SLT Book Club: Clever Lands by Lucy Crehan

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This year, in an attempt to keep abreast of educational thinking and to keep our minds sharp, we are running an SLT book club. Each member of the senior team has chosen an educational book to take away and read. When they’ve read it, they present the key ideas and points we can learn from at Churchill Academy & Sixth Form back to the rest of the team. I went first last week, when I attempted to summarise the key points from Lucy Crehan’s excellent educational odyssey “Clever Lands.”

The premise

Lucy Crehan set off to visit top-performing PISA educational systems around the world. She visited Finland, Singapore, Shanghai, Japan and Canada, staying with teachers and volunteering in schools whilst there to get in amongst the system and try to really understand it from the inside. By taking this very personal perspective, as a trained Science teacher from England, Crehan offers a window into these very different systems from a perspective which is easy for us to relate to, whilst summarising big policy and system ideas clearly and coherently.

Key findings

There are so many nuggets in this book it’s hard to summarise them or select just a few! But one or two that caused me to turn down page corners are:

  • Finnish Child Welfare Teams: each Finnish secondary school has to have a child welfare team, consisting of specialist pastoral workers with the aim “to create a healthy and safe environment for learning and growing, to protect mental health, prevent social exclusion, and promote the wellbeing of the school community.” They meet weekly to discuss a particular class in detail with the class tutor, then a drop-in session for any teacher to discuss concerns about any child in the school.
  • Finnish trust in teachers: the Finnish education system is set up around the pillars of intrinsic motivation for its teachers. They are trained well and then trusted as professionals, achieving purpose, mastery and autonomy.
  • Japanese emphasis on resilience: Japan has an ingrained cultural emphasis on resilience, and on collective conformity which enables academic success.
  • The impact of selection in Singapore: Crehan’s portrait of Singapore’s highly selective system was nightmarish. With entire futures hinging on the outcome of Primary School Leaving Exam (PSLE – the Singaporean 11+), eleven-year-olds are tutored, crammed and pressurised to within an inch of their lives. The highlight of the entire book for me was Crehan’s expose of the flawed interpretation of research upon which ability selection at 11 is based. I wish Theresa May would read just this chapter.

The five principles of successful education systems

Crehan concludes by drawing together her conclusions from her experiences in these different systems into five governing principles:

  1. Get children ready for learning
  2. Design curriculum for mastery (and context for motivation)
  3. Support children to take on challenges, rather than making concessions
  4. Trust teachers as professionals
  5. Combine school accountability with school support (rather than sanctions)

Of particular interest to me was principle 3, linking to my drive to develop a growth mindset ethos in schools. Within this principle, Crehan observes that the successful systems she observed:

  • Delay selection by ability until age 15 or 16
  • Teach children in mixed-ability classes until 15 or 16
  • Provide small, flexible group support from qualified professionals before/during/after lessons

I feel we have a lot to learn from this.

Conclusions

I drew three take-away conclusions from the book that we could implement at Churchill Academy & Sixth Form:

  • Combined Child Welfare Team – we are implementing a unified student services team which combined academic, pastoral, social, behavioural and mental health support
  • Support all children to reach high expectations, not concede lower expectations for lower ability
  • Equip teachers with knowledge and then trust them – give them purpose, mastery, and autonomy

Coming soon on SLT Book Club:

My next read is John Dunford’s The School Leadership Journeywhilst my colleagues are reading:

As an avowed #HeForShe advocate, I note with some pride that five of our first seven influential books are written by women.

We’re also thinking of extending the book club to our Middle Leadership Team!

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Why I’m backing #ASCLBarton

In a previous post on my history of union membership, I waxed lyrical over my ASCL membership. Here’s what I wrote:

Now that I’m in ASCL I feel like I belong to a union that does speak with my voice. When I read Brian Lightman’s responses to the GCSE fiasco, to the EBac proposal, to the proposals for performance-related pay, they seem rational, reasoned and responsible. They represent the profession as a profession, and when I hear the national officers speak at conferences, they seem committed to constructive negotiation on our behalf with the Secretary of State and the Department for Education. This model of the representative voice constructively negotiating with the senior leadership on behalf of teachers is precisely that which works so well in school, scaled up to the national level.

I stand by those comments. I do think that the Association of School and College Leaders represents the profession well. I am proud of my membership and I feel like ASCL represents me, as a Headteacher, in the way I would like to be represented. Their Blueprint for a Self-Improving System is a document I return to, alongside the Headteachers’ Roundtable Five Principles and Alternative Green Paper, as a common-sense but ambitious vision for how education could work in this country.

Now, ASCL members are faced with a choice. Two candidates have been placed before the membership of the association for election to the post of General Secretary. The ASCL selection committee have nominated Chris Kirk, who has spent fourteen years at PwC as an education leader as well as stints at the National College, as a director of education services for GEMS, and at the Department for Education as a civil servant. Before that, he spent a year in the classroom. Around 300 ASCL members, myself included, nominated his opponent, Geoff Barton, who started teaching in 1985 and hasn’t stopped since. Geoff has been a Headteacher since 2002.

Both candidates are qualified to lead ASCL, but for me the choice is clear. Who do I want representing school and college leaders at a national level, influencing policy, engaging in debate, challenging the evidence base behind decision making, and holding the Secretary of State and the Department to account? I want the candidate who has been where I am now, as a serving Headteacher, facing the challenges of the current system and climate, and really understanding them. Not in theory, but in practice. The candidate who has spent over thirty years in schools, in classrooms, teaching and leading.  The candidate who has been endorsed by Stephen Tierney, John Tomsett, Kev Bartle, Rob Campbell, Ros McMullen, Caroline Spalding, Ross McGill and countless other teachers and leaders I admire and respect from across the country.

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Click the image to tweet your support for #ASCLBarton

In his manifesto, Geoff outlines the challenges currently facing our “perilously fragmented system”:

  • funding
  • teacher and leadership recruitment
  • the proposal to resurrect educational selection
  • an apparent marginalisation of vocational education and the arts
  • the fallout from over-hasty qualification reform
  • an inspection regime which for too many leaders continues to feel punitive

These are all critical issues facing our profession today. The top three – funding, recruitment, and the return of selection – all loom large in the top left “urgent/important” quadrant of my Covey Matrix. That they have pushed the other three towards the top right hand corner indicate the unprecedented level of crisis across education. We need an eloquent, level-headed and experienced leader to articulate the genuine concerns that every Headteacher I speak to is feeling.

But what Geoff also brings to the table is optimism. In amongst the dark clouds and portents of doom, the horses eating one another in the stable and the spilled salt, Geoff brightens my Twitter timeline with silly humour, tales of the unexpected and dry reflections on obscure words in the English language. Geoff is already a high-profile figure. A published author, a well-known writer, and an engaging public speaker, his over 35,000 twitter followers show that he has the capacity to reach not only school leaders and teachers, but a wider audience too. His voice will be a powerful one not only to ensure that this issues are clear – he articulated the funding crisis in just this way in the Guardian in November – but also that the many positives in teaching continue to be communicated far and wide. He promises to battle hard to defend, champion and celebrate the profession he has devoted his life’s work to. I will be supporting him all the way.

So what now? If you are an ASCL member – or if you know an ASCL member – it’s vital that you engage with the election for General Secretary. Whoever is elected will be our voice. Read the information on the ASCL website and, when your ballot paper arrives in January, vote. As 2016 has shown us, anything can happen when democracy is unleashed. So read. Fill in your ballot. And vote.

My thoughts on the grammar schools policy

Many people have written about this much more eloquently and persuasively than I can – such as Sam Freedman, Greg Ashman, Rebecca Allen, Chris Cook to name but a few – and Laura McInerney has just overtaken Matthew Tate as my educational hero of the week for her patient, persistent use of evidence in a post-facts policy-making pandemonium.

Just for my own peace of mind, however, here are my thoughts on the grammar schools policy. 

It’s not about parental choice

On the Today programme on Radio 4, Education Secretary Justine Greening kept returning to the argument that expanding existing grammar schools and allowing the creation of new ones improved parental choice. This is incorrect. In a selective education system, parents don’t choose the best school for their children; schools choose the “best” children for themselves. And children have no choice whatsoever. 

The evidence is against it

Performance of pupils in selective vs non-selective counties by deprivation index (click for source)


This seems a pointless argument. Policy makers aren’t interested in evidence or facts or experts any more. But selective education disadvantages the disadvantaged, whilst giving advantages or making little-to-no difference to those who already have a head start. It doesn’t improve social mobility. The best comprehensives are doing better for all pupils – improving standards in comprehensives would make more difference. Teach First’s statement on this sums it up best: 

It has an impact on every school

I wish I could believe that all Headteachers would take a principled stance and remain firmly comprehensive, but since we know that Progress 8 (and definitely the Basics, EBacc and Attainment 8 measures) favour schools with higher prior attainment on intake, I very much doubt that this will be the case. And once one school in an area decides to change its comprehensive intake to a selective one, it affects every single school in that area. Every school will have to review its admissions stance. If we remain comprehensive, will we lose the high achievers from our intake to the selective school down the road and become a secondary modern by default? 

It allows gaming the accountability measures on a systemic level

Theresa May’s proposals included encouragement for grammars to move students between schools at 14 and 16 (note that schools would do this: where’s the parental choice?). So, if your grammar-controlled secondary modern has done really well for you and you’re flourishing academically, you get hived off into the grammar parent school at 14. And if you managed to pass at 11 but you don’t make the grade at 14, you’re unceremoniously kicked out. And then, hey presto, the accountability measures at 16 for the grammar school look incredible, whilst the secondary modern flounders despite its best efforts, and the DfE presents its evidence that their policy has been a rip-roaring success in raising standards. 

The Key Stage 2 tests suddenly look even more sinister

I was amongst many who flung up my hands in dismay at the notion that students at the end of Year 6 would be labelled as having met, or not met, the expected standard, then sent up into Year 7 with the whiff of “success” or “failure” already hanging over them. I’m still awaiting the horror-show of making those Year 7s who have not made the expected standard re-sit the tests after a few months of secondary. But now, is it just me who thinks that the Year 6 tests look a little bit like an 11+? 

There’s money to put behind grammar expansion, but not for comprehensives with a track record of success

Theresa May also announced £50m to support the expansion of existing grammars. I know that, in the scheme of things, this isn’t a massive sum nationally. But honestly every school leader or business manager I know who would bite your hand off for an additional £500 in the budget right now. It is galling to see this money flung at selective schools to expand whilst outstanding comprehensives, doing great work for all children, struggle. 

It’s a sleight-of-hand policy which distracts from everything else

Watch your card, just your card…


Also this week we learned that teacher training courses are half empty with the profession facing a recruitment crisis. Schools budgets are in meltdown. New accountability measures are due to be published this month as schools continue to implement a new curriculum and testing regime in Early Years, Key Stage 1, Key Stage 2, Key Stage 3, Key Stage 4 and Post-16 at the same time. Academies that are part of MATs haven’t been audited due to loopholes. There are concerns that people are siphoning public money out of the system into their own bank accounts through academy freedoms. Rooves are leaking. SEND reforms are almost unworkable. But look: a return to selection! Over here! Look! Watch this! 

We can’t possibly fight on all fronts. But a return to selection? We must. 

Consultation – stuck on repeat

I started this blog on December 12th 2012 in a fit of righteous indignation about the proposals to introduce a new suite of qualifications called the “English Baccalaureate Certificates” in a post entitled ConsultationAt the time, I didn’t think responding to the consultation on EBCs would make any difference; I thought they were inevitable. But I was wrong.

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In February 2013 Michael Gove withdrew his EBC proposal

Of course, many of the original proposals contained within the EBC idea have made their way into the reformed GCSEs – numbered grading, the removal of coursework – but crucially the notion that rigorous qualifications were only for the most able has not. In the EBC proposal students below the academic standard would have been given a “statement of achievement” instead of a qualification. The reformed GCSEs, for all there is to object to about them, are at least accessible to all students within the same spectrum as the current qualifications – 9-1 encompasses the same range as A*-G.

The fact is, Michael Gove listened to the consultation responses and decided that he would back down from his proposals – proposals to which he was ideologically committed and about which he said he would be willing to overrule Ofqual and press ahead if he believed the changes were right:

“If they still had concerns and I still believe it is right to go ahead then I would do it, and on my head be it.” – Michael Gove, December 2012

Following the announcement the EBCs were not going ahead, I felt as though my voice mattered. As though I had made a difference. As though answering the questions which were phrased as if the introduction of EBCs was a fait accompli with answers which rejected that assumption was a strategy which worked.

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Nicky Morgan – new education secretary, new EBacc proposal (source)

And here we are again. A different education secretary this time – and one who has pledged to “listen to teachers and work with them” – and a proposal that 90% of students should follow the English Baccalaureate. I don’t have an issue with the notion that a broad base of academic subjects open doors for young people in the future. I think all students studying English, Maths, Sciences, a language and a humanities subject to 16 is a pretty good idea. But I also think that all students have an entitlement to a curriculum that suits them, and to a broad range of arts and design subjects. This policy seems to me an attempt to re-introduce the two-tier element of the EBC proposal, where English Baccalaureate subjects would be awarded EBCs and “the rest” would remain as GCSEs. This proposal devalued subjects beyond the narrow EBacc parameters, and although in the new system all subjects will be GCSEs the same dangers are present. The implementation of the policy as proposed will have a fairly obvious and catastrophic impact on arts, PE, design, technology and performance subjects, and the teachers who teach them, as they will inevitably be squeezed out of the curriculum and replaced by new humanities and languages teachers to accommodate the increased numbers taking those subjects. And, in these days of teacher recruitment shortage, I have no idea where they are going to come from.

The consultation, which closes on 29th January 2016, is again worded as though the implementation of the policy is inevitable.

It doesn’t matter. Find a way to make your voice heard. Question the basis of the questions you’re being asked. Question the assumptions inherent in the consultation questions if you feel they’re invalid. Make your point. If you don’t respond, your silence will be read as agreement, and your complaints will fall on deaf ears after the fact. But now, they’re listening. Someone in the DfE will read your response. It won’t necessarily make a difference – but my experience of responding three years ago shows that it might.

Respond to the consultation here – no matter what your views – before the deadline on 29th January 2016.

Why I think Teach First is a good thing

Last week I saw this video advert – “We Are Teach First”:

The generalisations were off-putting. The character of “Rachel” and her school are trite stereotypes, and the use of statistics slapdash. I know that some people are worried by Teach First, and watching this ad might not help. It’s easy to see it as patronising. But despite this broad brush-strokes advertising campaign, I think Teach First is a good thing. Here’s why.

Making teaching a competitive graduate career

When I graduated from Oxford, I was the only one going on to a PGCE with state school teaching in mind (you can read about my experiences here). Each year I return to my Oxford college for a careers forum, where alumni speak to undergraduates about where their degrees took them and offer advice to those just about to start their journeys. The first year I went to extol the virtues of teaching, I spoke to one undergraduate interesting in teaching. This year, I was told by the tutors that Teach First was the single biggest destination for graduates from my college in the past academic year. That means that high achieving, driven graduates with exceptional subject knowledge are pouring in to state schools as opposed to management consultancy firms, whereas previously they weren’t. This has got to be a good thing, for them and for the students they teach.

The sense of moral purpose

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You don’t often get organisations working with genuine moral purpose, but Teach First is one. It’s setting out to make a difference and to correct an injustice. Whilst many may take issue with its methods, its heart is in the right place – on its sleeve.

They don’t just teach first

One of the major criticisms of Teach First is the name, which seems to imply that teaching is merely a stepping stone to a “proper” career, like some sort of extended gap year. Well, that’s just not the case.

As this from Laura McInerney shows, most of them stay in teaching. These are graduates who might not have been there in the first place, were it not for Teach First.

I’d rather have bankers that taught first

Teach-First

As case studies like this of Lena Khudeza show, some Teach Firsters do use the programme as a stepping stone to something else. And why not? For me, teaching a vocation – I can’t see myself doing anything else, and I don’t want to. But not everyone is like me. Why can’t teaching be something you do – and do well – for a few years before trying something else? We welcome teachers who have spent time outside of education into our schools, as they bring an enriched experience into the classroom. I’m sure the reverse is true.  I’d certainly rather have bankers and management consultants who understand the impact of poverty and deprivation having seen it first hand than those who have only ever breathed the rarefied air of privilege. Maybe, when they’re in their Canary Wharf offices, they’ll think of the students they taught and make different – better – decisions.

Teach Firsters enrich the debate

Much has been made of the precociousness of some Teach First graduates, particularly on Twitter, but those arguments seem to me to miss the point. People can say what they like on Twitter (and they frequently do) – but you don’t need to listen. You curate your own timeline. What I’ve found is that many of the Teach Firsters I follow and read have really interesting, thoughtful and perceptive things to say. Who says you need to have taught for twenty years before you’re entitled to an opinion? Okay – don’t answer that. But I value the perspective of those new to the profession just as much as those who have a wealth of experience. Coming into schools fresh, from a different angle, can uncover assumptions and myths, and help us all to move forward. Being challenged about what you believe can make you re-evaluate and either change, or defend, your position. This can only be healthy. And “Teach Firsters” are no more a homogeneous group than “PE Teachers” – they come in many varieties.

The analysis shows the benefit

Extract from IFS Report R100

Extract from IFS Report R100

Teach First is expensive, there’s no doubt about it. It costs £9k to train a PGCE student (a third of which is paid by the student themselves), and around £26k for a Teach First trainee. But, given that it costs £270k to train a doctor (source), maybe Teach First is investing the right amount in training teachers, and the PGCE has been doing it on a shoestring. After all, training professionals should be something our society invests heavily in…shouldn’t it? And the recent paper from the Institute for Fiscal Studies showed that, for the schools eligible for the programme, the benefits were considerable:

For most routes, the net benefit to schools is small in comparison with the costs for central government. The notable exception to this is Teach First, where the largest net benefit to schools is reported.

I wish it had been around years ago

My PGCE served me well. I have read some horror stories about inadequate support, dreadful training, and incompetent administration, but mine was pretty good. I was – and am – happy with the way I was trained. But, had Teach First been an option when I was an undergraduate, I would have leapt at it.

Please also read Kev Bartle’s excellent You’re my Teach First, my Teach Last, my Teach Everything which covers this topic much better than I can!

Who are the new GCSEs for?

The first post on this blog, in December 2012, was a tirade against the English Baccalaureate Certificates proposed by the then education secretary Michael Gove. In my first foray into the blogosphere, I was furious with the proposal for two-year linear courses assessed only by terminal exams, awarded numerical grades, only available in selected subjects and accessible only to some students. Fortunately, Gove saw sense and in February 2013 he performed what Stephen Twigg called “a humiliating climb-down” in parliament,  claiming that the reforms were “a bridge too far.” The profession breathed a sigh of relief. I too am mightily relieved that instead of those awful EBCs we now have reformed GCSEs – two-year linear courses assessed only by terminal exams, awarded numerical grades, only available in selected subjects. Politics, eh?

Michael Gove in the House of Commons, February 2013

Michael Gove in the House of Commons, February 2013

In truth, the most hateful part of the EBC proposal was that low-attaining students would not be able to achieve them and would instead be awarded a “Statement of Achievement” by their school. My cynical side can’t help but think that this was a bluff – a proposal so awful that was always intended for withdrawal so the remaining policy was seen as a  better compromise. At least the reformed GCSEs span the full attainment range and are accessible to all (in theory at least).

One of my other concerns about the EBCs was that, since they were only going to be available in EBacc subjects, they would create a two-tier curriculum favouring those subjects above others (whilst we’re on the subject, why isn’t RE a humanity?) This problem remains. The gradual roll-out of new-style GCSEs to English and Maths first, then other EBacc subjects, has already begun, but the status of other old-style GCSEs is still to be decided by Ofqual. All the rhetoric around the qualifications system has effectively devalued any A*-G GCSEs, and this was reinforced in July this year when the DfE confirmed that only reformed 1-9 graded GCSE qualifications would count in performance tables from 2017. The press release comfortingly stated:

“Schools may still enter pupils early for ‘legacy’ qualifications, but if they do pupils will need to either take the new GCSE in 2017 or progress to a higher level qualification, such as an AS qualification, for their achievements to count in tables.”

I have written before about this government’s use of the performance tables as a lever for change, and this is another prime example. Clearly, the DfE wants particular curriculum models in schools, favouring the English Baccalaureate route wherever possible. There is a whole raft of other qualifications and curriculum opportunities available, but they are being squeezed out by the fact that they don’t “count in tables.” You could teach alternative Science qualifications, BTECs and iGCSEs or even unexamined enrichment courses, and the students could get a perfectly balanced, rounded education, but if you want Ofsted to know how good you are you’d best stick to the new GCSEs and fill up the buckets in Progress 8 and Attainment 8 for as many students as possible. Woe betide those subjects that don’t make the cut when Ofqual decides which subjects get to be new-style GCSEs.

The summer holiday has given me enough time to pause and think. Who exactly are the new GCSEs for, anyway? All young people are now required to stay in education or training until they are 18 due to the rise in the participation age. This means that the GCSE is no longer the final qualification any young person will take. They will all go on to something else – A-levels, International Baccalaureate, Pre-U, apprenticeships, diplomas, certificates. The GCSE is an access ticket to the next stage. All the accountability measures for schools are focused on qualifications taken at 16, when all young people have to go on to study to 18. Surely, then, the new GCSEs are more about measuring school performance than they are about valuing the achievements of students?

We’ve been here before. The Key Stage 3 tests in English, Maths and Science, abolished by Labour in 2008 following a marking debacle, only existed to measure school performance. They were statutory and the new GCSEs are not, but you would be either brave or foolhardy not to play the game, such are the accountability stakes. And, as I’m well aware, the new GCSEs are likely to be the most valuable currency for young people to access academic post-16 provision, so we’d be doing learners a disservice not to deliver them. My wider concern is that the curriculum is being squeezed in an accountability stranglehold so that is consists only of those elements which “count in tables” – and that, I think, is wrong.

So what’s the alternative? Well, it is out there. Back in October 2004, the Working Group on 14-19 Reform published its report proposing the replacement of GCSEs and A-Levels with an over-arching diploma. Sir Mike Tomlinson, head of the working group, had established wide consensus for the overarching diploma. He foresaw the raising of the participation age and the need for a coherent qualification and curriculum system which encompassed the 14-19 age range, balancing vocational and academic study.  For many reasons (detailed brilliantly in this BBC report from 2005) the government at the time decided that GCSEs and A-Levels were sacrosanct, and rejected the report’s proposals. This remains, in my view, the single biggest mistake in education policy I can think of (and I’ve seen a few). The diploma that was eventually introduced alongside the existing qualifications was a Frankenstein’s monster already doomed at its inception.

The HTRT Qualifications Framework

Rising from the ashes of this butchered mess, however, is a curriculum and qualifications proposal in the style of Tomlinson that I can really get behind. The Headteachers’ Roundtable have proposed their own qualifications framework – an overarching diploma-style approach incorporating existing qualifications into a true baccalaureate. This wasn’t on the agenda when they met with Tristram Hunt in July this year, and I can’t imagine that there will be much appetite for further curriculum reform after the complete overhaul that has happened over recent years. But it is sorely needed, as the system we are moving to is not fit for purpose and runs the risk of squeezing much that is good, important and necessary out of schooling altogether.

Tony Little – a voice of reason?

This week Tony Little said that the current examination system is “unimaginative [and] little changed from Victorian times…[obliging students] to sit alone at their desks in preparation for a world in which, for most of the time, they will need to work collaboratively.” He concludes that while a sharp focus on performance is a good thing there is more to education than “jostling for position in a league table.” Of course, he doesn’t have to worry about Ofsted, Progress 8, or the new National Curriculum, but when you find yourself agreeing with the Headmaster of Eton maybe it’s a sign that there’s something seriously wrong with the system.

KS2, KS4, Level 6 and Progress 8 – who do we appreciate?

In 2016, secondary schools will be held accountable to a new set of measures including Progress 8 and Attainment 8. These measures were announced in October and I have been reflecting on the implications for schools. In response to the consultation I was broadly in favour of making schools accountable for the progress of all students rather than how many we can push through the C/D boundary. I think it is a real step forward that schools will be accountable for turning Es to Ds and As to A*s as well as Ds to Cs. However, there are a few issues that worry me.

The English and Maths Key Stage 2 baseline applied to all subjects

I have no particular issues with the Key Stage 2 tests in Maths and English; I don’t really have enough specific knowledge of them to criticise. Clearly it is the only baseline we have to measure progress from KS2 to 4. However, just because it’s the only one doesn’t necessarily make it right. I’m sure statistically there must be some basis to show that progress from this baseline to a GCSE result in, say, Art or PE makes sense with a national dataset. But I found it hard to convince PE teachers that measuring progress in PE against an English and Maths baseline was a fair, right and just evaluation of their performance, even if that GCSE only formed one tenth of the best 8 (since English and Maths count double).

The Key Stage 2 baseline itself

I know that primary school colleagues have a hugely detailed and thorough knowledge of their pupils’ abilities across the curriculum, and especially in Maths and English. I’m sure it far outstrips the accuracy of a secondary school teacher’s assessment if only by dint of contact hours and therefore assessment opportunities. However, the Key Stage 2 tests are the primary accountability measure by which primary schools are judged and it is therefore in their interests to ensure that pupils achieve as highly as they can in those tests. I know that this can lead to coaching for the tests in exactly the same way as Key Stage 4 teachers focus the majority of what is taught in Year 11 on what is on the exam – you’d be mad not to. It is therefore likely that a proportion of the results achieved do not reflect secure performance at that National Curriculum Level, and that secondary schools need to ensure they are secure before they can progress. What is supremely ironic is that primary schools have already adopted a new National Curriculum without levels, although their accountability is dependent on tests with levelled outcomes. In turn, secondary accountability is dependent on progress from those levels.

Instability of the assessments on which Progress 8 is based

As shown in the above tweet, those anachronistic levelled tests are will be phased out after 2015 to be replaced by an as-yet-unannounced new test based on…something else. At the same time GCSE grades will be replaced by the numerical 1-8 system, meaning that in the first five years of Progress 8 we will be measuring progress from an untested baseline to a new and untested end point.

It’s all very well for the consultation response to state: “pupils with a point score of 29 on their Key stage 2 tests achieve, on average, 8 C grades at GCSE” but, when the measure is introduced, neither the baseline nor the end point will exist in this form.

Level 6 Progress Inflation

Is grade inflation spreading?

Is grade inflation spreading?

At the same time as all this is going on, the ability to award Level 6 has now been introduced at Key Stage 2. You would be a rare Year 6 teacher or primary school leader indeed not to want to get as may students to that new level as possible. However, how many of those level 6 successes will be pushed up before they are fully secure at Level 5? We have had a handful of students arriving in Year 7 over the past few years teacher assessed at level 6. Suddenly this year we are expecting dozens. This is not a significantly brighter cohort but the expectations for the expected three levels of progress KS2-4 will be massively different.

What the accountability measures actually measure

Assessments are a house of cards

Assessments are a house of cards

Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher) explains in The Data Delusion how the assessment regimes on which we depend for accountability are a house of cards with very little direct relation to what a student has actually learned. David Didau (@learningspy) explains that what our assessments actually measure is performance, not learning in The Problem with Progress. Invariably accountability will drive curriculum and teaching and learning decisions but I worry that their foundations are so insecure that pedagogy and learning may be lost in the confusion.

Clarity

It may of course be that I’ve completely misunderstood aspects of Progress 8, or missed something completely obvious. I’d welcome any corrections, clarifications and reactions in the comments below, or on twitter.

The end of coursework

or…What’s assessment for anyway? 

When I took my GCSEs in English and English Literature (in 1991) they were 100% coursework. I wasn’t alone; according to the 2006 Review of GCSE Coursework from QCA (found here) about two-thirds of 16 year olds in the early 1990s were taking GCSE English through syllabuses that had no examinations. Much has changed since then, and all 16 year olds who take GCSE English in summer 2017 will do so following syllabuses with 100% terminal examinations (as announced by Ofqual).

A mindset change

Coursework has been part of my Key Stage 4 experience as a student, trainee, teacher, Head of Department and Senior Leader. Its removal requires a complete shift of mindset. Curriculum design, long and medium term planning in English has always been about fitting the coursework (or latterly controlled assessment tasks) into the two years to form a coherent programme of study around the assessment tasks. No longer. At this point in time, this feels like a blessed relief from the millstone of controlled assessments, and an opportunity to open up curriculum time to learning, but it will feel very different.

A change of gear is needed

A change of gear is needed

It will also require a mindset change for students. I have felt uncomfortable for some time about the prevalent attitude of “will it count towards my GCSE?” amongst students I teach. The unfortunate truth at the moment is that if it does, most will really try and put in every effort. If it’s “just practice” or, heaven forbid, an assignment merely to develop or secure understanding, it doesn’t get the full focus of a “proper assessment”. I will be glad to see the back of this distinction as it will allow and require a full focus on the process of learning in every piece of work throughout the course.

Teacher assessment is best

I genuinely believe that teachers are best placed to make accurate and complete assessments of their students’ abilities. It seems almost ridiculous that I have to state that at all. Teachers spend every lesson with their students and know better than anyone the full range of their achievements within the subject, in much more detail than any examination can hope to discover, no matter how long or rigorous. This will be lost in the terminal exam system. Teacher assessment (in English especially) has snapped under the weight of the accountability framework’s focus upon it. This was recognised in the QCA GCSE_coursework report:

5.44: The environment for GCSE and A levels has changed. Twenty years ago there were no achievement and attainment tables (formerly performance tables), no national or local targets related to examination grades and no link between teachers’ pay and students’ results. The environment now is far more pressured and in these circumstances, it is likely that internal assessment of GCSE and A levels as presently practised has become a less valid form of assessment.

Teacher assessment + high stakes accountability = a powder keg

Teacher assessment + high stakes accountability = a powder keg

This is undoubtedly the case. Teacher assessment is still the best way of assessing student progress and learning (although, as David Didau asserts, measuring learning is a horrifically complex business). It should still be the basis of teaching and learning in the classroom but only if the sole purpose of that teacher assessment is to measure the child’s progress and identify next steps in learning. If the teacher assessment is also serving the purpose of proving progress to senior leaders and external inspectors in order to maintain the school’s standing in performance tables and the teacher’s own salary, then of course there are vested interests at play which will encourage even the most professional professional to err on the side of generosity. And this is how we’ve arrived at our current situation. The accountability and pay systems have rendered the most accurate and helpful form of assessment unreliable and corrupt. Excellent work, policy makers.

Moving forward

I have several tasks as a school leader now to make the most of this new assessment framework.

Jumping through hoops - a necessary evil?

Jumping through hoops – a necessary evil?

  1. To help subject teams re-think curriculum design away from the coursework/controlled assessment structures that have been in place for so long. We will have a lot to learn from Maths and other 100% examined subjects here; we will need to make the most of the time freed up from controlled assessments to teach curriculum content (which is a combination of knowledge and skills, of course).
  2. To decouple teacher assessment from external accountability and pay progression as far as possible, to allow it to be carried out accurately for the benefit of the student’s learning, parents, and teachers themselves to inform planning.
  3. To work with all teachers and students to jump the hoops of the new terminal exams. I hate this part of the job, but recognise that teaching exam technique is vital to success in exams. I will also make every effort to keep this in proportion to the real business of teaching the actual subjects.
  4. To continue to do my best to construct a Key Stage 4 curriculum in the best interests of the learners at my school.

I’ll let you know how I get on.

Using performance tables as a lever for change

League Tables - how far can they drive school policy?

League Tables – how far can they drive school policy?

One of the strategies used by the current education secretary to enact policy quickly is to use the performance tables as a lever for change. This has several advantages. Firstly, it does not require legislation or debate in parliament. This avoids any troublesome opposition – not that there has been much to speak of to date in any case. Secondly, it is fast, and the pace of change is really the hallmark of the current DfE’s policy drive. The secretary of state can make a decision about a change, leak it to the press to gauge the public’s reaction on a Sunday, then make an official announcement in the early afternoon of Monday tweaked to pick up on any of the major problems gathered from the Sunday tester. Thirdly, and perhaps most brilliantly, changing the construction of the performance tables is the kind of soft compulsion that puts schools in a lose-lose situation. This was most evident in the changes to early entry GCSE announced on 30th September. The text of the official announcement reads:

If schools are confident that pupils will achieve well even when entered early and that early entry is therefore in the interests of the pupil, they should not need to make any changes to entry plans. Any pupil who does enter early from this point on will still be able to retake if they receive a disappointing result. That result will not count towards the performance tables for their school, even if it is an improvement on their earlier entry, but pupils will still be able to use their best result to support applications to further and higher education, or for employment.

This strategy forced many school leaders to confront their consciences. Which do we care more about – the school or the students who attend it? Of course, these are (or should be) one and the same. At #TLT13 Jamie Portman memorably said that when his school buildings burnt to the ground in an accidental fire he learnt that “a school” is a community of people that exists independently of location or environment. A school really is that – a community. When national policy drives a wedge between the school and the students in it, there is something wrong with that policy.

Further amendments to the performance tables have continued, including the 14th October announcement of full-scale reform to secondary school accountability. On the face of it, Progress 8 seems like a step in the right direction, in that it incentivises progress for students of all abilities rather than just at the C/D borderline. In a Progress 8 world, it makes a difference to the school whether a student gets a D rather than an E, or an A* rather than an A. Of course, it should already matter to the school. But does it? Here, the tables are being used to leverage change that I see as potentially positive, beneficial and inclusive, albeit with the massive flaw that progress is being measured from an average points score baseline in KS2 English and Maths to a GCSE grade in whatever eight individual subjects a student happens to take. And that their progress is measured as better or worse than the national average for their peers with similar prior attainment, meaning that half the schools in the country will automatically have negative progress and half positive. Which means that one school can only do well in the new accountability measures at the expense of another. Aside from that, as I say, potentially positive, beneficial and inclusive.

Mock up of how the new accountability measures might look (from BBC)

Mock up of how the new accountability measures might look (from BBC)

This use of the tables as a policy lever has been evident from the early days of the new Department for Education. Back in December 2012, the policy on the table was the English Baccalaureate Certificates. I was so incensed by the proposals that it made me start this blog. A key component of this policy was that the EBCs were going to be offered by a single examination board. To get around the awkward problem of commissioning a multi-million pound contract to a monopoly, all the exam boards were to be invited to submit EBC specifications which would be openly offered to all schools. However, only one EBC specification per subject would be approved by the secretary of state for inclusion in the performance tables, thus effectively (though not actually) creating a single national specification. As it happens this particular monstrosity was the subject of a U-Turn on February 6th when parliament heard that the replacement of GCSEs was “a bridge too far.”

Were EBCs really a "bridge too far" or are they being ushered in under another name?

Were EBCs really a “bridge too far” or are they being ushered in under another name?

In actual fact, many of the elements of the original EBC proposal have still been enacted under different names. The proposals for new GCSEs sound very like the EBCs but under an old name – linear, single-tiered, exam-only terminal assessments graded numerically and only offered in the EBacc subjects. The latest rumours in the press include the removal of “soft” subjects (including, apparently, PE, drama and media studies) into another, as-yet-unnamed, form of qualification outside the GCSE stable. So, rather than promoting EBacc subjects to a new EBC qualification, non-EBacc subjects will be demoted. And, presumably, not included in the performance tables (which only include GCSEs).

It doesn’t have to be this way.

This year, we are running a core ICT qualification at KS4 which does not count towards the performance tables but is definitely the best fit for our students in that it will provide them with the skills and knowledge we feel they will need the most. We feel the course we have put together is in the best interest of the students whether or not it counts for the performance tables. We have maintained the November entry of all our English Language candidates in Year 11 because we believe it is in the best interests of our students even though it may impact on our performance table 5A*-CEM figure. Dance and Drama are discounted against one another at GCSE (meaning that if students achieve both they only count as one in the performance tables) – we offer both and will continue to do so because we believe that this is in the best interests of our students even though, if students take both, the school only gets the credit for one. The same goes for subjects not on the DfE post-Wolf-report approved list either now or in the future – if they are in the best interests of the students it is the school’s duty to include them in the curriculum offer.

In summer 2014, the school’s performance tables figures will not reflect the actual examination achievements of students at the school. John Tomsett has described how, in York, “all secondaries have agreed to publish “final result” figures…when the DfE performance tables are released.” We shall certainly do the same on our website, as will any school (I would imagine) which continued with November entry. We will also include achievement in non-performance-table qualifications and pack the site with the broader, deeper life of the school. Any parent who even looks at the performance tables will certainly also look at the school’s website, and I want them to find the beating heart of the school there. I wonder how many do actually go to the tables at all?

Raise Online will be an issue. The new floor standards will be based on Progress 8 and are described as follows:

Our intention is that schools will fall below the floor standard if pupils make an average of  half a grade less progress than expected across their 8 subjects. So, for example, a school is underperforming if its pupils were expected to gain 8 Cs (because that’s what their peers, with similar prior attainment, secure elsewhere in the country) but they actually achieve less than 4Cs and 4Ds.

Falling below the floor standards could result in special measures, constant scrutiny and forced academisation. Heads could roll. But surely – surely – offering a curriculum that is right for the students, rigorous, challenging, demanding and broad, is defensible. School must be more than just academic. It must be.

And, if the performance tables don’t show the results that students actually got at a school, how can they have any value at all?

Assessment in the new National Curriculum – what we’re doing

Earlier in the year I blogged about the removal of levels from the national curriculum. I ended that post daunted by the prospect of designing an assessment framework to fill the gap. Now the new National Curriculum has been through its cursory consultation and is “official”, live and statutory for maintained schools. Where at the back there used to be attainment targets correlated to national curriculum levels, there is now this simple statement:

Statement from the new National Curriculum for Key Stage 3.

Statement from the new National Curriculum for Key Stage 3.

And that’s your lot.

This week, I met with the excellent Heads of Faculty in our Curriculum Leadership Team to decide what we were going to do with all this autonomy. I’d asked each team to look through the curriculum and work out to what extent the existing assessment framework mapped on to the new curriculum, and where there were changes needed. With some subjects – Science, Art and Design, Languages – there was little change necessary, though some might be desirable. In others – Computing for example – the new curriculum is practically unrecognisable from the old ICT which was disapplied. Drama was never a standalone subject in the old national curriculum, existing in an annex of the English documents; now it does not exist at all except in literary study.

In almost all cases, the old assessment criteria cover far more than the new, thinned-down curriculum requires. There is of course no problem with continuing to teach and assess material that is not in the curriculum. But it is essentially impossible to sensibly match the old assessment regime to the new curriculum, even if that is what primaries are still having to do with SATs. Instead we must look again at assessment, who and what it is for, and what we want to do with it.

Core principles: criteria or norm referencing?

It seems as though the current policy direction is towards norm referencing. Ofqual’s use of comparable outcomes was defended to the education select committee, and the DfE has proposed a decile ranking system for primary schools. The removal of detailed attainment targets would open the way for a percentage or rank-ordered system of assessment. It would be feasible to assess with statements like “Sarah has successfully met 78% of the requirements of the programme of study this year” or “Richard’s attainment ranks him between between the 50th and 60th percentile in his year group.” To understand why we won’t be adopting this approach, read Sue Cowley’s Dear Tom and Debra Kidd’s Pride and Prejudice. Or just be a human being.

Criteria referencing is fraught with difficulty however. Subject experts were given the full time job of designing criteria for attainment at Key Stage 3 under the National Strategies and the behemoth of APP was created. The advantage is that learners can see where they are in their learning, what they know and what they can do, and they can also see what they need to know and be able to do to improve. The disadvantage? Well, you try condensing the whole of “English” or “Science” into a ladder of statements that a twelve-year-old can access and hold in their head. In your spare time. After a full day’s teaching. And marking. And planning lessons. Yes, in the ten minutes before you actually drop off into exhausted catatonia, please condense your entire subject into a series of accessible scaled criteria. By Monday. 

Criteria-referenced assessment vs teacher; round 1.

However difficult the practicalities, however, I am wedded to criteria referenced assessment simply because it’s formative; it’s assessment for teaching, not just for measuring.

What is assessment for? 

Assessment in schools is multi-purpose, which may be where the problem lies. This week Michael Gove has made further steps to separate the school-accountability-purpose of GCSE assessment from the measuring-attainment-of-learners purpose with his announcement about early entries, causing panic and confusion around the land. Within school, however, especially with the removal of a national framework, we want an assessment system for the following:

  1. For learners: to understand how they are progressing and what they need to do to progress further
  2. For teachers: to understand and measure what learners know and what they can do, in order to plan their teaching to move their learning on
  3. For parents: to see how their children are progressing and understand how they can help and support them in improving
  4. For school leaders: to understand and monitor progress and attainment across the school

This was the challenge for curriculum leaders this week. Could any assessment system possibly do all that?

Measuring progress

Can progress be mapped as a flight path?

I was quite taken with @leadinglearner Stephen Tierney’s post about progress Flight Paths. I liked the neat linear and mathematical  composition of the progress charts he’d constructed. However, it presupposes a uniformity that I find problematic. I would rather take a personalised approach. When we set targets (we call then Challenge Grades) I use a standardised formula,  but then open them up to teachers to suggest amendments (read about the process here).

The other issue with the standardised “flight path” approach is that using levels in that way under the old system is problematic as levels don’t necessarily correlate to a set point in progress below a GCSE grade. Under the old system, I always used the following “rule of thumb” correlation based on the Levels and Grades Conversion Tables I referred to in my own post about targets:

  • Level 4 = equivalent level of attainment to a GCSE grade E
  • Level 5 = equivalent level of attainment to a GCSE grade D
  • Level 6 = equivalent level of attainment to a GCSE grade C

and so on. As an English teacher, I could see the sense in this. However, as Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher) points out in The Data Delusion it’s a lot more complicated than that. In Languages, for example levels are traditionally lower as the students start Year 7 from scratch, often at level 2 or 3 (a fact recognised in a footnote to the National Curriculum for English (2000) – page 54!). However, those days are gone now – Languages teachers can call what used to be “Level 4” whatever they like now. Orange? Skylark? Mountain Lion? KitKat?

What we are going to do

The curriculum leaders all felt that they knew the existing system of assessment well and that, by and large, it worked for them. We now have the freedom to change, adapt and alter those bits that don’t work, add to or subtract from the existing criteria to suit. We also agreed that levels were preferable to telling a Year 7 that they were working at a grade E, so we are going to continue to use them. Over the coming months curriculum leaders are going to:

  • Review existing assessment criteria and “tweak” where necessary to fit the new national curriculum and the subject content that they are including in their own programme of study
  • Look for direct lines of progress to GCSE specifications and adjust assessment criteria according to the “rule of thumb” equivalences
  • Experiment with formative approaches to make “next steps” explicit to students and, if possible, to parents

The first area gives subject specialists the autonomy to tailor assessment to the needs of their curriculum content in a way which I think is liberating and empowering. The second area aims to provide a consistency and coherence to our assessment in a way that the old national curriculum levels did not, meaning that direct comparison can be made between disciplines by learners, leaders and parents. For subjects like Drama which have never had levelled criteria of their own, this is an opportunity to build something of real value; it will bring Languages and Computing into line across the curriculum.

The third area is fraught with problems as the range of criteria is so large and condensing them blunts their accuracy. The National Strategies foundered here with APP; we may do the same. However, I am hopeful that a direct link between Key Stage 3 and GCSE assessment which can be tailored to the specification used in our context will provide more meaningful and coherent progress paths for learners in our school.

The System Problem

That last sentence presents the unresolved problem – “in our school”. At our meeting on Wednesday we effectively instituted “Chew Valley Levels” – the terminology of levels may sound like old National Curriculum language, but they have a very specific meaning to our context. The criteria may not match other schools. A level 5 in French at our school may not be the same as a level 5 at a neighbouring institution. A cynic might now chime in with the observation that this was always the case under the old National Curriculum too as nobody ever standardised. (They might also go on to cite the usual point about wide variation in Year 6 teacher assessments across a variety of primary feeder schools, but before they did that I’d urge them to read Michael Tidd’s blog Dear Secondary School Teacher…) The cynic might be right in some ways, but under the old system there was at least the expectation of national consistency. That, like the expectation of a common pay structure, common terms and conditions, and common admissions, is a thing of the past.

UPDATE – MAY 2014: I have added a new post giving our progress with assessment in the new national curriculum, including refinements and amendments to the ideas above. Click here to read!