This much I know…about improving the impact of Teaching Assistants during a budget crisis

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about improving the impact of Teaching Assistants during a budget crisis.

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Our human resources matter most. There are 380,000 Teaching Assistants in English schools – a number that has trebled since 2000. There are more Teaching Assistants in Primary schools than there are teachers. If Teaching Assistants were cut from schools at a stroke, many schools, and countless thousands students, would suffer greatly.

We are in the midst of a budget crisis with a ‘flat cash’ hole in our budget. At Huntington, we spend nearly a quarter of a million of our budget on Teaching Assistants. Schools on average spend about £200,000 on Teaching Assistant provision. Writ large across the country we spend £5 billion on Teaching Assistants alone; this is more than the nation spends on roads and social housing! It comes out as the largest singular investment of schools’ Pupil Premium funding. With huge figures like that every school leader knows the role of Teaching Assistants in crucial. We therefore have a moral obligation to deploy our vitally important Teaching Assistant colleagues well.

‘It ain’t what you do it is the way that you do it’. Steve Higgins, author of the Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit, has shared this wise ‘Bananarama principle’ and how it applies to schools.  The evidence may show that employing Teaching Assistants doesn’t, on average, have a great deal of impact on students’ outcomes, but of course, such averages can obscure individual examples of high impact. We know from large scale trials that deploying a Teaching Assistant to undertake structured interventions, like the ‘Catch Up’ programmes, the REACH programme and more, makes a significant difference. It proves money well spent in frugal times.

The ‘Velcro problem’ of Teaching Assistants and student progress. TAs Teaching Assistants are often highly skilled professionals, but how they are deployed stunts their impact. Too many Teaching Assistants have long-since been allocated to a tricky class or a difficult student but the real problem of tackling how well students are learning goes unsolved. They are encouraged to act like ‘Velcro’ – sticking to the tricky student and helping them along. Paradoxically, such an approach may stop that child thinking for themselves. It comes back to good pedagogy and quality training. Teaching Assistants can encourage and foster independence in our students or they can inhibit hard thinking…it is the way that you do it, remember!

Teaching Assistants’ deployment, high quality training and the golden thread to student outcomes. It is the responsibility of school leaders to train and deploy their Teaching Assistant teams effectively; for our students and for our bottom line, we can ill-afford not to do so. Our Huntington Research School is running a high quality, evidence-based programme for schools in Yorkshire and the Humber on supporting leaders to train their TAs Teaching Assistants. The training focuses upon selecting the right structured interventions and engendering independence in the classroom, whilst sharing our best practice across our schools. Spending a fraction of what our Teaching Assistant team costs to ensure our Teaching Assistant colleagues are well-trained makes sense to us; I hope it makes sense to you. You can book your ticket here: https://www.huntingtonlearninghub.com/product/making-best-use-of-tas/.

 

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This much I know about…not publishing data targets to students and parents

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about not publishing data targets to students and parents.

Matrix Data

One of the biggest differences between a students’ experience in school now compared to when I was at school in the 1970s is being told, as a student, your data targets. I had no idea what academic progress I was making when I was at school, I just knew I was trying hard and that I was doing fine.

When I took O levels I had no sense of which questions in the mathematics examination, for instance, were C grade or B grade or A grade. I just knew some were easy and some were harder, especially the ones near the end of the paper. The point is, I had no concept of an attainment ceiling, nor did I feel pressured to hit an aspirational target. I just wanted to do my best, whatever that might be.

The student data paradox means that academic targets are simultaneously dampening expectations for some students and exerting unnecessary pressure on others.

Peter Bratton was my head teacher when I worked at Hove Park School and he gave me Sir Michael Barber’s The Learning Game to read.[2] The passage which resonates with me as strongly now as it did then pertains to students’ so-called potential and that ‘somehow teachers know what this is’:

‘This seems to deny one of the central characteristics of humanity, which is that people often surprise you. They turn out to have qualities, talents and skills that no one, not even they themselves, believed they had…When I hear the phrase “full potential” in relation to a child, I shudder at the arrogance it implies.’[3]

How on earth do we know our own limits? We will all, at one time or another in our lives, find ourselves doing something remarkable beyond our own imagined capabilities.

Publishing targets or minimum expected grades for individual students can have, in my experience, two dangerous consequences. Too many students reach their targets and stop trying, claiming that ‘a grade B will do. I don’t need better than that’; others get stressed by aiming for an aspirational target they perceive to be beyond their reach and consequently give up. The latter is particularly damaging, in that under confident students with high target grades will often try less hard so that if they fail, they can claim that they knew they were going to fail because they did not try.

When my eldest was studying for his A levels there was a moment when he was going to give up trying. He hates to fail, and failing when you have given all you have to give is doubly humiliating. I told him that trying your hardest is the only courageous, honest approach to take to anything in life. My words must have slowly permeated his brain’s cortex’s frontal lobe, because within a day he was back in the library, studying hard. Phew…

I have always had severe doubts about target setting and its glass ceiling effect on students. Tom Bennett writes some great stuff, but I reckon the best thing of his I have ever read is a post entitled This engine runs on hope: why schools need to defy the destiny of data.[4] I would cite it all, but this line stands out for me… You know what my expectation of my children is? An A. For everyone. That’s the target I set myself, and if I don’t get it, well, I try again next year. I don’t cry into my coffee, I just try again.[5]

He also asks this question, ‘What does it even mean to ‘aim for a C, or a B’?’ It’s a great question. Think about it. Imagine you are a ‘grade C’ student, a ‘grade C’ human being. How would you feel?

Decades ago, when I taught the very bottom set Year 10 English GCSE, I had to return some of their coursework. These were students with grade D targets. They were not lower than grade D because grade D was the lowest target school policy allowed. Natalie said, ‘What does a G stand for?’ Lisa-Louise replied, without missing a beat, ‘Great!’ Dean chirped up, ‘I’ve got an F. That must mean Fantastic!’ The dark humour of their defence-mechanism was heart-breaking.

I have written at length elsewhere about Carol Dweck’s Mindset,[6] the idea that you either view intelligence as fixed, or you think we can grow our intelligence, through a combination of know-how and industry. We’re weaving the principles of Growth Mindset into every aspect of our school life. At our annual Prize Giving I present the Headteacher’s Growth Mindset Trophy. One year I awarded the trophy to Katie. Her teachers were delighted and they were unqualified in their praise for her. Barbara Lunn said, ‘In Year 10 Katie started GCSE with a C target. She was persistent, asking what she could do next, was her work good enough, could she stay behind at lunchtime to finish off or do more…the result of her efforts? An A* at GCSE!’

Another teacher, Anja Miller, said, ‘Katie has shown what can be achieved by sheer hard work and a constantly positive attitude’. Jane Burns summed it up when she said, ‘What impressed me about Katie, and what I remember when I think about her, is her lovely smile. It just says, “It might be hard, but I am not beaten and I am not giving up!”’

If Katie had believed the C grade target we set her for the end of Key Stage 4 was all she was capable of, she probably wouldn’t have taken A levels and gained two A* and two A grades. She wouldn’t have studied at the University of Leeds.

What irks me is that Katie secured her dazzling A level grades and her Russell Group university place in spite of her C grade GCSE target, a hopelessly inaccurate target which, but for Katie’s indomitable spirit, could easily have damaged her chances of examination success.

Once you start to think hard about what Dweck says you begin to question everything about what you do as a school leader. If Dweck is right – and in my personal experience I think she is – then setting students grades as targets is deeply flawed. The Subject Leaders of our two most successful A levels both fessed up to me, during a review of their department’s examination results, that they don’t look at students’ targets, they don’t consciously differentiate, they just teach to A* standard all of the time to all of the students.

On reflection, I cannot believe we have published estimated grades to students and parents for so many years. I wish we’d stopped long ago, or, like Dame Alison Peacock, never begun the dangerous practice. At the Wroxham School they focus on ‘learning (rather than simply attainment), nourished by a deep belief in the learning capacity of everybody’. [7] At the Wroxham School they have never used National Curriculum levels.

The idea that a school policy should put a cap on students’ outcomes seems so ridiculous; there are enough things which inhibit their progress, for goodness’ sake!

No, we have been liberated at Huntington by our decision not to inform students and parents of their target grades.

Our decision does not mean we will not track their progress using assessment data; rather we will use assessment data to enhance our teaching.

Those of us who learn at Huntington School do so in a culture of the possible. We do not believe that anyone can achieve anything; rather, we believe that with dedication, industry and know-how individuals can make progress beyond what anyone, including themselves, could have imagined.

And that should please students, parents and, of course, Sir Michael Barber.

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As an EEF-IEE Research School we wouldn’t have made the decision to stop publishing data targets to students and parents without a paper justifying the decision…

 

[1] http://schoolsweek.co.uk/childline-reveals-rise-in-exam-stress-counselling-sessions/

[2] Sir Michael Barber, The Learning Game, (Phoenix; New edition, 25 Sept. 1997)

[3] Ibid, p. 253

[4] http://behaviourguru.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/this-engine-runs-on-hope-why-schools.html

[5] Ibid

[6] Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (New York: Robinson, 2012)

[7] Mandy Swann et al, Learning Without Limits, (Open University Press, 1 April 2012), p. 4

Posted in Research, School Leadership, Teaching and Learning | 23 Comments

This much I know about…a teacher’s most valuable legacy

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about a teacher’s most valuable legacy.

What does it matter if you leave a legacy? Recently, one of my favourite leadership gurus, Tim Brighouse, warned all school leaders seeking a legacy to beware. Such an endeavour, ‘so easily leads to hubris; that kind of narcissistic confidence in your own almost supernatural powers which tempts some leaders to think they can do almost anything’.[1] As Brighouse points out, ‘some heads are prone to hubristic tendencies, and heads of chains of schools – even CEOs of teaching alliances – are certainly at risk’.[2] Any school leader would do well to heed Brighouse’s warning.

We deal in flesh and blood, not wood and steel. If we leave a legacy, it is surely within the children we teach, not some shiny building or a sprawling multi-academy trust. This week three past students’ accomplishments reminded me of the only legacy that matters…

The new Oxo mum is one Morag Whyman. She was before my time, but a Huntington alumnus nonetheless and one fondly remembered by many of my current colleagues:

A starter for 10! I taught Chris Ducklin in a resit English GCSE class back in 1989. He was determination personified as a youth and last Monday he was a member of the winning (and possibly oldest ever) team on University Challenge:

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BTW, there is a new Twitter account entitled @Duckers_shirt.

The new Francis Ford Coppola? Lastly, there’s Matt O’Brien, a lad to whom I taught the Gangster movie genre back in 1999. He is now a film maker and his first advert for Teach First was released last week:

Although the Apprentice parody is at the heart of the advert’s success, perhaps, just maybe, the lesson where I deconstructed the restaurant assassination scene in The Godfather is embedded, somewhere, deep within Matt’s 50 seconds of genius?

We lost one of our own recently. Ann McKeown, head teacher of Huntington Primary Academy, died suddenly back in July, just before term ended. This Sunday afternoon we will be celebrating her life in a memorial service. My eulogy to her tireless work for her pupils ends thus:

In the end, the most valued testimonial for any head teacher is the children she sets off into the world, and year after year for a decade Ann has passed on to our school a precious cargo. Children who are confident, independent-minded, passionate about learning and intellectually challenging, for whom nothing but the best is good enough. Indeed, when you consider those epithets – confident, independent-minded, passionate about learning, intellectually challenging – they can only be Ann’s children.

Ann lives on in the hearts and minds of those she taught. I see them every day on the corridors of our school, Ann’s very own family of Mini-Me McKeowns!

[1] Tim Brighouse, “Ministers should recall: pride comes before a fall” in The Times Educational Supplement (TES, 18/25 December 2015, no. 5177), p. 17

[2] Ibid.

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This much I know about…a brilliant, evidence-informed note-taking technique (and our new Research School…)!!

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about a brilliant, evidence-informed note-taking technique (and our new Research School…)!

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The greatest test of a school is what’s going on when non-one’s looking. Yesterday, during last lesson, I took the new Head of Manor Academy, Simon Barber, on a tour of Huntington. We chanced upon Penny Holland, our Subject Leader for Science & Associate member of SLT, teaching Year 11. Whilst the students continued with their work, she explained how she had developed a note-taking technique which embedded the learning in students’ memories efficiently and effectively in a short space of time:

  1. Begin with teacher explanation. Students have pens down and have 100% attention on Penny’s explanation. Eyes looking at Penny and the board, with Penny’s radar on detecting anyone whose focus is less than total.
  2. In this lesson there was a precise explanation of metallic bonding, tied directly into the GCSE specification. The BIG IDEA for this group at the moment is bonding and each lesson deals with a specific aspect of bonding.
  3. On the board Penny had written a labelled diagram, key terminology and brief theory and then made a direct link between the content and the common questions from past exam papers. She had instructed the students, using the If…then… model: “If you see these key words in the question, then this is the knowledge you need to answer correctly”.
  4. She had then modelled the answer to one of the examination questions. The students were still utterly focused. And importantly, they had taken no notes at all.
  5. Penny then rubbed off key parts of her boardwork and tasked the students with making their own notes based on the bare bones of Penny’s notes left on the board.
  6. The first individuals to finish their notes can go up to the board and fill in the blanks on the board which Penny has rubbed off. The competition to finish first and earn the right to complete the gaps on the board keeps the students focused and provides help for the others who haven’t been as quick.
  7. The lesson concluded with their books closed and a white board assessment, checking their learning and embedding in their memory what they had taken notes on. Extended learning last night was to revise what they had learnt about metallic bonding in the lesson yesterday, ready to be retested at the beginning of today’s lesson.

Evidence-informed teaching is becoming embedded in our classrooms like the words in a stick of rock. Penny has invented that note-taking process as a result of her department’s work on Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction. She is also keen on developing metacognitive strategies, prompted by the Education Endowment Foundation/Sutton Trust’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit. And  she has read Nuthall’s The Hidden Lives of Learners – if you notice, the students experienced the metallic bonding content three times in one lesson à la Nuthall (Penny’s explanation; their note taking; the whiteboard testing…and with the review in today’s lesson it will be four times).

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Necessity (and a highly sophisticated, evidence-informed knowledge of the learning process) is the mother of invention. Penny realised last year that she had to be laying down new learning in students’ neural pathways as soon as possible. There is no time for passive note-taking. She had learnt from Rosenshine that even when she was pushed for time she had to…Review, Review, Review!

A Network of Research Schools…Huntington School has been designated as one of five schools in the new Education Endowment Foundation and Institute for Effective Education joint project to establish a national network of Research Schools. The other Research Schools are:

Join in the evidence-informed revolution! If you want to wander your school when no-one’s looking and find your teachers teaching deliberately, using evidence-informed techniques which have the best chance of improving students’ academic progress, get in touch; you can email us at HuntResearchSch@gmail.com and find us on the embryonic Research School website. A newsletter and further information about training and support are imminent. And do follow our Twitter feed at @HuntResearchSchool.

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Alex Quigley, Director, and Jane Elsworth, Assistant Director, of Huntington Research School

 

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This much I know about…an eloquent, authentic argument against the reintroduction of Grammar Schools

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about an eloquent, authentic argument against the reintroduction of Grammar Schools.

Wisdom is priceless. The author of this letter is a retired judge and a retired governor of Huntington School. I am hugely grateful to him for allowing me to publish his email.

Hello John,

I read of your reaction to the proposed new policies on education and wonder if my experiences might help.

I went to my Grammar School from 1948 to 1955 and was fortunate to do so. The teaching was generally to a good standard (sometimes outstanding) with the result the School was high achieving.  It took me and many of my friends to University and into the professions and on this basis I ought to be a supporter of the eleven plus selection. However, as the years have gone by I have realised none of this happened without enormous cost to the community.

From the outset there was an unbridgeable gap between us and the majority who had not passed the exam. Those of us who passed were immediately regarded (and self-regarded) as superior to those who failed and there was a corresponding dejection and feeling of inferiority in those who had not made it. In later life I have spoken to some who failed and they tell me these scars lasted well into adulthood. As our schooling progressed this division between those who passed and those who did not increased. Those superior/inferior feelings were always there and at every level the Grammar Schools ignored the Secondary Schools and accentuated the division. We played sport against other Grammars in (e.g.) Manchester, Bolton and Bradford, but there was never any contact with another school in the City. As individuals socially we stayed with our school friends and our paths never crossed those of the other schools.

Inevitably those in the Secondary Moderns never had the benefit of the stimulus the more able pupils might have provided. But equally the Grammar School boys were deprived of any meaningful insight into the social and developmental problems of the less fortunate, so reducing the maturity and devaluing the intellectual benefits the Grammar School education had brought to those who enjoyed it.

Any comparison with fee-paying schools is not really appropriate: we live in a free society and we all use our means to finance the lifestyle we choose. If some choose to bear the cost and spare the community the expense of educating their children that is a matter for them. But grammars and comprehensives are each financed from the public purse and it does seem basically wrong that that purse should be used to establish the huge inequalities and unfairness selection at so early an age brings.

I am sure you will receive a mountain of comment from others in the City. My view is you know about these things better than most!

My kindest wishes to you and to everyone at Huntington…

Posted in General educational issues, School Leadership | 2 Comments

This much I know about…whether stopping extra revision sessions after school works (and why we don’t need Grammar Schools)

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about whether stopping extra revision sessions after school works (and why we don’t need Grammar Schools).

Less is more. Back in February I wrote a post about how I had told colleagues that I did not expect them to offer extra revision sessions after school in the run up to the summer examinations. I just wanted every single teacher to teach the best lessons they possibly could during the normal contact time they had with students. Truly great classroom teaching is the only thing which secures genuinely great students outcomes. The post went viral and made headlines nationally. We are now analysing our students’ 2016 GCSE results which will, to some extent, reflect the success, or otherwise, of resisting the urge to offer extra revision sessions. Overall, our students’ results are very good. At GCSE the attainment levels are the highest we have known and we wait optimistically for our Progress 8 score from the DfE. At A level our ALPs score is yet again in the red, suggesting our students’ progress between GCSE and A level is excellent. Subject Leaders have each written a report on their students’ results and I am in the process of meeting with them to chat about how we might tweak things to improve, at the margins, teaching and learning in each one’s subject.

History is a complex subject at GCSE. Success in History depends upon students knowing a huge amount of historical content and those students’ literacy skills. It is an Ebacc subject, to boot. It is, perhaps, a good barometer of a school’s performance overall. The History GCSE and A level results at Huntington this summer were pretty damned good and owed much to the out-going Subject Leader, John Titmas, who, over eight years, had stuck resolutely to improving the quality of teaching in his department above all else. His GCSE cohort this summer was truly mixed ability. Unlike the previous few years, where there were two History GCSE cohorts with one taking the History GCSE and the other taking the Applied History GCSE, this was a single cohort taking the History GCSE. Here is the analysis of the KS4 outcomes for History:

Year No. of cands %A*-C target grades Mock exam A*-C % Actual A*-C %
2011 129 97% 62% 60%
2012 113 88% 50% 67%
2013 79 96% 59% 77%
2014 78 98% 79% 86%
2015 81 100% 83% 91.4%
2016 82 98% 73% 83%

 

Year No. of cands %A*-A   target grades Mock exam A*-A % Actual A*-A %
2011 129 47% 19% 18%
2012 113 37% 19% 32%
2013 79 39% 32% 32%
2014 78 53% 46% 45%
2015 81 66% 26% 51%
2016 82 56% 46% 46%
  • A strong set of results in 2016, and although we were 6% down on 2015 figures for both A*-C and A*-A, we largely matched the strong performance of 2014, despite the lack of Applied History groups in 2016.
  • 83% A*-C compares well to the 69% national average. Previous high A*-C from a whole cohort (i.e. without an Applied History course running) in the last 10 years was 68%.
  • 0.2 residual against FFTD. 0.14 residual in comparison to other subjects at Huntington.
  • Significant increase in A* conversions, however A*-A total 5% down to 45% from 50% last year. It does compare favourably to the national average of 29%.
  • It was our best A* numbers in recent years – 28% compared to 17% last year. Two students achieved 200 UMS and three others were above 195.
  • Paper 2 performance (historically the weakest element of the assessment) was strong, particularly at the top end with 44% of students achieving an A* in this paper. Our modal grade in every unit was A*.
  • Increased ‘tail’ of 10% E-U may have its cause in having no Applied History course this year. This is something to look at carefully in 2016-7, given our tracking data for our Year 11 2017 cohort shows a similar pattern.
  • As with the two previous years, the significant increase in attainment from mock to actual grades achieved is encouraging, suggesting that the identification and implementation of minimal, targeted interventions was effective. We followed school guidance and did not provide pre-exam intervention outside of the timetable; we found focussing on teaching in lessons and a measured, planned revision process within those lessons successful.

GCSE Attainment against Huntington targets 2016

Student Target Number of students Above On Below Avg target residual
A* 22 N/A 16 6 -0.4
A 24 7 7 10 -0.3
B 19 5 8 6 -0.36
C 15 3 5 7 -1.1
D 2 2 -3
Total 82 15 35 32  
  • Targets met or surpassed with 61% of the cohort in 2016, an increase on the 56% rate achieved in 2015, and considerably above the 51% figure in 2014.
  • We remain strong at converting A/A* targets in particular. Improving the percentage of C-target students meeting their targets remains a crucial focus.

The world is for the discontented. The results aren’t perfection, but…what I like best about this analysis is the sense of wanting to do better next year, especially for the C/D grade target students. And of course the line, We followed school guidance and did not provide pre-exam intervention outside of the timetable; we found focussing on teaching in lessons and a measured, planned revision process within those lessons successful.

York has no grammar schools and no selection by ability. Huntington School has a truly comprehensive in-take. Houses around Huntington are relatively cheap. If you live near our school you can get a tremendous education irrespective of your academic starting point or socio-economic background: that is the case for all the secondary schools in our City. We all have genuinely high expectations of our students. Why replicate Kent’s school system? Why not try to replicate what is going on in York or London, rather than re-introduce Grammar Schools and selection by ability? In York we have a city that works for everyone…

Posted in General educational issues, School Leadership, Teaching and Learning | 7 Comments

This much I know about…my researchED 2016 presentation (with video!)

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about my researchED 2016 presentation (with video!).

Slides: john-tomsett-red-10-09-16

Video:

 

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