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. 


The first staff briefing of the new school year

We had two Inset days on Thursday and Friday, then the weekend before the children started today. I’m a big fan of two-day-weeks anyway, and my Head of Music requested that I consider ensuring we have two days off after every two days of work in future. I’m looking into it.

Anyway, I began the first Inset day with a reminder of why we do our job in the first place: a photo slideshow of lovely moments from the previous year. Photos of our kids learning, enjoying, competing, trying, caring, succeeding, laughing, inspiring, travelling, performing, smiling, embracing, celebrating, achieving. It was such a pleasure to put together, going back through the photo archive and seeing all the wonderful opportunities that our school provides for young people, and the way in which they seize those opportunities with both hands. I soundtracked the slideshow with two tracks from our gospel choir’s new CD: “September” (topical) and “True Colours” (emotional). I wanted to begin the year with a celebration of the children – because that’s why we do it.

The first inset day was focused on performance development, our replacement for “appraisal” or “performance management” inspired (as usual) by John Tomsett’s work. It’s our first run through this year – I’ll blog about it when we’ve got it properly up and running and let you know how it’s gone!

The second day began with a focus on teaching and learning. We are launching teacher-led research and development groups working alongside a leadership strand in scheduled meeting time over the course of the year. My colleagues and I will be presenting about this at #WomenEd’s Unconference later in the year – again, blog to follow!

The point of all this preamble is that I’d already had two opportunities to speak to the whole staff. Briefing on Monday was going to be factual – key information about the new Year 7 to be checked, arrangements for lunch and catching the buses etc. But I wanted to set the tone for the year and make sure that I gave out key messages about our approach and direction. So here’s what I went for.

  1. Love the kids.
  2. Pace yourself.
  3. Start the learning straight away.
  4. Enjoy it.

Have a great year everyone!

The benefit of experience

This week I’ve been reading through my List in Pocket (the single most useful app I have installed) of all the blogs, articles, links and clips I’d seen during the last term but not had the time to consume and digest. In my trawl through I found this excellent paper from the states: 

In a nutshell, the answer is “yes.” Or, as Mark McCourt (the wonderful @EMathsUK on Twitter) put it: 

Yes, in the summary of the research Kini and Podolsky clarify the following: 

  • Teaching experience is positively associated with student achievement gains throughout a teacher’s career.
  • Teachers’ effectiveness increases at a greater rate when they teach in a supportive and collegial working environment.
  • More experienced teachers support greater student learning for their colleagues and the school as a whole, as well as for their own students.
  • On average, the most effective 20-year teachers are significantly more effective than the most effective first-year teachers 

Or, in summary: 

Our research does not indicate that the passage of time will make all teachers better or incompetent teachers effective. However, it does indicate that, for most teachers, experience increases effectiveness. (Kini and Podolsky, 2016)

This isn’t news, surely? Yet my tweet about this study attracted a number of replies discussing examples of schools undervaluing experienced staff and the “cult of youth” which sees some schools placing too much emphasis on new career entrants with “fresh ideas” and “energy.” I know that schools benefit massively from trainees, NQTs and RQTs, with all those fresh ideas and energy – that isn’t what this blog is about. What it’s about instead is the value that experienced staff bring to a school and why we should value them, listen to them, and above all retain them in the profession. 

I can remember being an NQT and looking in awe at those with ten, fifteen or twenty years experience. Their command of the room, their command of their material, and their command of their craft was inspiring. I’m no fool: I watched and learned, hungry for the secrets of success that, in my first faltering forays into the classroom, I sadly lacked. And, although I am now entering the 20th year of my teaching career myself, I’ve never stopped. 

I was only in my sixth year of teaching when I became a Head of Department. It was too soon. In time, I got better, but I can remember some cringeworthy naïve mistakes that I made in my first year or so. In particular, challenging an experienced member of staff about underperformance. I was well-supported by the Headteacher, carefully briefed, and it needed to be done, but I know I made an unremitting hash of that conversation. I simply didn’t have the experience to carry it off properly, to do it justice, to be fair to that colleague. It was embarrassing. Those conversations are never easy, but with a few more years under my belt I know I would have handled it better. I made a conscious decision to wait for my next promotion until I was experienced enough to be ready – I did eight years as Head of Faculty before applying for SLT positions. 

Throughout that time, I’ve been watching and learning from colleagues more experienced than me. I’ve watched them teach, and picked up as many of the tips and tricks that they’ve learned as I can. As an aspiring Headteacher, I visited and spoke to as many experienced Heads as I could to learn from them. I’ve read everything Tom Sherrington and John Tomsett have ever posted, and read books by John, Vic Goddard and others, for the same reason. But the fact is, you only really get better at doing this job – teaching, or Headteaching – by actually doing it. 

I’ve learned an awful lot in the first seven months of Headship, and had many of my ideas confirmed. One of the latter is the value of experienced staff to the school as a whole. Those teachers who have been at the school for years and seen Heads and Secretaries of State come and go (ideally fewer of the former than the latter), who are teaching the children of the children they taught earlier in their career, who have seen trends and fads rise and fall and carried on regardless. These are the ones you need – who make the school what it is. John Tomsett wrote about this in his interview with his longest serving teacher back in 2013. It is these staff who provide the skeleton of the school: the backbone, rib cage and skull that hold it all together and keep it safe. And I had this personally confirmed to me at the end of term when Chris George retired. 

Chris has taught at Churchill for 22 years, the majority of those as Head of Sixth Form. When I first started, I spent a fascinating hour with him getting under the skin of the school over that time. Before he retired, we spent another hour where he generously told me exactly what he thought I needed to hear after my first seven months. Both conversations were invaluable. And his leaving speech, delivered in the sunshine on the last day of term after the staff barbecue, was one for the ages. He talked about what experience had taught him over his career, and passed it on to all of us. Most importantly, his speech was based around the advice he was given as an NQT himself, by his experienced mentor. Advice that had stayed with him throughout his career. “Treat people like people” was one of those nuggets – and I’ve made that a motto for my own Headship. “Chris Hildrew, coming in here with his new-fangled ideas!” said Chris – a dig I definitely enjoyed! He also advised us to look after our mental health, to seek help if we needed it, and not to try and pretend that everything was okay if it isn’t. This is advice that needs to be heard in staff rooms up and down the country. He also advised teachers to always carry a piece of paper with them when walking around the site, because it made it look like you were doing something important and stopped people bothering you. 

He finished with the words of Norman Stanley Fletcher

 It is vital to our profession that we create those supportive and collegial environments, cherish the teachers who have the experience, and listen – really listen – to them. We have much to learn. Because we’ve recruited fantastic teachers to replace our leavers this year. But it’ll take 22 years before they’re as good as Chris George. And there are no short cuts.

The Future

What will our school room philosophy be?

Last night I had the pleasure of addressing our Year 13 leavers at our annual Sixth Form Ball.I’ve only been their Headteacher for six months, so it was an honour to be asked to speak to them. Here is what I said.

It’s a pleasure to see you all tonight at the end of your time as students of Churchill Academy. My biggest regret is that I don’t know you all better but you’ve been busy, I’ve been busy, and now here we are and it’s all too late…

I had a lovely light-hearted speech planned, but then things happened in the world and suddenly it feels like we’re living through a real life Game of Thrones episode. David Cameron is off the Iron Throne, Boris Johnson Targaryen was riding in on a dragon before being stabbed in the back by Tyrion Lannister Gove and the Labour party is doing a decent impression of the Red Wedding. Nobody seems to have a plan. The white ravens have flown, and winter has come. Perhaps if you’re a Harry Potter fan, Dumbledore’s words sum up where we are: “Dark and difficult times lie ahead.”

Think about how we are currently perceived around the world. Football hooliganism. Xenophobia. Intolerance. Racist abuse in supermarkets and on the street. A collapsing currency. Extremism on the rise. The constant threat of terror. Losing to Iceland. “Dark and difficult times” indeed; looking ahead, the future feels like a pretty scary prospect. 

Right now, I’m ashamed and embarrassed by the way people of my generation and, if I can be so generous, those of the generation older than me, are conducting themselves and their affairs on the global stage. They appear to have forgotten that, if we are to succeed, we all have to work together, and that the human race is not one that can be won by just one group. This isn’t about leave or remain, it’s about decency. Liberty. Mutual respect for, and tolerance of, those with different faiths and beliefs, and for those without faith. It’s about honesty, fairness, and justice – and it’s easy to be disheartened when those who are supposed to lead us aren’t modelling the kind of behaviour we want, expect and need. 

But I work in schools for a reason, and that reason is that every day I am surrounded by possibility. By what you could become. By hope. And when I look out at you, the Year 13 leavers of 2016, embarrassment and shame are far from my mind. I feel proud of the young adults you have become, and hopeful for the room full of yet-to-be-realised possibilities that you embody. 

Dumbledore’s quotation ends: “Dark and difficult times lie ahead. Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.” Looking at you now, I am filled with the hope that you will choose what is right over what is easy. It is those choices which will define your generation. I know you can do better than your predecessors. And you have to – it’s never mattered more.

So with that, Year 13, I hope you will raise your glasses to the future. Because you understand, I hope, that leadership is not about the next election – it’s about the next generation. Your generation. To the class of 2016: to the future! 


Strategic Priorities for Churchill

Lots of time, care and effort gone into this: the strategic plan for Churchill Academy & Sixth Form.

The Headteacher's Blog

When I was took up post as Headteacher, the Governors gave me 100 days to look, listen and learn about the Academy in order to plan the next steps. As part of that process I met students, staff, Governors, families, and representatives from the local community. I summarised all this in my post What Have I Learned? at the end of March.

Since then I have been working hard with my colleagues to plan for the future of the Academy. We already have an outstanding Ofsted report, a track record of success, skilful and dedicated staff, and hardworking and motivated students. What next?

The answer was to get down to the basics of what we need to do to ensure that the Churchill formula is sustainable, and that being a truly great school runs deep into every aspect of our practice. So, first of all, what…

View original post 1,160 more words

Having a laugh: the Lollies


I like a laugh, so when I was asked by Scholastic if I would review the shortlist for the Laugh Out Loud Book Awards I jumped at the chance! I’ve also enlisted the help of some young readers I happened to find at a loose end…

The picture book category


These were great fun, mixing the unexpected with the ridiculous in equal measure. However, my standout favourite was Hoot Owl: Master of Disguise. In this book, the first person narrator adopts a super-villain tone littered with fantastic mock-cliche similes: “the terrible silence of the night spreads everywhere. But I cut through it like a knife” and my personal favourite: “my eyes glitter like sardines.” Brilliant!

The 6-8 category


I found these harder work with a tendency to litter each page with a bewildering array of font and graphic changes mixing cartoon, handwriting, and zany whackiness. It felt a bit like reading late-1990s MTV rendered on the page and some of them gave me a headache! There was an element of style-over-content here too, with shallow laughs aplenty but nothing like the deep enjoyment of the picture books. The exception was The Jolley-Rogers and the Cave of Doom which presented an entertaining mash-up of modern stereotypes and pirate-genre narrative hooks.

The 9-13 category


This was much more up my street as a secondary teacher! There was still a tendency to throw a few zany font changes into the pages of these books, but these stories were genuine narratives and there were laughs aplenty. However, David Baddiel’s The Parent Agency stood out head-and-shoulders from the field, using humour to pose some genuine questions about the nature of family and the relationship of children to their parents. It’s the same essential idea that was Hollywood-ised in Freaky Friday but here presented without so much of the saccharine sentimentality. Baddiel’s dry tone and willingness to actually provoke thought made his novel a cut above the rest, and my favourite from the whole competition.

The Laugh Out Loud Awards

There are a whole load of free resources and you have until 10th June to vote for your favourites at the Lollies site. Thanks to Scholastic for sharing the shortlisted books with me!

The next steps: 2016 leavers

My end of term post on The Headteacher’s Blog – saying farewell to leavers

The Headteacher's Blog

The last day of Term 5 is always an emotional one. It’s a day of goodbyes as leavers take their next steps. Year 11 step out of main school, and Year 13 step beyond school for good. Of course, it’s au revoir not goodbye, because students will be back in after the half term break for revision and exams, and most of Year 11 will be rejoining us in the Sixth Form anyway, but it still feels like an ending. This blog is for you: the leavers of 2016.

As a new Headteacher joining the Academy in January, I’ve only had a few months to get to know you. Oddly, it’s those in the “leavers'” years that I feel I know the best! I’ve been made to feel very welcome by you at the top of the school, and you’ve been happy to share your experiences with me. You have…

View original post 445 more words

#HeForShe Education Pledge: No Haters

A year ago I published my post #HeForShe, or I am a feminist to affirm my commitment to gender equality publicly. Since that time I have kept to the movement’s four core commitments, to:

  1. Express zero tolerance for discrimination and violence against women and girls
  2. Believe in equal access to social, political and economic opportunities
  3. Understand that taking a stand for women and girls is taking a stand for humanity
  4. Speak up when you see physical, emotional or sexual harassment

I’ve also been inspired over the past year by the growth of WomenEd and other movements such as the Leading Women’s Alliance, Token Man, This Girl Can, and others. It was a catch up on the WomenEd Yammer and StaffRm threads that led me back to the #HeForShe Education page and their suggestions for action that I can take to help further gender equality in my field. 

#HeForShe makes three suggestions under their Be The Change banner: 

  1. That’s not okay: What does it mean to act “like a girl” or “like a man”? Call out gender-biased language from students and teachers alike. Ask the speaker to think about how these comments reinforce gender stereotypes.
  2. No Haters: Online bullies want your silence. Enlist your friends and followers to send messages of support to victims of social media trolling. You’ll help turn the internet into a safe space for everyone.
  3. Teach a teacher: Empower educators to create equality in the classroom. Get the UNESCO Guide for Gender Equality in Teacher Education Policy and Practices, a step-by-step guide for including gender equality issues in teacher training.

These are all great commitments, and I am happy to enact them all. However, I was particularly struck by the No Haters commitment as a really positive step that I can do more to affirm. I see a lot of negative behaviour on Twitter and in other online spaces. There seems to be an increasing proportion of educators who spend their time scanning their timelines for ideas they can attack, criticise, take down, or belittle. They are always ready to say “that won’t work” or “you shouldn’t do that” or “you are wrong.” And these people fall on both sides of the traditional/progressive divide. If you teach at Michaela and share your practice online, it’s time to batten down the hatches for the “you’re damaging children” onslaught – when they quite clearly care very, very deeply about the children they teach. Similarly, if you dare to suggest that an open ended creative project might be a good idea, or that children should enjoy their learning, there are those who are only too ready to tell you that you’re wasting your time. I don’t get involved in these threads too often, as I swear by “don’t feed the trolls” in the online sphere, but I always feel that I’m not really honoring my “no bystanders” commitment to speak up when I see harassment occurring. 

What I do know, however, that it stops people from sharing their practice online. I know it, because it’s stopped me. I am a straight white cisgendered male Headteacher, educated at an all-boys independent school and Oxford, which pretty much fills my privilege and entitlement bingo card. Yet I know that there are tweets I’ve written and deleted, articles I’ve read and saved, but not shared, and blog posts I’ve thought about and shelved, because I was nervous about the reaction. Because I didn’t want the hassle. Because it affects me personally when people are horrible to me – online or IRL. If that is my experience, with my full house of privilege and entitlement, how stifling could the gladiatorial atmosphere of edu-Twitter be to others?

For me, Twitter and blogging should be about sharing practice and discussing ideas, without fear. In that way, it should be like my classroom. Everyone in my classroom should have the confidence to venture their tentative, half-formed idea, to think it through with the help of their supportive classmates who will add to, build on and develop that tiny seed, to see if it could grow into something stronger and more robust. The critique and advice my students receive from me and their peers helps them improve. I would not tolerate someone belittling and ridiculing their idea – and to belittle and ridicule the student themselves would be a really serious matter. On Twitter we are dealing with grown adults, professionals even, and I can’t send them out or put them in detention – I’m not the Twitter police. So instead I send messages of support to those I see being attacked. Not necessarily in the public sphere – I’m still not in the business of feeding the trolls, and I don’t want to add fuel to the flame war – but to make the Internet a safer space. To thank them for sharing their ideas. To let them know that there is positivity and humanity online, and to try and build a constructive web. 

Above all, it’s important to remember that nobody got into teaching to try to and damage the children, to make them less smart, to stop them learning. We’re all in this to do our best. So let’s help one another, not tear each other down. 

The Reality of Headship

It’s been very quiet over here on Teaching: Leading Learning since I started my Headship on January 4th. I have been blogging every week on The Headteacher’s Blog but the first two terms in a new job have left little time for anything else! The Easter break has given me space for reflection and a chance to write a companion piece to The Prospect of Headship from back in July. What’s it really like taking the step up to Headship? 

You’re it

Coming in new, I’ve been conscious of setting the tone. Vic Goddard’s excellent book The Best Job in the World outlines the advice he received on taking up the role: “You make the weather.” Every decision, every interaction in fact, sets the tone for the sort of Headteacher you’re going to be and the sort of school you’re going to lead. There’s an inevitable realignment of priorities and setting of agendas. I’d thought long and hard through my Aspiring Heads course, NPQH and the application process about my vision and values, to the point where I’d almost overdone it. I used this process as the acid test for my approach – is this decision aligned with my beliefs and the kind of Headteacher I want to be?

I’m also conscious of being the voice and face of the Academy in public. It’s made me think harder than ever about what I tweet and blog. Also, of course, it’s been a period of taking stock – my “look, listen and learn” agenda – so there hasn’t been a great deal to blog about…yet. 

Feeling Presidential 


Barack Obama weighing up the options

Towards the end of term, a colleague and I were having a conversation about leadership and how I’d been finding it. We ended up discussing Barack Obama and the excellent series Inside Obama’s White House on BBC2. To be clear, neither of us were suggesting that being the Headteacher of a secondary school was really comparable with being the leader of the free world, but we did find some common ground! In the series, Obama describes the kinds of decisions that he has to make:

“Most of the decisions I make don’t lend themselves to a clean, crisp, wonderful solution; when they do somebody else typically solves them and they never arrive at my desk.”

                                               Barack Obama

I have been really struck by this in my few months of Headship. On a daily basis, I have been faced with 50/50 decisions with no clear “right” answer; decisions finely balanced and often with potentially negative consequences on both sides; decisions which are all grey area. If a decision reaches the Headteacher, it means that it’s sufficiently problematic, difficult or of such consequence that the Head needs to make the call. Having a clear sense of what I believe to be right has helped guide me here, but this is not a perfect world and it’s often been about deciding which compromise I’m prepared to make, and which I’m not. 

Everything has a cost

Much is made of the importance of financial management as a Headteacher. This was really brought home to me in the first week as I was registered as a director of the Academy at Companies House, and signed up as the chief accounting officer. This was accompanied by a copy of the Nolan Principles – the 7 principles of public life – that all public servants are expected to uphold. I’d never come across them before! They are: 

  1. Selflessness
  2. Integrity
  3. Objectivity
  4. Accountability
  5. Openness
  6. Honesty
  7. Leadership 


Seeing the matrix for the first time

This was one of those sit-up-and-take-notice moments for me, when I took on board the gravity and responsibility of the post. I’d sat on the Governors’ finance committee as a deputy head, and I came into Headship with a good handle on how school finances work, but that’s very different from being responsible for the delivery of the budget and signing off the multi-millions of public money invested in the education of the young people at my school. Suddenly, I started seeing every decision in relation to the impact on the bottom line. Walking past an empty classroom with the lights still on, or considering whether we could cover a member of staff to take students on a last-minute trip, or how to advertise a teaching vacancy…every aspect of the school suddenly had costs attached. It was like that moment in The Matrix where Neo suddenly sees the corridor in computer code, except I was seeing £ signs. This was perhaps the most unexpected shift in becoming a Headteacher. It’s not one I particularly enjoy, but I suppose it’s inevitable. It’s really come home to me how little I understood about whole-school finances even in middle leadership.

You are not alone

“It’s a lonely job,” I’d been warned. But it’s really not! My senior team have been excellent through the various twists and turns of a spring term in a secondary school. Colleague Headteachers from local primary and secondary schools have been hugely supportive. The admin and support team have been incredibly helpful. I’ve made good use of our SSAT membership and my own membership of ASCL to leverage professional networks. But by far and above the best thing I’ve done is sat down for a one-to-one meeting with every single member of staff at the school. Being able to make a personal connection with every teacher, administrator, teaching assistant or member of the support staff has been invaluable. It has been time-consuming but getting that variety of perspectives and having the chance to listen to what it’s actually like to do their job – and how I might be able to make it better – has driven my planning and helped me clearly to see what my priorities need to be. The corollary has been to enable those passing-in-the-corridor chats and on-duty moments which make working in schools such a pleasure. 

Above all, of course, we have the most amazing students. Tom Sherrington wrote at the end of term about 1200 reasons to love his school, and I know exactly what he means. I have nearly 1500 of course, which makes it even better! I’ve got my own class of Year 7 for English which has been fantastic, and I’ve visited lessons every single day. Seeing the learning that is going on, the pride and the sense of achievement really never gets tired! 

It’s a privilege

In The Prospect of Headship I was looking forward to the privilege of leading a school. It certainly hasn’t disappointed. It’s been a huge challenge and responsibility, and it has definitely been difficult, but I have been thankful every single day that I am doing this job. It’s cliché to say that I got into teaching to make a difference, but I did, and as a Head I feel I can achieve this on an institutional scale. It’s humbling. But the possibilities are awe-inspiring. And I’m only just getting started…

Refining assessment without levels

One of the first things I’ve been involved with in my new post has been the development of assessment without levels. It’s been strange for me to move back to a school still using them! I’m teaching Year 7 English and I’ve had to re-learn (temporarily at least!) the levels system to assess their assignments. What struck me particularly was the way learning gets lost when you hand back assignments with levels on them. I’d been so used to handing work back with formative comments only over the last two years that I was quite unprepared for the buzz of “what did you get?”, fist-pumping triumph when a Level 5.6 was awarded (“I was only 5.3 last time!”) and disappointment on the flip side. I had to work really hard to focus the students on my carefully crafted formative feedback and DIRT tasks – and I know that some of them only paid lip-service only to my requests to engage with the comments in a “please-the-teacher” exercise whilst their minds were still occupied with the level. All I kept thinking about was Dylan Wiliam’s advice about ego-involving and task-involving feedback:

Levels have to go, then – this is not a surprise. It’s also perhaps unsurprising that Churchill have hung on for them, with a new Headteacher incoming (especially one who has blogged extensively about assessment without levels!) My big advantage is in having implemented assessment without levels once, I can refine and develop the approach for my second go. I’m still pretty happy with the growth and thresholds model (originally proposed by Shaun Allison here) which was implemented at my previous school, but there are definitely refinements to make. In particular, a couple of posts have stuck with me in terms of reviewing the way we assess. The first is by the always-thought-provoking Daisy Christodolou, who got my mental cogs whirring in November with Comparative Judgment: 21st Century Assessment. In this post, the notion that you can criteria-reference complex tasks like essays and projects is rightly dismissed:

” [it] ends up stereotyping pupils’ responses to the task. Genuinely brilliant and original responses to the task fail because they don’t meet the rubric, while responses that have been heavily coached achieve top grades because they tick all the boxes…we achieve a higher degree of reliability, but the reliable scores we have do not allow us to make valid inferences about the things we really care about.”

Instead, Daisy argues, comparing assignments, essays and projects to arrive at a rank order allows for accurate and clear marking without referencing reams of criteria. Looking at two essays side-by-side and deciding that this one is better than that one, then doing the same for another pair and so on does seem “a bit like voodoo” and “far too easy”…

“…but it works. Part of the reason why it works is that it offers a way of measuring tacit knowledge. It takes advantage of the fact that amongst most experts in a subject, there is agreement on what quality looks like, even if it is not possible to define such quality in words. It eliminates the rubric and essentially replaces it with an algorithm. The advantage of this is that it also eliminates the problem of teaching to the rubric: to go back to our examples at the start, if a pupil produced a brilliant but completely unexpected response, they wouldn’t be penalised, and if a pupil produced a mediocre essay that ticked all the boxes, they wouldn’t get the top mark. And instead of teaching pupils by sharing the rubric with them, we can teach pupils by sharing other pupils’ essays with them – far more effective, as generally examples define quality more clearly than rubrics.”

The bear-trap of any post-levels system is always to find that you’ve accidentally re-created levels by mistake. Michael Tidd has been particularly astute about this in the primary sector: “Have we simply replaced the self-labelling of I’m a Level 3, with I’m Emerging?” This is why systems like the comparative judgment engine on the No More Marking site are useful. Deciding on a rank order allows you to plot the relative attainment of each piece of work against the cohort; “seeding” pre-standardized assignments into the cohort would then allow you to map the performance of the full range.

At this point, Tom Sherrington’s generously shared work on his assessment system using the bell curve comes to the fore. Tom first blogged about assessment, standards and the bell curve in 2013 and has since gone on to use the model in the KS3 assessment system developed at Highbury Grove. “Don’t do can do statements” he urges – echoing Daisy Christodolou’s call to move away from criteria-referencing – and instead judge progress based on starting points:


Tom Sherrington’s illustration of bell curve progress judgments


Finally, this all makes sense. This is how GCSE grades are awarded – comparable outcomes models the scores of all the students in the country based on the prior attainment model of that cohort, and shifts grade boundaries to match the bell curve of each cohort. It feels alien and wrong to teachers like me, trained in a system in which absolute criteria-referenced standards corresponded to grades, but it isn’t – it makes sense. Exams are a competition. Not everyone can get the top grades.It also makes sense pedagogically. We are no longer in a situation where students need to know specific amounts of Maths to get a C grade (after which point they can stop learning Maths); instead they need to keep learning Maths until they know as much Maths as they possibly can – at which point they will take their exams. If they know more Maths than x percentage of the rest of the country, they will get x grade. This is fair.

Within the assessment system, getting a clear and fair baseline assessment (we plan to use KS2 assessments, CATs and standardised reading test scores) will establish a starting profile. At each subsequent assessment point, whether it be in Dance, Maths, Science, History or Art, comparative judgment will be used to create a new rank order, standardised and benchmarked (possibly through “seeded” assignments or moderated judgment). Students’ relative positions at these subsequent assessment points will then allow judgments of progress: if you started low but move up, that’s good progress. If you start high but drop down, we need to look at what’s happening. Linking the assignments to a sufficiently challenging curriculum model is essential; then if one assignment is “easier” or “harder” others it won’t matter – the standard is relative.

As with all ventures in this field, it’s a tentative step. What we’ve come up with is in the developmental stage for a September launch. But moving away from criteria-referencing as the arbiter of standards has been the most difficult thing to do, because it’s all many of us have ever known. But that doesn’t make it right.

always done it