Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Arm yourself!

A headteacher recently told me she'd been informed by her LA advisor that "only 'good' schools can experiment and do what they like when it comes to assessment". This lie has been trotted out so many times now that it has become embedded in the collective consciousness and headteachers have come to accept it. Perhaps even believe it. But surely what's right for 'good' schools is right for all schools? It's an incredible irony that some schools are essentially being told that until they are 'good', they are going to have to persevere with ineffective practices. It's the ultimate education Catch 22: you can't start to improve things until you've improved.

And yet it is precisely these schools that have the most to gain from overhauling their approaches to assessment; by reducing tracking and marking and written feedback, not increasing it. Unfortunately schools are often being told the opposite: ramp it up, measure more and more often, track everything that moves.

With apparently little choice, headteachers wearily resign themselves to the drudgery, and often, quite understandably, rail against anyone that suggests a different path. I've been told numerous times "it's all very well for you, but you try being in this position". They are under intense scrutiny by people who think the way to improve outcomes is not to improve the curriculum, and teaching and learning, but to collect more data and increase workload. Clearly many of the processes put in place in the name of school improvement are having the opposite effect. 

Schools need to be brave. They need to be willing to make necessary changes but they also need reassurances that changes are justified, supported, and will not backfire when an inspector calls. To that end, I've compiled a list of key statements that schools can use to support (and defend) their position as they seek to build a more meaningful, and less onerous, approach to assessment. And there is plenty out there to arm themselves with.

  • We do not expect to see 6 week tracking of pupil progress and vast elaborate spreadsheets. What I want school leaders to discuss with our inspectors is what they expect pupils to know by certain points in their life, and how they know they know it. And crucially, what the school does when it finds out they don’t! These conversations are much more constructive than inventing byzantine number systems which, let’s be honest, can often be meaningless.
  • Nor do I believe there is merit in trying to look at every individual sub-group of pupils at the school level. It is very important that we monitor the progress of under-performing pupil groups. But often this is best done at a national level, or possibly even a MAT or local authority level, where meaningful trends may be identifiable, rather than at school level where apparent differences are often likely to be statistical noise.
  • Ofsted does not expect performance and pupil-tracking information to be presented in a particular format. Such information should be provided to inspectors in the format that the school would ordinarily use to monitor the progress of pupils in that school.
  • Inspectors will use lesson observations, pupils’ work, discussions with teachers and pupils and school records to judge the effectiveness of assessment and whether it is having an impact on pupils’ learning. They don’t need to see vast amounts of data, spreadsheets, charts or graphs. Nor are the looking for any specific frequency or type or volume of marking or feedback.
  • I want teachers to spend their working hours doing what’s right for children and reduce the amount of time spent on unnecessary tasks. Damian Hinds, Secretary of State for Education 
  • If the impact on pupil progress doesn’t match the hours spent then stop it! Amanda Spielman, HM Chief Inspector, Ofsted 
  • The origins of the audit culture are complex but we do know there’s no proven link between some time consuming tasks around planning, marking and data drops, and improved outcomes for pupils. Professor Becky Allen, UCL
  • No inspector should be asking for these things, and nobody else should be telling you that this is what inspectors will be looking for. Sean Harford, National Director of Education, Ofsted
  • I want you to know you do have the backing to stop doing the things that aren’t helping chidren to do better. Damian Hinds, Secretary of State for Education 
  • Ofsted does not expect any prediction by schools of a progress score, as they are aware that this information will not be possible to produce due to the way progress measures at both KS2 and KS4 are calculated. Inspectors should understand from all training and recent updates that there is no national expectation of any particular amount of progress from any starting point.
  • ‘Expected progress’ was a DfE accountability measure until 2015. Inspectors must not use this term when referring to progress for 2016 or current pupils. 
  • There is no point in collecting ‘data’ that provides no information about genuine learning
  • Recording summative data more frequently than three times a year is not likely to provide useful information
  • Tracking software, which has been used widely as a tool for measuring progress with levels, cannot, and should not, be adapted to assess understanding of a curriculum that recognises depth and breadth of understanding as of equal value to linear progression
  • It is very important that these systems do not reinvent levels
  • Ensure that the primary purpose of assessment is not distorted by using it for multiple purposes
  • Sometimes progress is simply about consolidation (Ed: how do you measure consolidation? You can't. And if we persist with coverage-based progress measures (i.e. levels) then we are relying on measures that are out of kilter with the principles of this curriculum and  potentially risking pupils learning by prioritising pace at the expense of depth.)
  • Be streamlined: eliminate duplication – ‘collect once, use many times’ 
  • Be ruthless: only collect what is needed to support outcomes for children. The amount of data collected should be proportionate to its usefulness. Always ask why the data is needed. 
  • Be prepared to stop activity: do not assume that collection or analysis must continue just because it always has 
  • Be aware of workload issues: consider not just how long it will take, but whether that time could be better spent on other tasks
  • A purportedly robust and numerical measure of pupil progress that can be tracked and used to draw a wide range of conclusions about pupil and teacher performance, and school policy, when in fact information collected in such a way is flawed. This approach is unclear on purpose, and demands burdensome processes.
  • The recent removal of ‘levels’ should be a positive step in terms of data management; schools should not feel any pressure to create elaborate tracking systems.
  • Focusing on key performance indicators reduces the burden of assessing every lesson objective. This also provides the basis of next steps: are pupils secure and can pupils move on, or do they need additional teaching?
  • I also believe that a focus on curriculum will help to tackle excessive and unsustainable workload. For me, a curricular focus moves inspection more towards being a conversation about what actually happens in the day-to-day life of schools. As opposed to school leaders feeling that they must justify their actions with endless progress and performance metrics. To that end, inspecting the curriculum will help to undo the ‘Pixlification’ of education in recent years, and make irrelevant the dreaded Mocksted consultants. Those who are bold and ambitious for their pupils will be rewarded as a result.
  • Inspectors are reminded that Ofsted has no expectation about how primary schools should be carrying out assessment or recording of pupils’ achievements in any subjects, including foundation subjects. Use of the word ‘tracking’ in inspection reports is problematic as it can suggest that some form of numerical data is required, when there is no such requirement, even in English and mathematics. Schools will not be marked down because they are not ‘tracking’ science and foundation subjects in the same ways they may be doing so in English and mathematics. This clarification will be added to our ‘Clarification for schools’ section of the ‘School inspection handbook’, effective from September 2018.

I will keep adding to this list as and when I find useful statements. Please let me know if you have any to add. Thanks. 

Saturday, 9 June 2018

In search of simplicity

I'm a climber. Or at least I'd like to be. Back in the day I got out on rock loads, climbing routes all over the UK. From sea cliffs to mountain crags; from deep-wooded valleys to wild moorland edges, I would revel in the light and the textures, the exposure and the fear; and the way everything seemed more vivid and alive when you'd pulled through that last hard move and the battle was won. It was ace. Like many British climbers I had a go at Scottish winter and alpine climbing but my heart wasn't in it. As much as I liked the idea, I just wasn't built for that level of suffering: the cold and the dread, and the battery-acid tang that fills your mouth when you realise the seriousness of the position you've put yourself in. It was not for me.

It was on the way back from the Alps that I first visited Fontainebleau, a vast forest south of Paris littered with boulders of every conceivable shape and size rising out of a fine sandy floor, and sheltered by the pines above. I had never seen anything like it; it was perfect. We wandered amongst the rocks, bewildered, achieving precisely nothing. Here was the world Mecca of bouldering, a form of climbing that was barely on my radar. No ropes, no hardware, no heavy loads, no planning, no suffering, no fear (well not much), this was climbing distilled to its purest form: the simple art of movement on rock. It suited my minimalist philosophy. I was transfixed. I was hooked.

After that trip, I knew the direction of travel. I sold most of my climbing gear. Ropes, climbing rack ice axes, mountaineering boots, crampons - it all went. I was left with some climbing shoes, a chalk bag, and a bouldering mat. It felt good, like when you take stuff to a charity shop, or go to the tip, or freecycle that item of furniture that was getting in the way. Once it's gone, you can focus and breathe; and that's what I did: focus on bouldering.

Since then, motivation has waxed and waned. Injury, opportunity, work, family, and diversions into cycling and running have all taken their toll, but bouldering is always the thing I think about when I have time to breathe. In the last couple of years, as work has demanded more and more of my time, opportunities to go to the climbing wall, let alone get out on actual rock, have been extremely limited. Faced with the possibility of giving up, I decided to install a fingerboard, a simple device that does one job and does it well: trains finger strength. Basically, it's a piece of wood with an assortment of holes of varying widths, depths and angles machined into it. The idea is you build your finger strength by progressing through exercises of increasing difficulty, pulling up and hanging off smaller and smaller holds, two-handed and one-handed. It's very simple, it's very hard, and it's extremely effective. Installing it required finding a suitable substrate in our old house. I drilled pilot holes above every door frame, hitting lath and plaster every time, refilling the holes and driving Katy mad. Eventually I settled on a beam in the hallway that would take some sleeve anchors and (hopefully) take my weight. The board was up!

Jerry Moffatt - one of the greatest climbers of all time - had a great line: "if you don't let go, you can't fall off". Finger strength is the key to hard climbing and a finger board is the key to finger strength. My board means that I can train in my house, and even if I can't get to a climbing wall for two or three weeks, I can still train and not lose strength. Without that small, simple piece of wood bolted to a beam in my hallway I'd probably have quit climbing by now; and that's why it's one of my most treasured possessions.

Is there a point to this post, beyond the obvious climbing-related one? I suppose it's that, all too often, we seek complex solutions to problems. We invest in technology, in expensive hardware and software, believing that cutting-edge must be better. Our heads are turned by shiny things, eschewing the simple in favour of the elaborate. But sometimes those simple things work best: a book, a pen, a piece of paper, a game, some imagination.

And a piece of wood bolted to a beam in the hallway.