Ofsted: Should we be Scared?

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Rumours are leaking out of Ofsted Towers of a shift in focus towards ‘Knowledge Rich Curriculum.’ There is consternation among some inspectors about ideological infiltration from the DfE and what this might look like in terms of an inspection framework. But I’d urge caution before we jump to conclusions – this could be a positive thing. Could be.  Continue reading “Ofsted: Should we be Scared?”

Winners and Losers: GCSEs 2018

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So results are in and, surprise, surprise, there’s not much change. A slight 0.5% improvement on ‘pass’ rates, but given that the new 4 was supposed to be equivalent to a C/D borderline grade, that’s to be expected. But wait… ‘pass’ rate? Aren’t there three other grades to consider here? Aren’t grades 1-3 passes too? It would seem not since government have firmly labelled not only 4s as ‘standard passes’ but also 5s as ‘strong passes.’ Who cares about the rest? The 33.9%? Meh. May they proceed onto endless resits, doomed to groundhog day repeats of failure for the next few years, their confidence dwindling to the point that they feel worthless. Who cares? Passes is what we’re after. Because, standards.

And passes we’ll get. Well 66.1% will get them. Almost without fail every single year. Because that’s what the system is set up to ensure. No matter that we have to pull the grade boundaries down. One Maths exam board had to lower Maths ‘standard pass’ rates down to 21% this year to ensure that the ‘right’ number of candidates passed. Ofqual had to rescue a whole group of higher tier Science students from U grades by getting examiners to remark them at foundation level so they could at least achieve grade 3s. And it’s probably right that they do so. We can’t have whole cohorts of students fall victim to the whims and follies of government ministers who throw the system into chaos and then skip off to another department. But it creates some very serious difficulties for us all.

For example, the new ‘harder’ A Levels were designed to challenge those pupils who had met the new harder standards of GCSE. But they haven’t ‘met’ that standard – they’ve just been given grades for lower marks. So the gap is even bigger putting more pressure on A Level teachers and creating difficulty for pupils.

And given that GCSE results are set largely in line with KS2 outcomes in English and Maths, what of other subjects? While there is, theoretically, a possibility that Ofqual will change those boundaries if exam boards make the case that a cohort of pupils were ‘better’ in, say PE, it rarely happens. Where is the incentive for exam boards to do so? How do they prove it? There is no baseline data for PE – only the performances of previous years, which were set in line with other subjects based on baseline data in English and Maths. And even the National Reference Test, that is designed to check whether progress is indeed linear, is only done in English and Maths. (And in February before GCSEs – to pupils who have just done mocks. A test to test that the test is working!) I’m not holding out much hope.

So for the pupil who has played sport all her life, or who has played musical instruments and gained grades in them, their potential grades in PE or Music are tied to how they did in Maths and English when they were 11. Consider also that these subjects, sitting outside of the EBacc, are opted into – that they are more likely to be chosen by students who  have an aptitude and existing experience. Tying their results to a cohort average across the whole range of subjects seems even more ridiculous. But it happens. Talk to statisticians at Ofqual and they will patiently tell you that the maths shows them that pupils who do well in SATs are indeed more likely to do well in PE/Art/Music etc. Of course it does. And not just because of the linearity of the measurements but also because of Psychology. A child will be given target grades in those subjects based on their SATs data. For five years they and their teachers will work to ensure they hit those targets: targets based on their performance in English and Maths when they were 11. Some, of course, will buck the trend. But most will become self fulfilling prophecies- statistically fulfilling prophecies. In order for the whole subject, across the whole nation, to buck that linearity, chief examiners across subjects will have to notice that on the whole, the cohort this year, seemed better than the last. And the last could well have been better too but standardised grade boundaries have driven them into the layered sediment of year upon year of results based on expectations. It’s hard to see in that sediment where there might have been improvements. They’ll have to notice and be motivated to act. Let’s face it, the chances are slim.

So we changed everything and nothing. And in the meantime, the ‘harder’ content and the removal/downgrading of aspects of assessment that allowed pupils to show skills other than performing in exams created another layer of stress for teachers, pupils and parents. There were more revision sessions, more schools moving to a three year GCSE, more reported cases of exam stress, mental health issues and self harming, more Easter holidays given up for study support, more worry, more money spent on resources…for what? So that a minister can stand up and say the reforms worked? We are now as competitive as Singapore and Finland?

It’s really no wonder that private schools are now almost exclusively rejecting the ‘new’ GCSEs and opting instead for the more stable IGCSE. No wonder either that Wales and NI decided to stick with the old system. The reforms sold to us to make us more internationally competitive and more like private schools, turned out to be a pup.  And meanwhile, leading experts on adolescent brain development such as neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, are pointing out to this profession that putting exam pressure on 15 and 16 year olds is one of the worst things we could do. That we would be far better testing them at 18 because their brains are literally at a critical stage of both emotional and intellectual change at 15 and 16. It’s like opening a pupae to check there’s a fully formed butterfly inside. It would seem we only want to be evidence informed when it suits us.

So why do we do it? Because we’ve always done it? Because the infrastructure of our schools was designed for a leaving age of 16 with optional education to 18? Because it’s just too hard to reconfigure that infrastructure into a system of primary, middle and high schools with an end assessment point at 18? Because our eyes are on another problem? Whatever the reason, it’s becoming clear that our exam system is not fit for purpose. It fails, habitually,  33% of our children. It places huge pressure on the mental health of pupils. It warps our perceptions of what constitutes good education, good teaching, a broad and balanced curriculum. It doesn’t even raise standards. It doesn’t even raise spirits.

 

Let’s get behind the Chartered College of Teaching.

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Back in 2014 I heard about the idea for a College of Teaching and I wrote this blogpost outlining why I, as an ordinary classroom teacher, was so excited at the prospect of what this organisation could do for me and why I was so desperate for it to get off the ground. Four years later, it exists and I’m not a member – not even at affiliate level.

By the time the organisation was formed, I wasn’t teaching full time in a school any more, and while I still and always will describe myself as a teacher (and do still teach), the fact that I don’t have the role full time in one school means I don’t feel it’s my place to be in the college, much as I support it. I do what I can to encourage others to join – my husband was one of the first, even if he never did receive his lovely member’s card! And he appreciates the access to journals and the editions of Impact he’s received and found useful. But I didn’t join, because what I wrote about four years ago and what excited me so much, was the opportunity for every day classroom teachers to lead their own professional organisation.

Now I was that kind of teacher who was obsessive and lived for the job. I had no problem ignoring my own kids, health, sleep, whatever, to campaign, write blogs, read edu books, whatever it took…Frankly, it was an addiction. I know that was unhealthy but I would have happily loaded onto my 70 hour week, an application to stand for council. It may well have broken our family and me. The fact of the matter is that although many teachers might love to join, most simply don’t have the time to get actively involved. For those that do, it’s amazing – go for it. But for the silent majority, there needs to be an acceptance that the small fee (the price of a couple of cocktails) and occasional browse of Impact is enough because there is enough faith in the organisation to represent them and fight for their profession. And there’s the rub.

The organisation needs people to help organise and be involved. It needs to be grassroots enough so that people can do this. But workload means the people its aimed at, simply can’t. So what can we do?

We could look to allowing sabbaticals and secondments. But it takes money and there’s too little around. See below.

We could trust people with decades of teaching experience but who for now are doing something else to speak for us, but that leaves the organisation open to the accusation that it’s not for teachers. To allow that, we’d have to accept that sometimes we need champions who have the time and head space to represent us – and that takes trust.

We could get to a point where involvement in the Chartered College at council level counted in your hours for your job. That it was costed and paid for. But where would that money come from? Well I guess it’s possible that if they had enough members, the cost could be covered by membership fees. And here’s the thing…

All the very best things that the College could accomplish, depends on members. At the moment, in its infancy, it is dependent on DfE funding and that undermines its independence. As soon as it can become self funding, it can be the organisation we need – influencing policy, offering career recognition, championing research and information, promoting the image of the profession among the wider public, offering balance to media bias about teaching, holding policy and practice to account – just being there to prop teachers up and support them…you know,  all the things we say we want. And to do that people have to join. There has to be a period of holding breath and trusting in that age old process of forming, storming, norming and performing. That takes time.

Does that make me a hypocrite, asking you to join while I don’t? I hope not. I’m keeping my distance precisely because I want it to belong to teachers who are doing the slog, living the grind and making the difference. But if they – you – don’t throw their weight behind it – then this sliver of hope will slither into the ether and we’ll never know what might have been. Surely, surely, it’s worth a punt?

A Rich Curriculum

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Back in 1991, Martin Haberman, as part of his life long work into how education could tackle disadvantage, wrote “The Pedagogy of Poverty” in which he explores how the accepted norms and routines of teaching life act to hold down the very children we seek to lift up. In our work, Hywel Roberts and I refer to this idea of a Pedagogy of Poverty widely, but we need to explore how it fits in with current ideas about ‘rich’ knowledge and core knowledge curriculum models.  Continue reading “A Rich Curriculum”

Wake up! We’re doing this.

I’m not going to comment much on this. This is simply a list of tweets and messages I’ve had from parents this week.

  1. Week before sats my daughter had a meltdown, We were away with family. “I can’t take it I can’t take it I can’t take it” it was late at night and we couldn’t get through to her.
  2. I’m worried about my daughter’s mental health, she is already coming home crying about SATs and she’s in y5.
  3. At my son’s secondary school there was club in Year 7 only for kids who did well in their SATS. They went on trips and had a range of opportunities that the other didn’t have access to.
  4. Son’s school has ‘potential high achievers’ – I was naive enough to think that every student is a potential high achiever. Son has never been on a trip, been there almost 2 yrs.
  5. My 11 year old grandson, who has always been ok in English and excellent in Maths and Science, was taken out of a science lesson each fortnight for an English ‘intervention.’ Under new standards in the new curriculum, his English skills are now deemed to be weak; he won’t reach the expected standard in the English SATs. Double whammy. Extra lessons in a subject that does not enthuse him but which he was doing alright in at the expense of one of his favourite subjects.
  6. The KS2 grades were my bete noir all through our middle child’s schooling because everytime I raised concerns that she was drifting the teacher would quote the KS2 grades and show me graphs extrapolated from them to ‘prove’ that my daughter was on track. So they were expecting C’s. In year 11 teachers suddenly started saying, “We hadn’t realised she was so able. She could get an A!’ But it was far far too late.
  7. His school has been working on not much else but SATs for months. Too depressing.
  8.  (At a) painful meeting with Heads to tell them why I was pulling her out, they countered she would miss the school trip to theme park and as soon as she returned to school she’d have to take them. That made me speechless.
  9. My oldest got top results in SATS & referral to CAMHS with severe anxiety. Worst year of our lives.I’d back any parent boycotting them.
  10. When daughter 2 went to secondary she was set according to her SATS & the ceiling for her progress was set. The message she got was there’s no point trying because teachers don’t believe I can do it.
  11. My daughter suffered a massive panic attack this evening in direct relation to these and I had to rush her to the doctors – and I am desperately seeking information on what I can do for her. She suffers with anxiety anyhow, and even though she’s meeting the standard for her english, she has been told by her teacher (on parents evening) that it isn’t good enough as she only just scraped through, and how will her fail in maths look on the league table?  Passing her english has been like climbing Everest for her, and this has totally crushed her.

And a couple from teachers:-

  1. One of our kids wrote”I’m dumb”all over the last few pages of her Maths reasoning paper. We spent all year convincing her she’s good at Maths
  2. I had to calm down & a counsel a year 6 girl on Wednesday who had a severe anxiety attack, couldn’t stop sobbing because of the fear of opening the maths reasoning paper & not being able to do it. Was all I could do not to cry seeing her like this.

There are dozens more of these stories. Not a single one of us went into teaching to be the other person on the end of these tales. A system that puts so much pressure on us that our values warp and we become blind to the impact we have needs to be changed. We need to wake up and act.