Saturday, 29 December 2012


When I first started to blog, a couple of years ago, I had intended to be both prolific and insightful. Two children later, spare time is scarce and the energy required to compose even the most banal of observations seems self indulgent and perhaps wasteful when I could be engaging in truly deep procrastination or, say, attempting to cheat the system by over marking some GCSE controlled assessments.

Last week I left The Highfield School in Letchworth Garden City after six happy years. In January I take up post as Vice Principal at Impington Village College in Cambridge, a challenge I'm hugely excited about. The image above is my leaving gift. I post it here because it does sort of sum up my priorities in life (apart from the revising naked bit - there's a story there for another post!), (and not to suggest that being a dad comes last - far from it!).

On those rare occasions when I have sat down to write a blog post recently I’ve tended to focus on policy, upon Gove or upon the latest scandal to erupt in our faces. I haven’t tended to use this blog as a forum for writing about what fills the majority of my working and thinking life: engaging in and leading teaching and learning.

So I’ve had a go. Below are ten things I feel strongly about when it comes to teaching.

1. The setting v mixed ability argument is a red-herring.

Every class of children ever put together is of mixed ability. Because most parents (not to mention journalists and politicians) experienced a form of whole school streaming by ‘ability’ (you choose your measure, it could be anything you like) at school, they generally don’t understand the difference between systems like that and setting.

Those of us who believe in aspiration and raising standards surely believe in what Carole Dweck terms a ‘growth mindset’ for young people. It has always been my view that school selection by ability and streaming are rooted in the belief in a ‘fixed’ determination of ability and are the parents of under achievement and social immobility. Nothing yet has disavowed me of that view.

I believe streaming across a school is a cruel and damaging practice that limits potential, stifles aspirations, encourages poor teaching and very likely discriminates. Intelligent setting within subjects or faculties, however, can be one of the most effective and important things a middle leader will do to drive improvement.

At the start of my career I was an evangelical fan of mixed ability setting in English. Time and experience has convinced me that, whatever the depth of differentiation a teacher can provide, the needs of a child requiring intensive guidance and support to achieve, say, a C at GCSE are simply too different to those of a child capable of an A or an A*. Similarly, I don’t think it is appropriate or helpful for Year 7 children working at level 3 or below to share an English classroom with children capable of independently reading, say, Tolkein or Shakespeare. I want to see greater, more effective differentiation in teaching, but such a divergent range of needs makes it near impossible to achieve effectively.

However, we also know that setting enables misguided middle leaders to create ‘good’ and ‘bad’ groups. Setting can too often be based on behavior or a desire to separate ‘problematic’ students from less effective teachers. Worse, in a high accountability culture, I’ve seen middle leaders deliberately gift themselves groups of a statistically ‘mixed’ ability, but with decidedly uniformly good attitudes to learning (let’s call it the ‘Free School’ approach).

The smart thing to do is to be pragmatic. What does your knowledge of a cohort of individuals, your understanding of the strengths of your team and the prior attainment data suggest is the best way to set? The answer to that question can and probably should be different year on year. For example, at my school this year we had a clutch of under-performing boys at the end of Year 10 in English. Most had targets of C (some lower) and all were miles away from hitting that.  I had a good working relationship with them and was a senior member of staff so we decided to create a small, all male group which I’d teach. They’ve made good progress in that class and we’ve avoided the possibility of them disrupting the learning of other groups and falling further behind. Pragmatic, intelligent and impactful setting.

2. Students learn quite a lot listening to an informed and engaging teacher talk.

An inconvenient truth: every time I’ve asked motivated, high achieving students to describe the features of lessons they feel they learn the most from, they describe teacher-led, interesting and engaging lectures, discussions and debates. Conversely, every time I’ve asked the same of a group of students with weaker attitudes towards their learning (not necessarily lower ability), they reply that they prefer being ‘left alone to get on with a task’. We know that what they really mean is that they simply want to be left alone – the completion of the task is generally of little importance. The challenge of interaction, engagement and thought is something they would rather eschew or defer. This is not a question of learning styles but of learning preferences – a willingness to learn and to think set against a tendency to disengage, perhaps vaguely consolidating existing skills but essentially avoiding being stretched. We shouldn’t be sacrificing the former in order to appeal to the latter.

In recent years, too many Oftsed inspectors and school leaders have measured the effectiveness of a lesson in almost inverse proportion to the amount of input the teacher offers. The suggestion is that setting up inquiry based problems and the occasional ‘re-shaping’ of a task is of greater impact than instruction, modeling and direction. This is a tyranny of wrong headed-ness that has allowed many effective and inspirational teachers to feel they need to do things differently when being observed. Many have been told they are inadequate because they choose to teach rather than ‘facilitate’. It is daft and needs to change.

I'm going to read the whole novel to you class - in a cowboy hat. Because stetsons are cool!

The problem is not teacher input, but ineffective, dull or repetitive teacher input. This becomes difficult when observations come into play because it is tricky and sometimes subjective to evaluate the extent to which an individual is engaging or inspirational. It is easier to offer feedback along the lines of ‘you talked too much’ than it is to say ‘your content and delivery was flat and the children were clearly bored and disengaged’.  After all, when was the last time you attended a course or INSET which was actually ‘facilitated’ rather than led? I think I’d want my money back.

3. Assessment is spoiling all the fun.

I get that it is important. The absence of it is often a strong indicator of ineffective teaching and the more frequent use of it can have a big impact in improving standards. I believe wholeheartedly in the power of formative assessment and high quality feedback, but I also get that it is a terrible, terrible drudgery and its misuse is spoiling all the fun.

Here’s the thing. If you don’t mark their work, children will correctly view you as a lazy fraud. Phil Beadle describes marking as ‘the single most important thing a teacher does’ and I pretty much agree. That inner voice every good teacher hears when they fall egregiously behind (we’ve all done it!) needs listening to. But school leaders also need to understand (or rather remember!) that is takes bloody ages, is sheer drudgery and can, when done badly, feel almost pointless. Be realistic, rigorous and fair about what you ask for, show or model how you want it done and, unless you have cause for concern, give reasonable notice of when you plan to sample.

Then there is the present obsession with shoehorning assessment into every fifteen minute chunk of a lesson. I’ve heard leaders and inspectors talking as if ‘showing evidence of progress’ for the benefit of an observer were the primary aim of teaching! This combined with a culture of obsessive high stakes testing and accountability means that we have a system so assessment driven that we are producing children who are more conversant with the intricacies of marking and assessment criteria than they are with the content of the subjects they are studying. You should, as an experienced teacher or observer, be able to judge whether or not the class are making good progress without them all needing to repeatedly hold up a coloured card or stick their thumbs in the air like demented Roman emperors in order to be able to prove it!

As an English teacher, I was hurt and angered by the GCSE grading fiasco in 2012. One of the many reasons it smarts is precisely because of how good at assessment we have all become. We understood and communicated clearly what the children needed to do to secure a particular grade (nothing wrong with that) and so we knew perfectly clearly when that goal post had been shifted to prevent a politically uncomfortable rise in the pass rate.

I like marking so much I invented a stamp! Above is a marking stamp I designed and bought for every teacher in my school. 

The Assessment for Learning agenda has driven some excellent work in schools over the last fifteen years. Dylan William is spot on when he describes AfL as an effective ‘Trojan Horse’ enabling reflection on so many other areas of classroom practice. Sadly it has also been hijacked and abused for more reductive purposes.

Therefore for me, at present, assessment is becoming a boil on the behind of our system. And I certainly don’t think the EBC is the lance!

4. Group work is pointless without leadership and clearly defined roles.

I observe a lot of lessons. I’ve seen plenty fall apart the moment the children ‘break into groups’. This isn’t because they are in groups per se, but because there have been no roles established or criteria for success shared. In the workplace we have leadership structures and job descriptions to enable us to work effectively in teams.

The same has to be the case in the classroom. Otherwise why bother? On the days I am being well organised I assign a chair, a spokesperson, a researcher, a questioner, a recorder and so on (depending on the task). I have cards to indicate these roles. If the groups work, I stick with them too. If they fail, I try something new. It isn’t rocket science, but it is amazing the amount of group tasks I see fail for want of structures and guidance like this. Let’s face it, unless we are given a pretty tight task and timeline we all prefer to gossip, joke and flirt when placed in groups. It’s much more fun!

5. Entering students for exams multiple times (re-sits) is not cheating, it is how life works and it   actually encourages resilience and smart-failure.

Can anyone explain to me why re-sits or multiple entries are inherently a bad thing? This might sound odd given I’ve already expressed my disdain for excessive assessment but the reality of the system we have at the moment is that outcomes are important for student and school alike. I wish I hadn’t failed my driving theory test when I was seventeen (although I could have done without the round of applause in the common room) but I’m glad I was given a second chance. I’m also quite glad I experienced failure for the first time; I actually revised and worked harder for it the second time around.

Why is it wrong to give students as many chances to fail and succeed as possible? The only possible objection I think I’d ever raise as a parent were if I felt my child were being unduly pressured to enter before they were ready, or if no opportunity for a second chance were to be given. If we enter a child for their GCSE at the end of Year 10 or in the January of Year 11, why shouldn’t they try to secure good grades then and revisit the exam later to see if they can improve? If they can reach a set criteria, surely the point in the year at which they reach it is moot? If your objection is that it creates a test obsessed system, then change the system but don’t be surprised when schools in a high stakes system do all they can to make sure their students navigate the system as successfully as possible.

Nobody ever modelled an answer for me or suggested how to structure an essay. Why not? Is this cheating?

Or is it that you believe enabling more students to reach a certain level devalues your own achievements all those years ago? Is it just that you want more people to fail? Seriously, I don’t understand the problem.

6. The most under-rated skill we can teach is effective oracy.

I have never judged a lesson to be 'outstanding' without hearing the voice of every child at least once. What’s more it is rare I’ll find a lesson ‘good’ without that occurring. This is because effective directed questioning is the best form of differentiation a teacher can ever apply and because a cogent verbal response is the clearest means a teacher has of judging that a child is making progress.

Perhaps most importantly, I believe in the absolute power of children finding a strong resounding voice in school. Harold Rosen (father of the feisty Michael) encapsulated the power of classroom talk beautifully in his 1969 study Language, the learner and the school: ‘We are saying that it is as talkers, questioners, arguers, gossips, chatterboxes that our pupils do much of their most important learning’

If we embrace the learning power of talk, we need to teach it explicitly, shape it, lead it and insist upon fine examples of it.  In particular, those of us who care about equality and harmony have a duty to promote this; experience has taught me that the only truly harmonious classrooms are those in which every student feels safe to speak.

7. Collaborative planning and peer observation is the most effective use of directed time in schools.

In my first year as a Head of English and Drama I knew what needed to be done and it made me feel a little bit sick. While we had resources and a few schemes of work, there was little that was common or consistent about what we were doing as a team. Over time we developed common schemes and assessments in most areas, but doing this took years and was a difficult journey, never fully completed. However, it made a huge difference to outcomes, achievement and the extent to which we learned from and with each other as colleagues.

As Assistant Headteacher one of the most impactful things I led on was the introduction of a whole school framework for medium term planning. We agreed to scrap individual lesson plans and instead asked teams to develop learning ‘maps’ for each unit identifying clear aims and success criteria, lines of questioning, suggested teaching activities and opportunities for teaching of literacy/numeracy skills. Crucially we gave staff time in the form of full days, INSET time and meeting time, to develop these. It enabled staff to plan together and introduced a degree of commonality and consistency to the school which had a real impact on the quality of learning and lessons.

Similarly, I think it is essential that teachers watch one another teach. Forget about appraisal and performance management for a moment – professionals need to share and reflect. I simply don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to do this.

I can’t think of a more useful way of ‘directing’ teacher time than asking staff to plan together and to watch each other teach.

8. Teachers who object to being observed are usually either scarred or scared; school leaders need to address both of these problems.

You still find a very few teachers who cling to the view that any form of appraisal is insulting and threatening and that observation is a gross imposition on their professional integrity. I’m afraid I view such entrenched attitudes with deep disdain and mistrust. Why do you think you are self-employed and what do you have to hide?

I do, however, sympathise deeply with the many who have been scarred by insensitive or aggressive approaches to classroom observation, or those who are scared by the possible implications of a negative outcome from an observation. Gove has grossly botched the changes to appraisal he has introduced. The teaching unions have played their hand very poorly indeed (perhaps he is pleased by this), and schools have been left without clear guidance. The only solution is sensitivity, clarity and pragmatic common sense.

Teachers should welcome observation as a useful means of stimulating continual professional development. We will only do so if we get high quality feedback and the opportunity to observe good practice ourselves. As school leaders and Ofsted we should ensure the process is open, clear, fair and conducted in a supportive fashion. This will only happen when the implications for performance management (pay progression, capability proceedings and so on) are very clear.

9. Bad schools too often blame poor behaviour on poor teaching. The problem is more frequently a failure of systems and sanctions.

Young teachers and new arrivers are the most vulnerable to poor behavior. While I don’t dismiss the link between poor behavior and poor teaching (it is obvious!), too many potentially great teachers are told that their rioting class is their own fault and give up. Perhaps they should try more group work!

The truth is that schools need effective and consistent systems. New staff in particular need to feel able to apply sanctions without fear of being labelled as ‘failing’ for doing so. Pupils much prefer this too; student voice always cites inconsistency as one of the biggest sources of irritation among children. Parents also much prefer a clear system of sanctions and rewards.

I’m increasingly and unapologetically authoritarian when it comes to whole school systems to respond to poor classroom behaviour. I admire Sir Dexter Hutt’s ‘Behaviour for Learning’ approach and think that similar systems have helped to really address poor behaviour in many of the best schools up and down the country in recent years. The classroom shouldn’t be a place of rigidity and austere control, but there should be no doubt that the teacher is in charge and schools have to give teachers the systems to enable that to genuinely be the case.

1    10. The way schools currently use data is capping achievement and damaging aspirations. But it isn’t their fault.

I did it and I’m not proud of it. I once made a child write their target grade of ‘F’ on the front of their exercise book. What an appalling admission. It sounds like something from Dickens and I am ashamed I ever did so. One day I may track that child down and write them a letter of apology.

Of course I was only following orders (!). The school I worked in had a policy of all students writing their target grades on the front of their books. Regardless of whether they were already reaching that target, regardless of whether they were new arrivals in the country whose target had been formulated by the computer on their behalf, regardless of what progress they had made in the intervening four years since they had taken the laughable Key Stage Two test. The school had decided that this was what Ofsted wanted to see and so it was what we should do. To be honest, I can understand why we concluded that was the safest thing to do.

I think it is right that students are given some sort of a minimum grade target. They ought to be told what is the minimum that they should try to achieve. But so many schools have lost sight of the individual. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of using data. I enjoy using data to discuss progress and achievement in a school. I’ve become pretty good at using it to identify patterns of under achievement or excellent achievement. I think data can be pretty sexy in the right hands! I just get really excited when we start to look beyond the numbers and think about what we know about the children the numbers represent.

The problem is that we spend all our time discussing how we can ensure targets are met and virtually none worrying about why they aren’t being exceeded. It can be used to cap aspiration as much as it is used to drive up standards. A child who is generating a target of a B is clearly reasonably able; what is the point of telling them they should aim for a B – tell them they should try for an A! If we think that anything below a C is of little real value, then nobody should ever be given a target below that. To do so, in my opinion, is demeaning.  As a final point on this – why not insist on the little addendum ‘why not better?’ being added each time you ask a student to ‘write down’ their target. If nothing else it will signal to the children that you have a ‘growth’ aspiration for them.

Final thought - marketing needs careful handling.
I spotted this in the Cambridge Evening News a couple of years ago. Read it carefully and you'll spot the howler. Sadly it is too rude to use in school but, among friends. I guess a private education isn't always the most rigorous!

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