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.

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Should Ofsted be sharing best practice?

Best Practice in English

Best Practice in English

In amongst all the “we’re not grading lessons any more…in fact, we haven’t for a long time (even though all the teachers who’ve been inspected recently have had their lessons graded)” fuss this half term, there was another mini-farrago when Ofsted published a Good practice resource – Engaging and inspiring learners in English, especially at Key Stage 3It was a decent resource, full of great ideas for engaging and inspiring learners, and the results indicate that Priestnall School are doing something right. David Didau, amongst others, cried foul:

So, as we know, Sir Michael Wilshaw is determined to make clear that Ofsted has no preferred teaching style. Right? Wrong.

from “What inspirational teaching looks like according to Ofsted

I recognise the argument that Ofsted publishing a “good practice resource” does create a conflict with the “no preferred teaching style” stance taken by the Chief Inspector. This is largely due to the thrall in which the all-powerful inspectorate holds the profession – the panopticon effect described by Kev Bartle. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

In a previous role I was head of an Ofsted Outstanding English Department. Following a full inspection in January 2009, we were visited for a good practice subject survey in the summer term. All very lovely! However, the real evidence that Ofsted were interested in more than just inspection came when I was invited to the Department for Education and Skills (as it was then) the following term for a best practice day. Ofsted and the DfES had gathered together all the English subject leaders from every school where outstanding English teaching had been observed over the previous two years. Primary, secondary, tertiary, special, PRU, rural, urban, church, comprehensive – all gathered together to address the four key areas identified in the 2009 English at the Crossroads paper:

  • Independent learning in English: helping pupils to think for themselves
  • Assessment in English: building on good marking
  • Boys and English: how the best schools make a difference
  • How can standards of writing be improved?

Sanctuary Buildings as they used to be

It was a brilliant day. I was inspired, humbled, and overawed by turns. It was like the greatest English-focused TeachMeet in pre-TeachMeet days. Both Ofsted and the DfES seemed genuinely interested in capturing best practice and disseminating it nationwide. The project eventually became the Excellence in English paper and informed Moving English Forward in 2012. It was also a missed opportunity to create a network – there was no delegate list, no contact information, and no follow-up.

A lot has changed since 2009. Skills have been banished from the parliamentary letterhead, the National Strategies are gone, and local authority networks have fragmented as schools have embraced the independence of academy status. Gone are the days when practice could be shared between local schools through a literacy consultant or school improvement advisor (I realise that quality in these roles were variable, but the ones I worked with were, by and large, excellent). Twitter and blogging are great enablers of peer-to-peer sharing, and teaching school alliances may also help.  But Ofsted go into so many schools, in every conceivable context, all over the country. Their inspectors must see some brilliant practice from teachers who have never read a tweet. I recognise that their primary focus is summative and evaluative, but it seems a wasted opportunity not to do more with that evidence base. The potential is there to build up a truly formidable bank of what works in schools.

That doesn’t mean that it’s going to work in my school. I know that – I’m a professional and I can make that decision. But I’d rather have the library of what Ofsted have seen available – there may be something that they’ve seen that will help solve a problem in my context. If Ofsted can clarify that they don’t grade lessons or teachers, but they can find evidence in a lesson to inform a grade for teaching overall, then I’m sure we can see their best practice examples with the same clarity. Here’s what worked for someone else. Have a look and see what you think…

ofstedbest

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?

#TLT13: Great Teaching – Your Way

This blog outlines my session at #TLT13, which in itself was a version of the CPD programme we ran at Chew Valley last year as detailed in my posts: Outstanding teaching and great teachers – a whole school CPD approach and Outstanding teaching and great teachers (part 2).

CVS Outstanding Lessons

What makes an outstanding lesson? And who decides?

Ofsted set out their criteria for evaluating the quality of teaching and learning in an institution as a whole. In their School Inspection Handbook, footnote 42, it says:

“These grade descriptors describe the quality of teaching in the school as a whole, taking account of evidence over time. While they include some characteristics of individual lessons, they are not designed to be used to judge individual lessons.”

We know that plenty of schools ignore this and adapt the criteria to apply them to individual lessons – for some very understandable reasons. We also know that this leads to teachers teaching “observation specials” to try and jump through the hoops of the taken-out-of-context criteria. You can read about the impact of this in @cazzypot’s blog: Is Michael Gove lying to us all? and in @BarryNSmith79’s Lesson Objectives, Good Practice, and What Really Matters along with far too many others.

Let’s start again.

A typical teacher’s directed time is 760 hours in a year. How many of those will be formally observed by someone else – three? Five? Ten? Whatever the number, there’s a lot of hours in a year when it’s just you and your learners in the room.

Forget outstanding. Think about a great lesson you’ve taught – not a lesson where someone else was watching, but one of those lessons where it all worked. Where you and the kids left the room bathed in the warm glow of achievement. Where teaching felt really, really good. What were the ingredients? What made it work? And which of those features can you replicate in your classroom on Monday?

If you were to start with a blank sheet of paper, how would you define a great lesson?

A blank sheet of paper

A blank sheet of paper

Think about:

  • Structure
  • Activities
  • Behaviour
  • Outcomes

And, if that’s a great lesson, what are the qualities of a great teacher? And how can we live them in the classroom for all 760 hours of the year?

An adapted version of this session was delivered at #TMNSL at Bristol Brunel Academy on Thursday 20th March 2014.

What would do most to improve the status of the teaching profession?

2013veracity

I have blogged before about the limited public image of the teaching profession. About how, despite polling as the second-most-trusted profession on the UK in February 2013, the profession lacks the social status of medicine, science, and the law. Why is this? And what can we do about it?New College Oxford

In November 2012, I was invited back to my Oxford college to speak at a careers day. Alumni of the college from many different employment sectors were there to speak to undergraduates about career options, training routes, and postgraduate opportunities in their respective professions. There were accountants, arts administrators, broadcasters, civil servants, journalists, lawyers, management consultants, medical professionals, manufacturers, musicians, priests, researchers and teachers, amongst many others (including a circus manager). The first session – where the alumni were put together by the degrees they had studied with undergraduates currently on the same courses – showed the diversity of opportunities available to these young people. In the second session the alumni were grouped by their employment sectors in the Hall and waited for undergraduates interested in their sector to visit them to ask questions. I sat with the four other teachers – three state, two independent – to wait. The accountancy, law and management consultancy tables were busy. The priest had an earnest conversation with one undergraduate for about half an hour. The broadcasters and journalists had several visitors. We saw nobody. Not a single undergraduate from my Oxford college came to ask about teaching.

How, then, can we improve the status of teaching so that it becomes as attractive and viable to the high-achieving undergraduates at top universities as those other professions? Is it about pay? I don’t think so – as a teacher I’ve always earned enough to be comfortable and PRP is I think an invidious and unhelpful solution to a non-problem. Is it about career progression? Again, I don’t think so. There are clear and varied progression routes in teaching just as in medicine and law. Is it about entry routes? There may be something here. My PGCE was a necessary step but was a year extra without being in paid work. School Direct, GTP, Teach First and the raft of SCITT approaches go some way to addressing this, although I would still argue it is harder for someone to switch professions into teaching than some other sectors.

Or is it about public perception? The truth of public opinions of teachers, shown in the IPSOS-MORI poll above, is that they are held in very high regard. But the rhetoric in the press tells a very different story.

goveblob

I agree with Cherrylkd that our teaching unions do little to help in the circus of unreasonable extremism masquerading as conference season. Even the NAHT fell victim to this at their recent AGM, heckling and jeering at Michael Gove despite Bernadette Hunter’s attempts to pass this off as expressions of “exasperation and indignation“. What the unions don’t seem to realise is that Michael Gove wants them to go hard-line. The strikes and jeering will play into his hands as his response to the NAHT conference in the Times, his letter to schools branding the NUT/NASUWT pay policy “illegal”, and his “blob” accusations show. I can’t help feeling he views PRP as a a tool to break the unions; his Thatcher moment. He relishes the thought of their ineffective action and the negative spin he will easily be able to put on the strikes to come, confirming the “enemies of promise” narrative he has already set in motion. It will make it easy for him to brand any arguments coming from the left in education as guilty by association.

It is of course horrendous that the Secretary of State for Education and Chief Inspector of Schools between them are leading lights in undermining and denigrating the profession in their public statements. “Stop moaning” says Wilshaw. “Low expectations” says Gove. What’s even worse is that their criticisms may be true of some members of our profession, and that the unions seem to confirm the narrative in their obstreperous resistance to and blanket rejection of any kind of progress or change, even when it might actually be a good thing (progress measure based on the best 8, for example).

The vast majority of teachers, I believe, share Ross McGill’s view:

However, RedorGreenPen has written brilliantly about how easy it is for a teacher with the highest expectations (and redorgreenpen is clearly one of those) to have those expectations eroded with weak leadership and a lack of support systems. And this is where I believe the solutions begin – with school leadership. If the profession is to live up to the trust that the public places in us and defy the “enemies of promise” label so readily bandied around by those in charge at policy level, school leaders must do all we can to empower teachers to maintain the high standards they aspire to for the young people in our charge. We should avoid the traps of defective school leadership laid out by Joe Kirby in “What makes great school leadership?” and fulfil the seven positives:

  1. Entrench the ethos
  2. Avoid fads
  3. Walk the talk
  4. Ban excuses
  5. Focus on teaching
  6. Ensure consistency
  7. Build trust

We should heed the words of Rob Carter in “What would you say?“, Stephen Tierney in “Advice to new senior leaders“, Kev Bartle in “Ten Commandments for School Leaders” and Peter Smith in “7 things successful heads of department do“. Above all we should behave professionally and responsibly, engaging with problems and tackling change constructively, rationally and calmly. We wouldn’t want our teachers jeering and heckling us in staff meetings, we wouldn’t want our students behaving like that in lessons. Although that is the dominant mode in parliament, we can set a better example.

This post is a response to the May #blogsync topic hosted at Edutronic.

Parental Engagement

One of my tasks this last year has been to improve the levels of parental engagement at my school. This was in response to our most recent Ofsted report. We were incredibly proud of the report, done as it was in the dying days of the last inspection framework. The team heaped praise on our school, and said they would be delighted for their children to attend it. It was a ringing endorsement of all that we were doing and all that had been done.

We aren’t complacent, however, and the phrase in the report that our head set me to focus on was to do with the “effectiveness of the school’s engagement with parents and carers”:

It has good relationships with its parents and carers although it has identified more could be done to improve communication.

We were graded “Good.”  Not good enough…

There were several strands to the approach. I was already nominally in charge of the school’s website through the excellent content management system provided by Green Schools Online. It was fairly active, with a good news feed. The metrics were telling me we were getting a decent hit rate. But the problem with a website is that people come to it when they choose, to find out information they want, then leave. I wasn’t enough of a fantasist to assume that parents would spend their spare time avidly refreshing our website to see what new content we’d uploaded…

So I turned to Twitter. I was already immersed in the site, having taught Web 2.0 as part of A Level Media Studies in 2009, signed up the entire cohort, and followed the #Trafigura twitterstorm with my class as it happened. I still use the @hildrewmedia account as a teaching tool. I set up the @ChewValleySch account and pledged to keep it live and active throughout the year. The follower count has gradually built and the website metrics were showing that it was working in directing traffic back to the site, acting as a flag for new content.

So far so good.

The key, however, was to actually develop parental engagement. We needed to open up what happened in between the kids saying goodbye to Mum and Dad and coming back home for tea. We had to make visible the data that we already had through a parent portal. After an evaluation process we opted for Tasc Software’s Insight. The persuasive factor here was a visit to Heart of England School near Coventry, who were already running Insight. Seeing what it was achieving for them brought me back energised and focused, and with a clear plan. Get the kids using it, they said, and the parents will follow.

We started Insight in September and, approaching Christmas, we have over 98% of users engaged. We publish all reports online (saving the license cost of Insight in printing and admin time alone). Letters home go via the portal. All homework tasks are recorded there. Parents’ Evenings are booked through it. Parents can access live data and metrics to monitor attendance and behaviour – both rewards and sanctions. Absences can be notified, contact details updated, options choices made. Texts and emails alert parents when there’s something new published – and, of course, it’s tweeted.

Our self-evaluation this year has engagement with parents and carers as outstanding. It’ll take a year to get through the cycle and provide a full evaluation from parents, students and staff. Luckily Insight does surveys too…