Category Archives: Policy

Persistently exhausted

As any parent of young children will know, the effects of sleep deprivation, or even sleep interruption, are debilitating. At best, the mind is fuzzy. What’s normally done with ease or with little thought, takes extra time and needs to be completed deliberately, consciously:

Leave house. Get in car. Keys in ignition. Check mirrors. Stop. Forgotten to put shoes on. Back to house.

As well as making mundane tasks preposterously complex, lack of sleep severely diminishes intellectual power and the process of learning. It’s incredibly hard to concentrate and to remain alert.

Clear communication fades into a blur of half-formed words and mumbled sentences. Any chance of using reason or persuasion is nullified by the overwhelming desire to curl up and sleep (or weep). Writing, particularly writing with clarity, becomes unimaginably difficult as the rhythmic flow is replaced by a murk and a fug that obscures intended meanings.

The absence of sufficient sleep also hinders the process of ‘storing’ or consolidating learning as memory. Without the necessary winks each night, not only will it be hard to learn the next day but, the chances are, much of what was learnt will be forgotten or become jumbled, harder to retrieve when needed. Sleep oils the pathways of memory and, without it, recall becomes laboured or confused.

What must it be like if you are a child coming to school in such a state – exhausted and ill-prepared for the day ahead? No matter how much planning and preparation, a teacher faced with an exhausted child is doomed to fail. The real problem arises when the one-off, the staying up late because of a party or the missed bedtime because of a protracted journey home, becomes routine.

For some, bedtime routines – the dull but necessary habits of getting child up the stairs, washed, pyjama-ed and calm – can be slack and chaotic. TVs blare and consoles click, long past suitable hours. For others, the grim reality of over-crowding mean peace and quiet are hard to find.

It’s hard to say how many, but a significant proportion of children in my school are what should be called ‘persistently exhausted’. You can see them the next day; bleary-eyed, yawning, disruptive, upset. They’re the ones that are falling behind.

My hunch is that exhaustion is as big a problem as absenteeism and, over time, has a similar impact on learning and life chances. What to do, though? Solutions are hard to find, that’s for sure.

I’m trying to think. Problem is, I’m beat – I was up all night with the kids.

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Tristram Hunt is in no man’s land

With his recent speech urging schools to teach character and creativity, Tristram Hunt, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, has stirred up the already lively battle between so-called traditional and progressive educators.

It could be seen as an attempt at reconciliation or to find some common ground. After all, in the last few weeks those traditionalists who have argued that state schools should do more to mimic private schools must acknowledge the extent to which Eton, Harrow and the rest define themselves by both what their pupils know and also by the type of character that emerges from the private school experience. Similarly, so-called progressives need little persuasion that a well-rounded education should develop character and creativity, alongside academic achievement.

But the problem is that the two camps are deep in their trenches, well dug-in, ready for many months of attritional mud-slinging. The no man’s land which Hunt has wandered across doesn’t allow much for nuance. You either believe in academic rigour and direct instruction or you’re a lilly-livered envelope-shuffling, group-work loving, post-it note wielding softie. You either want your children to inhabit the 21st century or you are a hard-faced Gradgrind patrolling the desks, rattling knuckles and twisting ears. One or the other. Choose your sides now.

The need to stick valiantly to your guns no matter what is well-demonstrated by Toby Young’s blog on the issue, where such is his desire to defend the traditional view he ends up disagreeing with himself. Character or ‘soft-skills’ as he terms them, is something he has ’emphasised’ in the past and he insists children at his school do extra curricular activities to develop such traits. Surely, he should be open to Hunt’s arguments then?

He goes on to cite ED Hirsch, who must know a thing or two because he’s American and doesn’t use his name. Young describes Hirsch as being ‘withering’ on the subject of teaching character. Here’s his ‘withering’ attack, quoted directly:

“Hirsch acknowledges that there’s a link between traits like “persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence” and success, defined in terms of academic achievement, employability, earning capacity and mental and physical health.”

Oh, hold on. That sounds quite positive. Not withering at all. You’ll be forgiven if you are confused at this point. But remember that, as Young believes himself to be a defender of tradition, he simply cannot allow himself to side with anyone who has a whiff of the modern about them.

The last roll of the dice, as is often the case for the two entrenched sides, is to caricature and misrepresent the others’ position. Propagaganda, if you like. What is dangerous about advocates of character education, Young states, is that they claim teaching character is more important than book learning. You can almost feel the sharp intake of breath from the Home Counties. The sods, they don’t care about books. School’s just one long team-building away day, making bivouacs out of Bleak House, rafts out of Romeo and Juliet.

But, oh, hold on. Again. Hunt is not saying teaching character is more important than ‘book learning’. Nor is he arguing character should be taught as a separate programme or as an ‘add-on’. Far from it.

Where Young leads us to the ‘let’s all pack up and go home’ view that character is hard-wired in our genes, Hunt’s argument is that our dispositions are more adaptable and can be shaped by events and experience.

This central point here is one that should, for once, unite the old school and the new school. Through it’s culture and it’s teaching, a school should develop both the academic capacities and the character of it’s students. Is that really so hard to agree on?

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Return to Planet Gove

It’s been quite a while since I’ve had time to blog. Years and years in fact. How time flies. I’m afraid to say life has interrupted the flow. Children, work, work, children, lack of sleep, children, work, lack of sleep.

Of course, there’s been no shortage of subject matter and more than enough piffle from Gove and the gang to justify a bit of cathartic spleen-venting. The real problem is that much of what passes for policy at the moment is so utterly disconnected from the real world it has become dangerously easy to step away from the debate.

At times, the discussion has seemed other-wordly, preposterous even. All that gumph about behaviour, saying teachers should get children to pick up litter and tidy classrooms as a consequence for unruliness. What on earth does he think we do all day?

Then the ridiculous comparisons between private and state schools. Great for headline grabbing but, come on, really. It was a classic public school debating tactic to box in opponents – who could possibly say they wouldn’t want children in their local school to have even a fraction of the experiences of your average Harrovian?

The challenges the children in my school face, growing up with the childhood-sapping complexities of mental health, domestic violence and deprivation, warrant a bit more than clever-clever point scoring.

So, time to return to the fray. Children, work, work, children, blog, lack of sleep, children, work, blog.

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Lord Bew, Cormac McCarthy and assessing writing

This year’s SATs results arrived yesterday and, in my school, had the distinctly predictable effect of telling us what we know already. There were few surprises, except with a handful of writing papers which were preposterously over-marked – although other schools are clearly having major concerns with how papers have been assessed (see here).

Of all the tests taken in Year 6, it has been the writing one that has caused the most consternation over the years and there has been support for Lord Bew’s recommendation that they be scrapped (or, more accurately, replaced with a mix of moderated teacher assessment and tests in grammar, punctuation, vocabulary and – heavens above – handwriting).

There is a certain objectivity to numeracy that lends itself to traditional testing (although I’m not so sure three different tests – calculator, non-calculator, and quick mental maths – are entirely necessary in order to establish a child’s mathematical capabilities at this age).

The science test, now pretty much obsolete except for the small number of schools chosen to taken them for moderating purposes, also had a clearer basis in yes/no or right/wrong therefore lending itself more readily to external testing.

The reading test has a lot to answer for, particularly this year’s paper which, in parts, was obscure to the point of being inaccessible (see post here for a summary, including Michael Rosen intellectually shredding the paper, question by question).

Lord Bew’s review advocates a re-vamped reading test design which looks at the amount of writing required in the current test, the kind of texts children are expected to read and making the sequencing of questions more accessible to lower ability children. Quite right too. But why these recommendations weren’t already part of the test design is extraordinary. It does make you wonder what planet the test makers inhabit and, back down to earth, what procedures – if any – they have in place for gathering feedback from teachers (or indeed, the children) on the tests they produce. Making tests progressively harder so the less able children can access them is not rocket science, even for a science paper.

But, to return to the writing tests, Bew is right to tip the balance clearly towards teacher assessment. Aside from the difficulty of assessing a single piece of writing with all the inherent subjectivity this involves, this is the test that puts children under the most unfair and artificial pressure.

Writing is a creative experience but the testing process reduces it to something functional: use a semi-colon; write a complex sentence; add a rhetorical question. It’s as if writing is seen as nothing more than the routine assembly of constituent parts which can be simply reproduced by following set procedures, the same as building a scale model or changing a lightbulb.

To succeed in these tests children have no particular need to show flair or imagination, but must instead demonstrate their technical skills under highly constrained conditions (one test is twenty minutes long, including planning time). How hard it is to generate a passion for words and for writing when, as teacher, you know you are to be judged not simply by a child’s mastery of parentheses (which I’m all for), but whether they can reproduce this mastery – whether their writing needs it or not – under timed and pressured conditions. This is difficult – it leads irreversibly towards teaching to the test and ticking of boxes.

So, well done Lord Bew for scrapping the writing tests.

As for their replacement – tests in grammar, punctuation, vocabulary and handwriting – the jury is very much out. We may have to wait and see what they look like and, critically, how much weight is put on each of the elements, compared to the teacher’s assessment of the child’s work throughout the year.

Certainly, in a technological age, a handwriting test seems somewhat anachronistic and, in terms of grammar and punctuation, I can’t help thinking of Cormac McCarthy – the authors who prefers ‘simple sentences’, never uses speech marks or semi-colons, only bothers with an ‘occasional comma’ and believes there is ‘no reason to blot up the page with weird little marks’. But, what does he know, he’s only won the Pulitzer Prize.

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Stuart Baggs, The Apprentice and a Headteacher coming to a school near you…

For many years, the path to Headship has followed a predictable route: from class teacher, to head of year, to Assistant or Deputy, and then, after a suitable time has passed in each role, and the appropriate experience has been amassed, the top job beckons.

But not for much longer. Via schemes such as Tomorrow’s Heads and due to the flexibility that inevitably flows from a Government that has pledged to allow schools much more say in their own affairs, we are about to see a new cohort of Head-teachers who have one thing in common: they will have never stood before thirty bright-eyed (or heavy-lidded) children and taught a lesson.

Some of these new leaders will have worked in schools, in administrative or pastoral roles of some kind; others may arrive from different sectors which have a link with education – a museum, say, or a voluntary organisation working with children. But other won’t. They may come from a business without any obvious connections to education, schools or children.

The idea, obviously enough, is to cast the recruitment net far and wide and to attract the best candidates from a wider pool. The theory is based in turn on the concept of ‘transferable skills’ – a visionary leader who can manage people, budget, pressure and all the rest is able to do so whether they are operating in a supermarket, a sales team or in a school. The tasks may be different but the skills are the same – or so the theory goes.

There is some sense to building greater flexibility into routes to Head-ship. As the baby-boomer generation retires there is a need – chronic in some places – for a new batch of school leaders to fill their shoes. Due to the perceived and actual difficulties of the job, as well as a desire to remain in the classroom, most teachers find the idea of moving to the top of the pile somewhat unappealing. Even those who get to Deputy often stay put, content with being second-in-command.

Of course, the emphasis on attracting the best people into Head-ship is self-evidently a good thing, but even more so given the considerable structural changes currently underway; it is going to take light-footed leaders to navigate their way through the new educational landscape, and to shape it so it is better than what went before.

As schools de-couple themselves from the links they have to local authorities, and as new kinds of schools are established, new partnerships will emerge. Who knows? Perhaps those who arrive unencumbered with the experience of how things were – or indeed how things are – will be better placed to make sense of Michael Gove’s brave new world.

But there are problems with this approach, not least with the question of qualifications. Can someone who has never taught manage – in the sense of assess the performance – a teacher? While much of this task may be about things that are in no way unique to the school experience (good communication between manager and managed, for example) – therefore opening up the role to any competent person – there’s the tricky issue of judging what happens in a class-room. How can you know what is good teaching unless you’ve been there and done it?

Unless we intend to devalue teaching and learning, reduce it to a tick-box list accessible to any lay person (some would say we are there already), this presents a challenge for any non-teacher putting themselves forward. A solution for larger schools, or perhaps for federations where a Head oversees more than one school, may be to delegate assessment of ‘teaching and learning’ to a qualified senior teacher. Whatever the solution, it needs to be credible, as teachers will quite rightly question these judgements.

More generally, the so-called ‘transferable skills’ can surely only stretch so far; it would take some of exceptional ability to seamlessly make the leap from the corporate world. Are there many who fit the bill?

A bit like the Apprentice, it’s not hard to picture strident young business-people, stepping confidently through the school doors, impressing a panel with their can-do attitude, their extraordinary achievements and their boundless energy; only to crumble as soon as they are presented with the realities of the task.

Let us see: we may get some corporate heroes who can inspire their teams and transform our schools, or talented people from other fields.

Or, heaven forbid, we may get Stuart Baggs.

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How to spend the Pupil Premium. Maybe.

In a time where schools policy seems to swing wildly from one extreme (think wholesale structural reforms like free schools and Academies) to political interference in the minutiae of how children should be taught to read (think synthetic phonics) praise the Lord for some calm, reasonable, sanity-restoring words from the good people at the Sutton Trust.

Their latest dollop of common sense comes in the form of a guide for schools on how to spend the Pupil Premium. They keep clear of the politics, not seeking to make a judgement on whether the Premium is ever going to meet its grandiose aims: to increase social mobility, to reduce the gap between the highest and lowest achieving pupils and to smooth the barely-worn path from a place called ‘deprivation’ to somewhere called ‘Oxbridge’. Instead they present, in simple terms, options for schools about how to spend their cash.

It’s clear, quite early on in the report, that the authors not only engaged their brains, but – in deciding what to include in their list – also managed to plant tongues firmly in cheeks. They surely had the bone-headed traditionalists in mind – those who believe that the absence of a well-knotted, throat-gripping school tie explains just about everything that is wrong with our schools – when they explained that there is no evidence that school uniform improves ‘academic performance, behaviour or attendance’. So there!

They also slay, in a gentle academic way, some other sacred cows. Grouping by ability, for example, is described as ‘what not to do if you want low income pupils to benefit’. And the benefits of homework are summarised as ‘modest’ at secondary school, and even less so at primary school.

But in true boffin-style, they are concerned not with the grinding of axes but with the evidence. This leads them to similarly dismiss the more cuddly teaching approaches, such as developing activities for children based on their ‘learning styles’, which in some cases has been shown to have a detrimental effect. They also have little time, purely in the context of the aims of the Pupil Premium, for reducing class sizes, after school programmes or summer schools.

More controversially, however, the Sutton Trust questions the role of Teaching Assistants who, according to studies, have ‘very small or no effects on attainment’ particularly when their main role is either to tidy up after the teacher or to provide ill-defined support to a particular child or group of children.

This finding should make schools – if they are anything like mine – think long and hard about Teaching Assistants on their pay roll and how they are matched with children who may be the beneficiaries of the Pupil Premium. What a waste if the Premium ends up aimlessly dumped in the generic pot for ‘special needs support’ – perhaps to top up the hours of a Teaching Assistant, who ends up spending her time at the photocopier or sharpening pencils.

So, to the key question: what does work?

The Sutton Trust points to three things:

First, the teacher providing effective feedback to the learner about their progress.

Second, ‘meta-cognition strategies’ – teaching approaches which ‘make learners’ thinking about learning more explicit in the classroom’.

Third, ‘peer tutoring’ where ‘learners work in pairs or small groups to provide each other with explicit teaching support’.

It’s as simple as that, apparently.

What is striking about the Sutton Trust’s top three is that, put simply, they cost peanuts. Money does not need to be thrown at the problem. To make this work, there’s no need for top-of-the-range technology. Nor do you need to convert to an Academy. Or teach Latin while playing rugby (competitively of course).

The only real expenditure is on a bit of CPD which, presumably, the school would be spending anyway.

What is more interesting, though, is that these interventions bring us back to a simple truth: it is good, innovative teaching that makes the difference, done by teachers who are constantly on the look out for what will make them better at their work.

One thing nags at me, however; if we take the Sutton Trust’s advice and warmly embrace the benefits of feedback, draw close to us the joys of meta-cognition and cherish the benefits of peer tutoring – wouldn’t we then do this routinely in our classrooms? Wouldn’t all our charges benefit – rich and poor, Premium and – erm – Standard? Who could argue against such an improvement, but how will this narrow the attainment gap? Perhaps it’s not so simple, after all.

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Pupil premium: confusion is added to the mix

The pupil premium, the coalition’s flagship education policy – £430 for each child on free school meals, raises a tricky question for schools: what should the money be spent on?

Let us put aside, for the moment, the question about whether the size of the pupil premium is anywhere near sufficient to address educational inequalities. Let us assume that a school receiving their cash trickles it down to the child concerned, rather than chucking it in the pot along with everything else, used to cover spending cuts elsewhere. Let us pretend we have arrived at this point where schools are faced with the nub of the issue: what will make a difference?

The policy wonks – or, in this case it seem to be a wonk, singular – at the Institute for Public Policy and Research (IPPR) have drawn attention to this key question with an article here.

While they are of course right – in a state-the-bloomin’-obvious kind of way – to make the point that funding of any kind is wasted if it is not spent effectively, it is their proposals for what to do with the cash which catch the eye. And not, unfortunately, for the right reasons.

They have argued, for instance, in the article above and also here, that there is a lack of accountability with how the money is spent and, to address this, schools should have to agree with a child’s parents how the money should be spent.

While accountability may be a problem, the solution suggests more of a bureaucratic process – a letter sent home, I imagine – than anything like a genuine engagement with the child’s needs. Yet if ‘agreement’ involves a thorough process of discussion and consultation, this arrangement would become impractical – how many hours would this take, in a school with 10-15% of their roll on free school meals?

Not much food for thought from IPPR so far.

Added to this, though, the think-tank has selected three areas that schools should ‘prioritise’ when spending the premium: reading catch-up programmes; family support workers to link home and school; and an increase in formative assessment in schools.

At first glance, it does seem odd for a think-tank to be telling teachers what to do in such a precise way. I wonder if they also advise Doctors on how to treat patients?

Also, it begs the question how the list was generated. At one level it’s pointless: why, for example, should reading be ‘prioritised’ if the child is behind with Maths?

And why have they picked out ‘formative assessment’? As good a method as it is in terms of accelerating progress, formative assessment is about an approach to teaching and learning in the classroom – it’s not something you do ‘to’ a particular, individual child.

More to the point, it doesn’t cost anything (beyond going to Amazon and buying a book called ‘Inside the Black Box’) and has already been the subject of much attention in schools.

Given their enthusiasm for accountability, if you made the case for formative assessment, you would be hard pushed to explain to a parent (or anyone else) that the £430 has been spent on helping little Johnny or Joanna any more than it has helped anyone and everyone in the class. What, exactly, are they proposing the money is spent on? A muddled idea, this one.

However, with the idea of family support, IPPR may be on to something. The missing link in terms of narrowing the gap between rich and poor is often an effective relationship (in terms of learning) between parent, school and child is vital. To make the difference, schools may need to up their game – but some parents may have to as well. And, with this, a bit of support, guidance and encouragement may make all the difference.

What IPPR’s list does reveal is just how difficult it is to decide how to spend the cash, and the challenges for schools and individual teachers when trying to make informed decisions.

It seems, at this moment in time, the pupil premium may fail on three counts. First of all, it’s not enough. Second, it’s not, in fact, a premium. And, third, whatever cash does find its way to schools under the brand name ‘pupil premium’, may well be lost in a mix of confusion and cuts.

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