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.

200168451-001

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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A Letter to my SLT: latest update.

In November I posted a copy of an email to one of my SLT, regarding my issues with the lesson observation process that my school insists on using (‘School Management Makes Teaching Impossible’). This email prompted the manager in question to come and see me to discuss the issues raised.

Following this less than satisfactory (for me) meeting, the manager sent me a short, curt email. She hadn’t really responded to my questions and, even worse than that, was now saying that I would be observed next term by her and another (even more senior) leader.

Curiouser and curiouser, as she had (verbally) been at great pains to assure me that none of this was a ‘capability issue’. What is it, I wonder?

I decided to give myself time to think carefully before responding. Below is the text of the email I will be sending her tomorrow:

‘Hi *****,
Thank you for your email dated 10th December.

You did refer to observation criteria of two other schools that have achieved outstanding, during our meeting. However, you also confirmed that both schools were inspected in 2012, prior to the publication of the new Ofsted handbook in September 2013. I didn’t actually read either of the lesson criteria pro formas that you brought with you to our meeting, so I am unfortunately unable to form a direct comparison. I accept that **** can use whatever criteria they wish, when observing lessons. I do still question whether we should be employing the use of a model that even OFSTED themselves would consider outdated.

Please also note that OFSTED further clarified their guidance for lesson observations just before Christmas. I can send you a copy of this, if you haven’t already seen it.

You mentioned that I would be observed by two members of the SLT next time. If you recall, I said that I didn’t understand why I needed to be observed by you and another senior manager. Could you please explain again the reasoning behind this decision? I have requested, and would like to request again, that any observer of my lessons be prepared to deliver a model lesson with the same group. Will this be the case?

I’m not sure you have answered the queries I made in my original email to you: I asked you to confirm what the process would be if I were to go on to achieve a second ‘requires improvement’ judgement in my next observation? I also asked if you could remind me what circumstances would lead to me requiring more frequent observations? Could you please respond to these?

I queried whether other factors regarding planning, marking displays etc all count towards the overall grading judgement of a teacher. You confirmed that they did. I’m pleased to see you confirm this again in your email. As the new OFSTED handbook outlines, Inspectors are now advised to be extremely wary of the damaging effects of one-off ‘snapshot’ judgements of teachers; they are now expected to form a whole picture, based on criteria such as you mention.

During our meeting, you stressed to me that this wasn’t a ‘capability issue’. Could you please re-confirm that in writing? The fact that you made such a statement suggests that you don’t feel that I have any competency issues. This makes this whole matter slightly confusing: if this isn’t an issue over competency, I think it is only fair that I ask what it is all about?

I would like to re-affirm that I am more than happy to go and see other **** teachers teach and share good practice with them. I must stress here that I have never said anything regarding the usefulness, or otherwise of the ‘support programme’. I did say that I was concerned about participating in such a programme with the ‘requires improvement’ association attached.

Regards’

I know that the outcome of all of this is unlikely to be a happy one. However, I do feel it is important that I continue to raise such issues. I see a lot of schools are now trialling other, more developmental means of observing lessons. I am also delighted to see some are moving away from graded observations altogether. It can surely only be of benefit to teachers everywhere if this trend continues. We all need to continually improve and refine our practice. As I have said before, it’s hard to see how such judgemental observations support this. On the contrary, by knocking the confidence of otherwise perfectly confident staff; the effect is surely counter-productive?

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The OFSTED Christmas Message: more Fear than Cheer.

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In January 1996, at the age of 22 I landed my first proper teaching job in Smethwick, an economically deprived, multi-cultural area of the West Midlands. A lovely school with a tough catchment. Early on, I remember a particularly confident, and long-established, colleague whispering to nervous, newbie me, “if you can teach here, you can teach anywhere”; actually, she was wrong. There are far tougher kids, and far tougher schools, in far tougher areas: to that I can now testify.

However, the sentiments were accurate. What she was probably really saying was this: “if you can deal with the behaviour here, you can deal with the behaviour anywhere”. Indeed, an academic scientist who’d been teaching there for several years confided in me that his class were so badly behaved that most nights he went home, exhausted, ate a take-away and fell asleep in his clothes; only to get up again the next day; sometimes not even bothering changing, and begin the battle all over again.

And so it was always thus: don’t ever underestimate the behaviour behemoth. All of this planted a disturbing seed of realisation in my youthful mind: without good behaviour there is “nothing”. I saw that this was what I had to get nailed, above all else. My particular challenge was made no less complex by the fact that the class I was teaching had been covered by the deputy head and SENCO, prior to my appointment. Both were highly respected, long-standing members of SLT. Still, I was youthfully optimistic.

There were kids in that class that really pushed me and tried every possible trick to test me. For the first few weeks I was permanently exhausted from the mental and physical effort of trying to ensure my mask never slipped. I can recall hardly a thing about the curriculum I was delivering in those days, but I remember a lot about the behaviour tricks that I picked-up, and taught myself. For example, when almost the entire class were horrendous on a class visit to a local mosque, I knew it could be make or break for me.

When we got back to school, it was home time. I sent them away with hardly a word. After a sleepless night (for me!) the following day I kept the whole class in at break time and told them all everything I thought of their conduct, in no uncertain terms. I added that I had said nothing the previous day because I didn’t want to embarrass them or damage the good name of the school any further. All lies. The reality was, I had completely ‘lost’ them. Any teacher will tell you what a horrible feeling that is. Let me assure you, it has happened to me many times since, and, no doubt will happen many, many times again.

staffroom_alamy_2392382b

Fortunately, what I did have at that school were supportive colleagues. No one ever questioned why I needed extra assistance, or why I might need to send a particular child out of class. If we were late to assembly, no one queried why. If I kept the whole class in at break, that was fine. If I said that a certain pupil would not be going swimming that week, it was assumed that I had good reason: if there was no one to supervise them to remain at the school, then they stood on the pool side with me, in their school uniform. It was also fortunate for me that my classroom had two huge plate-glass windows looking directly out onto the playground. This made my favourite trick all the more effective: 2 minutes (or even 30 seconds!) lopped off a playtime can seem agonisingly long if you can see other kids playing out, while you watch the clock ticking: cruel? maybe, but kind in the long run.

After an excruciating few months, the class were mostly well-behaved and cooperative. I could finally relax and laugh now and again; be a bit less afraid of letting the mask slip. I could also concentrate more on the content of what I was actually delivering, lesson-wise.

Teacher in classroom

Now, some may argue that the sparkling effervescence of my lesson content should have been enough to hold the attention of my NQT class; that my strong subject knowledge, teaching flair and carefully chosen, or crafted, resources would alone be enough to fully engage them.They may be right. I think, however, that no amount of fun and fireworks would have encouraged that class to be compliant and studious. Like many, many classes, the main thing those kids wanted to learn was what they could get away with. That was their sole objective.

The same applies now: kids don’t change. The less effort and the more messing around that is permissible, the better. I know there are always exceptions, but, truthfully, I haven’t come across very many.

On Thursday, Ofsted published their latest revision of their subject-specific grade descriptors. I scanned through the document, focusing particularly on the supplementary English section, as that is my subject area. On browsing the grades for ‘teaching’ section, I came across the following statement, evidence of which would lead to an ‘inadequate’ grading for the teacher:

‘Significant numbers of pupils are sometimes bored, passive or badly behaved as a result of teaching failing to engage pupils.’

Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw-1459138

Re-read and unpick this and the flaws are glaring: ‘bored’ and ‘passive’ are, in themselves dangerously subjective words. If a group are sitting and listening to a teacher deliver a lesson, does that make them ‘passive’? Quite possibly. Yet, Sir Michael Wilshaw has, only recently, publicly praised the potential merits of didactic, ‘teacher-led’ activities.

If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard a child say “this is boring” then I could probably retire tomorrow. Learning stuff is sometimes boring. To complain that a task is ‘boring’, I have discovered, can also be pupil-shorthand for, “this is a bit difficult, and I’d rather be doing something easier”. To even bring the word ‘bored’ into such guidance displays an astonishing level of disconnect with the reality of real-life, everyday lessons. It also points back to the pressure that teachers feel under to be delivering exciting, ‘jazz-hands’ ‘OFSTED’ lessons, that I have written about before.

But the real issue with that statement, especially in view of it potentially leading to an ‘inadequate’ judgement, is the ‘badly behaved AS A RESULT OF teaching failing to engage pupils’ line. How on earth is it possible to judge if the behaviour of a class is as a result of the lesson content itself, in a one-off lesson?

There are numerous external factors that can affect pupils’ behaviour. Even if it were possible to deduce this accurately, there is absolutely no way, surely, that an authority with such power and prestige as OFSTED should be encouraging such a blame culture? Who knows what delicate balancing act a particular teacher is trying to perform? There is no way of judging from a single lesson the stage that that teacher/pupils relationship is at. In any case, surely we should be moving towards a culture where the onus is on the pupils to behave, regardless of their opinion of the lesson?

If not, are we encouraging them to riot in the supermarket queue, or graffiti the bus stop shelter because they are not enjoying themselves enough? I often say to pupils, “would you behave like that in the street?” as a means of illustrating the unacceptability of poor conduct. To condone poor behaviour by suggesting it could be the fault of the teacher really is a step too far.

As I have written about before: behaviour is the elephant in the classroom of many, many schools. All too often, teachers can find themselves left floundering alone as a result of poor administration of their schools’ behaviour policy. They can sometimes find they are woefully unsupported in the ‘behaviour blame game’, which is often presided over by weak SLT who find it easier to point an accusing finger and say, “oh, (so and so) can’t cope”. Sadly, it can be a handy way of apportioning individual blame for the failures of a whole-school system.

Whether OFSTED encourage it or not, nervous schools, anxious to please the Oz-like OFSTED masters, will continue to use these statements like biblical quotations. Before you know it, they’ve been added to a list of internal observation criteria. They are carved in stone, and become gospel. It isn’t too much of a stretch to see how failure to meet that particular target could be used by unscrupulous management as irrefutable ‘proof’ that a particular teacher was failing to meet their performance management targets, and may have ‘capability issues’.

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Had such statements existed when I was an NQT, and if I had been judged in those early months of my career, it is highly likely that I would have gained a tick in that particular box. The damage that may have been done to my confidence in my future abilities would have been devastating. Much like a lot of both the internal and external observation process: unhelpful, imprecise, and subjective statements, at least in the case of this example, it seems, continue to be the order of the day.

I have seen the phrase ‘you don’t make the pig fatter by weighing it’ several times recently, in relation to the internal and external lesson observation process. Neither do you make it feel valued, confident, respected or worthwhile.

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School Management Makes Teaching Impossible

Teacher observation

“So much of what we call management consists in making it difficult for people to work.” (Peter F Drucker)

If you have read any of my blogs of recent months, then it won’t come as very much of a surprise to you to discover that I am about to embark on what is likely to be an epic battle with my school management team over their lesson observation procedures and requirements.

The management structure at my school is a constant source of bafflement and bemusement to me: Each small centre has two deputies and a Centre Manager. In addition to this there is also a teacher with responsibility for ‘additional needs’ (SEN). In the case of my centre, this only leaves three teachers, the cleaner, the support staff and the admin officer who aren’t in possession of a ‘management position’.

My vocal gripes about the lesson observation process have recently drawn the attention of a higher management layer: I am now being asked to communicate my concerns to one of the ‘area managers’. These are the league above the ‘Centre Managers’; but not as senior as the top management group: the ‘Assistant Heads’ who are, of course, below the ‘Head teacher’. Following two lengthy verbal exchanges, the ‘Area Manager’, who oversees our centre and one other, has now asked me to outline my concerns in an email.

This I duly wrote; then doubted myself; then decided to seek some union advice before sending. I can’t pretend that the chat I had with my local union office made me feel an awful lot better. The conversation largely seemed to consist of worrying sound bites like “can of worms” “scuppering career” and “capability hearings”. As this is sure to be just the beginning of the process: they have “opened a file”. Ominous. They have also strongly advised me to get the support of my colleagues (“safety in numbers”).

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My colleagues, on the other hand, seem to feel equally strongly about keeping their noses clean. And who can blame them? Many of them are being highly paid to occupy pseudo-management positions, keep the home-fires burning and parrot, enthuse about, chant and chime the nonsense that they are  pretending (or naive enough) to believe we should be doing. Unsurprisingly, then, not many seem particularly keen to join me in a ‘battle royal’ pointing out the falsehoods and fripperies of the system which underpins their careers, ethos and livelihoods. Anyway, here is the text of the email I am due to send, but still haven’t, as yet:

Hi …..,

An email to clarify the main points of our conversation, as per your request. Firstly, let me stress that I would be delighted to go and see other **** teachers teach, and share ideas and good practice with them. In fact, I feel that this would be highly beneficial for all teaching staff.  My concerns lie in doing this with the stigma of a teacher who is perceived to be ‘requiring improvement’ attached. I did also mention that I felt it would be beneficial for me to see an outstanding lesson delivered with the same group as  I was observed teaching.

In relation to the above, I have now had a chance to read the information you directed me to in the ‘Ofsted Folder’ I am somewhat alarmed to see that the support programme is triggered after just one lesson observation being graded as ‘requires improvement.’ As I said to you, I would have hoped if there were any serious concerns about my ability as a teacher, you would have raised them with me before now. I have always understood myself to be highly competent as a teacher and also very skilled at dealing with the difficulties and challenges that many of our young people present.

As I stressed to you, I am very concerned about the effect that this grading may have on my reputation as a teacher, especially if I then go on to achieve a second ‘requires improvement’ rating in my next observation.

Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw-1459138

Could you clarify what the procedures are if this were to be the case? As I mentioned to you, it is my understanding that OFSTED are no longer looking for a particular style of teaching, or lesson structure. I showed you the following quote from Sir Michael Wilshaw’s speech:

OFSTED should be wary of trying to prescribe a particular style of teaching, whether it be a three part lesson; an insistence that there should be a balance between teacher led activities and independent learning, or that the lesson should start with aims and objectives with a plenary at the end’

I said that was awaiting confirmation and clarification of this from an OFSTED Lead Inspector. She has now sent me the following current guidelines (her summary):

‘Lesson obs – remember these phrases are from the current school inspection handbook Sept 2013: Lesson observations (P10- 13) The key objective of lesson observations is to evaluate the quality of teaching and its contribution to learning, particularly in the core subjects. Inspectors must not advocate a particular method of teaching or show preference towards a specific lesson structure. As such, inspectors will not look for a preferred methodology but must record aspects of teaching that are effective and identify ways in which teaching and learning can be improved. Inspectors will not expect teachers to prepare lesson plans for the inspection. However, they will use the evidence gathered from lesson observations to help judge the overall quality of the school’s curriculum planning.

32. As noted above, inspectors must not advocate a particular approach to teaching or planning lessons.

*Note: The descriptors should not to be used as a checklist. They must be applied adopting a ‘best fit’ approach which relies on the professional judgement of the inspection team. Inspectors must not expect teaching staff to teach in any specific way. Teachers should decide for themselves how to teach so that children are engaged in lessons, acquire knowledge and learn well. Not all aspects of learning, for example pupils’ engagement, interest, concentration, determination, resilience and independence, may be seen in a single observation.

126. Inspectors’ direct observation must be supplemented by a range of other evidence to enable inspectors to evaluate what teaching is like typically and the impact that teaching has had on pupils’ learning over time. Such additional evidence may include:

*discussions with pupils about the work they have undertaken and their experience of teaching and learning over longer periods

*discussion about teaching and learning with teachers, teaching assistants and other staff *the views of pupils, parents and staff

*the school’s own evaluations of the quality of teaching and its impact on learning

*scrutiny of pupils’ work, with particular attention to:

 how well and frequently marking, assessment and testing are used to help teachers improve pupils’ learning

 the level of challenge provided

 pupils’ effort and success in completing their work and the progress they make over a period of time.

I hope that helps. With difficult pupils, such as those in a PRU, and even in mainstream, not all pupils will make the progress that their peers will because of their circumstances. Having case studies to show why this is so is important, plus being able to show what is being done to try and rectify the situation. Having evidence of progress over time to show is vital. Show which interventions have worked. Good luck – kind regards’

I hope that the information above is useful and also that it may go some way to explaining some of my frustration regarding the current observation criteria that **** are using. I fully understand and accept that teachers must be subject to some scrutiny, but I do question the usefulness and accuracy of such ‘snapshot’ judgements, especially when viewed in isolation. Finally, I recall that you mentioned there may be an instance in which I would be subject to more frequent observations. Could you please remind me what those circumstances would be? Thank you.

Teacher in classroom

I would be very grateful for any comments or advice on this matter. I am now getting to the point where I can’t quite see the wood for the trees any more. I am fully prepared to battle this issue to its natural conclusion; but it does feel like a lonely place at times.

The NUT, nationally, have taken up the matter, with a request to an official to provide me with assistance in preparing a motion to put to the general meeting of the union locally to “support members who are trying to follow union policy on performance management, which is obviously a big issue in the current climate…”

Fingers crossed….

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Ofsted: The Medicine That Kills.

Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw-1459138

Last month, Michael Wilshaw, Chief Inspector of OFSTED had this to say about Children’s Services in Birmingham:

“…These characteristics of failure have been encapsulated in one area in particular, England’s second city: Birmingham. What is shocking is that this is the city with responsibility for more children than any other…how has it come to this?”

He is, almost certainly, correct in his opinions. But what might the explanation for this be? Why is the Birmingham Authority apparently completely unable to get its act together regarding the safety and welfare of its young people; despite numerous interventions, visits, warnings and threats?

I have spent the past thirteen years working in Birmingham schools. For a large proportion of that time I have taught English in one of the city’s Pupil Referral Units. A number of the pupils I have worked with have been in local authority care, or ‘well-known to the authorities’ and many of those on a Child Protection order. I have, therefore, had occasion to witness first-hand how some of these systems work, in practice.

Birmingham City Council

Birmingham is the largest authority in the country – in fact, it is the largest of its kind in the whole of Europe. Huge and unwieldy, its Social Services department often struggles to cope. Indeed, it has been found wanting on several particularly high profile occasions. It also had – and still has – a huge population of children in care. More often than not, these are a desperate, disparate, displaced population of sad and damaged children. For some, teachers and other education staff are the only constant figures in their lives

This situation is only exacerbated by the constantly shifting plates of the Social Services Department. Birmingham has had no less than four Directors of Children’s Services in just three years. It is not unusual for children to have a change of social worker every few weeks. They often have no relationship at all with this person who should be the kingpin, the unifier, the very glue of their broken lives. After all, there’s no point in getting close to a figure, who may move (or be moved on) at any time. Indeed, the children will often complain that they “hate Social Workers” who they often consider uniquely responsible for their terribly fractured family circumstances, especially if they’ve been removed from the family home.

Indeed, so bad has it become that the fear of change has overtaken the fear of the original fear itself. In an extraordinary blog , the disturbing dissonance that is the constant inconstancy of how social services operate – especially in child care management – is described:

‘Whoever said a change is as good as a holiday is a prat. Well maybe not a prat, but someone who lives a totally different life than me. Maybe if your life is steady, your routines are predictable, and the unexpected is completely unexpected, then change is good. But change is all too familiar to me. It’s the bully that lurks in the bushes and jumps me, any time, anywhere.

And so I constantly live in fear. In fear of a new foster carer, a new group home, a new school or being banged up. In fear of a change of circumstance or mood that ends in black eyes and broken hearts. In fear of a new power structure on the estate where I don’t know where I fit and getting it wrong could end up with me paying the ultimate price. If I have learned one thing it is this- change hurts. It unsettles me to my core and it can be dangerous.’

Even the current Director of Children’s Services in the city, Peter Hay, speaking just last month acknowledged the bald truth: “…we do not have enough great Social Workers doing enough great social work consistently..”

Peter Hay

Peter Hay

Memorable for me was a ‘Child Protection’ review meeting I sat in on, where the harried social worker didn’t even know the child’s name. The child hadn’t been attending school and knew I would have to report on this. She almost got me excluded from the meeting on the grounds of her ‘human rights’. An irate phone-call from my manager ensured my presence at the meeting. But I sensed that nobody really cared. I honestly felt I was the only one at that meeting who really knew that girl: a poor report on her educational progress really was the very least of her issues.

There are numerous situations, most far too sensitive to mention here, that I have been aware of in my time in this role. Situations where we have known that the children were in real danger, often at the hands of their own family, or sometimes at the hands of external ‘groups’ or individuals, who routinely target vulnerable youngsters. Often, the feeling has been, the Social Services department simply isn’t effectual enough in dealing with such matters.

Party Faithful Attend The Annual Conservative Party Conference

When Michael Gove said the following in a speech he made in September, it was a relief to many that such poor practice may finally be dealt with appropriately:

“Those rescued from neglectful homes, and who have not found stable, loving families to care for them, should find security and support in children’s homes where they can enjoy a fresh start. But not all do. As we have been learning, through a series of horrific court cases, there are young people who were promised security in care who have been terribly exploited…

We shielded the children from the authorities who needed to be looking out for them. An ‘out of sight, out of mind’ culture developed…

When children are suffering, we need to act..there is a direct responsibility to protect vulnerable children…”

On Thursday night (14th November) Radio 4 broadcast its ‘The Report’ show the subject of which was Birmingham Children’s Services. I would strongly urge all readers to listen to that programme . It was both illuminating and distressing in equal measure, covering the dreadfully harrowing stories of the death of Keanu Williams – two years old and beaten to death by his own mother – and the starvation of Khyra Ishaq, among others. Both of these children were ‘known’ to the authorities; the families of these children were clearly under nowhere near enough scrutiny.

A lone child on the street

Also discussed: the authority’s complete inability to either recruit or retain the stellar, top-notch Social Workers it so desperately requires. This is something I have been consistently aware of throughout the time I have worked in Birmingham. It has been clear that newly qualified, inexperienced Social Workers are the ‘norm’, and there are also a lot of temporary agency staff in position. I had always assumed that this was simply because of the huge workload, stress and case-load issues associated with Birmingham. It would seem that there is another factor to be considered. As Professor Sue White, Professor of Social Work, University of Birmingham, so succinctly and emphatically explained on Radio 4′s Report:

“In my view (the OFSTED) process has made the patient sicker. The level of scrutiny and the blaming and shaming culture… associated with the inspection regime in England…has the capacity to make services perform less well. It is very distracting for managers and the categorisation ‘inadequate’ causes problems with recruitment and retention of staff. It makes senior managers very precarious and forces them to concentrate on performance criteria which are set centrally and aren’t necessarily sensitive to the real work.”

She went on to say: “…Birmingham will not get better by being shamed by OFSTED inspections.”

Eleanor Brazil

Eleanor Brazil

These claims are endorsed and echoed by Eleanor Brazil who is considered to have been the most effective of the four recent Directors, now in the same role in Doncaster:

“… OFSTED will say they’re not interested in the journey, but actually the journey of improvement is critically important. It takes time to turn services round. It’s devastating (for staff)…they’ve worked hard and think things are beginning to improve.”

It seems utterly extraordinary that the very people given responsibility for uncovering, exposing and improving the issues affecting the life-chances of children; the guards at the gate of all matters concerning the welfare and education of children – OFSTED- are being charged with creating more problems than they clear up. Could OFSTED actually be responsible for Birmingham’s complete inability to pick itself up off the floor and take steps to sort itself out?

Teacher observation

There is an uncanny parallel with what so many teachers in schools up and down the country are saying: through their scrutinising, damning reports and bureaucratic measures, it seems that OFSTED are proving to be an unpleasant distraction, if not an unmitigated disaster. They are a preoccupation for both ground staff and managers, alike, and are indeed proving to be the very “medicine that is killing the patient”.

It is looking likely that the old dog that is Birmingham Children’s Services has been kicked just once too often: it simply can’t drag itself onto its feet any more. One possible solution may be to stop kicking it and consider alternative means of control, mediation and support. A sentiment that is echoed by many teachers and educationalists, up and down the country. So, OFSTED: stop looking at us, burdening us further and adding to the stress and pressure of our already complex and sensitive jobs.

Then come and look at the results.

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