Getting revision right

This year we have taken a strategic approach to revision with Year 11. We have been trying to make the most of everything we have learned over the past few years about the learning process, memory, recall and deliberate practice to deliver a consistent message to all students. This has involved borrowing many ideas from colleagues up and down the country – and beyond! Here’s what we’ve been up to.

How to revise – students

We borrowed from Shaun Allison’s excellent blog Supporting Learning Through Effective Revision Techniques to reformulate our “How to revise” session for Year 11 students this year. Based on the research conducted by Dunlosky, Willingham et al we advise that highlighting, reading through your notes, and summarising were not the most effective revision techniques. For revision to be effective it must involve thought – students have to process the information to stand the best chance of retaining it. We advised:

  • Chunking and interleaving revision
  • Self-testing
  • Distributed practice
  • Interrogation – asking “why?”
  • Self-Explanation (the PQRST technique)
  • Transforming information

In order to deliver the message we took advantage of an off-timetable slot to split the year into smaller groups, bringing in as many SLT, pastoral leaders co-tutors, and additional staff to reduce class sizes. Students were issued with individual revision packs containing calendars, planners, a pack of flashcards, and copies of the revision advice session slides, before rotating through three workshops. You can find all of the materials from our workshops below:

How to revise – families

We borrowed this idea from Andy Day’s Relating to a revision plan – it’s a family affairHis idea of bringing in families to help them understand effective revision certainly chimed with our experience, which was of parents who were telling us “we want to help, but we don’t know how.” We ran a morning session for families of Year 11 on 14th March:

The event was really well attended and the feedback from families was glowing: “a great investment of our time and a credit to the school’s investment in learning” said one evaluation. We also adapted Stuart Lock’s Revision Advice for Parents  post into a handout for all families in Year 11:

It was vital for us to close the loop between home and school, so that the advice students were getting from their families reinforced the messages they were getting from school. Clarifying expectations and sharing best practice was a really helpful process.

Covering the curriculum angle

This year we are keeping our students with us in school for longer. Students will still have study leave, but we want to maximise the contact time we have with them to ensure that they are revising effectively. This is always a tricky balance, but we think we’ve got it right this year. We’ve also put on our traditional Easter Study Camp, a week of taught and supervised revision over the Easter break to make the most of the time over the holidays. We’ve collated the extra-curricular revision sessions on offer into a single timetable so students know what’s on offer. I issued Andy Day‘s subject revision checklist to curriculum leaders to ensure that everyone had all the angles covered. And finally, we updated our online Revision Centre with all the resources available, including an subject-specific collection of past papers, mark schemes and revision resources for Study Camp collated by our excellent Head of Computing @morewebber.

Covering the pastoral angle

We have been running our Attitude Determines Altitude programme with Year 11 all year, and this has positively impacted on student approaches. Head of Year Phil Edwards and I have been master planning the interventions and messages for Year 11 since September through assemblies (including the key message Don’t Settle), tutor activities and interventions, all with a view to getting the attitude right – it’s all about the effort. One glance through Phil’s twitter feed will show you how consistent that message is! However, we’ve also been mindful of the need to relax and take time out, and we’ve put on a stress-management group to help those who may be feeling the pressure.

Motivation – the Fix Up Team

Ever since I saw Action Jackson lift the room at #TMNSL last year, I knew I had to get the Fix Up Team into school. This year it happened, and the brilliant Caspian (#KingCas) came in to do an hour’s assembly with Year 11.

The haven’t stopped talking (and singing) about it since. Having an external speaker in – especially one as engaging and powerful as this – makes all the difference. They’ve heard it from us a thousand times, but hearing it from a “real” person somehow brings it home!

Motivation – Proud Letters

Further to reinforce the connection between home and school, and to send the students off to Easter with a positive attitude, we ran our Proud Letters programme for the second year. This great initiative sees families write a letter in secret to their young people, explaining how proud they are of them and what their hopes and expectations are over the coming months and years. We delivered them on the last day before Easter to boost the students into the break. Again, it helps to show that home and school are working together in partnership to deliver a consistent, positive message about success.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. The aim has been to align all of the resources we have available to help the students make the most of these crucial final months. I think this image, printed on all of the individual revision packs, sums up our approach perfectly:

Don’t be upset by the results you didn’t get with the work you didn’t do

Implementing Assessment Without Levels

I have blogged twice before about assessment in the new national curriculum (here and here) and looking back at those two posts now it seems high time for an update. We’ve moved on quite some way and we are now implementing our assessment without levels system (or AWOL, as our Head of Science seems intent on calling it) across the school.

Context

We haven’t been using National Curriculum levels for a year or so now, but instead we have been using a system of “Chew Valley Levels” linked to GCSE grades as follows:

levelsgradesnewgcseThis was only ever going to be a stop-gap measure, providing some continuity for students and their families whilst we explored the alternatives. In reality, in the world of comparable cohort outcomes we are not able to say with any certainty what a “C” grade at GCSE is, only what it was last year, and thus tying our levels to this moveable feast rendered them no more reliable than the preceding National Curriculum levels. We have even less idea what students will have to know or be able to do to be awarded the new GCSE 1-9 grades, though Ofqual have published this:

ofqual gradesWhat we know, then, is that roughly the same proportion of students as currently achieve grades A*-C in existing GCSEs will achieve grades 9-4 in the new GCSEs, but that the threshold standard is being raised to grade 5 against international benchmarks. But we still don’t know what students will have to know or be able to do for that grade 5 in any given subject, nor are we likely to as the boundaries will shift year on year, especially in the infancy of the qualifications I suspect.

All of this means two things:

  1. We need to aim higher if we are to get as many students as possible to grade 5 and above – it will be tougher than C and above.
  2. Linking our assessment system to GCSE grades (as was our original plan) is not going to work.

The Threshold Model

Both Shaun Allison and Dan Brinton have been instrumental in clarifying my thinking about the threshold model of assessment. I highly recommend you read Shaun’s Assessment without levels – an opportunity for growth and Dan’s Designing a new post-levels curriculum and assessment model from scratch as they are both superb and you will see that a lot of the ideas in this post are not, in fact, mine, but theirs!

Essentially, in a threshold model, you set up your curriculum with an expectation in terms of content and skills within each unit, year, or key stage – the “threshold”. At each point, you assess students to see the extent to which they have met, exceeded or fallen short of this threshold. The model has the advantage of letting teachers decide the expectations (thus allowing challenge to be built-in) and providing ready-made opportunities for formative assessment and feedback in relation to the threshold expectations. As implied by the title of Shaun’s blogpost, it’s also a system that is compatible with our growth mindset ethos – more of which later.

What to call the threshold? 

This was a tricky point. Initially we considered the Durrington School model using four noun descriptors:

Thresholds from Durrington High School (from http://classteaching.wordpress.com/)

We were then quite taken with the Belmont School model using verbs to describe the thresholds:

Example assessment scheme from Belmont School Science (from http://belmontteach.wordpress.com/)

However, we couldn’t quite agree on language that would fit different subjects appropriately. We considered with the idea of using new GCSE grades 1-9, but they sounded too like the old levels and, in any case, we would have to guess at the standard they represent which is not a sound basis for a new assessment system.

In the end, we decided to use existing letter grades A*-G on the basis that students and their families understand them, and they have a well-understood threshold built in to them at the C grade boundary. Thus students meeting the threshold expectations of our curriculum at each point will be assessed at grade C. Those who exceed it can be graded A*, A or B; those who fall short can be graded D, E, F or G. Each year’s threshold directly correlates to the next year as illustrated in the following table:

AWOL Mapping

In other words, if a student can demonstrate they have met the demands of the Year 8 curriculum by the end of Year 7, they would be graded as B in Year 7. An A* student in Year 7 would be demonstrating the knowledge, skills and processes required of a Key Stage 4 student who had met the C grade threshold.

Mapping the threshold standard onto the curriculum

In our system, for students to have achieved the threshold on entry to the school, they will have to demonstrate that they have met the requirements of the Key Stage 2 National Curriculum in each subject. In time, we will receive this information (at least for English and Maths) from the new Key Stage 2 assessments, but this will not happen until 2016. Therefore we will baseline all students (as we do currently) to assess the extent to which they have met those requirements at the start of Year 7. Any gaps or shortfall will need to be addressed early.

The threshold standard in each year will be decided by the teaching teams within school. It will be informed – but not limited – by the relevant national curriculum requirements, of course, but the guiding principle is that if we are going to value what we assess then we must assess what we value. Therefore the new curriculum that is being designed is based on the key ideas, concepts, knowledge and skills within each subject, informed by the national curriculum, but decided by teachers. At Key Stage 4 the curriculum will, of course, incorporate the examined elements of the KS4 programme of study or examination specification but will not be limited by that. Our best students go beyond and around the specifications anyway – and so should we. If we are going to prepare our students to do well at GCSE we should be teaching them beyond GCSE in Year 11, so the terminal exams they sit seem like a walk in the park in comparison to what they have been doing in the classroom.

Tracking progress in the new assessment system

We already use a flight paths model to track progress in all subjects. Within the new system, tracking progress is even easier.

AWOL Progress

In the example above, a student is assessed at C on baseline and maintains that performance through Year 7 and 8 (the green highlighting). We should expect all students to maintain their performance through the curriculum, but challenge them to improve it. In Year 9, the table above illustrates what happens if a students improves their performance (the orange highlighting), leading to better than expected GCSE outcomes, and what happens if they do not make progress through the year (the red highlighting), leading to an under-performance at GCSE.

At this stage it’s important to be clear about the expectations of this system. No matter where students are on their baseline assessment, it is the job of the curriculum to ensure that as many of them as possible end up above the threshold by the end of each unit, year, or key stage. If a student is a D or an E at the baseline, that is not an excuse to stay on a D or E for the whole of their school career. Rather, it is a challenge to the teacher and the curriculum to fill in the gaps from the previous year as well as teaching the content, skills and processes of the current year. This is the gap that must be closed.

Terminal Assessment

One important element of this system is the introduction of a terminal assessment in each year of the curriculum. This assessment will be in the same style as the GCSE assessment in the relevant subject, and should assess the knowledge, skills and processes of the entire year’s curriculum. Students will have to revise for it, thus preparing them earlier for the demands of the two-year linear assessments in Year 11. We also intend that this approach will improve retention and recall, as curriculum design will be interleaved to incorporate regular revisiting of the key knowledge, skills and processes.

The end of targets? 

Finally, this model moves away from giving each student a target to aim for based on FFT D, CATs predictors, teacher assessment plus some magic dust and a following wind (as described in this early post on my blog – see, David Didau doesn’t have the monopoly on changing his mind!). When I launched our growth mindset ethos, one of the first responses I had was our Head of Geography asking if this was the end of Challenge Grades (our term for student targets). If potential is unknowable, why are we selecting an arbitrary grade and pretending to know it? She was (and is) right, of course. So we will now be judging progress based on where students start and how far they’ve come from that known point, rather than how far they’ve got to go to a point which we cannot and should not pretend to know.

So what now? 

  1. Faculties are meeting on Monday to begin the process of deciding the threshold standard for each year within the curriculum. Some are already there, having piloted systems through last academic year. Others will need to move this year.
  2. We need to finalise what reports to parents will look like in the new system – we have a draft, but it needs thinking through.
  3. We need to troubleshoot the progress measures – if a student moves up a grade in Year 8, does the higher grade become their new baseline or do we continue to measure progress from the start of Year 7 baseline point? What if they drop a grade?
  4. We need to decide when we move over from the legacy system to the new. We only get one chance to get this right – so we need to be sure we have it sorted.

These are the practicalities – but the principles I am certain are right and the system I am sure is workable. I’ll keep you posted!

UPDATE: we are holding an open meeting in January 2015 to share our approach with colleagues. Details here: https://echewcation.wordpress.com/assessment-without-levels/

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.

Assessment in the new national curriculum – next steps

My original post “Assessment in the new national curriculum – what we’re doing” remains one of the most popular on this blog. Here I will outline how we have refined the model proposed in that post and integrated it with progress tracking, as well as our latest thoughts on assessment without levels and growth mindset.

How will we assess in the new national curriculum? 

I was delighted to hear that Durrington High School had been awarded an assessment innovation fund grant by the DfE. I was even more delighted when Durrington DHT Shaun Allison published his thoughts so far in an excellent blogpost! As a school also actively pursuing a growth mindset, the approach to assessment outlined by Shaun struck a chord and seemed closely aligned to what we are trying to achieve at Chew Valley. I presented the key points of the Durrington approach to middle leaders yesterday and we have adopted the principle of the Growth and Thresholds assessment system, explained as follows (paraphrased from Class Teaching):

Teachers identify the key knowledge and skills students need in order to be successful in KS4 and work backwards to decide what this would look like, if students have mastered it in KS3 – the excellence standard. Teachers then produce a curriculum and assessment framework that allows teachers and students to know what they’ve got to do to achieve excellence.  

In the Chew Valley version, we will continue to use GCSE grades as the basis for our assessment model. It makes sense, longer term, to use the new 1-9 GCSE grade scale as a whole-school assessment framework, with rough equivalents as follows:

levelsgradesnewgcse

In other words, students entering in Year 7 would be assessed with grades usually between 1 and 4, and move up a consistent assessment scale throughout their time in secondary school.

We remain wedded to the notion of criteria referenced assessment, although I enjoyed having my thinking pushed on this by Daisy Christodoulou’s provocative defence of norm-referencing. The problem comes with the assumption that there will be clear criteria attached to the new GCSE grades 1-9; my understanding is that there will be criteria attached to the levels and marks within the new GCSE specifications but that they will not be clearly linked to specific GCSE grades. This will allow Ofqual to apply comparable outcomes and shift the boundaries year on year. Thus we will need to assign criteria to the new GCSE grades on a “best fit” basis, leading to some insecurity and uncertainty within the assessment framework, especially in the early stages.

We have not yet decided when we will shift over to 1-9 grades. The existing system will hold up until 2016 at least, and then there will be an incremental shift as first English and Maths, then Science, History, Geography and Languages, then arts subjects move over to the new grades. We also haven’t decided if we’re going to sub-grade them – grade 2c, 2b, 2a anyone? It was a bastardisation of the national curriculum levels; should we be wary of falling into the same trap again? We’re taking a watching brief on both these issues!

Tracking progress in the new assessment framework

With the advent of Progress 8 (blogged about here) we have been running an experiment with progress tracking using flight paths (blogged about here). As indicated in that second blog, in the initial experiment we tracked progress in English and Maths from their respective KS2 baselines, and all other subjects from the average points score of English and Maths at KS2. This worked fine for English and Maths, but it didn’t work for other subjects. I know it seems obvious that tracking progress in Drama from a baseline of the average of tests in English and Maths won’t work, but that is the methodology being applied in the Progress 8 measure so I thought we’d better use it. What I’d got wrong, of course (it’s so easy to do!) was that I’d let the accountability framework dictate my practice rather than common sense and what was right for the learners. So, we’ve made a change.

From September, we will continue to use the KS2 baselines for English and Maths – this is a tried and tested approach and it is giving us clear and helpful data both for individual students and for self-evaluation and external accountability purposes. In all other subjects, we will conduct a baseline assessment in the first term of Year 7 to establish a clear, subject-specific starting point for each student. We will then use that baseline assessment to track progress in each subject across KS3. We will treat the baseline assessment as the “baseline” in the same way as KS2 English and Maths data, even though they will be four or five months apart in time, and apply the flight paths model to each subject in exactly the same way:

Progress flight paths tabulated

Progress flight paths tabulated

We still have the existing template to track progress against an English and Maths KS2 average points score, so I will be able to keep an eye on the Progress 8 headlines, but this refined model will provide the ability to track progress in, for example, Art from their starting point in Art. Which seems obvious, doesn’t it?

In time we will convert the “levels” in those flight paths to the “grades” via the equivalences listed in the table above. It may be that in, for example, languages, the baseline will be very low (where students have not studied that particular language in primary) and this may require the model to be refined – watch this space!

Targets and a growth mindset

When I launched the idea of becoming a growth mindset school back in March, several staff discussed the idea of targets (we call them challenge grades or levels) and whether they were compatible with a growth mindset. Potential, according to Dweck, is limitless – it’s not about aiming for a destination but about constantly continuing to improve. As John Tomsett said in a conversation on twitter recently:

I overheard a conversation between two girls revising for a languages exam this week. They were working on tenses. One said to the other: “I don’t need to know that; that’s what you need to do to get a B. I only need a C.” Her companion was aiming for a B, so continued to revise it. This is why Michael Gove was so against early entry – the wasteful settling for a lower level of achievement. This is the danger of target grades – if students work hard and get there, they stop. And, unless that target grade is an A* (and even then), that is a waste.

This is a substantial shift in my thinking (see one of the earliest posts on this blog, Targets, for my starting point!), but actually the flight paths approach provides us with a different way to frame the conversation about progress. In the old model I would use formulae and statistical cohort analysis tools like CATs, FFT and the like to predict likely outcomes and “add a bit on for challenge”, then track and discuss progress towards that made up number. It makes more sense to me now to assess where students are starting from and then feed back whether their progress is below, expected, better than expected, outstanding or world class from that starting point (using the flight paths model). Thus reports to parents might say “Matilda is currently working at a Grade 3 in Science, and this represents better than expected progress from her starting point in this subject”. At the moment this is a tentative, half formed policy shift which will need to be put through the crucible of SLT and Governors – what better way to try it out than to put it to the test on twitter first?

In summary

The abolition of national curriculum levels remains an opportunity to do something different and better with curriculum and assessment across the whole of a student’s school experience. The fact that each individual school is having to come up with its own system remains a fatal flaw in terms of capacity. The new assessment innovation packages may go some way to preventing this – especially if they are of the quality of the work coming out of Durrington. Whilst there is still a lot of work to do, and a lot of uncertainty, it is still my aim that assessment and curriculum in my school will be the better for the reforms.

Can everybody succeed?

When I listened to John Tomsett speak about his whole-school growth mindset approach at #TLT13, I felt genuinely inspired. John has helpfully summarised his talk here. Head of Year and science teacher Ashley Loynton, who was sat next to me, is currently running a pilot project at our school ahead of a wider roll-out of growth-mindset strategy, which you can read about here. One of the most interesting aspects of this development for me is testing my own thinking about growth mindset. Do I really buy into Dweck’s ideas? Harry Webb has sounded a note of caution, and I take the points he makes in his blog about the dangers of a growth mindset bandwagon being misunderstood and misused. However, the blog which really got me thinking about my own approach to growth mindset was Mark McCourt’s Every Single Child Can Pass Maths back in March. Mark is an ex-colleague of mine and I have complete faith in his assessment of things educational. His excellent blog argues that, given the right conditions and approach, every single child can pass Maths – i.e. become a functionally numerate mathematician at Level 2 standard. So the question I pose myself as a Deputy Head in charge of the curriculum is, do I believe it is possible for every single child to “pass” Maths and English at Key Stage 4?

It is very clear that some in the political sphere do not. Dominic Cummings, ex-special advisor to Michael Gove, argued in his paper Some Thoughts on Education and Political Priorities that genetics has a far greater influence on educational outcomes than teaching. This week, Boris Johnson has poured scorn on the 16% of “our species” with IQs below 85 with a clearly deterministic view linked to Cummings’ philosophy. I reject these approaches instinctively – they make my skin crawl – but I need to force myself to examine them rationally. Am I wasting my time? Are there some kids who, no matter how hard we try, are never going to pass Maths and English?

One barrier to overcome is comparable outcomes. A Level 2 pass – currently a grade C and GCSE – is no longer linked to a standard set of criteria. Although grade descriptors still exist in the appendices of English specifications, the assessment criteria provide only a numerical mark which is scaled to a uniform mark scale (UMS) in each exam season to award grades comparable with previous seasons. In other words, to make sure we don’t get more Cs, As or A*s this year than last year. This statistical determinism bears a striking resemblance to Cummings and Johnson’s arguments, in that it presupposes that better teaching will not increase the proportion of young people meeting the standard year-on-year. Which rather makes me wonder exactly how schools are supposed to deliver Sir Michael Wilshaw’s vision of continuous improvement in results when the results can only ever be comparable to the previous seasons…

The conclusion I’ve reached is that I think that Johnson, Cummings and comparable outcomes are wrong. Plain wrong. And that I do, as Mark McCourt does, genuinely believe that every child can pass Maths and English with the right conditions. I could not bring myself to stand in front of a class if I genuinely believed that some of them had been born incapable of succeeding. But of course they don’t all succeed currently, so what needs to change?

My thoughts on this are still being formed. I am writing this really to test out my own beliefs – will they stand up to public scrutiny? This is the true advantage of edublogging for me. If I find myself unable to defend my position on any of this over the coming weeks I’ll know I didn’t have it right in the first place. Where I find myself on firmer ground I’ll know I’ve found a true value. Here’s what I think we need to do if all children are to “pass” English and Maths:

  1. We need to all believe that all children can succeed – without this inherent belief failure and underachievement becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy

    Getting the basics right ensures that learning is built on a firm foundation

    Getting the basics right ensures that learning is built on a firm foundation

  2. We need to get the early basics right – the building blocks of successful literacy and numeracy must be secure or the whole edifice will tumble. The accountability system at primary school encourages teachers to move children onwards and upwards to the next level when it should be encouraging complete security at the level below. As I argued here, I don’t blame Year 6 teachers for coaching children to the new Level 6 tests but I worry about the security of the level 5 work underpinning it.

    Graphic (via @headguruteacher)

  3. The role of the family is vital – this month’s #blogsync deals with this topic and Tom Sherrington has written with characteristic vigour about the benefits of the “pushy parents” and the cognitive gaps between rich and poor. One of my most popular posts dealt with the Matthew Effect which argues that those who are brought up in word-rich environments where families value education have an intellectual and cultural capital which allows them to progress more rapidly still, whilst those who are not have nothing to grip on to education with. Changing the culture of those families who do not value education is a lifetime’s work, but there is no more important work for a teacher than that.
  4. All abilities should work together – hiving off the most able into separate streams, sets or schools sets a cap on the aspirations of those left behind whatever numerical cap is dictated by budget or facilities. Kenny Pieper lays out the case for all ability education here, and I have argued about the social importance of mixing all abilities and social backgrounds here. If a student is in a class – or a school – where they never get to see what a C looks like, much less an A*, how can we hope that they will aspire to achieve one?
  5. The core should be run through the whole curriculum – literacy and numeracy are the keys which unlock other learning. Every teacher should be developing knowledge, understanding and skills in these areas every day by providing explicit teaching of the literacy and numeracy elements of their specialisms. Requiring deliberate practice of literacy and numeracy skills should be part of the repertoire of every teacher, not just in a box-ticking “literacy across the curriculum” add-on but in a fundamental, foundation stone way. 
  6. We should abandon Key Stages so phases can work together – some students arrive in Year 7 too far behind for secondary schools to close the gaps enough. Every week in #SLTchat somebody mentions the importance of EYFS. I find the divisions into key stages unhelpful as it implies a shift where there should be a continuum. Anything we can do to collaborate and work together cross-phase is a must if we as a system are to turn out literate and numerate adults.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments or on Twitter.

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!

What is the purpose of education?

This month’s #blogsync topic invites idealism. So, here are my ideals:

Individuality

Individuality

Firstly, I believe education should be about helping children discover their individual voice. My mantra is that I am helping young people to find the best means to express themselves, and ensuring that they have the education to know what it is they want to express. I still really believe this, and I strive to achieve it every day.

Community

Secondly, I believe education is about creating a sense of social and community responsibility. Schools have the potential to be utopian, as the members of our mini-societies have boundless energy and the capacity for collaboration, empathy, sympathy and selflessness.

Learning

Learning

Thirdly, I believe education is about fostering a love of learning, not just as a means to an end, but as an indulgence of an innate curiosity that lies at the heart of human nature. We are a remarkable species with the ability to think beyond ourselves. Schools which are true learning communities are wonderful, vibrant and exciting places to be.

Rampant idealism aside, the topic deserves a more critical appraisal too. There are tensions at the heart of the education system which I have been wrestling with since a Twitter chat with @JamesTheo some months ago – so long ago, in fact, that I now can’t find it. Our discussion focused on the dissemination of values through teaching. The more I think about it, the more I think that our existing education system is about the transmission of a set of traditional middle-class English values into society. These values include a respect for authority, obedience, and the social prejudices which see “a degree from a good university” as more valuable than  a technical or vocational qualification.

I’ve seen this transmission of values in action throughout my career when following up fights where the antagonist’s defence is “my dad told me not to take it sir; he said if he called me names I was to smack him. So I did.” Without thinking, I use the well-practised lines: that violence is not the answer. That he should have walked away and told a teacher. That, no matter what the provocation, there is never any excuse for lashing out.  Or, to put it another way, the values his father has instilled in him are wrong, and that mine are right.

Twice in my career I have caught myself trying to persuade confident bright young women that they don’t really want to study hair and beauty at college and they’d be much better staying at school to do A-levels. Both of them had ambitions to manage their own salons; I wanted them to go to university instead and, presumably, to get a “better” career. On both occasions I failed and both of those young women are now running their own successful businesses. They were right and I couldn’t have been more wrong. But the system – including me – is prejudiced to think that a vocational route is inferior to an academic one, and every time I meet with a young person to talk about post-16 progression I have to balance this prejudice with what I am seeing and hearing in the interview.

The same thing goes for the structures of a school. I profess to foster and develop individuality in an institution where everyone wears a uniform and moves from one place to another at the same times every day to sit together and complete the same programme of study as every other child of their chronological age in the country. Is this really a system set up to allow young people to find their own voice?

It’s all very well to talk about keeping politics and education separate, but this is impossible: education is a political process. To an extent, it is about preserving the values of the dominant middle classes by imposing them on the nation as a whole, in the hope of building a society predicated on those values. I don’t express this to be negative; only to draw attention to the realisation that I have had about this “hidden purpose” in the classroom.

Of course, no system of national education is ever going to avoid this issue of values transmission. I think my job as a school leader is to think critically about which of them should be challenged, and which upheld. I take a long hard look in the mirror and think about what values I want to transmit myself.  Personally, I try to balance the value of vocational, technical and practical education with traditional academic routes against the prejudices that were inherent in my own schooling. But, no matter who says different, it’s never okay to use violence to solve your problems.

Above all, the most important thing for me is not to let the system be a barrier to the ideals. Schools can foster individuality, community and learning, even if this is sometimes despite, rather than because of, the structures within which we work.

This post is a response to the September #blogsync. Read the other contributions here.