for independent study?
  • What have we learnt about ways of communicating with individual students to offer them help/advice and guidance?
  • Are there opportunities to use electronic communications to organize some of the interventions which often take place after school? Can some of these additional sessions be recorded – what would be the implications for example monitoring progress , impact, checking understanding?
  • Are there opportunities to use these kinds of systems more for students who are ill etc.?
  • Are there opportunities to use these types of resources for students who, for whatever reason, need to be removed temporarily from lessons?
  • To what extent an such resources be used in PRUs?
  • What do we need to learn as a profession in order to use these resources effectively?
  • What are the policy implications regarding educational technology? Should there be any national standards/ procurement arrangements/ protocols etc. or should this be left to individual schools and trusts? Should national platforms for sharing resources be shared?
  1. Assessment and testing

The cancellation of examinations and the role of teacher assessment and professional judgements about students’ attainment is significant. The fixed calendar of exams made the decision about closing schools in England very different from other countries where teacher assessment is the norm.

  • Once the awarding process is over this summer, what are the lessons we have learnt about teacher assessment?
  • Is there a case for rebalancing the roles of teacher assessment and summative tests?
  • If so, how can we build confidence in the profession to increase their role and skills in assessmen?
  • What difference has the absence of SATs made? What will be the impact on secondary schools? What are the implications for the future of KS2 testing?
  • Much of the curriculum in place at the beginning of the closure was related to exam/test preparation. To what extent did the cancellation of exams lead to other forms of learning and content? Are there lessons to be learnt from this?
  • What examples are there of worthwhile learning experiences and curriculum content that were introduced during the closures and had not been in place beforehand?
  • What is there to learn from examples of project-based learning, cultural experiences and lessons on acts of kindness, social responsibility that have been devised?
  1. Accountability: The suspension of the inspection system and performance tables.
  • Combined with the fact that guidance about a whole raft of issues needed to be prepared after the schools were closed, to what extent have schools held themselves to account and taken control of their responsibilities?
  • What difference has the cancellation of performance tables made?
  • What difference has the cancellation of inspections made?
  • What will a quality education have looked like in 2020?
  • Should performance tables and/or inspections simply be reintroduced or should these systems undergo any kind of review? If they are to be reintroduced when is the right time?
  • Are there changes that should be made to these accountability systems when we return?
  • What has been the impact on the quality of teachers and school leaders’ work with the fact that they have had to work remotely and more independently than previously without many of the external controls that normally exist?
  1. Attendance in person and all of the associated registration, monitoring, interventions and accountability around that.

The closure has turned on its head most existing practice regarding attendance.

  • What has the impact on students of not attending school been?
  • What have been the biggest concerns?
  • What systems have been used to monitor and safeguard vulnerable students and how effective have they been? Are there any lessons to learn?
  • Have any unexpected , beneficial educational opportunities arisen?
  • What are the implications in terms of those students who have not traditionally coped in a mainstream classroom and have needed alternative provision. Have we discovered any approaches that have worked for these students?
  1. Safeguarding
  • The teaching profession has had a huge role regarding the safeguarding of young people during the closures. Bearing in mind that schools are normally only open during limited times and terms what lessons have we learnt from this?
  • What should be the respective roles of schools and external agencies?
  • What should happen during school holidays?
  • What are implications in terms of future practice for schools of the increase in domestic abuse?
  • To what extent should schools be responsible for ensuring that children are fed and clothed and what are the wider policy implications?
  1. The role of schools as community hubs providing child care, food etc. and helping key workers to fulfil their essential roles.
  • There have been many inspiring stories of the role schools have played during this crisis. What have we learnt about the role of schools in the community?
  • What lessons have we learnt about the ways schools and external agencies do/can/should work together?
  • What should the core role of schools be in the future?
  1. Expectations of students’ personal responsibility and behaviour
  • What have we learnt about the way students have taken responsibility for their studies?
  • What has worked well?
  • Is there anything we could continue?
  • What has not worked and what are the implications of that into the future?
  • When schools reopen what will have been the impact of the closure on students’ behaviour and motivation?
  • Are there opportunities to seize from the experience of schools being closed?
  • Will students have a different view about motivation and ‘buy in’ to their education?
  • Are there students who have been subject to significant risks during the closure and, if so, what action needs to be taken?
  1. Expectations of parents as partners in the educational process

A quick look at Amazon’s list of best seller books revealed no fewer than 62 of the 100 titles that were publications for children to work on at home with their parents. Social media have been full of examples of how children have been working at home while not in school. It is therefore very clear that parents have risen to the challenge and are providing a vast amount of support for their children.

  • Parents have been given huge responsibilities during the closure. How could they have been better prepared for these?
  • How can we build on this? What a difference it would make if this kind of partnership continued once our schools reopened.?
  • Many parents have made huge efforts to support their children.
  • What have we learnt from this commitment and how can we build on what they have achieved?
  • Often parents have told teachers that they do not feel confident to help their children. How can we help by ensuring that they have access to resources and support that they can use?
  • What is a reasonable expectation of the role of parents in their children’s education?
  • Schools have perforce had to communicate with parents in different and more intensive ways than when the schools were open. What are the lessons to learn from this? How can we maintain the powerful relationships that are developing?

The level of engagement is of course not universal. There is a risk that the lack of daily contact and intervention with some students will widen the gap of disadvantage and the risks associated with that. Schools continue to try their hardest to mitigate against that.

  • What can we learn from how those students have fared?
  • Are there some successful strategies we can build on?
  1. Implications for forward planning, including recruitment
  • How are we going to lead and manage the reopening of schools?
  • How are we going to address the inevitable gaps in learning that will have occurred?
  • What are going to do specifically for students currently in years 5, 10 and 12 who may face external assessment soonest?
  • How are we going to support years 6, 11 and 13 over transition?
  • How are we going to ensure that we are fully staffed when we reopen?
  • What are the implications for supporting teachers who have missed out on large parts of their initial training?
  • What are we going to do where we have lost key staff and not had opportunity to replace them?
  1. Leadership of fundamental change in working conditions and the role of teachers as home workers.
  • What have we learnt from teachers working at home?
  • Teachers have needed to work more autonomously and independently during the closures. How positive has this been? Have there been any disadvantages? What are the lessons from the increased trust in their professionalism?
  • Has this provided opportunities for CPD and the development of learning resources?
  • What gaps have become evident in the skills and knowledge of our staff during this period?
  • If another crisis of this kind occurred how might we be better prepared?
  • Are there changes in working practices that could be beneficial?
  • Could we be using videoconferencing platforms to enable some people to have more flexible ways of attending meetings?
  • Could we be using webinars/videos etc. to record some CPD presentations instead of presenting them in person.
  • Is it time to replace some face to face courses and conferences with virtual ones?
  • Do we need all teachers to be present in school throughout the school day? Are there ways of creating the thinking/preparation time people have had during the closures?
  • Teachers and school staff have been designated as key workers and their role has been a vital one during the crisis. What are the implications for future policy regarding the workforce?
  • The public have been fulsome in their praise of teachers and other school staff during this period. How can we draw on this to build on the positive image they have recognize?
  • What have we learnt about teacher workload during this period? Has the greater flexibility in working practices been beneficial or detrimental?

Examples of some recent blogs and articles on the theme

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/onecanonlyhope-what-your-hopes-education-other-side-alastair-falk/

https://medium.com/@DavidWeston/11-silver-linings-of-the-pandemic-eb7a18318934

https://www.bera.ac.uk/blog/five-education-myths-that-covid-19-shatters

https://education-power-change.com/rules/

https://read.oecd-ilibrary.org/view/?ref=126_126988-t63lxosohs&title=A-framework-to-guide-an-education-response-to-the-Covid-19-Pandemic-of-2020

https://www.tes.com/news/10-things-will-be-better-after-lockdown

http://www.ednfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/Protecting-Learning-Low-Res_compressed.pdf

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/apr/21/coronavirus-is-teaching-the-uk-its-wrong-to-deride-the-practical-professions

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/apr/07/when-the-covid-19-crisis-finally-ends-uk-schools-must-never-return-to-normal

https://medium.com/@thersa/lessons-from-lockdown-a9f56f9461b5

http://therealdavidcameron.net/lessons-learned/

https://bigeducation.org/lfl-content/reconnecting-to-the-real-purpose-of-school/

https://bigeducation.org/learning-from-lockdown/

https://www.edge.co.uk/news/edge-news/challenging-times-inspire-education-change-government-s-old-fashioned-approach-to

https://bit.ly/3eMciXr Curriculum must not focus solely on catching up

“In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity.” (Albert Einstein)

On 14th May something very special if not unique took place in the world of British education.

More than 2000 teachers and school leaders participated in what may have been the largest virtual conference to have taken place in the UK. In Wales a parallel conference increased this number to around 3000. Another conference for hundreds of post 16 school and college leaders and teachers will follow a similar format shortly.

The  purpose of the conference was to bring together a community of education professionals to share ideas and experiences about the kinds of topics that are exercising everyone. Topics like Year 6-7 transition, planning the curriculum in the context of school closures, assessment at KS4 and supporting NQTs. A number of motivational videos for schools to share with their students were shown together with summaries of  excellent resources which have been shared with schools during recent weeks.

None of the speakers  pretended to have all of the answers. In many ways the conferences raised the questions schools need to consider enabling those who know what is best for their communities to decide what might be of use. During the presentations a live chat collected these questions which were followed up in a live  question and answer session.  That chat also collected and shared a treasure trove of ideas and suggestions from participants.   In the afternoon panel sessions with school leaders followed up the presentations.

Quite apart from this specific content this conference was about  a community of professionals who care for each other’s wellbeing and are passionately committed to helping each other to do everything in their power to support the children  and families in their communities. During the day we were reminded about some of the heart-rending circumstances in which some of those children are currently existing.

Before the pandemic this conference would have taken place in Central Hall Westminster. It would have been organised by the same small operational team at a fraction of the cost of most similar events. As today the educational  content would have been led and organised by current and recently serving school teachers and  leaders. Amazingly this same extraordinarily talented team brought about the transformation of that event into an online version. An impressive achievement by any measure.  

There were further unusual characteristics to this event:

  • No advertising took place other than via social networks and electronic messages to the members of this community.
  • All of the presenters were broadcast or recorded remotely mainly from their homes.
  • They were all teachers, school leaders or members of the organisation’s specialist team.
  • There was no media coverage, nor was that sought.
  • This was not a commercial event. It was funded entirely by membership subscriptions and a small amount of business sponsorship.

Although the event would have taken place a stone’s throw from the DFE offices officials have never wished to be involved. This was a genuine example of system leadership in a self-improving school led system. At a time when everyone could feel rather lonely this strong community provided much needed companionship, inspiration and  support as well as knowledge and resources for schools to use.

Although the feedback has been extremely positive none of us involved with this would pretend to have got everything right nor would we pretend to have all of the answers. Participants have already submitted suggestions for improvements and future events which those of us on the strategy team will be considering carefully next week.

Schools are navigating through an immensely challenging time. As someone a step removed from the immediate job of running a school I have been in awe of their efforts and commitment and I have to say angry at those who fail to recognise what they have been doing. School leaders know what is right for their children and their families and will continue to do their utmost to help them.

I know I am far from alone in feeling privileged to be part of the PiXL Club  . This week that organisation has signposted the way to a future of golden opportunities for us to seize when this terrible crisis is over.

Note:

For further information about the PiXL club see http://www.pixl.org.uk @pixlclub

 

Healing the divisions.

As schools reopen at the beginning of a new decade we all have a massive part to play in trying to heal the deep divisions that have torn our society apart in recent years. This is perhaps one of the greatest leadership challenges we have faced in a long time.

Teachers and school leaders are driven by an intense sense of vocation. What gets them up in the morning is a passionate desire to give their students the very best life chances, to believe in themselves, to grasp the myriad opportunities that exist for them and to overcome the challenges they face as far as that is possible. They want to instil a love of learning and their subjects.

We must never forget that, for many young people, school is the most stable place in their often chaotic lives. For those young people school is often the one haven where values are consistent and boundaries are clear. It is the place where they can learn to socialise ,where they can meet role models who will influence them for life and where their self esteem can be grown.

Much of course is way beyond our control but there is much that schools can do. Thankfully most schools still have enough autonomy to be able to set their own distinctive ethos and make a real difference for their young people.

If there is anything to learn from recent experiences we need to get away once and for all from the idea that all schools and all parts of the country are the same and have some honest and frank discussion about some uncomfortable issues.

The biggest of these is the nature of disadvantage. Though all young people on free school meals come from financially disadvantaged homes they are not educationally disadvantaged in the same way. In all the schools I have worked or spent time in the greatest problem is almost always a cohort of white British young people. Typically their parents have had a bad experience of education or do not see it as a worthwhile aspiration. Their relationship with schools is often a difficult one and there is little ‘buy-in’ for the essentially middle class values that underpin education policy and drive our London-centric policy.  We cannot ignore this or pretend that the solutions will be found in London where, whilst there has been much excellent practice, the context is completely different from many areas of the country.

Many schools are doing a vast amount to address this but the challenges go way beyond the school gates.

What politicians need to do about this is beyond the scope of this blog but here are some suggestions for our profession:

  • Ignore the noise. Social media can be powerful and informative but only when used wisely. During 2019 much of the content has been divisive and damaging often dominated by a small number of people who surround themselves only with those who agree with their views. We have a diverse society and diverse schools – though all schools have some shared characteristics let’s not pretend that a selective school in suburban Kent or an oversubscribed school with a favoured intake operates in the same circumstances as a multi ethnic school in London or a largely white British one in the East Midlands. Above all there is no place for kind of abusive and aggressive language that none of us would tolerate in our students but which is sadly too evident on Twitter.
  • To quote Simon Sinek[1] every school needs to start with the ‘Why’. If we are to win with our students and our staff we need to be absolutely clear about what we are trying to achieve in our own context. I see some great examples of schools that make this absolutely explicit and are driven by that collective sense of mission. Often it has to be said, those achievements are in spite of the accountability system which does little to recognise the importance of this.  Invariably the leaders of those schools confidently do what they know is right even when this requires some brave decisions.
  • No school will be successful unless we win over our students and have a crystal clear, shared and collectively owned vision of the education we set out to provide
    • The examination dominated curriculum is a massive challenge for many young people. Although the discussions many are having about their curriculum ‘intent’ have often been useful this is about far more than reacting to the latest policies or Ofsted framework and about far more than a list of subjects.
    • Of course knowledge is at the heart of this. When I read some commentaries I sometimes wonder whether I taught in a parallel universe for 31 years.  A curriculum that meets the needs of our students must be brought to life with opportunities to experience beyond the school gates, to understand the world or work, what it means to be an adult, what a happy fulfilled life looks like. It must inspire and fascinate and teachers must have the opportunity to use their professional judgement. to put aside their lesson plan to follow up a question from a students without fear of an overbearing accountability or management system.     The polarised discourse of knowledge versus skills is enormously unhelpful as is an assessment system that rewards an understanding of AO3 more than a love of a text.
    • Excellent behaviour comes from achieving the ‘buy in’ I have described. How that is achieved must come from the values and vision I have written about. There is no one right way to achieve this and that ethos must come from the top. Interminable dogmatic discussions asserting the relative efficacy of punitive versus nurturing approaches do nothing to help us find answers.

In an excellent New Year leader article in TES  Ed Dorrell wrote:   ‘Let 2020 be when teachers steer their own course……Instead of looking back at the challenges of the past decade, look forward to what the profession can do for itself’.  It may take longer to heal all of the divisions in British society but there is a vast amount we can achieve. Let us all seize that agenda!

Brian Lightman  January 2020

[1] Simon Sinek, Start with Why. Penguin 2019

The new inspection framework-opportunity or impossible dream?

I have hesitated from joining the conversations about the proposed new inspection framework because to be honest I am really struggling. I respect Amanda Spielman’s recognition of the need for things to change and the direction of travel she seeks so I want to support the changes. But I share her pain. This is difficult. And there is a lot of noise out there as a result of a genuine commitment to consult. How representative some of that noise is remains a question.

I have many years of experience on both sides of inspection. I believe in the principle of an external view so I want inspections to continue and I certainly don’t want to see Ofsted abolished but I do want to see a radical change in the culture. Perhaps this is already coming.

As a newly appointed headteacher I and the school benefited greatly from an early inspection which confirmed the direction of travel we were taking in a school where there was no shortage of issues to address and recognised our leadership. This helped us greatly to win back the confidence of our community and address the challenges. I described this in detail in my book(p129+)

I have been an inspector for Estyn in Wales. It helped me personally to become a better headteacher and I was often told that my involvement as a serving headteacher was helpful and constructive.

So why am I hesitant?

I think there are a number of serious flaws in the current system. Until these are addressed the system cannot improve.

  1. LikeStephen TierneyI agree that the grading system has to go. It is having a disastrous effect on many schools which are being led in absolutely the right direction but in challenging circumstances and need to change. Too often I see them placed in a category leading to loss of confidence in the community, loss of staff and intake, not to mention the head’s livelihood. On the other hand I see schools with the ‘outstanding’ label which aren’t – simple as that. And I see really exceptional schools which are not given that badge.
  2. In spite of the efforts of Ofsted to address this there are still some inspectors (including I am afraid some serving headteachers) who are not acting in the way that Ofsted say they should. Though it was the right decision to bring inspections in house we are still missing the kind of experienced individuals who used to be HMIs and are still seeing too many contradictory behaviours.
  3. Though some will disagree I have never been a fan of the short notice approach. It is about low trust in professionals and reflects the prevailing culture in government. It is ridiculous that heads have to leave valuable off-site activities when they receive the phone call at midday because someone thinks they will be able to hide dodgy students if they have more than a day’s notice. If that were the case it would be an indictment of the quality of inspectors. No notice inspections are a different matter. They should only be used in cases where there is genuine cause for urgent action such as a breakdown in behaviour or critical safeguarding issue.
  4. The inspection period is far too short to make the kinds of judgements with the stakes they carry. This prevents the kind of in-depth discussion that would be an essential basis for an informed judgement. It is a major problem.
  5. Ofsted cannot operate effectively unless funded to do so.

These are all big issues but there are other great barriers which are beyond Ofsted’s power to change.

  • Performance tables remain the driver of practice.
  • Examination and test results overshadow almost all qualitative assessments of successful schools. It is naïve to suggest that schools should not explicitly prepare students for these high stakes exams and the removal of coursework has raised those stakes further.
  • Progress 8 and EBacc are determining curriculum design and will do until a government stops using performance indicators as a lever for practice. I see no sign of this happening. Ofsted itelf has a mountain to climb to reverse this kind of correlation between P8 and Ofsted grades https://t.co/5H7wZlTxGQ
  • The government consistently promotes preferred pedagogical approaches whilst claiming that it believes in autonomy. As widely publicised it regularly  ignores evidence.
  • The data driven work of RSCs often conflicts with Ofsted’s direction of travel .
  • The indiscriminate use of emotive terms like ‘gaming’ displays a lack of respect for the vast majority of teachers and school leaders that undermines their professional status.

In my book I proposed the following twelve proposals for the future of inspection:

  1. All schools should be subject to a degree of external scrutiny by the inspectorate.
  2. All inspections should be led by highly trained HMIs who are experienced in that sector.
  3. The length and of the inspection should be proportionate to the performance of the school.
  4. All schools should be required to put in place effective self-evaluation processes. That is more than filling out a SEF. These should the starting point of inspection which would validate them by sampling aspects of the school’s work. The aim of this would be to judge whether the school knows its strengths and areas for development and had identified appropriate priorities for further improvement.
  5. Where inspectors have concerns about a school’s capacity to improve, a full inspection should take place and government should fund this.
  6. The outcome of inspection should not be summarized with a single grade. This is simplistic and misleading. Instead it should focus on assessing whether or not the quality of education meets a clearly defined standard which might equate with the current grade 2. (This would be comparable with a ‘clean audit’ rather than a number. The report itself would be in narrative form).
  7. The inspection report should focus on the school’s capacity to improve, describe any aspects of outstanding practice and areas for development.
  8. Best practice should be shared by Ofsted in the form of case studies and survey reports.
  9. Ofsted must be allowed to assess the impact of government policies on the quality of education without fear or favour.
  10. Compliance with regulatory requirements , safeguarding etc. should be the subject of annual audit rather than part of inspection which should focus specifically on the quality of education.
  11. Where schools are in formal federations or Multi-Academy Trusts inspections should assess the impact of that structure on standards and not just the individual school. Equally the same approach should apply to schools maintained by the local authority.
  12. The inspection should be conducted as a constructive, courteous and respectful professional dialogue. That does not in any way preclude the need for challenging questions to be asked or decisive action to be taken when the quality of education falls short of the required standard.

How would this be as a criterion for the success of Ofsted’s new framework?

A school in a disadvantaged/challenging context with outcomes including progress as currently measured are well below average receives a ‘clean’ report from Ofsted. It is recognised that the leadership are doing everything that needs to happen but have not yet had time to address it.

In terms of recommendations the inspectors could identify what additional support might help these committed professionals with their work.

I wish Amanda Spielman and her team well with this important work. As a profession we should do everything we can to help.

Traditional or progressive- does it matter?

In a recent tweet I asked the following question:  Could someone please explain to me what a ‘progressive’ or ‘traditionalist’ is with a clear example of living people? I am trying to work out what I was for 31 years as a teacher/school leader and don’t recognise what I read in tweets/blogs.

Twitter has many benefits. It provides access to a vast range of articles, research papers and other information that can easily be missed. Though tweets in themselves have limited use as a forum for discussion because of their brevity, it can be very effective when used in connection with the previously listed sources and of course blogs.

 

In recent months I have been severely exercised by the nature of some of the discourse on Twitter. Though much is respectful and constructive, some is far from this. The other real and growing problem is that some contributors forget that they only represent their own personal views as does this blog. People tend to follow people they agree with resulting in networks that can lead to a significant risk of confirmation bias. Those networks then identify other groups with a differing outlook. Though this can lead to constructive and rational debate it sometimes leads sadly to a highly oppositional and sometimes even abusive discourse. Sometimes that turns into valuable fodder for hungry media reporters or politicians who are after a headline.

My motivation for asking the above question was related to this.  If a reader had been a fly on the wall on one of my lessons during my 31 years as a teacher and head they would have seen a wide variety of behaviours and pedagogical approaches. In some respects I was highly traditional in outlook. I insisted on high standards of courtesy and behaviour, was a stickler for uniform and led very formal assemblies. On the other hand I oversaw a student’s council system that genuinely welcomed and encouraged feedback from students even when the messages might have been uncomfortable to hear and worked hard to eradicate the need for exclusion. Is that traditional? In the classroom my classes often worked in silence or experienced a highly didactic approach. But there were also numerous lessons in which my students worked independently in groups with me facilitating and advising. As with every other aspect of my teaching these activities would have been carefully planned, not for an accountability system or external demands but because that is what I think professional teachers should do.

So was I a traditionalist or a progressive? Neither. I hope that I was an enlightened, flexible and informed professional always keen to learn how to be better.

The replies to my tweet have been plentiful and reassuring. A number of responses reflected exactly the kind of experience I have described above and proved that there are numerous people out there who really are not interested in labels of this kind and recognise that the best teachers and school leaders are highly versatile and adept at choosing the most appropriate approaches for their students.

Too much of the discourse on education has become a stultifying conversation around false dichotomies and polarised viewpoints. In the final part of  Lessons Learned I set out how I believe this needs to change.

When did we all get so fearful?

In a recent blogI wrote about the excitement and exhilaration of the start of new school year. Nevertheless there is no doubt that this is an exceptionally challenging time for school leaders with immense pressure on many schools to be constrained by externally imposed pressures and distractions?

The big question then is how you can  have the courage to lead a confident school with staff who are genuinely empowered to do the very best for their students.

Though I would be the last to pretend that I got everything right or know all of the answers to such complex challenges here are some ideas and provocations.

  1. I would look at everything we did through the lens of a wise question at the front of an early Welsh inspection framework which served me well during my years of headship..

What is the effect of what is being observed on standards of achievement?

After all  – if what you are doing is not having any effect you have to ask what the point is.

An important aspect of this question is the use of the word ‘achievement’. With apologies for stating the obvious that is not the same as ‘attainment’ or results of linear examinations.

Achievement is about how well pupils have progressed in relation to previous standards achieved. That is not the same as progress 8 or assuming that KS2 results have a proven correlation with future attainment in all subjects. It is evaluated via professional judgement. Pupils with low attainment can have good standards of achievement and vice versa.

I would therefore want to look very hard and achieve an agreed definition with my staff and governors as to what achievement looks like. This would form the basis for the development of our curriculum policy.  As well as the obvious academic aspects, this would encompass a range of skills (sorry Minister but every employer I have ever met agrees that these need to be explicit) and qualities as well as all of those wider elements of a good education such as those often described as ‘character’, preparation for life, employability etc. The content of that curriculum would not be dictated upon by performance measures that undermine the role of vitally important subjects like D&T and the Arts.

This is a tremendous discussion to have in any school which colleagues will relish.

‘Exam factories’ are what government has driven (though some are currently trying to blame schools for this). It is not what teachers want but that of course does not mean that we should be failing to open those doors to our students for which examinations are the key. It is all about balance.

  1. I would also have at the front of my mind the statement in the same framework ‘Inspectors are looking for impact , not intention.’ At a time where resources of all kinds are under such pressure we cannot afford to waste time on anything that does not benefit our students or on warm words and hopes. I would therefore see it as my responsibility to sift and protect staff from the latest ‘spiffing wheezes’ that came from government driven initiatives or fads that come in and out of fashion and to focus on those ideas that genuinely had the potential to make a real difference. The question and statement above from Estyn would be a good criterion for what to choose.
  2. When people came in to assess and judge us I would be fully equipped with our own story to tell based on our own robust self-evaluation processes and data analysis. It is neither our job to defend low standards or poor practice nor to cave in to people who try to draw conclusions from superficial or questionable evidence. We need to know our schools well and always be seeking to improve further by listening to informed advice and evidence.
  3. I would have absolutely nothing to do with any invitations to bid for short term government funding. They are a distraction and tie you down to conditions that limit your autonomy. Often the bids lead to nothing other than a load of work.
  4. I would do everything I could to enable staff to share ideas, discuss what was doing well and what they were finding challenging. Conversations about lessons that didn’t work are immensely valuable and talking about them is certainly not a sign of failure. Visiting the classrooms of colleagues and discussing what you see is possibly the most powerful form of CPD I know.
  5. I would replace performance management with a constructive and developmental appraisal system and avoid at all cost targets that link raw attainment to pay. These are grossly unfair and demotivating. The system I would put in place would recognise the immense effort and impact teachers have in all kinds of ways  and identify ways of helping them to become even better at their jobs. Capability procedures exist for those who are underperforming in spite of all of the support provided. We don’t need to punish the majority.
  6. I would ensure that my main scale teachers had access to pay progression. I have been shocked about examples where this has been denied due to funding constraints or managerial decisions.
  7. I would invest in bespoke CPD for all staff. CPD is not the same as courses. There are plenty of examples of cost effective CPD much of which is based in school or within a federation or MAT. This is the most powerful driver of teacher retention.
  8. I would invest in initial teacher training and find ways of recognising, rewarding and developing those who stay beyond the first few years. We have a moral obligation to develop the next generation of school leaders.
  9. I would want to develop with the staff a really good staff wellbeing policy. I have seen some great examples in a number of forward-thinking schools that have found ways of creating time for staff to have some respite from the incredible intensity of life in the classroom.

I am sure that many readers of this will quite understandably be thinking ‘yes….but’. I’ll leave the response to Emeli Sandi’s words in her song ‘Read all about it’: ‘When did we all get so fearful?’  If there was ever a time for our profession with the full support of those that represent them to stand up for what we believe in, it is now.

Note

All of these ideas and suggestions in this blog and many more are developed in further detail and examples in my book Lessons Learned? A Life in Education

Ignore the blather – enjoy the excitement of a new school year!

One of the most exhilarating aspects of being a teacher was always the beginning of new academic year for me. I still remember vividly my first day as a qualified teacher inviting my first class into the classroom and addressing a room full of attentive faces in their smart new uniforms about the course they were starting. My pleasurable task was to share my passion for my subject, interest and motivate them and hopefully establish the foundations of the kind of positive relationship based on mutual respect and confidence in my teaching that would lead to success and enjoyment.

Of course I didn’t always get it right and win with all students. No teacher does with every class and student – a fact of life that sometimes gets forgotten. Though I certainly got better with experience over the years we should never forget that teaching is not a mechanistic process. It is about human relationships – and that makes it all the more exciting.

That feeling at the beginning of the year never went away. Whether as a classroom teacher facing my new groups, as a middle or senior leader addressing a large group or as a headteacher taking my first assemblies of the year, that new start was always a pleasure. My use of the adjectives ‘exciting and exhilarating’ is deliberate. Part of that was helped by returning from a much needed break suitably refreshed. This highlights the reason why addressing the issue of work life balance is so important.

Each year I or my team had our plans and ambitions for that academic year. Part of that was the opportunity to set out that ‘state of the nation’ with staff, to celebrate their many achievements that had been confirmed by the examination results during the summer break. Of course, it was also to learn from what had not gone so well and understand what we needed to do better – a professional discussion about working together and sharing the responsibility in a climate of mutual support and respect.

As this new year starts all of that still applies. Actually, it is more important than ever because of the very specific challenges for school leaders and can sap morale and undermine retention. It seems that there has been a massive disconnect between the stated good intentions of the Secretary of State to reduce workload etc. and the continuous activities and announcements from the DFE throughout the holidays seem to have operated from a parallel universe.

The greatest challenge for school leaders in such a context is therefore to retain and nurture the excitement that makes teaching such a wonderful vocation in spite of these distractions.

The most effective shield for schools is the shared vision the headteacher builds across the whole school, acts out and articulates every day. Schools have recently been exhorted by Ofsted to adopt a holistic approach to curriculum planning. That can be easier said than done in the light of accountability pressures but we should hang on to this welcome direction of travel and deploy the armour of our vision to ignore any distractions including invitations to waste time and energy on preparation of bids, Ministerial ‘announcements’ and media noise.

We should be a proud, not a fearful profession beginning our new year with confidence.  There is no more powerful source of organisational resilience than a shared vision underpinning an ethos and culture that values all staff and welcomes their full engagement. Here are some brief questions and pointers to the kind of discussion that might help to achieve that common purpose:

What kinds of adult you want your students to become when they have completed the education in your school? This will lead the discussion onto values, personal qualities and all of those things that are often described as character. It will also lead it onto the kind of ethos and culture you want to pervade the school. What sort of relationships and behaviours do we want to foster?

Once these fundamentals have been discussed, the conversation needs to move to the content of the curriculum. What do you want your students to be taught? That is not a distracting and polarised discussion about knowledge or skills but a combination of both. Where will they learn these things? Much may be in subject lessons, just as much might also be in the rich and varied programme of extra curricular activities. I have written about these processes in much more detail in my book ‘Lessons Learned?’.

If there is one time of the year when I miss being in schools more than any other it is that first week of the term. I hope that every teacher and school leader who reads this will share the satisfaction and excitement I felt  31 times at the beginning of September. I wish you all well for the new year as you continue with your life changing vocation.