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School data: tool or tyrant?

One of the many things that would amaze anyone unfamiliar with the modern primary school, is the mind-boggling amount of data that is either produced by schools themselves or generated by others.

Not only does this result in torrents of paperwork in the form of charts, tables, spreadsheets and action plans but it also generates a language of it’s own. A teacher is not a teacher unless they can wax lyrical about points progress, two level gains and age related expectations. These then become truncated to PP, 2LG and ARE, which has the dual purpose of saving time and baffling the outsider.

Much of this data is invaluable. It enables schools to target and support children who are slipping behind their peer group, as well as zooming in on groups of children who are missing out. At a click of a button, schools can check whether summer born girls are doing as well in maths or whether Somali boys are catching up with their reading. Data, at least in part, can be a useful tool to drive fairness and equality – no child should be left behind.

Equally, data is useless if the methodology is flawed (read this excellent deconstruction of RAISE online here), if the assessments underpinning the data are weak or unreliable, or if too much weight is put on what are often subjective judgements (for example, an assessment of a child’s writing ability). If this is the case, data can be more of a tyrant, used to exploit weakness and make unreasonable demands on exhausted teachers.

Also, there comes a point, depending on the characteristics and context of your school cohort, when large pinches of salt need to be applied to the crude figures. My school, for example, has such a high proportion of children eligible for pupil premium, with deeply rooted deprivation even for those children who fall outside of the pupil premium net, that this measure becomes almost meaningless. If we look at raising attainment of deprived children, then we find ourselves coming full circle – it’s everyone. Needless to say, Ofsted don’t have much sympathy for these subtle realities.

Data works when it is used as part of the jigsaw, alongside the professional judgements of a skilled and observant teacher and with the knowledge that children develop in different ways at different times. Whatever the demands of Ofsted, children are not programmed to march like robots along a predictable trajectory.

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Absurdity and deceit: another day at Dfe

We all know that Michael Gove’s preferred model of school improvement is the Academy School. If in doubt, academise. And now we know his Department’s spin machine will stop at nothing to demonstrate the supposed effectiveness of Academies, even when this tips into the realms of absurdity and deceit.

Take this press release from the Department for Education: ‘Academy goes from failing to outstanding in just 2 years’.

It falls just short of being a spoof. Here is an Academy that, wait for it, has transformed educational opportunities by shutting up shop at 2.30pm and playing Warhammer.

For the uninitiated (and I count myself among them), Warhammer is a fantasy game which apparently is set in a hybrid of early modern Germany and Tolkein’s Middle Earth, populated by lizards, orcs and ogres. Not at all like the Education Select Committee then.

The point being made is that extra curricular clubs have a part to play in school improvement. Who would disagree? But imagine for a second that a state school had chosen to do the same – to stop formal learning a good hour before most other schools in order to play games. The ridicule and the scorn would have been overwhelming. But this is different simply because the school is an Academy.

More pernicious though is the headline itself. It implies an extraordinarily rapid turnaround – two years from ‘among the worst in the country’ to outstanding. But look at the small print. The school went into special measures in March 2010 – that’s four years from special measures to outstanding, not two. Misleading, to say the least, if not deceitful.

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No news from nowhere

On the day that the unpleasant closeness between Tony Blair and News International is making headlines again, it’s interesting to look at how different life is for Cameron’s Conservatives. In part, the electoral success of Labour under Blair was because they knew they had to influence the news agenda and had to do this doggedly and by any means necessary, never taking their eye off the bulletins and the headlines, reaching out to the media in a way that was meticulously planned and, ultimately, beyond the boundaries of what could be considered reasonable or decent.

Fast forward to 2014 and we are in very different times. The scurrilous elements in the media are still present, albeit with wings ever-so-slightly clipped by the Leveson Inquiry. But the demand for New Labour style news management has dwindled. Of course, even at the best of times the business of Government is never easy – it’s either raining or pouring – but what makes life more straightforward for the Conservatives, in stark contrast to their predecessors, is the almost entirely benign media environment in which they operate.

Where Labour had to battle for every story, the Conservatives simply don’t feel the need to chase headlines or generate stories with quite the same urgency. Nor do they need to hot-foot it from studio to studio manically re-butting inaccuracies or desperately flogging the latest policy wheeze.

Look no further than this month’s Government press releases (I know, I know, but it’s half term, and I have a little time on my hands). You’d be hard pushed to deliberately generate a list of such exceptionally dull announcements. Foreign Office Minister visits Tunisia. Transport Secretary meets bus industry. Much of it is the political equivalent of holding the front page for ‘Man gets stung by bee’. Aside from the daily flood updates, none of this suggests a Government much bothered by the news churn.

Few people will look back with fondness on the days of Alistair Campbell, Charlie Whelan and the other New Labour spin doctors. And there’s something oddly refreshing about the factual drabness of this Government’s pronouncements. Today’s news that Tony Blair was close enough to Rebekah Brooks to be giving advice on how to handle phone-hacking allegations will do little to lead people to yearn for the good old days.

Like Kinnock in 1987 and 1992, this leaves Ed Miliband in a right old pickle: how do you get your message across when no-one’s listening?

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Animal Farm and Brave New World should be on Gove’s reading list

There is something particularly odd about Michael Gove’s remark that children should be reading 50 books a year.

It’s not that he says this in the midst of a spending round so austere that libraries are being closed (one presumes perhaps that this challenge is reserved for children who have parents able to purchase said books).

It’s not that this comes from the man who, just weeks earlier, wanted to kick the Bookstart scheme into touch – and only toned down the cuts after a mighty fuss from some mightily-miffed children’s authors.

It’s not even that the idea is a bit daft. Why 50? Why not 52? Would 50 short stories count? Would War and Peace count as double? Negative marks for Mills and Boon?

And where’s the evidence – cited by Gove – that 80-90% of children only read one or two novels a year? It sounds made up – but incredibly handy if you want to give the impression state schools aren’t up to scratch.

This also continues the increasingly tiresome trend of importing innovation from the U.S. – this idea comes from Harlem – as if nothing of value is done closer to home. Never mind that there is a Summer Reading Challenge here – a national scheme – which aims to keep bookish minds occupied over the holidays. Why did Gove not mention this? One thing he should learn from the States is that they are very, very good at selling their successes.

But what’s really strange is that Gove said this at all. What on earth has it got to do with him whether children read 10, 20, 50 or 100 books? Why is a politician – a Secretary of State – concerning himself with such things?

More to the point, why is Gove sticking his oar in when he professes to believe in a political philosophy which is about a small state: an end to top-down interference and decision-making at the local level. One week it’s teachers who know best and it’s they that should be given the power to get on with things; the next we have an exercise in minutiae-management from the man at the top.

The problem is that this is becoming a habit for the Government; the desire to interfere based on their own personal prejudices. Gove has done it before with his views on what should – and shouldn’t – be taught in history lessons. And, we have had Nick Gibb babbling on about the tragic absence of Miss Havisham from the school curriculum (in his world it seems – on Planet Gibb – a single fictional character can genuinely save the world. He shares this view with the very small number of people who read Superman comics and believe them to be true).

This meddling is everywhere, and can take a malevolent form. Just take a look at the changes to funding to the Arts and Humanities Research Council – who are now duty bound to spend a ‘significant’ amount of its funding paying for research into the Government’s objectives and priorities. In other words, academic brains will be forced to add the words ‘big society’ to their research proposals in order to get the cash. This is a gross act, using £100m of public money to contort research to focus on a political slogan, and a pretty limp one at that.

This is unsettling coming from a Government that claims to believe in freedom of the individual: it looks very much like state control to me. Orwell and Huxley wrote of such things.

So, as an act of rebellion – symbolic if nothing else – let us take our copies of Great Expectations and hurl them in the fires, with the cry: “don’t tell us what to read posh-boy!” Then, get down from the barricades, and start off your very own 50 book challenge with some light reading: Animal Farm and Brave New World.

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Will Teaching Schools improve teacher quality?

One of the more interesting features of Michael Gove’s recent White Paper, ‘The Importance of Teaching’, was the audaciousness of the title; you would think it contains a hat full of well-considered plans to make teachers considerably better at their job.

But, not so.

Looking again at the section on improving teacher quality – a good few weeks after it was first published – it is hard to feel anything but underwhelmed by its contents.

Peculiar in many ways – the evidence suggests that improving teacher quality is the most effective way of transforming educational outcomes, and it’s reasonably cheap. If there is such as thing as a silver bullet in the complex world of children’s learning, then this would be it.

But what we have in Gove’s plan are crumbs.

There’s a bit on making it harder for some people to train as teachers, such as a Maths graduate with a third class degree, while making it easier for free schools to recruit who they like, teaching qualification or not. (The first idea may sound sensible, but a third-class degree more than accounts for the Maths a primary school covers; we may lose out on some excellent teachers by applying the guillotine so brutally – it also seems perverse that Michel Gove should decide this, rather than a teacher training institution).

There’s a bit too on changing the tests teachers take before they can practice – fine by me, but it’s hardly life-changing – and the idea about fast-tracking soldiers from parade ground to the classroom (a proposal if ever there was one, generated last-minute, late at night – scrabbling around for something to please those who believe our decline can be directly attributed to such things as breathable fabrics, central heating and the end of national service).

And on it goes – a series of policies which are best described as unremarkable, ineffective, daft or (the odd one or two, I admit) mildly agreeable.

The one idea which does emerge as vague justification for the White Paper’s title is the idea of teacher training being carried out in a network of Teaching Schools. This, if carried through, is a significant move, focussing training more clearly on school-based observation and experience.

There is some credit to this idea. During training, the white heat of being in a classroom, thirty pairs of eyes looking your way (or out the window) provides the steepest of learning curves – and there is much to learn, whether student or old-hand, from watching someone else teach.

But teacher-training, as you would expect, already requires many hours spent in schools and in classrooms, so it’s not immediately clear what is that different about Teaching Schools.

This, however, is revealed in the detail: only outstanding schools would be able to secure designation as a ‘Teaching School’ and would then be expected to lead and co-ordinate teacher training and professional development in their area.

This would seem to increase the likelihood of outstanding schools using this as an opportunity to cream off the best new talent. If this were the case, would other schools get a look-in? The best schools may well get better, but the odds seem to be stacked against struggling schools (of course, this also assumes that good teaching and leadership is exclusive to outstanding schools when it could be argued that the real innovation is happening in improving schools).

A further peculiarity of the proposal is that it requries co-operation and collaboration between schools with the lead school ‘driving improvement’ on their patch. While this appeals to a collaborator such as myself, it does run completely counter to every other education policy of note.

When all the incentives and expectations are tipped towards competition, a proposal based on mutuality does seem to jar with the mood of wider public service reform.

More fundamentally, this could weaken the concept of teaching as a profession founded on academic rigour and discipline, when what is required to improve schools is precisely the reverse.

The Government is quick to point towards the success of teaching hospitals but, in doing so, downplays the countless hours of study before a medical student is let near a stethoscope and a pulsing body.

Given the emphasis on ‘learning by doing’, you would imagine a surgeon masters their trade solely by peering over the shoulder of a steady old hand, waiting pensively for the moment where the scalpel is tossed their way and they’re told: ‘your turn’. My hope, if I were the patient, would be that the knife-wielder had read a little about his subject too.

A truly successful professional needs to do more than just watch, observe and repeat. They undoubtedly need the experience of doing, but also the opportunity to engage with education as an academic subject; with the time to explore the theories, ideas and research that underpin what goes on in schools (or what should go on in schools).

For this to happen, the link between the training of teachers and universities should be maintained – and strengthened. At first glance, Teaching Schools seem to be heading in the wrong direction.

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It’s the teaching, stupid

Why – I ask myself at infuriatingly regular intervals – in our chastened economic times, is Michael Gove spending money (and so much time) on such a speculative, long-odds, hit and hope punt as free schools?

Let us assume the focus of our endeavours, whether you are a political lefty or a righty or a don’t-give-a-monkeys, is on the question: what is the best, quickest and most sustainable way to improve children’s educational experiences and outcomes (bearing in mind, of course, UK PLC is a bit skint)?

Even if you are an avid supporter of free schools, someone who thinks the answer to the question is ‘a: Toby Young’ – or, conversely, if you are a determined opponent and think the answer to the question is ‘b: anyone but Toby Young’ – it is hard to justify the monstrous amount of political energy and will being expended battling for (or against) a policy which will result in the odd school here and there.

More importantly, this is a policy which in essence misses the most obvious response to the question.

Strip the school experience down to the barest of bare bones, and it is not, I’m afraid, the governance structure of a school that defines whether little Jonny has an educational career of impeccable quality and unremitting excellence. It is not whether the school is ‘free’ or whether it is maintained by the local authority, that cuts the mustard for Year 7 on a damp Friday afternoon.

What does, then?

As boring and as straightforward and as simple as it sounds: it’s teaching. Or, more accurately: teachers teaching well. The oft-repeated line that the quality of a school cannot exceed the quality of its teaching is the fundamental truth that should guide all policy-making. To misuse Bill Clinton’s campaign phrase: it’s the teaching, stupid.

In tough times, businesses look to their ‘cash cow’; the steady seller that keeps the tills ringing and profits healthy. They keep risks low, invest cautiously and look for reliable, predictable returns rather than taking a gamble. Unexciting, maybe, but in these times, reliable results are rightly judged to be more important than flamboyant failures.

So, why not – when each public utterance from our leaders contains the obligatory reference to deficit reduction and cuts, usually closely followed by the ‘difficult decisions’ said things entail – go for the easy win and invest our scarce pennies on teachers?

At the risk of being accused of blatant self-interest and self-promotion, the science backs this up: John Hattie’s remarkable analysis of educational research (‘Visible Learning’ – unfortunately not in a good bookshop near you) picks out the interventions that make the most difference to learning. Handily (Mr. Hattie is very helpful), these interventions are listed at the back of the book; of the ‘top thirty’, nineteen are directly related to teachers or teaching methods (and many of the other eleven are directly related to teaching skills too – such as behaviour in the school).

And, critically, it takes a long look down the list to find evidence of the impact of structural reforms of the kind being supported here – religious schools and charter schools (the U.S equivalent of our free schools) are both outside the top hundred.

So, what to do? Attracting new and better recruits into the profession is vital; tomorrow’s teachers should ideally be better than the current bunch.

But what of today’s teachers? How can they improve what they do? On this, from Government at least, so little seems to be said (aside from the title of the White Paper, ‘The Importance of Teaching’ – an attempt at flattery which fails to disguise the paucity of ideas within). If only the effort and the energy currently absorbed in establishing new free schools could be diverted towards the development of teachers.

Whatever cash we have – and whatever political will there is – would be most wisely invested in this area, not the unproven risk of free schools. I don’t mean more pay – I mean investment in the best training and development there is. Here’s a start: every teacher should be trained to Masters degree level, based on research and development which takes place in their own classrooms.

There will be few headlines, favourable or otherwise, to such a move. In fact, it would be very likely to send the dispassionate observer into a deep sleep – and perhaps that reveals why it seems so low down the political agenda.

Indeed at the end of a Parliamentary term there would be no new buildings, no Acts of Parliament – nothing to show for it, except a few thousand teachers who were better at their jobs, and many, many thousands of children whose prospects had been elevated and whose eyes had been lifted to see previously unimaginable horizons.

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Farewell Pencilandpapertest

In a deplorably vain attempt to attract a few more readers, I’ve put Pencilandpapertest to the sword. But, fear not, my blog is re-born as ‘Teacher Talks’ and continues along the same track of education-themed political musings over at Think Politics.

Many thanks for reading and particularly to all those who commented. I hope you’ll join me in the new place!

You can still follow on Twitter @TeacherTalks

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