something simple I learnt this week 4

This is another ‘learnt from my own children’ simple thing …

I came home this evening and asked my son how is maths lesson went and if had asked his teacher that question about how to work out the area of a circle. He said he had and that his teacher had told him “we are going to do it in a lesson soon.”

I asked him “Do you want me teach it to you now, so that you can be ahead of the others?”

He replied “No I want to be the same as everyone else.”

So the simple thing is that not all children want to be better than others. Which I guess is like adults too. ( see my previous post about striving for an outstanding OFSTED grade for a start).

This is not necessarily a bad thing. There are other things in life than striving to get the highest mark in class.

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When does doing your best become cheating?

In the recent January Maths GCSE exams foundation pupils had to get 17 more marks out of 200 than they did last Summer to a get a grade ‘C’. So if they apply for a college place in a few years time and their next door neighbour, 18 months older with exactly the same Maths ability, is also applying it is likely the elder boy will get the place as this year’s student will have a lower GCSE grade. This whole situation was better explained that I could manage by William Stewart in the TES this week

Yet at the same time the schools are under ever increasing pressure to get more of their pupils the magic 5 A* – C (Including English and Maths). It is like the government is both turning up the heat and pushing down on the saucepan lid at the same time. I mean, we may squeeze out some more ‘C’ grades in the short term, but sooner or later the pot will explode. This is not a sustainable situation. Schools have a choice; head teachers have an important decision to make. Do they continue to play the game to curry favour with their overseers? Or do they come clean and take the honest and truthful path by bravely stepping away from the present day preoccupation with data, predicted grades, FFT and headline figures?

I am not a member of SLT and am no longer a governor, so that dilemma is not mine. But I can tell you what it looks like from the classroom. This Year’s Year 11 are already more dead on their feet than I have ever seen, they are more concerned, stressed and pale looking than before – and its only April. They have been entered early to Maths in January. If they get their predicted grades then they stop studying that subject, and if they didnt they can take the exam again.

For English there is another wheeze that the Guardian’s Secret Teacher pointed out. I am not an English teacher, so please read it to get a proper grasp of what is going on. But the short of it is that someone has found out that one exam board syllabus is easier to get a grade ‘C’ at so it is worth entering your ‘D’ grade students into that one.

Now I bet you that if you asked a head teacher in a school that was trying one or other (or possibly even both) of these schemes, then they would tell you that they are only doing the best for themselves. Others might question whether that headline figure of 5 A* – C including English and Maths might have something to do with it. After all with a higher figure, schools will have a better chance of either delaying an OFSTED inspection or getting a higher grade in one. so why wouldn’t you consider it?

One problem with this approach is that it is undermining the importance of other subjects that are not English and Maths. Teachers of these subjects are feeling less valued and presumably pupils are looking at the subjects in the same way.

But that is not my point. I want to know what effect this is all having on these 15 and 16 year olds. If English is so important, what are the A, B, E, F and G students thinking as they see some of their peers getting extra time and help in this key subject? If Maths is so crucial to their futures, why is not worth the whole year group re-taking? Pupils know what is going on, they can see that a GAME IS BEING PLAYED HERE.

And it is being played with them. Secret teacher is right, they are being reduced to statistics. They don’t count as actual people. Teachers have been moaning at Michael Gove for this. But how can schools claim the moral high ground, when the pressures pupils are increasingly under play second fiddle to getting the right set of results for only of their pupils? This isn’t playing fair or clean; it is playing the system.

But worse, if all the pupils know that some are being entered for an exam as it is easier to get a ‘C’ grade in that syllabus, then  how can we hold ourselves and our school up as a paragon of virtue? And what are we telling our young people about how to get on in life? Is success at something so vital that all rules must be bent and loop holes exploited? Is the only way to get on in life to sneak your way to where you want to be? Does doing your best include not getting caught at cheating?

The way it looks to me is that we are educating children to see the world as somewhere where your own success is more vital than how you achieve it, that winning at all costs isn’t such a bad way of living. We are creating a generation of people who wont mind pulling a fast one on someone else to get what they want. It is up to schools, to teachers, to governors and to head teachers to take a moral stance. Otherwise we are not doing our job properly.

my first ever Teachmeet

I have been meaning to go to one for ages, but you know, pressures of work, young family, tiredness, football on the telly that night…..

So I was  pleased with myself and high on anticipation as I drove along the M27 to the 2nd ever TMPompey, held 100 yards from HMS Victory at Action Stations. There were over a 100 there and quite a few 2 and 7 minute presentations lined up. I was wary of all these keen young teachers (maybe I should be SLT or a “stuck in my way” kinda teacher at this stage of my career) with their new snazzy ideas, because I recall when I first joined twitter and made the mistake of thinking I should be trying every new idea and philosophy going. I just ended up tired and didn’t see anything through (apart from there is still a dose of SOLO in my lesson). Would tonight be the same?

Well no. There was no superiority going down. There didn’t seem to be any hierarchy. The order of presentations was decided by one of those random name generators I have never got round to using in class and so there wasn’t a support-and-headline act type feel to the evening.

No one mentioned the ‘O’ word. This was simply teachers sharing stuff they were enthusiastic about and would recommend for others. People spoke and showed. the aim was collaboration and sharing; not trying to outdo and compete with others. This, more than the ideas themselves, is what I found refreshing and rewarding about the session. Too often we have allowed ourselves to over-worry about getting a higher % of A* to C passes than last year, than the rest of the department, than that other department, than the school across town. Teaching shouldn’t work like that. Learning isn’t measurable, it is too ‘messy’ (description stolen from Tait Coles) and comparisons and tables and competitions are meaningless anyway.

This approach and philosophy is what i would love to see more of. Where good practice is shared, not to gain more outstanding lesson observations and tick the boxes on your appraisal form about pass rates, but instead because a good idea shared develops exponential powers over a good idea withheld. Maybe next time I might even find one of mine I could pass around…….

Second Thoughts on Mr Gove’s new Proposed Curriculum… let’s not worry about it

I wrote my first thoughts on the evening Mr. Gove announced his draft changes to the school curriculum. Now I will have another reflection at them……..

The bottom line is that on second thoughts we don’t really need to worry that much. The document clearly says that it is NOT a directive on how to teach, but rather on the content that needs to be covered. In my small area of expertise (mainly Geography and partly History) I can see that this is not a slimmed down list as was promised. What we are being given is a collection of what some rich old white men with broadly traditional, conservative views of their world think pupils should be learning and more importantly what these children should KNOW.

But why should I be concerned about this?

Firstly, like many I now teach in an academy and officially don’t have to follow all these lists.

Secondly, who would actually ever find out if I didn’t teach Glaciation? After all, in 2o years and 5 inspections I have never had a Geography expert either inspect my department of observe one of my lessons.

But most of all the biggest influence on pupils’ Geographical learning is not what the DfE decides up in Westminster, but in how we in our departments choose and plan lesson and activities, in how we individually deliver and adapt these lessons to our own styles and our own classes needs and interests. for example, sustainability is no longer a ‘must cover’ any more in geography; it doesn’t even get a mention in the draft document, whereas previously it was all over NC levels 5, 6, 7, 8 and exceptional performance. Now, as tricky an idea as it often is to my less able pupils, I will continue teaching it because I think it is important to have an idea of how to plan carefully and compassionately for the future.

Additionally, I have just finished reading “Dancing with Architecture” by Phil Beadle. If this book said one thing to me, it is that the how of our teaching is more important than the what. So if I tell pupils at the outset that “all will be able to describe” Russia or the geological time line or whatever, “most will be able to describe in detail and partly explain” and “some will be able to explain fully,  compare and analyse” then sure enough that is what they will happen. We will all go home satisfied, unsurprised and within the fortnight, have forgotten the whole drab and boring hour we spent together in room 47. Mr Gove will be pleased and I will be a day closer to retirement.

However if the department trusts in our own professional “fascination and curiosity” and we encourage our pupils to do the same, then the learning will memorable, relevant and of a high quality, even if OFSTED couldn’t find a way of measuring it. As Phil Beadle also says “Who cares what OFSTED thinks?….a generally outstanding teacher will be sufficiently confident in their own abilities to not bother engaging in any real way with the centralised attempt to define what it is they should be doing.”

Lesson Observations

I have been in schools where the head teacher never set foot in my classroom. He wasn’t  therefore, how or what I and my pupils were doing. Whether the pupils were achieving and progressing or not;, I felt rather unimportant in his scheme of things. Like anyone else, I want to be appreciated for my efforts and so I found this situation clearly unsatisfactory.  I am rather pleased nowadays when my present head ‘drops in ‘regularly to my lessons and sees what the pupils are doing and talks to them.

However, that is not where it ends any more. Schools require data and whilst exams results and NC levels are excellent for providing that (we also describe pupils efforts on grades now as a number so it can crunched too), SLT find it more difficult to gather hard facts on the quality of teaching. So what happens is that during our ‘teaching and learning audit’ which now happens twice a year, all our lessons ore OFSTED graded. Hey presto! The head can turn to the lead inspector and say that 27.37% of lessons that have been observed in the last 2 years have been outstanding and 34.27% were good etc . Now everyone is happy; the measuring has been done, the report can be written and the CV embellished with beautiful numbers.

However, except no one is considering the effect this all has on the teacher. During the audit fortnights, everyone is greatly focused on that one lesson in which they will receive a visit. Extra differentiated resources and learns objectives are written, multi -coloured post- its are purchased and lesson plans and power points are all printed out in triplicate for the guests who are coming. In the staff room, all conversations begin something like “have you been done yet?”. Or, if you are uncertain whether your colleague has had an observation yet and how it may have gone, you ask someone else first before talking to them. Eggshells are broken despite all our tiptoeing around.

As the lesson approaches nerves get further frayed, partners at home have to be sympathetic and classes you  teach on the day have to expect poorly planned ‘copy out of the book and shut up’ lessons as you build up the energy for your OBSERVATION.

Then after SLT and their clipboard have left your room, all you have left is the feedback. The part which makes it all worthwhile, the stage where you should  learn what worked well and what could be changed. It will start with that well known opening formulaic question from the observer to you “so how do YOU think the lesson went?”, by which they mean “go on, have a guess at what I wrote down.”

But of course you aren’t listening to the comments and feedback. You have just morphed into one of your students after their end of topic test. Just like them you don’t care about targets and comments, you just want to hear WHAT GRADE DID YOU GIVE ME? But like a great story teller SLT keep you in suspense as they run through things like rapid and sustained progress, AfL and bell work. Finally they tell you and the whole thing peaks – outstanding, good, need to improve or poor.

So what is that worth to the teacher? Well of course it is of very little value at all. All the useful stuff was in the feedback, the conversation you now cannot remember a word of, where the member of SLT hopefully made pertinent comments and suggestions as to things you could change in your lesson to improve it. But you weren’t listening were you? You just wanted to know your grade.

Consequently, the whole process produces more stress, discomfort and domestic arguments than it does improved teaching and learning. The teacher misses the chance to develop their skills and the pupils are overlooked completely.

Yet to improve this would be so simple.

All that has to happen is that the observation comes without a grade and instead just leads to a discussion between two professionals determined to produce better teaching and learning in their school.

SLT are failing their staff if all they do is turn themselves into a mini OFSTED team. As a layer of management, they should be filtering out all that unnecessary detritus that comes down from government and HMI, so that teachers have less of it to worry about, so that teachers can get on with teaching. They may be failing in their job by creating a teaching body that is wrought with tension in the build-up to an observation, that feels put upon, mistrusted, permanently monitored and checked up on and that senses whatever they do is never good enough. This is more of a moral than an educational short coming and pupils will pick up on these values and this atmosphere. They too will begin to fell these emotions as well.

Footnote

Since I began writing and thinking about this issue, I have checked up on what the main 2 Unions position is on inspections. They both say almost exactly the same thing: that observations should not come with an OFSTED grade as this is something that is meant to describe a whole school or at the smallest scale a department. It is not designed to be a comment for 30 minutes of a lesson. Indeed even OFSTED say that “head teachers are not required and will not be expected, to use the OFSTED grades for the purposes of classroom observation.”

NASUWT policy on lesson observations can be found here

The NUT policy states “The NUT is opposed to the use of lesson grading in classroom observations. The use of the Ofsted four point scale for classroom observation neither provides constructive feedback nor supports teachers. There is nothing in the performance management procedures or in the Ofsted self-evaluation documentation which says that such lesson grading should be used. In addition, the NUT has received assurances from Ofsted that head teachers are not required, and will not be expected, to use the Ofsted grades for the purposes of classroom observation. Where lesson grading is proposed or introduced in schools, members should contact their NUT division or regional office immediately.”

Bad Results Day

This is a very self centred post. Please excuse this.

 

This morning I went online to check the results my students had earned, only to find out that this year is without doubt the worst set of grades I have been connected with. I have never had to feel like this before as a teacher. It is as though there is nothing to clasp onto; no floor or walls to grab and save myself from falling. I have never been in on results day before, but today I had to to investigate what had happened.

I have looked at the final results my Y11 achieved and the modular results my Y10 gained. So many of them are 2 or 3 grades below where they should be and I had no idea this was going to happen. For Y11 their modular grade from 12 months ago, their coursework and their mock exams all pointed to a cohort going to achieve the results of which they were capable; with a fair sized minority on the way to surpassing their FFT suggested grades. In Y10 there should be a fair proportion of pupils likely to get A’s or B’s next summer. Their mock exams and end of unit test exam questions pointed to this group also doing well.

But that is not as it has turned out. And I don’t know how to react. I have looked at my exam board’s enhanced results service online, I have spoken to our assistant head and to the exam enquiry office for my exam board. I will hopefully be able to query the results and then maybe they will be altered. but that is a lot of results to go wrong. And badly wrong.

There could be two causes to this:

  1. The pupils underperformed
  2. The exam board made some error(s)

If it is the first, then as the only teacher of these 70-80 pupils over Y10 and 11 the fault has to be mine. If the latter, it wont be for up to 2 months until this is proven and I will have to wait until then to know if we were hard done by today. Either way, whether by me or the examiners, my pupils have been poorly treated. They deserved better grades than they have been awarded.

I am writing this blog post mainly to clear my head. This is one of the worst mornings of my professional career. I am unstuck. There is 2 weeks before term starts and longer before any remarking may be finished.

It is apparent how much of what I consider to be me is wrapped up in the label “teacher”, so when that gets called into question it isn’t just an uncertainty about how I do my job. I feel it to be a bigger query over me as a person. I have spoken previously about how OFSTED can so monumentally affect teachers and wondered why we worry so much about what they say when we don’t really respect them as an organisation. Should we even bother to chase an outstanding grade from them, when a good school taking on many new challenges for their pupils each year is outstanding whether they say so or not?

But now I have this feeling failure at doing my job, I can get a clearer picture of what it is that drives us to be measured as a successful teacher, department or school. Firstly, teaching is more than a job to most of us, it is a part of who we are and secondly we know the pupils rely on us to help them achieve their best. If there is something we are doing or not doing that hinders this, then the consequences can be far reaching.

I think that is why I feel so affected by these results.

Outstanding education

At a meeting recently, a head teacher produced a document listing all the new things her teachers, year groups and whole school had done this academic year. There must have been a couple of hundred of them. They were no order of importance, impact, scale or anything – just a big long list.

I loved this because it quite clearly showed how innovative, hard working and creative the staff and the school are. My daughter goes to that school and just by that big long list I know she is receiving an outstanding education.

This week I heard a Chair of Governors speak to a meeting of teachers about being an outstanding school. She said that the harsh reality was that schools needed to found by OFSTED to be outstanding. This is because that would lead to a better local reputation, which in turn would lead to more pupils in that school and that this would then mean that the jobs of people in that school would be safe.

The more I have thought about this, the more I have found myself in disagreement with it. The biggest problem with what he said was that it reduces my job as a teacher to just that – a job. It becomes something I do just for myself, to satisfy me and to put food on the table and a roof over my head. Of course I need to be paid for what I do and when the government wants to reduce the sustainable teacher pension that I am part of I get very angry. But the joy of teaching is seeing what your pupils gain and learn and to watch them develop as thinkers and as people.

If schools are run to win a notification from OFSTED that they are outstanding, then they have lost the purpose of education and have become no more than a statistic orientated bureau. Students become reduced to percentages (I heard a head teacher this year say his staff should put in more effort to this exam year group as they were a smaller cohort and each pupil’s results therefore counted for a higher percentage towards the schools target figure) and results have become king.

We are not here to prove to OFSTED that we are outstanding. They use up enough DfE cash each year (over £200 million) to be able to find that out themselves. As a school’s, teacher or senior manager we should be providing as many exciting, engaging and appropriate learning opportunities that we can for our children. We should trust our own judgement to do that and not look to see what part of the OFSTED criteria an activity might tick.

Finally, I think we overestimate what an OFSTED grading means to the parents in our area. Parents are not stupid. They don’t need to read a report written by someone who has visited a school for a day and a half. Parents talk to others who have children at our school about what they think of their child’s learning. And they will be told about all those things on that list that the pupils have experienced. It is the children and their parents and community we should be thinking of when we plan learning, not OFSTED.