School leaders, take note… (In light of the updated handbook for Ofsted Inspectors.)

‘Leadership is key in any school. We need to look at what’s being asked of teachers and assess the effectiveness.’
(Sean Harford – Ofsted’s National Director for Schools Policy and ITE, and Regional Director, East of England)

Tomorrow, (31st July 2014) Ofsted HQ are due to release an updated version of their handbook for inspectors. I imagine this is partly because of ambiguities in earlier editions that led to the unfortunate proliferation of out-dated (sometimes damaging) ideals. Hopefully, the clarity of this new guidance should halt such bad practice among inspectors. I think the clued-up school leader needs to pay heed to this new handbook, as the ramifications could prove significant for us all.

Sean Harford (@HarfordSean) the new National Director for Schools Policy, has shared some key quotes and information from the updated handbook on Twitter. It is this information that has enabled me to put this post together.

It’s an open secret that many schools try, in their day to day practice, to mirror what they think Ofsted will want to see. After all, a good or outstanding rating from Ofsted is coveted by schools as the ultimate measure of success. If leadership teams choose to emulate updated Ofsted good practice, I think it’s just possible that the old methods of judging teaching could (and should!) finally disappear for good.

The Inspectors’ handbook will say this:

‘Inspectors should not grade the quality of teaching in individual lesson observations, learning walks or equivalent activities’

As Ofsted (officially) no longer grade individual lessons, it may prove difficult for schools to justify continuing with this process. Indeed, a visiting inspector could now query how it is possible for schools to accurately grade teachers based on evidence from a single observation — or even a series of observations.

Instead, they may expect schools to show evidence of the cumulative effects of individual teachers. They might expect leaders to have taken account of a number of factors before forming an opinion: books, results, displays, behaviour, data etc, all might play a part. Perhaps then, it may now be acceptable for schools to apply an overall grade for teaching and learning — but always based on evidence gathered over a significant period of time.

School leaders should now realise that lesson observations are only a tiny part of the whole picture. They aren’t even a truthful part. As so often cited, observations are a major source of stress and anxiety for teachers. This anxiety can manifest as symptoms akin to stage fright. The career-damaging stakes are often so high, that it’s possible the teacher being observed may under-perform – or at least behave differently to normal.

During observations and learning walks, it’s common for school leaders to express a preference for the equipment they’d like to see in use, or teaching methods they’d like to see employed. It’s important to carefully consider the effectiveness of these. What works well for one, may not necessarily work for all. The updated handbook has clearly been written with such thoughts in mind:

‘Ofsted does not favour any particular teaching style and inspectors must not give the impression that Ofsted favours a particular teaching style.’

and

‘Inspectors should not expect to see periods of pupils working on their own, or in groups, in all lessons, and should not make the assumption that this is always necessary, desirable or even effective…’

and also:

‘Not all aspects of learning, eg, pupils’ engagement, interest, concentration, determination, resilience and independence may be seen or should expect to be seen in a single observation.’

If school leaders express a preference for a particular teaching style or technique, they may be at odds with what works best for individual class teachers, and, in turn, their pupils. It’s now possible that leaders who ignore this guidance could also find themselves at odds with what Ofsted are now expecting to see.

It’s time for school leaders to allow their teachers flexibility: to let teachers make their own decisions about what to teach, and how. If there are any competency issues surrounding a particular teacher, a good leader will already be aware of these, and support systems will be in place. A perennial issue is that of teachers who are struggling to manage behaviour. Here, such support systems are crucial. A good leadership team will be providing consistent back up and ensuring that their school’s behaviour policy is up to date and being followed to the letter. Whatever the concerns may be, it’s unlikely that a snapshot lesson observation is required to spot these.

The new handbook neatly surmises successful practice thus:

‘Do teachers command the respect of their classes, set out clear expectations for pupils’ behaviour in line with the direction set by school leaders, start and finish lessons on time, and manage teaching resources effectively?’

This is the skeleton —the bare bones of all teaching. On this the flesh of a whole host of successful lessons can be hung. Beyond these simple guidelines, perhaps there is nothing much else worth looking for? In the end, the results of the pupils will tell their own story.

School leaders: please stop grading individual, snap-shot, lessons. Instead, look at the bigger picture — the whole picture, when judging the quality of teaching and learning. After all, Michaelangelo’s iconic masterpiece on the ceiling of the Cistine Chapel would look far less impressive if we only ever focused in on Adam’s big toe.

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Michael Gove and the Bitter Pills of Education Reform

Party Faithful Attend The Annual Conservative Party Conference I actually began writing this post as soon as I heard the news that Michael Gove was to be replaced as Secretary of State for Education. However, it has taken me rather longer than I expected to get back into the swing of writing, and I know that many bloggers have now beaten me to it. Nonetheless, here is my take on the legacy of Gove (with apologies if it seems somewhat skewed towards my subject of secondary English).

So, what chains did Michael Gove forge in post as SoS that may have lasting impact on the future of our education system?

*Please note that this is simply my take on the matter, and, as ever, all comments and opinions are welcome

. • He knew that there was exam dumbing down, and he dealt with it.

This was a hugely unpopular stance, at the time. Prior to the reforms, some educationalists were (and some still are) suggesting that teaching was improving year on year and kids were simply getting brighter. In fact, it is now widely accepted that exam boards were deliberately making courses easier. The course with the reputation for being the easiest naturally proved the more popular. The inflated grades supplied kudos for teacher, school and pupils in one fell swoop – not to mention extra business for the boards. Exams Reformation of this system was crucial, and well-overdue, and time was of the essence. The unfortunate casualties of this were the single cohort of kids who had their GCSEs re-graded (mostly down graded) At least their results are now (more) honest?

Sadly, in all this exam reform, I think Gove missed an opportunity to sort the key problem I allude to above: multiple exam boards. I think multiple boards will always equal an unfortunate element of competition. As things stand, there is still an opportunity for boards to ‘suggest’ set-texts which may be slightly shorter, or simpler than others on the list. It doesn’t take long for schools to suss out which course is the easiest.

• He introduced performance related pay.

This is is a huge error of judgement (to say the very least). The administration of PRP relies heavily on the opinions of school managers. Over the years I’ve encountered many managers who hold a whole plethora of bizarre views about what equates to good teaching and learning. These managers, and other managers like them, will be the reasoners, and the ultimate deciders of who will qualify for a pay rise. Enough said, I think.

• He agreed with the phrase ‘the blob’ to describe the vocal majority of the teaching profession.

Toby Young When Toby Young used this phrase, there is no doubt it was extremely inflammatory. But it did seem to fit, somehow, with the educational establishment that I seem to have been kicking against for most of the 19 years of my teaching career (see above). I’ve lost count of the confrontations I’ve had with managers (and also with fellow teachers), over a huge variety of opinions and initiatives: group work, independent learning, the economic impact of interactive whiteboards, the subjectivity of levels, the myth that is VAK etc etc.. the list is endless. I can’t even begin to outline here the struggles I’ve had with the accepted lesson observation process (see previous blogs for more detail). In all cases, without exception, I’ve felt like I was in the minority. The ‘blob’ (for the want of a better term) were, and still are, the controlling majority.

• He championed classic literature. Of Mice and Men

Despite the best efforts of some tabloids and large sections of social media to suggest that there is now to be some kind of a cull of quality texts taking place, and in spite of the outrage that well-loved texts are now to be replaced with dusty old British tomes that no-one in their right mind would want to read, I do believe the contrary to be the case. I think that Gove has recognised and attempted to address something that was happening all too often – that the simplest, shortest text that fulfilled the exam board’s criteria was often chosen for study. In addition to this, it was handy if there was a feature film version of the book available. Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ is the obvious unfortunate casualty of this. An excellent book, which became overused simply because it ticked so many boxes.

 

•He allowed the appointment of unqualified teachers.

dead-poets-society-04A manoeuvre that left many of us long-qualified teachers feeling more than a little baffled and bemused. What status did our teaching qualification have now? As one of life’s cynics, it is very difficult to view this as anything other than a money-saving move. Whilst I’m doing my best to avoid parroting the ‘you wouldn’t allow an unqualified surgeon to operate on you’ line, I do find this particular turn of events extremely difficult to accept. On the job training programmes, such as those operated by Teach First, are a different ball game entirely. It was through my own teaching practice experience that I learnt most about the job. In teaching, theory is no substitute for tangible practice, I think.

• He removed levels.

A wise move.

In addition to this, schools have now been given the opportunity to design their own methods of recording progress. Thus, in theory, nobody can argue with whatever assessment methods a school puts in place as their own, bespoke system. The simpler the better, I’d suggest. I must add that I think this is an enormous kick in the teeth for OFSTED, who now won’t be able to rely on standardised national systems of judgement, they’ll simply have to trust the schools. Ofsted-strip Sadly, it seems that many schools have not made the most of this golden opportunity, and a sizeable number have persisted with levels. I’ve also noted a number of educationalists now referring to there being ‘a vacuum’ where levels once were. Schools have a tendency, I think, to be more than a bit obsessed with the whole comparative process. Teachers are compared with one another against what is considered to be ‘good’, and unique traits are quashed. Schools are also compared with each another via league tables. Worse still, now and again, OFSTED barge in and double check that they are meeting a nationally accepted set of standardisation criteria. Even the structure of individual lessons is subject to standardisation. Very frustrating.

•He insisted that economic background shouldn’t be a barrier to learning.

I’ve worked with disadvantaged kids for the majority of my teaching career. There is no doubt that their circumstances can often hold them back, and prevent them fulfilling their potential. This has got nothing whatsoever to do with inherent natural intelligence, simply that a young-person’s social background often seems to cap their future progress. Sad to say, I have also encountered many teachers who don’t expect those kids to do well, who simply expect them to under-achieve. Academic achievement often ends up being fairly low down on the list of priorities. If a senior minister puts this subject under the spotlight, and encourages a culture of high academic expectations, then this is only to be welcomed, surely? 200168451-001

The behaviour issue often goes hand in hand with the above. Some kids just can’t see the point of learning. For them, school is little more than a social gathering place. Status can be won through rebellion and misbehaviour. This behaviour issue is something else that Gove regularly sought to highlight. Bravo. I still maintain that poor behaviour is the single biggest barrier to learning in the country.

There are several other policies and reforms that I could have discussed: the KS1 phonics test, academies and free schools, the new curriculum, per-se, and the History row, for example. All just as relevant, but I have less direct personal experience of some of these.

Gove was a bolshy, argumentative Secretary of State, who had an unfortunate knack of rubbing people up the wrong way. Whilst always giving the impression of being 100% devoted to the cause, he did adopt something of a ‘bull in a china shop’ method. This approach inevitably alienated him from a lot of people whose support he really could have done with. But the education bull really did need to be taken by the horns, of that there can be no doubt. NICKY-MORGAN-MP-facebook It’s the widespread lack of support for Gove – and his apparent lack of concern over this lack of support, that I think has lost him his job. I can only hope that the positive aspects of education reform – reforms that were so badly needed – continue under his successor, Nicky Morgan. However, it is difficult not to view her appointment as a somewhat obvious attempt to pour soothing oil on troubled waters. With an election looming, such a polarising figure as Gove could be potential poison. I only hope that Nicky Morgan’s function is to sugar coat the bitter pills of education reform…rather than handing out the usual pick ‘n’ mix of placebos.

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WW1 History at Cannock Chase: Tackeroo – The Sound of Silence

Cannock Chase is a mixed area of countryside in the county of Staffordshire, England. The area has been designated as the Cannock Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It is also very proud of its long association with the military.

Restored hut

Restored hut

At the Marquis Drive visitor area (Hednesford, Near Cannock, WS12 4PW) an original wooden war hut has been faithfully reconstructed and is now used as a base for educational talks and visits about this military life. The area has the feel of a large municipal park now, with a cafe, children’s playground and plenty of leafy, open spaces. But this vast site was once home to a huge WW2 air force base, where thousands of pilots were trained for service.

image (2)

Only a mile or so away lies the peaceful Tackeroo Camp Site, a stress relieving elixir of tall pine trees, mud, grass, birdsong, bees and butterflies. Watching the sleepy, sinking sun It’s hard to imagine this space ever being less than tranquil.

Today, cyclists whiz through, people pitch tents and park caravans or camper vans. From foraged sticks and broken branches, camp fires are lit at dusk. A sense of communing with nature and wildlife abounds. Upon leaving, everything is respectfully left as it was before except for the burnt-out cinders of a fire or two. The environment looks for all the world to be one of nature’s reclaimed spaces. Everything is as it was intended to be: indigenous trees, birds, insects, squirrels, wild flowers, grass, moss and herds of deer too.

image (5)

But interspersed with this wildlife are several large concrete pads. These patches of concrete, of various sizes, shapes and states of repair are telling. Oddly, they don’t seem to detract from the environment at all. On the contrary, they suit our 21st century purpose very well, offering useful hard-standing for touring caravans and camper vans and also somewhere to park the car. Children run, skip and cycle on these surfaces. No-one seems to question their original purpose, or how long they’ve been there for. They now have a new lease of life – a second wind. Nature is doing its very best to reclaim this ground and grass is slowly creeping through the cracks that age, wear and neglect have caused. The once-hard edges are now softened by a creeping carpet of green.

But exactly a century ago these concrete patches provided the flooring, footings and foundations for myriad wooden military buildings, the roofs and walls of which have long-since gone. They tell a tale of a Tackeroo history far removed from its current soothing state. The site formed part of a huge, bustling training ground for First World War Soldiers.

image

In the autumn of 1914, work began on the construction of two huge military camps at Cannock Chase. The Earl of Lichfield had given permission for this part of his land to be transformed into one of the camps eventually to be known as ‘Rugeley Camp’. The sister camp, – to be given the name ‘Brocton Camp’ – was also constructed nearby. There being no existing amenities on either site, everything had to be constructed from scratch..including the water supply, sewage systems and the roads…before work could begin on the huts and other structures.

The construction of the Rugeley Camp, including the Tackeroo area and its immediate surroundings, was completed in less than a year. Water supplies and sewage disposal pipes were installed, roads and rails were laid down, barracks and shower blocks all built. As the site would go on to train and accommodate 20,000 soldiers, at any one time, the infrastructure demands were immense. The camp site paths – now used by cyclists and walkers – were once railway lines. These railways brought in artillery munitions to be housed in a huge purpose-built storage building in what now is the centre of the camp site.

Munitions shed fondations

Munitions shed fondations

The concrete foundations of the main munitions storage shed can still be found in the centre of the camp site.This covers a large area and certainly would have provided plenty of storage space. Today it is quite something to walk on the huge concrete slab which was once the floor of this munitions hut and contemplate in the mind’s eye the vast stash of ammunition and tools of warfare that must have been stored there.

Tackeroo Drainage

Tackeroo Drainage

I have tried to muster a hazy, incomplete, mental picture of rows of shelves weighed down with bullets, bombs and guns – the tools of war. On the eastern side of the campsite, the concrete foundations of several shower blocks still remain to be seen. Indeed the drainage channels and holes are still clearly visible, if one takes the time to look. The visible minor roads which once ran between the storage sheds in the area are in daily use, as tracks on the site.

Old "Bomb Hole"

Old “Bomb Hole”

On the southern edge of Tackeroo site is an area comprising several large, sloping craters. The undulating landscape makes it very popular with stunt-cyclists and dare-devil children who refer to the area as ‘The Bomb Holes’. I haven’t been able to ascertain if bomb or grenade practice may have been the cause of this unusual landscape, but one imagines it is entirely possible. Practice trenches are also still in evidence nearby.

The Rugeley camp, alone, housed and trained upwards of 250,000 soldiers during the time it was operational – an almost unimaginably large number of young men. New recruits were sent here to train from all over Great Britain and also from all corners of The Commonwealth. This included regiments from as far afield as Australia, Canada and New Zealand: all these young men shipped thousands of miles from home to train in an alien environment before being moved on to fight real battles, on yet more alien shores.

Soldiers at Brocton Camp

Soldiers at Brocton Camp

Theories about where the name ‘Tackeroo’ originated from are explored on the Cannock Chase History website. “It is possible,” they suggest “ that the modern place-name ‘tackeroo’ stems from the New-Zealand Maori word takarewa, an intransitive verb meaning ‘to be kept awake’, perhaps in reference to the constant noise which must have been present in this busy army base.” Alternatively, there is another theory, along similar lines: “(‘Tackeroo’)…possibly from the related word tutakarerewa a stative verb meaning ‘to be alert, unsettled, apprehensive’, which again would quite aptly describe the situation in which the young volunteers must have suddenly found themselves.

It seems so tragically ironic that the name of ‘Tackeroo’ could have derived from the polar opposite of the peaceful, natural haven that the site presents as now. It is quite disturbing to imagine that the homesick young men – who were perturbed enough already by the unfamiliar surroundings and noise at Tackeroo – would probably have had no idea of the hellish environment that awaited them on the next stage of their journey. Once fully trained, presumably they were to be shipped, like cannon fodder, to fight (and quite probably die) in the disease-ridden discomfort of trenches of The Somme, or similar.

Battle of the Somme 1916

Battle of the Somme 1916

But what became of the camp after the war was finally over and the buildings no longer had any purpose? Staffordshire Past Track reveals this:

‘Following the war, the camps became akin to ghost towns, the rows of huts stood empty in an unaccustomed quiet, disturbed only by the sighing breeze swinging a loose door or rattling a window…’

An evocative description, but actually the huts were not left there to deteriorate for very long, many of them eventually finding new homes: ‘Gradually, at the request of Lord Lichfield, the huts were sold off and were transported..by horse and cart..’ Post-war, the buildings were moved to other locations to be re-built and re-used for new purposes. A fine example of early recycling.

It would be inconceivable to end this piece without mention of one interesting piece of information that I stumbled across while researching this blog. It would appear that the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings author, and Birmingham resident, JRR Tolkien, himself, trained at Rugeley camp before participating in real trench warfare.

Hobbit House

Hobbit House

In The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion & Guide: Chronology by Christina Scull and Wayne G Hammond, we are informed that ‘ 19th October 1915: the 13th Battalion moved to the Rugeley Camp …and yet Tolkien was evidently at Rugeley Camp at a slightly earlier date. It may be that he was in an advance party..’ I know that his home of Sarehole Mill was the inspiration for his wonderful landscape creations, but as the Tackeroo landscape currently stands, one could easily imagine it now providing a perfect setting in which a hobbit would feel at home.

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Ofsted – carrying on regardless

You may be aware that I recently had a mishap. For those of you who don’t already know the details, six weeks ago I fell down the stairs. Despite only falling down the last three stairs, I managed to break both legs: one fracture to my left ankle and four fractures to my right leg – including a broken heel. Having spent four (long) weeks in hospital, I am, thankfully, back at home now. I have a comfortable bedroom in our lounge, and am managing a lot better than I expected to (with a LOT of help from my long-suffering partner!) The main benefit of being back home is that I can spend time with my children (aged two and seven). We can read books, sing songs…and of course there are the many wonders on ‘Netflix Kids’ to explore! Although I still can’t put any weight on either leg, I am looking forward to having at least one of my plasters off soon, hopefully then I can begin some form of physiotherapy, and perhaps begin using crutches to mobilise.

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Still, they do say that every cloud has a silver lining. In my case, I’m afraid I couldn’t help but think of this almost two weeks ago when my job share partner sent me a text message to tell me that Ofsted were coming in the next day.

That evening I spoke to my job share partner, and surmised that the staff were in the throes of the planning and preparation panic that only a visit from OFSTED can inspire. Although I felt a pang of guilt, to say I was pleased to be well out of it may just be an understatement. The only thing I could do was offer a few words of moral support and encouragement. Late that night I sent a final text message to my colleague:

“I’ll be thinking of you…Remember: they shouldn’t be giving you a grade!”

“That’s great news,” she replied.

M Cladingbowl

Now, I have mentioned before that teachers who engage on social media, such as Twitter, often seem to be much better informed, especially regarding the latest guidance from the DfE and Ofsted. With this in mind, sadly, it came as no surprise to hear that my colleague had no idea that Ofsted inspectors shouldn’t be grading individual lessons, or offering unsolicited feedback. Neither was she aware that any feedback given should be confidential, and only shared at the discretion of the teacher. To clarify all this I sent her a link to Michael Cladingbowl’s advice for inspectors document, in which he said:

‘Inspectors should not give an overall grade for the lesson and nor should teachers expect one. If asked, inspectors will provide feedback to individuals on what they have observed, including the evidence they have gathered about teaching. They can share the grade for the evidence gathered about teaching, or other aspects, with an individual teacher.’

And he concluded with this:

‘On average, inspectors may spend only 25 minutes or so in each lesson. It would be nonsensical to suggest that an Ofsted inspector could give a definitive validation of a teacher’s professional competency in such a short time. We are not in the business of handing out badges that say “You are an outstanding teacher” or the opposite. We leave that to others, who will use their own and other evidence to come to a conclusion. We would not expect any other professional, for example a surgeon, to be judged by peers on a single 25 minute observation of their work.’

(From ‘Why do Ofsted inspectors observe individual lessons and how do they evaluate teaching in schools?’ 21st February 2014)

The following evening, therefore, I was surprised to receive a text from my colleague, which simply read,

‘Requires Improvement’

So she had been given a grade for her lesson, after all. During a lengthy phone-call with her, the details became clear. The inspector had been in to watch 25 minutes of a Drama lesson. Afterwards, she neither offered, nor gave a grade or feedback to my colleague. But what she did do, it seems to me, completely flouted the guidelines as outlined so clearly by Michael Cladingbowl (above).

man-with-tick-box

Following the observation the Ofsted inspector met with our centre manager. During this meeting she outlined the criticisms that she had of the lesson, AND told the manager a grade for the lesson (‘requires improvement’). She then left the feedback form with the manager, who subsequently shared all of the information with my colleague.

Criticisms of the 25 minute observation included things such as:

  • Not enough separate activities, therefore not enough pace.
  • Not enough pupil talk.
  • No AFL target visible.
  • A (bizarre?) query over whether the (Drama) lesson was a Speaking and Listening task.

It goes without saying, perhaps, that my colleague was very distressed by all of this. She also felt that the criticisms were unhelpful, personal and inaccurate:

  • There were 5 activities planned, the inspector didn’t see all of these, but the pupils were apparently engaged in the activities that she did observe. Surely it is for the class teacher to determine when (and if) to move on from a task? If a particular activity is successful and pupils are learning, why be pressured to move on? Surely the days of Ofsted trying to dictate lesson content, pace and style are now gone?
  • The pupils weren’t speaking much during the part of the lesson that was watched, due to the nature of the activity. BUT spoke a lot (as planned) in the latter part of the lesson – which was after the inspector had left. As Mr Cladingbowl states, it is impossible to validate everything in a 25 minute observation. This is a perfect example of this: my colleague was criticised because the inspector didn’t happen to see evidence of something that they wanted to see, in the part of the lesson they happened to be in. How can this possibly be a valid criticism?
  • As it was a Drama lesson clearly it was a ‘Speaking and Listening’ task, by its very nature. The fact that neither this, nor the AFL target were displayed anywhere does not negate their existence, surely?

To make matters worse, our Centre Manager also went on to suggest to my colleague that she should have delivered an English lesson for the inspector, as that was, “what she wanted to see”. As she always delivers Drama in that timetable slot, my colleague queried this, asking if we, as teachers, should really feel pressured into changing what we normally do because of an inspection? In addition to this, my colleague also expressed some (probably very valid) concerns regarding the implications of this grading on her future career.

Teacher observation

Despairing, and feeling quite impotent, that same evening I decided to outline some of these events to Michael Cladingbowl, on Twitter. I have to say, his response was very swift. He asked me to message him privately with details, which I did. He then promised to follow it up personally. I don’t expect that I’ll be privy to the outcome of this, but nonetheless, I think it is of some comfort to have a point of contact with whom we can raise such issues.

Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw-1459138

There is no doubt that Sir Michael Wilshaw and Michael Cladingbowl are trying to move Ofsted in the right direction and I think most of the new guidelines for inspectors make a lot of sense. To look at teaching and learning across the whole school and focus more on results, rather than what individual teachers are doing to achieve this, is certainly to be welcomed. In line with this, many teachers are also relieved that they should no longer face criticism of the style or structure of their lessons. However, this change will only take place if each and every inspector follows their own guidelines. Every single time an inspector flouts theses rules, the credibility of OFSTED, as an organisation, is undermined just a little bit more. An army that ignores the orders of the generals is certain to be an army in disarray, and a straw house, even when built on the strongest of foundations, surely won’t stand for long?

Educating Yorkshire: teacher Matthew Burton reads to his class

I would be very interested to hear if you have been offered either a grade or feedback (or both!) by an Ofsted inspector, without requesting it. Please add your story to the comments box (below), or contact me on Twitter. Thank you.

*NB: my job share partner has read and approved this blog.

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Labels, are they always the answer?

I wrote a blog last week entitled ‘Behaviour Matters‘, in which I attempted to illustrate part of a typical working day at the PRU I teach at. A section of this blog featured the following observation, regarding the labelling of children:

‘This academic year, in particular, I have felt that certain pupils really believe that they are more powerful than the teachers and other staff that they are, ostensibly, in the charge of. These pupils are, after all, at the more extreme end of the market. They are excluded from school, know most of the tricks, and the threat of exclusion no longer applies. Also, – sometimes usefully for them – they have often had a label such as ADHD, Dyslexia or Autism applied. This they can then wield, like a shrunken head, whenever an authority figure challenges their conduct (“I can’t help it, I’ve got ADHD and I forgot my medication, right?!” etc).’

 

Several people were openly critical of these remarks. Here are a small selection of the comments made on Twitter over the last few days:

‘…it doesn’t read as a piece fighting for children to succeed to me…’

and,

‘If you’re seeing the behaviour, you’re probably not managing the autism…’
(@SENcollusion)

‘I wonder how much autism training the person has who talks ‘excuses”
(@ERA_tweet)

‘It’s a PRU. You will get behaviour like that. Need appropriate management…’
(@suzy001)

I will say from the outset, that I can see how what I said could potentially be misconstrued. Maybe my remarks could be misinterpreted as demonstrating an unfeeling attitude towards children with diagnosed conditions. It seems that some also suspect that I may be ignorant of how to best deal with these children.

It’s not my goal to alienate people, I’m really only seeking to comment and make observations. I certainly didn’t write the above with the aim of trivialising or dismissing Autism. Similarly, I would never seek to belittle pupils who genuinely struggle with their reading and writing. I also recognise that not everyone will agree with every word that I write all of the time. (I must also stress that I have also received many positive comments regarding this blog.)

With all that in mind, I decided I would write a new blog attempting to explain myself perhaps a bit more clearly.

 

I have worked extensively with adults and children with Autism, indeed, I wrote my dissertation on the subject. I also spent a considerable amount of time teaching at a ‘moderate learning difficulties’ school. Here I encountered a number of pupils who really did have certain very specific diagnosed conditions.

I must emphasise once more that a some of the pupils we encounter at the PRU do also have a specific diagnosed condition. But I believe that this applies to only a small minority, and it’s here where I take issue with the whole labelling culture.

Many of the young people I work with have led extremely traumatic lives. Some are (or have been) in local authority care. Most live in deprived areas where they may have been exposed to criminal activity, and some are involved with gangs. Many pupils have siblings who demonstrate similar behaviour. Weekly, we see parents who openly admit that they are struggling to cope. In several cases, there are drug and/or alcohol issues within the family. Some of the children are dirty and/or underfed. Some of the parents are illiterate.

When the young people (above) begin to demonstrate extreme or inappropriately disruptive behaviour, the onus is on the local authority to try to find out why. Once there is a ‘reason’ for this behaviour, then targeted help and support can be provided. In order to diagnose what condition a child has, teams of Educational Psychologists and doctors will usually swing into action – although it is tempting to suggest there is a financial motive for their actions, I do believe that most of these professionals are acting in good faith. The question they are trying to answer is ‘What is WRONG with this child?’ Because there must be SOMETHING wrong with them. In order to establish this, the health professionals have a variety of tests and diagnostic tools at their disposal. When the child ticks enough of the boxes, a diagnosis can be made. For example, if the child is struggling with reading and writing, they may get labelled with Dyslexia. If a child is struggling with extreme behaviour and hyper-activity, they could have ‘ADHD’. If a child is withdrawn and demonstrates little empathy, they may gain the label of ‘autistic’.

I know the autistic spectrum is wide, but having written on the subject, worked previously with autistic kids and read extensively on the subject, I can count on one hand the number of these PRU pupils who have demonstrated many of the typifying symptoms. Likewise, we see a number of young people who are behind their peers and below-average in reading and writing; but I have hardly come across a single child who couldn’t make at least some progress. Never have I seen a child who struggled to decode letters on a page – yet I have worked with many who have been labelled with dyslexia. ADHD is the biggest anomaly of all, I think. If (IF!) this condition really does exist, there is no doubt in my mind that it is over-diagnosed. Most worryingly, children with ADHD are usually prescribed drugs. As I hinted at in my previous blog, these drugs can then cause a further set of complications. I’ve seen kids become utterly docile – doped. I’ve also worked with kids who seem to become even wilder than they originally were. There is no doubt that dosage of these drugs is difficult to get right.

 

So, who, and with what purpose, do labels serve?

1. For the mainstream school: they are helpful as schools can then (legitimately) claim that they ‘can no longer meet the needs’ of a particular pupil. This makes permanent exclusion less of a worry.

2. For the local authority, they can then show that they have done their bit in seeking to establish root causes for conduct. They can then draft in some support to further appease.

3. For the parents, they can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that none of the issues are their fault.

4. For the pupil, they have a cast-iron ‘reason’ that they cannot improve, modify or help their conduct or the situation they find themselves in. Once the child is permanently excluded, from one school, the label makes it extremely difficult to secure a new school (see 1.) and so on..

 

None of this does very much to tackle the (real?) underlying issues that are at play here. Schools can’t do much about society and family problems. What they can do is encourage high standards and help all kids to achieve their full potential. For many of these kids, a good education really is their very best hope in life. Being in receipt of a label can often magnify the negative aspects of a child’s personality, and have a tragically stultifying effect on progress. As a teacher it is more than saddening to hear a child say, “I can’t read that because I’m dyslexic”, or, “I couldn’t help breaking that because of my ADHD”. In my experience, these labels can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy of low-achievement and negative consequences, which is the polar opposite to the effect we are aiming for. As teachers, and other professionals working with children, surely our aim is to eliminate the negative and accentuate the positive? The question is, in the pursuit of this aim, can labels sometimes do more harm than good?

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Behaviour Matters

A friend of mine recently suggested that I write a blog about a typical working day at the Pupil Referral Unit I teach at; I decided to give it a go. At the very least, I thought, it might provide some comfort to my mainstream counterparts – we really do encounter some very extreme behaviour. However, when I sat down to write it, it made me think: I began to think about why we may have these extremes of behaviour, and what might need to change.

I teach English at a centre which forms part of a much larger PRU. Our original cohort was KS3 and 4, although this year we have gradually morphed into what is predominantly a Y6 centre  (although we do have a few older children). This is because of the huge ‘bulge’ in the system, caused by the sheer number of Y6 permanent exclusions. Next year we are to revert to being a secondary centre.

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Our pupils are all permanently excluded from their previous education provider, and our remit is to provide short-term education while an alternative school is sought. Several pupils have ‘Special Needs Statements’ for behaviour, and some do exhibit other specific learning and/or emotional needs. Our centre is charged with providing education for the most ‘complex’ of these pupils from across the city. This description is shorthand for children who demonstrate the most extreme behaviours.

As a result of this we cater for groups of no more than 6 pupils, and a teaching assistant is almost always present. We operate a ‘secondary model’, with pupils moving classes for different subjects.

Last Tuesday evening I began writing notes about the events of the day:

8.20am
The first taxi arrives. I position myself by the door as a gaggle of four excitable boys lurch and scrabble noisily across the car park. “Good morning!” I shout, and then, “Please walk!” as the boys barge in. Accompanying them to the reception area, I try to ensure that they hand all personal belongings in.

8.30-9.00am
The half an hour-or-so of social time until lessons start passes quietly. More pupils arrive; some of the kids play cards and some make Lego models.

Then…

9.00am
Time now for 15 minutes silent reading time (at least in theory).
“I can’t find my reading book!” yells one boy. “Yeah, nor me!” pipes another, without even looking for it. Another boy begins bouncing a ping-pong ball up to the ceiling and chasing it around the hall.
“I ain’t doing another audio book, you get me?” shouts Ryan – a level 1 non-reader – to no-one in particular. After several minutes of this, most pupils are rounded up by staff and ushered to their allotted rooms.

At 9.07am I’m anxious to get my small group to read for at least a few minutes before beginning my English lesson at 9.15.

Darren has sat compliantly in his allocated seat and he is (at least appearing to be) reading his book. Another pupil , Mark, arrives in the room triumphantly brandishing a copy of a ‘Harry Potter’ book. Both boys are, however, distracted by Luke who has managed to grab another pupil’s record sheet and is refusing to hand it in. As my allocated teaching assistant is assisting with a noisy incident I can hear escalating next door, and mindful that incidents can quickly lead to physical conflict with this particular pupil, I call for back up from one of our deputy heads. After much to-ing and fro-ing and wandering around the room, Luke eventually relents and allows me to take the sheet from him.

9.15am
I begin the planned lesson – a continuation of the SATs revision work that we had begun last week. Mark begins working, but it is clear that Luke has other ideas, and his relentless comments are having a catastrophic effect on Darren, in particular. “I can’t do this, I can’t do SATs, and I don’t get why I have to?” he says. I explain that almost all pupils are entered for SATs, and outline the reasons. I also add that no pupil would be entered unless we knew they were capable. Darren goes into a sulky, ‘silent mode’ and props his reading book up, shield-style. In the meantime, Luke is refusing to even look at the work that is set.

…at this point the TA that is scheduled to support my lesson appears, looking suitably flustered.

“Sorry, some trouble next door” he mouths, out of vision of the pupils.

“Be wherever you are most needed”, I mouth back.

“Luke”, I say, “Please open your booklet, follow it with me and I’ll read the text”

“No,” he says.

“I ain’t doing it either,” mumbles Darren from behind his reading book…

…”you can’t make us,” adds Luke, with annoying astuteness…

…And that is the whole, entire crux of the issue.

He was correct: I couldn’t make him. What I could do is remove his break-time, talk to his mother (who says all the right things – but has heard it all before). The reality is, that most of these pupils -even at their young age – believe they have the system sussed. In fact, I could continue in this vein for several thousand words, citing several similar incidences just from that one day. On Tuesday, a lot of our pupils struggled with the simplest of instructions and many rules were flouted. It all reached something of a crescendo for me when I found myself encouraging a boy not to crawl around the floor screaming while one of our deputies showed another pupil (and his parents!) around the centre.

But what conclusions can be reached from all this?

Bad kids

I must stress here that a number of our pupils do have specific underlying reasons for their conduct and actions. However, the more time I spend in this role, the more I’m becoming convinced that a proportion of the behaviour we see is as a result of a perceived shift in power. This academic year, in particular, I have felt that certain pupils really believe that they are more powerful than the teachers and other staff that they are, ostensibly, in the charge of. These pupils are, after all, at the more extreme end of the market. They are excluded from school, know most of the tricks, and the threat of exclusion no longer applies. Also, – sometimes usefully for them – they have often had a label such as ADHD, Dyslexia or Autism applied. This they can then wield, like a shrunken head, whenever an authority figure challenges their conduct (“I can’t help it, I’ve got ADHD and I forgot my medication, right?!” etc).

Even in mainstream school, whilst the vast majority of pupils do behave, there are still a sizeable number that don’t – not to mention the inevitable assorted hangers-on that they attract.

In fact, as we know, this number doesn’t even have to be sizeable to cause the complete destruction of lessons and create havoc in corridors and dining-halls. It’s a bit like saying that it was only a small match that caused the fire, or only a tiny leak that led to the flood. It really doesn’t take many pupils to destroy the atmosphere and ethos of an entire school.
That’s why it’s so important that schools exert every effort possible to make watertight their behaviour management procedures and fireproof their systems and rules.

I strongly believe that it is in everyone’s interest that schools never lose sight of the fact that adults (teachers, lunchtime supervisors, teaching assistants – whoever it may be) are in charge.

classroom

Yes, of course we want to encourage independent-thinkers who know their own mind and can see what’s fair and unfair. Absolutely, we like individuality and self-expression. But when you are a minor, in a classroom, corridor, dining hall, or anywhere on school grounds, you must be compliant and obedient. Only then can you and your fellow students learn without risk of anything causing irreparable damage to that opportunity.

I worry that obedience and compliance are sometimes viewed as the unsavoury characteristics of a school environment; an over-stringent means of controlling the minds and behaviour of young people and the fostering of an oppressive regime.

Students reading

I think the opposite is actually the case: In well-ordered and disciplined environs, disorder, bullying, fear and ‘hard work is uncool’ attitudes are much less likely to dominate. Therefore, pupils are far more likely to develop positive attitudes to learning and fulfil their potential, both personally and academically. This is especially vital if children don’t have appropriate boundaries outside of school. It is not our place to be an extension of pupils’ home lives.

I accept that my views may be somewhat skewed by my PRU background, but I see and hear enough to know that we certainly do have some problems at the moment. The first step to dealing with them may just be to consistently remind ourselves, and our pupils, who’s in charge.

(*All names changed)

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A Plea to OFSTED

This week I tried my best to avoid blogging on the subject of internal lesson observations, I did think about several other things I could write about, but this subject is still so fresh in my mind at the current time that it has rather usurped other topics. Also it does kind of follow on from my last post, so forgive me.

On Tuesday 25th February I had my latest internal lesson observation. If you aren’t aware of the significance of this, may I suggest you glance through some of my other blogs. I have been driven to near insanity by this process; not least because I have had to sacrifice so many of my principles to achieve the ‘good’- “It was a solidly good lesson” – that I somehow managed this week.

I am, I admit, somewhat beaten-down by this whole process. Having said that, At 4am on Tuesday morning I was still trying to chip away – this time by sending a copy of Michael Cladingbowl’s recent advice for inspectors to my Area Manager. I’m fairly certain that she won’t see it otherwise. This is part of the problem. It often seems that we who engage with fellow professionals on social networking sites are more up to date with current educational thinking than the senior leaders who manage us. To date I’ve had no response to that email. Even so, it is very unlikely that anything I send them will make them change their minds about lesson observations.

My SLT remain stoically loyal to the conviction that they must see evidence of ALL of OFSTED’s whole-school criteria in every single 45 minute observed lesson. The OFSTED criteria, which we now know for sure should never have been applied to individual lessons. This is doubly poignant as we now also learn that OFSTED inspectors have not (or shouldn’t have) been grading individual lessons since 2009.

Back to my observation lesson: Each half term we have a new cross-curricular theme. I have to say that I do quite like this idea. I enjoy planning my lessons around a theme, and maybe discussing with colleagues how my ideas fit in with, and complement their own plans. This half term’s theme is ‘Enterprise and Economy’ A bit of a tough-call for English. My plan was to do a short series of lessons (maybe 3 or 4 per year group) on the topic of advertising focusing on the persuasive, imperative and emotive language involved. For our year 6 pupils the majority of the half-term would be spent practising spelling, grammar and unseen reading test techniques in preparation for their upcoming SATs tests.

When I learned that my observation was to be with a year 6 group, part of me wishes I’d have dared to deliver a ‘chalk and talk’ grammar lesson, but I just couldn’t risk such folly. How could I ever have ticked the observation tick-boxes that way? The sad truth of the matter is that I couldn’t have. I’d have been destroyed and denigrated were I to have delivered the stuff that these kids really need. Therefore, the stuff that would enable them to jump through a SATs hoop, to give them a National Curriculum level that might prove them as worthy as their mainstream compatriots, would not be good enough for an observed lesson. Sometimes the world is an ironic place.

So instead I planned a lesson that fitted in with our theme:

I began with a ‘starter task’, displaying a variety of internationally famous logos on the interactive whiteboard, and the Teaching Assistant then led a discussion about which logos the pupils recognised; pupils then looked around the classroom for other logos and wrote them on post-it notes. The next task required the pupils to glue various statements on to a piece of card – an ‘independent’ (of me) group task, where they had to discuss their feelings about adverts and the effects that they have. Following this there was an interactive task, involving discussion around the ways that particular adverts (I chose McDonalds and iPhone) can be made to seem appealing, and the techniques that advertisers use to achieve that. Finally, I ended with a plenary where I showed the Cadbury gorilla advert and encouraged the pupils to consider how this broke the rules of advertising.

All well and good, but culturally starved and extremely light on academic content, also, I’m not sure what I can say they actually learnt. One thing I can say is that it ticked an awful lot of observation criteria boxes for me. I was determined not to be caught out by that again.

This is the level of amorality I’m driven to. It is painful for me to know that I have delivered an entirely different lesson than I would otherwise dream of doing, simply because I was being observed. As the content bore very little resemblance to my usual lesson fare, I have to conclude that monkey-dances and smoke and mirrors are still very much in vogue. The lesson was full to the brim with things being done mainly for effect – for a show. No questions, concern, or regard from the observers as to what the point of it all was. How can it possibly be right that I have achieved a ‘solidly good’ rating for a lesson which I know is more academically lightweight than I would otherwise have delivered?

Here is what Michael Cladingbowl (National Director, Schools) had to say just last week on this very matter,

‘I was speaking to a colleague today, one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors. He reminded me it is all about outcomes and that it does work both ways. In a classroom he was in recently, a teacher produced, literally, an all-singing, all-dancing lesson. There was music, comedy, costumes, games, ‘thinking hats’, and all with clear objectives on the whiteboard. He recorded a teaching quality grade of inadequate. Not because of the ‘performance’ on the day but because students’ graffiti-strewn books hadn’t been marked for six months and work was shoddy or incomplete. In contrast, he graded teaching as outstanding in a classroom where students sat reading in silence because of the exceptional quality of students’ work and the teacher’s marking in exercise books. He told both teachers what his conclusions were.’

When are our schools going to start listening?

For my own part, I was so ungraciously foul in my observation feedback session that one of the managers came to see me later at 4.30pm to check that I realised I’d been graded as good. He said, “Are you okay? You do realise you got ‘good’? I thought you’d be happy with that.” To which I replied, “I’m extremely unhappy that any of us are defined in this way.”

I understand that OFSTED feel it is not their place to instruct schools on matters of quality control or performance management, and I can see their reasoning. However, it is worthwhile pointing out again that many schools spend a disproportionate amount of time doing the things that they think OFSTED will want to see. In effect, they are emulating what they expect that inspectors will do, by way of practice or preparation for an inspection. Much of the data they gather around teaching and learning isn’t for internal purposes at all. It exists so that it can be shown to OFSTED. In short, schools do the things that they think OFSTED will want (or expect) to see evidence of them doing.

With this in mind, I would like to request that OFSTED or the DfE release some sort of guidance for schools regarding internal lesson observations. This guidance need not be overly prescriptive. In fact, it could just take the form of a statement pointing out that there is no need for teachers to reference all of OFSTED’s teaching and learning criteria in every lesson. Maybe a suggestion that a grade is not helpful, or representative, unless other factors are also taken into account? Some comments about there being no preferred teaching style or lesson structure would also be very welcome. It would also be handy if it could be made clear that ‘teacher talk’ is not necessarily a bad thing.

Incredible though it may seem, the hocus-pocus myths still prevail in many schools. Without some sort of statement spelling it out, managers will continue to plough the furrows that they think will yield the biggest crop of OFSTED brownie-points. They can hardly be blamed for this, as it is this that their school’s entire reputation rests upon. Schools are only as good as their last OFSTED report. I often liken OFSTED’s influence over schools to being a bit like being in love. The day to day mundanities of life go on – but they are never very far from our thoughts, no matter how hard we try. Only if OFSTED accept the extraordinary influence they have over schools, can they then take steps to ensure this influence is a positive one.

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Lesson Observations: They’re just a game, really, aren’t they?

clockticking

Tick-tock, tick-tock. That time is coming around again. In the not-too-distant future I’m to have my 2nd internal lesson observation of this academic year. The last observation I had spawned an awful lot of blog material for me; but did precisely zero for my self-esteem. I have to say, sadly, that I am no more hopeful this time around.

For those readers who may not be aware, let me briefly explain: I am really, truly dreadful at observed lessons. Deep down I know that I’m a good teacher. I have a good knowledge of my subject (English), and am highly skilled in behaviour management. The kids I teach make really good progress, and I do my very best to work hard and be conscientious and professional. But all of this seems to count for very little in the world of lesson observations. Last term I was awarded the dreaded ‘requires improvement’ grading, following a lesson in which I had tried my very best to meet all the demands of my school’s interpretation of a ‘lesson observation criteria’ checklist. A checklist that mirrors what my SLT think that OFSTED will want to see. They still firmly believe that by judging teachers in this way, they will be pleasing the inspectors when they call.

It has to be said that I didn’t exactly take news of my ‘requires improvement’ grading lightly. In fact I took it very seriously indeed – I began by refusing to sign the observation feedback form. I then complained so much and so often about the whole process that my immediate boss – the Centre Manager – in neutered exasperation, handed the reins of this particular matter over to a more senior leader – the Area Manager.

Several meetings ensued, the last of which actually left me feeling quite reassured. The Area Manager informed me that nothing would happen to me if I got another ‘requires improvement’ grading, as they have no concerns at all regarding my capability as a teacher.

However, the fact that none of the reassurances about my ability have been confirmed in either a letter or email leaves me concerned that I could still be deemed inadequate, and it would be a ‘my word against theirs’ scenario if anything other was ever suggested.

Furthermore, and perhaps even more worryingly, I still cannot for the life of me figure out the new, improved and (supposedly) less prescriptive observation form. I simply fail to see how it is humanly possible to successfully evidence all of the requirements in a single lesson.

In addition to this, there are some statements on that form that seem to make very little sense. I’d be very interested in comments on the following:

To be ‘outstanding’ would require me to be ‘acutely aware of pupil capabilities’ whereas, to be ‘good’ I would only be expected to have a ‘good understanding of pupil capabilities’. How on earth is an observer going to differentiate whether my knowledge of pupil capabilities is ‘good’ or ‘acute’?

In order to be ‘outstanding’ I would have to use ‘effective‘ differentiation strategies; whereas to be ‘good‘ I would only be using ‘good differentiation strategies’. Okay…and the difference is?

Then there’s the statement that refers to ‘excellent references to literacy and numeracy’ as opposed to, ‘good references to literacy and numeracy’ What on earth is it going to take to swing the balance? This is just pedantically playing with words, surely?

But the bafflement continues, There’s the line that suggests that I will be ‘outstanding’ if ‘pupils are fully aware of their target grades..'; but I will only be ‘good’ if ‘pupils know their target grades’. Is there really a significant difference? Surely they either know them or they don’t?

And how about pupils receiving ‘high quality oral feedback and homework’ versus ‘detailed oral feedback and homework’? ‘Detailed’ and ‘high quality’ haven’t got anything to do with one another on any scale anywhere: they are words which may work well together, collaboratively. They aren’t representative of different degrees of anything that I’m aware of.

Then there’s: ‘excellent subject knowledge’ being superior to ‘strong subject knowledge’, and ‘excellent evidence of independent learning’ being pitted against, ‘good evidence of independent learning. The latter is doubly baffling, I think, as even OFSTED don’t necessarily expect to see independent learning in lessons any more.

But the pièce de résistance, I think, is this one: ‘a broad range of resources used, to include new technologies’ trumping ‘a good range of resources used, to include new technologies’. An explanation as to how using a ‘good range of resources’ can possibly be inferior to using ‘a broad range of resources’ would be very welcome.

There are many, many more anomalies on that form; I have selected a few, at random. It is even more alarming when one considers that all of this – plus much, much more – is to be judged in a single 45 minute lesson. I think that the terms ‘subjective’ ‘matter of opinion’ and ‘open to corruption’ could easily be somewhat applicable here?

Teacher observation

Recently, our Area Manager was in school. I wasted no time at all in presenting myself in the office, equipped with a copy of the new observation criteria sheet and determined to seek some answers. Our Centre Manager was also present.

I’m not altogether surprised that neither manager was able to answer my questions about the observation form. There were a couple of mumbled suggestions as to what the various linguistic nuances may mean, and how they may be judged, such as: “Well, a pupil might be fully aware of their target grade if they could tell you what their level is straight away, without looking” and: “A good range of resources might not include the full range that you could, potentially, have used”. For some of the queries I made, I simply got the answer, “I don’t know”.

The Area Manager also tried to warn me that our way of observing is “much softer” than the methods which OFSTED now employ. I heard myself trying to explain, for the umpteenth time, that things have changed; that OFSTED are changing. Therefore, there’s no need for all of this any more. But hardly any words came out, and those that did were roundly dismissed.

The conclusion to all of this – following much squinting at the form and ‘umming’ and ‘ahhing’ – was that I should really be voicing these concerns and queries to the Deputy Head who wrote the observation form.

Very interesting. I shouldn’t, then, be asking the people charged with carrying out the observations; the people who have responsibility for ticking the boxes; those people who will be deciding teachers’ grades – and potentially affecting their entire careers. These managers find themselves unable to help me because their whole process is based on criteria tick boxes with semantics so wooly that they cannot be explained or justified, simply because they were written by someone else?

Teacher in classroom

Feeling more than a little desperate and deflated, I returned to my classroom and slumped at my desk. An ever-cheery and relentlessly helpful teaching assistant tried to make useful suggestions such as, “We’ll get some of the kids hot-seating”, “Just make sure we get them working together in groups for a while” and, “Why don’t we get them to act a bit?” Finally she (helpfully) suggested that she would, “take some photographs” of the various ‘activities’ taking place, “as proof.”

Sensing my utter despondency ( – and hearing my silence -) she finally said, “We’ll just give them what they want to see, Caz. It’s just a game, really, isn’t it?”

Is she right? Is it just a game? And if so, why are so many of us still playing it?

There are some glimmers of hope on the horizon. Indeed, some schools have abandoned lesson grading altogether, in favour of developmental and supportive observations. The purpose of these being to discuss good practice and consider areas for improvement in a positive way, without the fear, worry and stigma of having a grade attached. Huge respect to @ChrisMoyse, @murphiegirl and @TWDLearning, among others, for they are truly leading the way in showing that there really are alternative ways of doing things. Let’s just hope that others follow suit.

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Ofsted: Same Old Tune, Different Words?

Ofsted-strip

On 22nd January, HMCI published information for OFSTED inspectors as to how they may go about judging the standards of teaching now that they are, in theory, no longer able to dictate a preferred teaching style.

He said:

“There is so much more that could be said about teaching without infringing the professional judgement of teachers to decide the most appropriate style of teaching to get the best out of their students.”

Many SLT in a large majority of schools are constantly on high-alert, always anxious to know what OFSTED are looking for. Therefore, it is almost certain that the following advice, or similar guidance, will form the basis for internal observations too. Let’s look at the list and see how little it infringes on our professional judgement: how much freedom it allows us to decide our own style of teaching:

• Do lessons start promptly?

Fair enough. Although, not always controllable by the teacher (especially in secondary schools). There will often be a few recalcitrant pupils turning up late, disrupting the start of lessons. Some things are difficult to control. It isn’t clear here how much that will be taken into account.

• Are children focused and attentive because the teaching is stimulating?

I blogged about this very subject just before Christmas. I’ll reiterate what I said there: To imply that pupils’ level of ‘engagement’, or, as worded here, how ‘focused and attentive’ they are is because of ‘stimulating’ teaching is highly dangerous and, I think, actually bordering on being irresponsible. Some pupils will find some lessons more interesting and stimulating than others. Either way, the extent to which how stimulating a lesson is has any impact on long-term learning is currently the subject of much debate. Until we know whether it matters or not, it might have been safer for OFSTED to avoid mention of this altogether.

classroom

Is the pace of the lesson good because the teacher is proactive and dynamic in the classroom?

Whenever I see the word ‘pace’ I suspect we may be re-entering the realms of the ‘variety of activities, multiple part, showcase lessons’. The everyday reality is that in some lessons the pace is painfully slow. Does this necessarily mean that the learning is poor? No. In fact, the slower the pace, the more the children take on board and are able to recall, in my experience. And what exactly does ‘dynamic’ mean? How ‘dynamic’ am I expected to be? What is the gauge for this? Is this not looking suspiciously reminiscent of the one-off, showy ‘OFSTED’ lessons that we were led to believe were no longer necessary?

I want to teach information and techniques that my pupils commit to long term memory; and then employ, ultimately, to pass exams. Therefore, I no longer expect my teaching or lessons to be judged on the basis of how ‘dynamic and pacey’ they are. How proactive I am is also up to me, and should be based on my own professional judgement. I may be deliberately non-proactive at times, in order to push pupils to think for themselves and avoid spoon-feeding information to them.

• Is homework regularly given?

Again, the subject of much debate at the moment. How useful, exactly, is homework? Should any teacher be marked-down (potentially) on something that, by its very nature, will not even take place in the classroom?

Teenage student doing homework at home

• Is literacy a key component of lessons across the curriculum?

Well, yes. I can answer that straight away. Literacy is everywhere. What this really means is: Is literacy referred to, specifically? Another box to be ticked.

• Do teachers use display and technology to support teaching?

I find this particularly worrying. I display my pupils’ work proudly. I also update my displays regularly. Will this tick the box for ‘supporting my teaching’? Who knows!

As for technology, last week – as we’re doing a writing topic on forests- you were more likely to find twigs, leaves and moss on my pupils’ desks than a laptop.

I also strongly suspect that this statement will require me to use my interactive whiteboard far more than I may otherwise choose to. So much for no preferred way of doing things!

whiteboard_600

• Are low expectations resulting in worksheets being used rather than textbooks?

I rarely use textbooks or worksheets, but I know that both can be useful. Sometimes a section of a textbook fits perfectly with what I’m planning to teach; therefore, I’ll use it. The same goes for worksheets: I have several worksheets that I use quite often because they fit well with a particular topic or scheme. On other occasions, I produce my own worksheets (often in the form of writing frames) to support particular pupils or a particular task. Neither choice is as a result of ‘low expectations’. I know that a teacher who relies solely on worksheets should be challenged about that, but it is easy to see how the above statement could be used by school management to demonise the use of all worksheets.

• Are the most able children provided with work which stretches them and allows them to fulfill their true potential?

Again, this is fair enough. But I would like to add that the above statement should be applied to all pupils.

• Are children expected to take books home to do their homework and return them the following day?

No. Not in my case, at least. That is not our policy. Our pupils never take their books home. Also, I’d like to be able to decide when I want it returned by.

• Does marking give a clear indication of what the children have to do to improve and are clear targets being set?

Yes. This box will be ticked by me because we have to write NC Level linked APP targets when marking. I was rather hoping that would come to an end soon and I could go back to giving my own, bespoke advice. In the eyes of my SLT, I fear this statement will only legitimise and further validate the marking policy we are currently using.

• Is the structure of the lesson promoting good learning and are children given sufficient time to practice and reinforce what is being taught?

A reference to lesson structure. Could this be an insidious way of implying that some lesson structures may be preferable to others, after all? Also, a slight contradiction to the ‘pacey’ statement (above). What exactly is ‘good learning’? Surely we need to know? Practice and reinforcement take time and slog. It is very difficult to promote either of these whilst simultaneously trying to be ‘dynamic and pacey’. This is the nuts and bolts of learning: Hard work and study. It is what really counts, I think. To judge the effectiveness of this in a short lesson observation could be tricky. You may need an observer or inspector to be present for a whole half term.

• Do teachers have sufficient expertise to be able to impart to students the necessary knowledge and skills to succeed?

Yes, I fully agree. It is the qualifications of those making this judgement that concerns me. How can we be certain that our level of expertise will be judged fairly?

• Does the school have a robust professional development programme which is improving the quality of teaching by disseminating good practice across the school or college?

This is interesting. I do think that sharing ideas and good practice with colleagues has the potential to be the best CPD of all. I hope this statement may encourage this more.

  • Are teaching assistants supporting teaching effectively or are they simply ‘floating about’?”

Again, no mention of how this will be judged. How I choose to employ the skills of a teaching assistant may not fit with what an inspector would view as ‘supporting teaching effectively’? And so the worries continue…

Teacher observation

It could be argued that to make judgments using many of the examples above, may well require inspectors to display a preference for a particular style of teaching. To say they are no longer doing this would mean that lists featuring any language that could conceivably be turned into a tick-list remain absent from any guidance.

I’m afraid there is just too much going on in the list above to avoid any guarantee of this. It seems to me that OFSTED are still trying to dictate how teachers do their jobs, and also what tools they use. Therefore, the question arises: have OFSTED really changed their tune, or have they just played around and tinkered with the semantics?

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Gove or Wilshaw: Who should we believe?

Party Faithful Attend The Annual Conservative Party Conference
Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw-1459138

In August, I wrote a piece entitled ‘Are Rumours of the Death of NC Levels Exaggerated?’ This was largely in response to a conversation that had taken place between my manager and I on the last day of the summer term, during the course of which she had told me that we would still be using National Curriculum Levels next (now this) year.

Following the publication of that piece, I realised that I had perhaps jumped the gun slightly. So euphoric was I on reading the following from the DfE that I assumed levels would cease to exist with close to immediate effect:

‘As part of our reforms to the national curriculum, the current system of ‘levels’ used to report children’s attainment and progress will be removed. It will not be replaced. We believe this system is complicated and difficult to understand, especially for parents. It also encourages teachers to focus on a pupil’s current level, rather than consider more broadly what the pupil can actually do. Prescribing a single detailed approach to assessment does not fit with the curriculum freedoms we are giving schools.’ (DfE, 13th June 2013)

I do realise now that I was being a bit hasty. It turned out that we had, in fact, been given until Sept 2014 to develop our own assessment systems.That would give schools over a year to make the most of their autonomy, to seriously think about developing their own systems. Systems that would be personal to them, showing the kind of evidence that would inform their own school staff, pupils and parents. Systems that would be both simple and accurate. In short: a real opportunity.

Meanwhile, at my own school, in a staff meeting a few weeks ago, our area manager came in to advise us that we would be using levels “for the foreseeable future” as all our “paperwork is geared towards them” and “all our spreadsheets operate using levels” and it is, after all, “what we know.”

“But the new National Curriculum isn’t set up with levels in mind? How are we going to make them fit?” I ventured. The response: “I don’t know”

Even worse, it was decreed by our highest tier of management that we would continue to use the APP method of recording and reporting: A system so copious in its paperwork it has seriously threatened the existence of many a rain forest.

Ever hopeful of making sense of all this, last week I broached the same subject with the Head Teacher at my daughter’s school. This was her response: “We’re sticking with levels, we are staying with the system we know. Most schools are, I think”

2.2.11.Brookhurst.CSUF.KT

So, just two examples, of which there are (undoubtedly) many more, nationwide, who are completely ignoring what they have been told to do by the government. Can this be right? Am I misunderstanding something here? As I have previously surmised, it seems that agitation about what we should be replacing levels with is seriously stunting and stifling the whole process. I have seen and read many comments, discussions and blogs about what should replace levels. I’m not sure what the answer to this is, but I do know that the whole point of being told you can develop your own, unique, bespoke system is that you do just that, surely? The last thing that any school should be doing is getting embroiled in another huge, unwieldy nationally agreed system of assessing progress. Or we may just as well retain the NC Levels system. As I said before: let’s not give educational resource companies and training providers a new reason to be rubbing their hands in anticipation.

I truly believe the world is divided. There are teachers who wistfully recall life without levels. The days when we had in-class, in-subject tests to ascertain how much pupils had grasped in that term/year. The days when we simply had school reports and exams to measure progress. Then there are the teachers who have only taught since levels existed. They often feel slightly differently. I chatted to one (younger) male teacher at our school who said (re Levels), “I know they’re not perfect, I know some of it is pure fiction; but how will we show progress without them?”

When I remarked that, actually, a list of letters and numbers on a spreadsheet – supported by statements that often make no sense – is not necessarily the best way of proving progress: he looked at me blankly and shrugged. In a world where all our kids are routinely baseline assessed for learning styles, I think blind acceptance is routine.

Still, I naively thought, at least OFSTED would catch them out. Surely when OFSTED visit they will want to see what we’ve designed? There is no way that an organisation in such obvious cahoots with Michael Gove and his coterie would accept the ”we haven’t been given anything else” routine as an excuse for not grasping the golden opportunity to design our own assessment system.

Wrong. Very wrong. It seems I am so far wrong that it is now almost inconceivable to believe how I ever thought I was right.

A few days ago I came across the following contribution to #SLTChat on Twitter.

“…Anyone who enters Y7 with L5s needs to make 5Ls progress.”

Given the above information, it could be considered questionable that any contributor to #SLTChat should be making such a statement. This comment was actually made by a leading OFSTED inspector. I stared at this tweet for some time. I looked at the follow-up conversation strands, noted that no one was mentioning the imminent demise of Levels, and wondered if it was just me.

Me: ‘But NC Levels don’t exist anymore..?’

The response to this was, I thought, quite surprising:

‘That’s the issue. Progress still measured by Ofsted using levels. No joined up thinking at all – as ever’

Me: ‘Why not?’

‘who knows? Policy made on the hoof. No regard for the consequences?’

Now, I know this is a personal opinion, but it is still being expressed in a public forum regarding an issue of professional consequence. Could this view be widely held among OFSTED inspectors?

I decided to raise the question of the reliability of levels:

Me: ‘NC Levels notoriously unreliable? I’m surprised OFSTED place any value on them’

I thought the response to this particularly alarming:

‘they are still the national benchmark, reliable or not’

Reliable or not? Is it really possible to have an unreliable national benchmark? Surely the two are mutually exclusive?

ofsted

So that’s that. Levels are still the national benchmark for OFSTED. While this is the case, what possible incentive is there for schools to develop their own assessment methods? OFSTED, as is so often acknowledged, are the driving force behind most of the policy and practice that goes on in our schools. If schools know that OFSTED are looking for something, however unreasonable it may seem to be, then that’s what they do. We have it from at least one horse’s mouth that OFSTED want to see X amount of levels of progress between this point and that point. This is not just applicable to KS2 and 3 data, either. It is expected for the whole of a child’s school career. Levels are still king, their data still rules above all other. There is, therefore, absolutely no reason for schools to change.

Faced with this information, it’s hardly any wonder that many schools aren’t rushing to change their assessment methods. Not for the first time, we are faced with discord between government advice and OFSTED practice. As OFSTED are holding all of the most powerful cards, we must try to please them first.

Levels are a huge, national system. It has been proven over and over again that they are easy to fake. Even if no deceit is intended, levels have been shown, at best, to be highly subjective. Yet still they continue to be used, despite these many glaring flaws. I am now convinced, more than ever before, that such systems exist, primarily, to make recording and reporting easy for OFSTED. OFSTED are providing the oxygen for levels. Here they have a system they understand and can apply national comparisons to; their accuracy (or lack of) being almost immaterial.

However, this sets them firmly at odds with what the DfE have told schools to do. According to the government, levels have been removed. I’d be very interested to see what Sir Michael Wilshaw has said on this matter, if anything at all. I have looked, but so far have found no statement.

So, until I am persuaded otherwise, it seems to me that rumours of the death of levels are not only exaggerated: unless a school is feeling particularly brave; they may even be lies.

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Posted in Education | Tagged , , | 13 Comments