Mastery Overload.

In what my youngest son calls the “olden days” I used to teach English Language A Level. One of the units we covered was gender and language and we’d look at the different words used to describe men and women and their connotations. Master and mistress was always a classic example. I’ve been minded of this as the idea of a ‘mastery’ curriculum has burst onto the educational landscape with all the momentum and enthusiasm of VAK.

Drawing from what is often an overly simplified idea of practices in Asian countries like Singapore, mastery models, particularly in Maths, are now all the rage. And like any fashion, there are both couture and cheap copies available. Last week I was asked by a Maths teacher to hold a focus group session with a class of Year 7s. He didn’t want them to be swayed by his presence, so he prepared the questions and got me to ask them. His school has been running a mastery model for a while and he has some questions about the way it is perceived by pupils. The first question sought to elicit some reflections about the way Maths was taught in Year 6, but the answers were not what either of us expected:-

Q : What do you remember about Maths lessons in primary school?

A : SATs practice (a unanimous answer)

When I ask them if they recall anything else, they all talk about repetition

“we did times tables over and over again until we were sick of them”.

“when you have to keep repeating stuff even when you already know it, you start to hate it”.

“we even keep doing times tables in Year 7, like three years going on and on about them isn’t enough”.

And when asked about lessons in year 7 they said the same thing about fractions.

“we do fractions over and over until we just want to jump out of the window”.

It takes a lot of prompting to get the children to try to recall things they enjoy about Maths (and these are top set) but when they do they start to talk about investigations and inquiries they’ve done in the past. Lessons where “you had to work out codes and clues and find out things for yourself – it makes you think”. And they mention lessons where “we had to pull together as a team to figure it out – working in a group to get the answers”.

It’s only one group in one school on one day…but these children are articulating some of my concerns about this obsession with mastery coupled with the demands for ‘grit’. There is no joy in this vision of learning. What is the point in taking children on a learning journey in which they feel like passengers trapped in a repetitive hell? We need more Mystery than Mastery if we are going to have children who love the subjects we teach.

From Russia With Just Minor Injuries…

I rarely turn an offer down. The song in Oklahoma was written for me.  As a result, I get that churning feeling in my stomach on most working days. But on Friday morning when I stood in front of a class of 8-10 year olds in a state school in Russia, I could barely speak for anxiety. They had very little English. I had one word of Russian.

I had a timetable in front of me of seven hours of contact time a day for three days. At 5.30pm on Sunday, they would be performing a play written by them in English to their parents and teachers. The anxiety was the least of my communication problems. “Spasiba” I muttered as a greeting, forgetting it meant ‘thank you’, and revealing myself as an idiot within ten seconds. The children smiled politely.

Three days later we’re looking at the song lyrics we’ve written together. The line we sing early in the play “I’ll finish what I started and continue” has changed to “I finished what I started and continued”.

“Ahhhh! In past is ‘d'” says a child who barely spoke on the first day.

They’re following instructions too. Instead of me having to say “sit down” four times, wave my hands towards the ground and finally in desperation plonk myself on the floor saying “this, this”, they sit first time. And stand and move in the directions I suggest. They laugh at my jokes. And laugh at what they think are my jokes, but which are just mistakes. They surprise me with random vocabulary that we just have to build into our performance – “he hurting and sad” one explains of the monster who turns out to be less terrible than I envisaged. “He vegetable” shouts another. I raise my eyebrows. He mimes eating. I assume we have a sad vegetarian on our hands. Which places our hero in a difficult ethical position.

Hence Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s journey narrative structure (an utter God send) gets a little update and a few new twists. I’ll never know if they were intentional.

Of course there were mishaps. Teaching lifts to children in a second language is foolhardy I learned as one left her blood on the floor. And “Pull the curtains” led to the whole rig coming down crashing on their heads. But they are Russian. All over town posters commemorating the losses of the Second World War (or Great Patriot War) are hanging and a few bloody noses and bruised heads are not putting this lot off.

So the parents arrive and watch their children perform a play in a language that most of them don’t understand. I’m playing the piano with my hands, operating the lighting rig with my toes. The song goes a bit wrong. But it doesn’t matter. Because like parents all over the world, their eyes glisten as they watch their child achieve something they didn’t think possible three days ago. And the children see this and their faces light up. And I remember not only what a powerful tool drama is for learning language, but also the power it has to bond families. I’m proud of these brave little children. And of myself. And I’m glad that I’m a girl who can’t say no.

Let’s State the Bleeding Obvious…

I’m in Russia and about to go to the ballet so I’ll make this brief. The Sutton Trust tell us that ‘poor children’ (and if you want to know why this phrase is all shades of wrong, read Sue Cowley’s blog on the subject) from the South do better in life than those in the North. The press report this lazily as a product of better schooling in London. Hmmm. Well the children examined were from the district of Westminster. Where…

1. They are more likely to be schooled in a socially mixed setting.

2. They are entitled to free public transport.

3. And thereby can access all kinds of cultural resources, which are also free.

Whereas, in most Northern areas, our children from the most disadvanted backgrounds are :-

1. Living on isolated estates that were built miles from city centres and facilities.

2. Charged extortionate prices for travelling on buses.

3. Have far fewer opportunities to access free services.

Just saying there might be more to it than meets the London based journalist’s eye.

And incidentally, I was born into a ‘poor’ family and lived in the North. And here I am watching ballet.

Testing without Brains.

When SATs were first introduced it was with the aim that a Level 4b would be an ‘average’ level of achievement. Very quickly this became an expected level of achievement for the majority of pupils and now it would seem that anyone falling below this (or its point score equivalent) is a failure. In order to address this failure, children will now be expected to resit the tests in Year 7. It’s a policy of such bum numbing stupidity I can barely be arsed to write.

1. Year 6 teachers bust a gut to get kids through these tests. Sometimes in order to do it, they compromise the rest of the curriculum, pass out endless practice papers and teach to the test to the extent that they dream the test (in the rare moments they get to escape from their marking). They have their class all day every day. If they can’t get them through, then how a Year 7 English teacher seeing them a couple of times a week is supposed to do better I have no idea. Oh, wait…perhaps the kids will be taken out of Art, Music, PE….

2. Most of the kids who achieve (and yes, for many of them it IS an achievement) a Level 2 or 3 in the tests have statements of special educational needs. As I understand it, they won’t be required to resit. Instead, the sliver of children sitting in the middle will now be put into a new group or set “not special, just thick” and asked to do the test again. Before the supporters of this policy (the ones who managed to read past the word arse without fainting) charge me with the sin of facetiousness, calling children “mediocre” as Morgan did, is pretty much labelling them as thick. What happened to growth mindsets eh?

3. There is no evidence that testing children again and again improves their performance when the stakes are high. There is some evidence that low stakes classroom based tests aid learning, but let’s be clear, this is not what this resit policy is about. Instead it puts teachers and pupils under more pressure to narrow provision and divert resources.

4. There would, one assumes, be a huge cost to this policy in terms of setting, distributing, marking and moderating the results. But no – it’s cheap as chips apparently because teachers will do it. All by themselves. Those gaming, cheating teachers who couldn’t be trusted with coursework are apparently ok to assess these tests. Why? Perhaps because they don’t actually matter. They’re a policy sop to the media and to parents whose kids will never have to sit them. Tory heartland voters.

5. Those of us with memories will recall that the real SATs were subject to such controversy over marking a few years ago that the head of QCA was sacked and the system overhauled. But Year 7 teachers can mark them, no problem.

6. We don’t have time to mark them, by the way. Remember that thing about teacher workload you were banging on about a few weeks ago, Nicky Morgan, you know, in an unconvincing attempt to win some teacher votes?

7.  What I suggest is that if you teach Year 7, you just press ahead and teach children to love the English language. Read books with them, talk to them. Let them talk to you and to each other. Make writing the great, imaginative, wonderful adventure it should be. Forget the tests. You might as well not bother doing them actually, but if you do, draw a big smiley face on the front. Write PASS and then take them out to play – in a museum or a theatre or somewhere stimulating and lovely. Literacy comes with immersion and love of language. It doesn’t grow in a test.

Impossible Expectations

I’ve just spent an evening with one of my oldest friends who has just resigned from her NQT year in an inner city primary school. I encouraged her to go into teaching and now I wonder what kind of friend I was. Last year, having spent 17 years working in private business, managing teams of people and multi million pound budgets, she left to teach. She expected that she would find a working life that was more rewarding with higher aims than simply making money, which she was good at. Having seen her own children turned around with the support of a good teacher, she felt that here was a job where she could have impact and feel that there was a higher sense of purpose to her working life. And so, she took a massive drop in salary and enrolled on a PGCE.

Her PGCE was demanding with a high emphasis on subject knowledge, but she enjoyed it. And with her grades high and references strong, she was offered several jobs at the end of it. She chose the one where the staff were lovely, where she felt she’d be at home and where there seemed to be a meeting of ideals and minds. Having spent years recruiting in business, she knew that this chemistry was vital. And so in September, she started with her Year 5 class. She expected the year to be tough, but no tougher than the PGCE, which had been challenging for her and all her colleagues.

So how could it all have gone so spectacularly wrong in just two terms? Why is she now unemployed, looking at doing supply and wondering how she’ll pay off a student loan?

She felt that almost immediately, she was expected to be able to hit the ground running at a pace that Usain Bolt couldn’t sustain. She was used to working 55-60 hour weeks at pressure points – perhaps when launching a new film – but now she found herself working more than 80, week in week out. Told she must plan every lesson from scratch. Told she must mark all literacy and numeracy books every single day, putting targets in each, and then topic and spelling books regularly on top. Told she must fill in the behaviour plans for the children under review every single day. She was trying desperately to differentiate for children ranging from a 1a to a 5c (yes the school was still using levels). And coping with neglected and difficult children, for whom she felt desperately sorry, with little support and no training to meet their needs, was hard. She found in all that, her relationship and energy with her own children was dwindling to the extent that the smallest one was putting her to bed, tucking her in when she fell asleep with her books on her chest.

Despite having a very supportive mentor, these expectations were unsustainable. All around her, beleaguered colleagues were trying to do the best for their pupils and school. This is “just teaching”, they said, it’s what everybody is expected to do. And then senior leaders pointed out that the work the children stuck in their books was wonky or that the classroom displays didn’t follow “policy” – they marked her down for presentation of books and students’ work. She was prepared to work hard, but at the end of the day, if your job undermines the well being of your own children and the security of your marriage, it’s not really that rewarding.

In the private sector, a business plan with a spend of up to £20 million would be four pages long and could take weeks to prepare. In teaching, each literacy and numeracy plan for the week was at least this long, the planning of it squeezed into a weekend. In business, weekends were her own time; in teaching they didn’t exist. In business she’d spend days planning a presentation. In teaching she was expected to give high quality presentations six times a day. In short the pressure she was under in a highly paid professional job was nothing in comparison to that she experienced in teaching. And yet she was expected to cope with all of that on a salary that couldn’t cover her housing costs.

This is not an unusual picture. I know that many of you will be nodding in agreement and empathy. It seems that the only way an NQT can cope in this brave new world of SPAG tests and baselines is to have no family of their own and no life. What on earth is going to happen to the profession if we don’t seriously tackle the issue of workload expectations? It’s a disaster not waiting to happen, but happening now, right under our noses. We are in danger of pushing our teachers into mental and physical health problems caused by stress, insomnia and guilt that is immoral. And yet, when she began to raise her concerns, it was obvious that the school  had a duty first and foremost to the children. Teacher’s welfare, inevitably comes a poor second. It’s time we began to understand that without taking care of the latter, we can’t meet the needs of the former. What a sad and sorry state of affairs.