This much I know about…how examination boards are making the teacher recruitment and retention crisis worse

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about how examination boards are making the teacher recruitment and retention crisis worse.

This conversation happened yesterday afternoon between me and Laura, one of our brightest and best, incredibly dedicated young teachers. She teaches the OCR Cambridge National Certificate in Health & Social Care, Levels 1/2. I was walking the school during the last lesson of the week, visiting every Year 11 class to offer support to teachers and students. Laura was coming out of her office – she is a House Pastoral Leader – and I just asked her how things were going…

Me: ‘Hi Laura, how are things going?’

Laura: ‘Oh fine, I’m just a bit stressed.’

Me: ‘Stressed or under pressure?’

Laura: ‘Oh, it’s fine, it’s just this Health & Social Care marking. I’ve got 29 pieces of coursework to mark on this new spec and the exam board have sent us no exemplars. Nothing. There is nothing to help us mark this coursework. I have been on the chat rooms in the evening trying to find someone who might mark with me, but the closest person I can find is in Cumbria. She said, “Yes, come over to me and we’ll work together”, but I haven’t got time to go across there at the weekend. So, I am desperate to mark the work, but I don’t feel confident that I know what the difference is between “Basic”, “Sound” and “Thorough” – especially between “Basic” and “Sound” – and when you ring the board to ask for help they make you feel like you are cheating.’

Me: ‘That’s outrageous.’

Laura: ‘Do you want to see what I have to do?’

Me: ‘Sure.’

Laura then took me to her classroom, where piles of coursework were strewn across  every table, and showed me what she has to mark. She has 29 students’ work to assess, having to write comments to justify her marks in 7 boxes for each student. That is 203 separate comments with minimal, if any, support from OCR. Page after page of assessment descriptors without any exemplar materials to help Laura, and her colleagues across the country, make accurate interpretations of what on earth the descriptors mean:

And when Laura talked me through the coursework and showed me the descriptors it was even worse, because at least one of the descriptors was quite confused:

‘Some’ is quantitative; ‘minor’ is qualitative; ‘few’ is quantitative’. I could misspell eight words and that would constitute ‘some’ errors, but I could misuse a comma 50 times and that would constitute 50 ‘minor’ punctuation errors. Just one spelling mistake would constitute ‘few’ spelling errors. How did this get through OFQUAL’s quality assurance mechanisms?

If we want to recruit and retain the very best teachers in our schools, the examination boards have a responsibility to stop this assessment nonsense. If we have to have descriptors, and each descriptor is linked to a certain number of marks and the teacher has to decide a best fit for the piece of work and award a specific mark accordingly, why does the teacher have to write comments to justify the marks? It is obvious that the teacher has awarded that mark because he or she thinks it meets that descriptor. If, as an examination board moderator, you want to judge whether the teacher has awarded a mark accurately, read the student’s work, not the teacher’s commentary, because the commentary will just mirror the descriptor.

We have to keep the Lauras of our teaching world in our schools. Our Laura works tirelessly. Students adore her. She is brilliant in the classroom and a superb middle leader. I want her to have her weekends back. I want her to remain in the profession.

But what Laura showed me yesterday, on a wet Friday afternoon in late April, when the pressure of impending examinations is at its peak, was wholly unnecessary. As a school we are doing a great number of things to reduce teacher workload, but if the examination boards are piling the pressure on teachers through their inadequate and unnecessary assessment practices, we will continue to see the teacher recruitment and retention crisis deepen.

Posted in General educational issues, School Leadership, Teaching and Learning | 6 Comments

This much I know about…metacognition and self-regulation

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about metacognition and self-regulation.

As Jim Royle would say, “Magic dust, my ****!” If you read all the edu-chat around lately, it feels like metacognition & self-regulation are the universal panaceæ to cure all teaching & learning ills. Flavour of the month for the teacher-magpie…sprinkle a pinch of metacognition over your lesson plan and all will be well…just behind Feedback, they are number 2 on the Education Endowment Foundation Teaching & Learning Toolkit…lob in a dose of self-regulation and, hey presto, students’ outcomes this summer will be tickety-boo! But, as anyone who has taught knows, it is not quite as simple as that…

What on earth is a self-regulated learner? I am planning my next book and it is about fishing rather than education. It has been nourishing to think about something else other than education in my down-time. But, that said, one of my fishing anecdotes exemplifies precisely what is meant by a self-regulated learner. I was fly fishing for trout. Anchored in the middle of the reservoir, there were fish rising all around the boat. I could barely thread the line through the rod-rings for excitement. I began with a black gnat fly. I swiftly moved on to a mayfly, then a daddy-longlegs. Nothing. The fish ignored my several offerings as they continued to tail walk in front of me, waving with their fins. If one had jumped into the boat of its own accord, I wouldn’t have been surprised. An hour later, having worked really hard, I was fishless. It was pointless carrying on in the same vein. I took stock of what was happening. My technique was fine. I was casting well, so that the fly presented naturally on the water. I was using gunk to keep the fly afloat. I had cast in every direction around the boat. I had experimented with a range of different flies. What else could I could I do? It was at that moment, reflecting upon what I was doing and what I knew about fish, that I peered over the side of the boat. So small they were almost imperceptible, I could see dozens of miniscule flies, tiny, green aphids. I had nothing so small in my fly box, but I did have a green fly to which I took my scissors and cut away from the hook all but the merest flick of green feather. My shorn imitation greenfly had sat on the surface of the water for no more than a second before a hefty rainbow trout snuffled it away. I caught three trout in three casts, six fish in ten. Then the sun broke through the early morning mist and the trout vanished into deeper water.

As a fisherman, I am an experienced self-regulated learner. Self-regulated learning involves: cognition (the skills and knowledge needed to complete the learning task) – I have fished for nearly fifty years and have a huge hoard of skills and knowledge to draw upon; metacognition (the ability to control cognitive skills) – on that greenfly day I constantly monitored what was going on and after an hour of trying different techniques, reviewed what I was doing and applied my skills and knowledge to find a solution to my lack of success in tempting a fish; and motivation to apply these skills and abilities – returning home without a fish to a derisory reception from my sons wasn’t an option…

Metacognition & self-regulation aren’t at number 2 in the charts for nothing. The EEF guidance report on metacognition and self-regulation is due out at the end of this month and provides a definitive guide to understanding and implementing metacognitive practices in the classroom. It has been written by Alex Quigley, Daniel Muijs and Eleanor Stringer, some of the best edu-brains in the business. If you want to be trained on how to implement the EEF’s findings on metacognition and self-regulation, you can sign up here. Not only will you improve your teaching and your students’ learning, you might just get better at whatever it is you do when I am off fishing…

Posted in Research, Teaching and Learning | 1 Comment

This much I know about…being an agnostic

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about being an agnostic.

When it comes to religion, I am an agnostic, I think. So it was odd to find myself delivering an assembly recently which ended with a prayer. As I get older it becomes harder to sleep and so Prayer for the Day sometimes seeps into my consciousness as dawn breaks. A few weeks ago The Reverend Dr Alison Jack of Edinburgh University’s School of Divinity delivered a prayer which moved me to such an extent that I was prompted to share it with the entire school community, staunch agnostic that I am. Click on the image below to listen:

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This much I know about…how Progress 8 might just be a proxy measure for poverty and EAL

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about how Progress 8 might just be a proxy measure for poverty and EAL.

It is worth pointing out the bleeding obvious. When we were inspected back in October, I failed to point out to the inspection team that our cohort is 95%+ White British, the sixth worst performing ethnic group in England at Key Stage 4 in 2017 in terms of progress (P8 score: -0.14). The five ethnic groups whose P8 score was worse than White British were:  traveller of Irish heritage (-1.13); Gypsy/Roma (-0.80); white and black Caribbean (-0.33); black Caribbean (-0.23); Chinese unclassified (-0.41). With the average P8 score for disadvantaged students being c. -0.4, then it is not hard to see that if your cohort is overwhelmingly White British and disadvantaged, then, according to the data, the challenge to secure a positive P8 score is huge.

Gorton vs York revisited. A few weeks ago I queried why a disadvantaged child in Gorton, Manchester, makes better progress than his or her York counterpart at every stage of his or her education. It prompted the Principal of Manchester Enterprise Academy in Wythenshawe in Manchester, James Eldon, to contact me. He sent me two graphs. The first graph plots the 2017 outcomes of a number of schools whose cohort is 0-5% English as an Additional Language. The Y-axis measures the schools’ Progress 8 scores and the X-axis measures the percentage of “Pupil Premium Ever 6” students:

The second graph plots the 2017 outcomes of a number of schools whose cohort is 35-40% “Pupil Premium Ever 6”. The Y-axis measures the schools’ Progress 8 scores and the X-axis measures the percentage of EAL students:

A school’s Progress 8 scores certainly measures its students’ academic progress; after looking at these two graphs, James Eldon and I wonder whether the Progress 8 score also measures the levels of poverty and EAL within a school’s student body.

 

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This much I know about…how we can make 39,528 individual interventions to help vulnerable students make better progress

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about how we can make 39,528 individual interventions to help vulnerable students make better progress.

Why is the number 4,392 relevant to our vulnerable students? (By vulnerable students we mean those students who are low attainers on entry, have a Special Educational Need or Disability, or are disadvantaged, including those who are in care.) The answer is that in a bog standard comprehensive school like ours, which has five one hour lessons a day, five days a week for 37.6 weeks a year (that is 39 weeks a year minus training days and bank holidays, except for in Year 11 when it is 32.6 weeks because the lessons stop five weeks before the end of the summer term), and where the students attend for an average of 96% of the time, 4,392 is the number of lessons a single vulnerable student attends, on average, from the day s/he begins Year 7 until s/he attends the final lesson in Year 11.

Why our vulnerable students especially? Well, our vulnerable students, especially our low attainers on entry, make the least progress of all our different specific cohorts of students. Changing that situation, so that our vulnerable students, especially our low attainers on entry, make similar progress to all the other students, is proving a struggle. For the last six months we have been thinking as hard as we have ever done, in the near fifteen years I have been a head teacher, about a single school improvement challenge. At one point we asked a range of our vulnerable students what it was that their teachers did which helped them learn most effectively. They said ‘we learn most when teachers:

  1. explain exactly what we have to do for homework;
  2. help us write down our homework in our planners;
  3. help us understand the meaning of difficult words;
  4. seat us where we can see the board easily;
  5. use coloured paper for handouts to help us read the words more easily;
  6. ask us questions to help us understand;
  7. help us when they are walking round the room;
  8. are kind to us when we get answers wrong;
  9. have a little fun sometimes.’

How can we meet our vulnerable students’ progress challenge? Well, there is no easy answer. We have 112 teachers at Huntington. The majority of our teaching is to mixed attainment classes (click here to access Professor Becky Francis’ Best practice in grouping students project and find out why we largely favour mixed attainment teaching). Now, if all 112 of our teachers were so deliberate in their teaching that, in every one of the 4,392 lessons a vulnerable Huntington student experiences in his or her main school career, the teachers consciously practised those nine simple actions that help our vulnerable students learn, what might the impact be upon our vulnerable students’ progress?

Implementation eats intervention for breakfast. To create a system where all 112 teachers practise these nine simple actions in every lesson, every day is a huge challenge. Just think, for instance, of the practical steps we would have to take to ensure that coloured paper is easily available – and I mean no-hassle-whatsoever-for-me-to-do-that available – for a teacher to make individual copies for the two students in his or her class who feel that handouts on orange paper stop the words moving around the page quite so much (even though the evidence regarding the efficacy of coloured paper on alleviating the symptoms of dyslexia is wafer thin). Just think about it for a moment and you’ll begin to understand that implementing such a simple-sounding intervention is actually pretty complex. But, with some doggedness, we have to try because the nine simple actions practised in 4,392 lessons (that’s 39,528 separate interventions) by every one of our 112 teachers just might help our vulnerable students make the same progress as their less vulnerable peers.

Posted in Research, Teaching and Learning | 2 Comments

This much I know about…how Manchester’s disadvantaged students beat York’s every time

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about how Manchester’s disadvantaged students beat York’s every time.

How much do we really prioritise provision for our disadvantaged students? This is a question which has been bugging me – and I mean really bugging me – since September, when we began reviewing our 2017 student outcomes. In a Local Authority which is one of the poorest funded in the country – one of the poorest funded because York is one of the richest cities in the country – with some of the lowest percentages of students attracting Pupil Premium funding, it is easy for the disadvantaged students to get lost amongst our secondary schools’ generally decent, well above the national average, KS4 outcomes. The fact is, in 2016 our disadvantaged students in York did less well than similar disadvantaged students in Manchester. Yes, you read that correctly. At every transition stage of their school careers, at the end of Early Years, at the end of KS2 and at the end of KS4, if you were a disadvantaged pupil in deepest Gorton, a particularly deprived neighbourhood in Manchester (where the TV series Shameless was loosely based), you had more chance of academic success than your disadvantaged peers in York. Here are the same figures for the 2017 outcomes for disadvantaged pupils in both Manchester and York:

  • The percentage of disadvantaged pupils who met at least the expected standard in all Early Learning Goals: 45% in York vs. 57% in Manchester;
  • The percentage of disadvantaged pupils who met at least the expected standard in Reading, Writing and Mathematics at the end of KS2: 40% in York vs. 53% in Manchester;
  • The Attainment 8 figure for disadvantaged students: 38 in Manchester vs. 35.9 in York.

The recent EEF report laid down with some clarity the challenge to improve the outcomes of disadvantaged for all of us working in the secondary sector:

The EEF report was equally clear about where we should begin if we are going to improve the academic progress of disadvantaged students:

What happens in the classroom makes the biggest difference: improving teaching quality generally leads to greater improvements at lower cost than structural changes. There is particularly good evidence around the potential impact of teacher professional development.

Over the next month I will be blogging about the work we have been doing at Huntington to improve the outcomes of our disadvantaged students. The first post will reveal what our disadvantaged students told us when we asked them the question: “What do teachers do in the classroom that really helps you learn?”

Posted in General educational issues, School Leadership, Teaching and Learning | 3 Comments

This much I know about…how, as school leaders, we have to solve the recruitment crisis ourselves

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about how, as school leaders, we have to solve the recruitment crisis ourselves.

No more blame game. It would be easy to bewail the fact that the teacher recruitment figures are down by a third on last year, but I don’t see the point. I have already written at length about the teacher recruitment crisis and concluded that help from government to address the problem is unlikely to be forthcoming. What we have to do is help ourselves. And one of the things School leaders have to do is address the teacher workload issue.

Senior Leaders can choose the culture they create in their schools. We have to stop implementing policies which make the life of a full-time classroom teacher unbearable. Before any policy decision is made, ask three simple questions:

  1. Is this new policy primarily concerned with improving students’ progress?
  2. Have we got compelling evidence of the effectiveness of this new policy?
  3. Will this new policy add to the workload of full-time classroom teachers?

If your answers are YES; YES; NO, in that order, you should then consult with colleagues about implementing the policy. If the answer to the final question is YES, then identify what you stop doing as a school if you want to pursue the implementation of the new policy.

Remember the joy of the job. Geoff Barton published a great piece yesterday about reclaiming ‘the career of teaching for what it can be’, of remembering to value ‘the arts, the sport, the modern foreign languages, the extra-curricular experiences that will help our young human beings to become ever more distinctively human’. Geoff’s rallying cry is no flimsy, liberal nonsense; the essence of what Geoff says is at the heart of the solution to the recruitment crisis. If we, as school leaders, cannot make teaching an attractive, deeply satisfying, joyful job then our children will never have in front of them the high quality teachers they deserve.

Posted in General educational issues, Research, School Leadership, Teaching and Learning | 6 Comments