Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Without feathers? My LA swan song.

So, that's that then. Today was my last day working at Gloucestershire LA after nearly 5 years of wading neck deep in data; supporting schools, battling Ofsted, and trying not to make a nuisance of myself but generally failing. It's been quite an experience being on the frontline of school improvement during this most challenging and bewildering period of change in education; and (I must admit) I've enjoyed it. Most of the time. So when I started to think about what I wanted to do next, I realised I didn't really want to do anything different; I wanted more of the same. I like doing what I do so I should carry on doing it. Taking the plunge and becoming self-employed seemed the obvious (if somewhat scary) choice, and with more change in the post this year (and the next, and the year after that) now is probably the best time to do it. Going freelance will enable me to support a wider variety of schools, get involved in collaborative projects, and work with 3rd party organisations. I've got a laptop, a mobile, and a logo; what could possibly go wrong?

I joined Gloucestershire LA's school improvement team in January 2010, after 4 years as a landscape gardener/stay at home Dad. Prior to that I was a data analyst for the LSC (remember them?), And before that I tried to be a teacher but really wasn't good enough (in case anyone isn't aware, teaching is actually quite hard work). In other previous lives I've been a database administrator (fun!) and completed a Ph.D in Granites (that was a low point). I also worked on a chicken farm when I was 16. I'll return to that later. 

When I took the job in 2010, most of Gloucestershire's school services were based at the Hucclecote Centre. Those familiar with education in Gloucestershire will probably know it well. Famed for its training courses - and probably even more famed for its lunches - it was a vibrant place to work. But from May 2010, with the coalition government in power signalling the end of National Strategies and the start of austerity, the writing was on the wall for the centre and many who worked there. Hucclecote (or Chucklecote, or Chuckles) was one of the last of its kind, and its days were numbered. The last gasp was an archaeological dig for some foundations in the car park. And that was it - we relocated to Shire Hall. No more Chuckles. No more lunches.

In a very short space of time we'd gone from a large community of 200 people based in an old secondary school, to a team of fewer than 20 in one room (Well, I was in a yellow-painted office for a bit but it gives me headaches to think about it). Now, I don't want to bore you with a blow by blow account of what I've been doing for the last few years but I do want to give you some simple stats (obviously!). In September 2012, shortly after we'd moved to Shire Hall, and been pared down to the bare bones, around 70% of schools in Gloucestershire were rated good or outstanding, and 60 primary schools (out of 240) were satisfactory. Our team's focus became these schools, whilst trying to spot those good or outstanding schools that were at risk of travelling south (bear in mind that nearly all secondary schools are converter or sponsored academies so the team were mainly primary focussed). Wind forward 2 years and now 90% of primary schools are rated good or outstanding; and 92% of primary pupils attend a good or outstanding school, the highest in the south west. An extraordinary rate of improvement due, in no small part, to the intervention, challenge and support of Gloucestershire's excellent school improvement team. So when I hear snide remarks about the LA - classics include "Is anyone left?", "what do they actually do?", or "must be like the Marie Celeste in there" - I get a tad annoyed. It was heartening to hear Mr Drew (of Educating Essex) at Cheltenham Literature Festival this month support his LA, stating that he felt no more 'free' now as an academy than he did before conversion, and that he'd only ever had great support from his LA. 

Say what you like about LAs, my (very experienced) colleagues work bloody hard for one common purpose: to support schools. That's it. And their approach to school improvement evidently works. Personally, I can't see why a high performing LA with a proven track record in school improvement, of which Gloucestershire is certainly one, couldn't be an academy sponsor, both in and out of county. They'd do a fine job. Maybe a better job than some other organisations. Food for thought. 

So, what now for LAs. Well, regardless of what happens in terms of the proliferation  of academies, I believe there needs to be a strong, experienced, well trained, locally-based school improvement service and the LA is the obvious place for it. Many recent inspections of LA school improvement services, where the LA has been deemed to be ineffective, have had a recurring theme: that the LA has not done enough to support and challenge the academies in its area. This is a bit of a kick in the eye considering the whole premise of becoming an academy is that the school is removed from LA control. It would seem that the DfE wishes to take credit for the successes but pass the buck when things go wrong. Surely that can't be the case, can it?

Which brings me neatly back to the chicken farm I worked on when I was 16. One day, down in shed 1, I noticed a tiny, featherless chicken running amongst the thousands of other birds. Every chicken it ran past would peck at it mercilessly, so on it ran, darting left and right, back and forth, on a futile mission to avoid attack. Every step was met with another blow. A depressing and pathetic sight. I mentioned it to the foreman later on that day and asked if we should put the poor thing out of its misery. His response? "If we kill it, they'll just start picking on another one. Best keep it alive as long as possible".

I find myself thinking about that poor chicken a lot these days, running without feathers under continuous attack. Is that why LAs now exist? Kept alive solely to sustain attacks and deflect attention. Have they been reduced to mere whipping boys for government policy? A cynical view perhaps but understandable when you read another inspection report of ineffective school improvement services. And whilst some in government may see things that way, the reality is that LAs are still here, they do have a responsibility for school improvement; and it's a job they take very seriously and do really well. My colleagues are ace!

Rumours of local authorities' demise have been greatly exaggerated. 

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

The Good of Small Things

I recently sent out a tweet asking for thoughts and experiences relating to small schools, particularly regarding data. Now, I could have written a lengthy, and probably rather dull, blog on the subject of data and small schools but instead I thought I'd just publish the following email, which perfectly and succinctly summarises the problems facing these settings when it comes to accountability measures and inspection. Regrettably, the author wishes to remain anonymous but you know who you are. Thank you so much for the following contribution:


Hi James,

I saw your tweet about wanting to hear about the experiences of small schools on specific data issues and thought I’d rather email than tweet.

I write from the perspective of being a governor and volunteer data handler for a small school (96 pupils).


Whilst small pupil numbers are a real benefit in terms of the school being able to concentrate on looking at each pupil as an individual, noting each child’s attainment and progress and the next steps required I think small schools have particular problems when it comes to handling cohort and group data. No doubt you’ll be familiar with these – though perhaps no. 4 is only just becoming an issue with more focus on this in inspections.

1.       Small pupil numbers mean that we don’t have sufficient sample sizes to be confident that our collective data is telling us much at all. Our results have to be very good (or very bad!) to be classed as statistically significant on RAISEonline. Even worse if trying to analyse groups.

2.       It’s very hard to spot trends because we need results over several years to collect sufficient sample sizes. By the time we can be confident of a trend through data analysis, things will have moved on anyway.

3.       I have no confidence that the people who judge us by our data will necessarily be competent statisticians. In my experience some people start off their analysis with a general rider about small cohort numbers requiring caution and then throw caution to the wind and proceed to read far more into the data  than it can possibly support.

4.       I particularly worry about proving to Ofsted that “From each different starting point, the proportions of pupils ... exceeding expected progress in English and in mathematics are high compared with national figures” and hope that any inspector who visits us understands that if we only have 1 pupil at a particular starting point, say 2b in reading, and that child fails to reach a Level 5, our score of 0% making more than expected progress from that starting point is actually in line with a national percentage of 29%. I do hope inspectors are being briefed to read the data properly and would love to access an authoritatively written statement on this that properly explains the situation.

5.       Small schools (often in underfunded ‘leafy’ areas with little or no pupil premium) often do not have the budget to be able to afford or justify what seem like expensive data handling packages – especially given the question of how much use they will really be when sample sizes are so small. Even FFT is hard to justify now the LA no longer subscribe.

6.       In small schools where the head is also a class teacher and probably the premises & catering manager and there is no deputy head and perhaps just a single school secretary/administrator, he/she will have to balance data management along with all their other tasks. Where do they get time in the day to really master this subject let alone source useful software and keep abreast of new government initiatives?

7.       Headteachers find it hard to discuss the progress of disadvantaged pupils with governors if there are so few pupils receiving the pupil premium that discussion will lead to identification.


Hope the above is of some help and thanks for all your work shared over Twitter,


As stated above, I think this email perfectly encapsulates the issues experienced by small schools when it comes to data, particularly that presented in RAISE, the Ofsted Dashboard and Performance Tables. There is some provision for this in the Ofsted Handbook, which headteachers of small schools should be aware of:

'Where numbers of pupils are small and achievement fluctuates considerably from year to year, inspectors should take into account individual circumstances when comparing with national figures, and should consider any available data of aggregate performance for consecutive cohorts' (Ofsted Inspection Handbook, p.20, section 60).

This gives small schools the go ahead to merge cohort data and produce aggregated attainment and progress figures for, say, the last three Y6 cohorts, which will result in a more viable data set and more meaningful analyses. On a number of occasions I've calculated 3 year aggregated VA (using my VA calculator - see other blog), which has proved to be very useful indeed and made a positive contribution to the overall outcome of inspections. 

Also, small schools should access their FFT data, which provides 3 year average VA and CVA, and trend indicators. In addition, the new FFT Aspire system will allow schools to toggle between single year and 3 year averages. Potentially a very useful feature, especially when dealing with small cohorts or groups. If you are wondering whether or not inspectors will be interested in or accepting of FFT data, take note of the following:

'Evidence gathered by inspectors during the course of the inspection should include: any analysis of robust progress data presented by the school, including information provided by external organisations' (Ofsted Inspection Handbook, p.66, section 195)

I'm sure the issues outlined above resonate with staff in many if not all small schools up and down the country; and there are clearly specific challenges facing those schools. But there are ways round them and I hope that this has given you some ideas. Please get in touch if you have any questions or comments.