Can you replace a teacher with a robot? By Chris Yapp

Here we go again? Twenty years ago, the question being asked was “can you replace a teacher with a computer?” A case of déjà vu? There is a phrase in Hungarian that translated roughly means “there is nothing new in the world, only those things that we have forgotten”.

The standard answer 20 years ago, was “any teacher who can be replaced by a computer should be replaced by a computer”. Is it different this time? For a start, developments in “big data”, “artificial intelligence” and “machine learning” are impacting on other professional disciplines. In medicine, diagnostic systems can outperform skilled clinicians. The practise of law is being impacted by these technologies. We can find examples in architecture, accounting and many other disciplines. There are many studies suggesting that 40-60% of today’s jobs will be eliminated or seriously transformed in the next 20 years by advances across the technology spectrum.  Can education claim sufficient uniqueness that teaching alone will not be impacted by robotics and AI?

The problem about the above paragraph and many like it, is that it addresses the wrong question. Try this instead: “how can the education system, its institutions and professionals embrace, appropriately, advances in technology to improve access to and the experience of learning for professionals and students alike?”

Do you believe that the education system that we have is the best that there could be? Would an injection of more money, on its own, eliminate all significant challenges? I’d be happy to debate with anybody who believes that both the above questions can be answered yes.

For a start, technology has played a significant part in special needs education in lowering the barriers. We still have serious educational inequalities to address. Teacher stress leading to retention problems, difficulties in finding enough Heads. I could go on, but you know them better than I do.

For as long as I have been engaged with educational technologies, there has been a constant background debate about how to make education a researched-based profession. Too much education research is too small to have a real impact on policy and practise, be it at institutional or classroom level.

I would argue that the current round of technology advances provides the platform for the realisation of the teacher as an action researcher at scale. Links between education researchers and practitioners could at the system level using big data, AI and machine learning and low cost computing help create a culture of education research led by the needs of teachers. In my experience, schools do not suffer from a lack of creativity or innovation. The problem that I have seen is that innovations do not spread across the system. Imagine a health system where each hospital defined its own treatment and drug regimes. Health has its own problems, but there is a culture of spreading practise systemically. I can still use examples from the 1990s about practise in schools that I observed such as virtual reality in a primary school, modern foreign languages between children in classes in different countries and people think I’m talking about the future.

Now let’s look at the school level. Here I would argue is that schools have become masters of adapting to change imposed on them, often framed in the language of earned autonomy, guided localism. You are free to do what we tell you! My own feeling is that people do not resist change, they resist being changed.

I would argue that if schools do not embrace these advances they are not preparing young people for adult life and work in a world where these technologies will be pervasive. However, the obvious push back is that the computer that a 5-year-old uses will be nothing like the ones they will use when they are adults, so how can schools deliver without massive injections of resources?

Consider the diagram below:

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Start by thinking about problems and opportunities you have, at classroom level or at institutional level. Back in the 1990s I evaluated a small project where a number of children with serious health problems were given technology that enabled them to stay involved with their school, their friends when in hospital or at home. When one child was in remission they were able to be reintroduced back to school without having experienced significant disruption to their education while away. Think about how you might enhance the education in your school by external links. In the 1990s I was involved in a school project where we had an “artist in non-residence”. An art teacher working in a school classroom had access to a professional artist who contributed to a school art project from his studio miles away. In a deprived community, another school opened at evenings and weekends to train parents and grandparents in how to use computers, true community schooling.

These examples all started from ideas generated from practitioners having real problems that they wanted to see if computers could help. The lesson 20 years ago, and now is the same. The Learning horse pulls the technology cart, not the other way around.

In stable times, our values and purposes can be implicit. In changing and turbulent times, we will get nowhere if we are not confident in our purpose and values.

So, what are the purposes of education? What are our values, as society, teachers or parents? These are old questions. We have new tools of incredible potential, but it is potential only.

My advice is this. Don’t be afraid of AI, machine learning, robots and big data. On the other hand, do not be complacent about change. The work teachers do will be different. How schools operate will change. The issue is whether we manage change well, or badly.

So, what would be my hopes for the next 10 years?

  1. We think about building a model of change management for education at the system and institutional level that involves and engages the professionals throughout the change process
  2. We build a system for diffusing innovations that work across all schools. Research in education should, at least in part, be driven by practitioners needs and assessed by their outcomes.
  3. We take the ideas of “schools without walls” seriously and look how links to other institutions can enrich the experience for teachers and pupils alike.
  4. We build new models for the development of both curriculum and assessment that consider technology advances and how teacher satisfaction and skills are part of the process not a bolt on or afterthought. I am reminded of Seymour Papert: “don’t teach children about computers, use computers to teach them about the world”. Please remember that computers are in that world.
  5. We need an education system at every level is confident about its purpose and values. We are preparing children for a world which we do not understand. Alec Reed, founder of REED Group put it to me well 20 years ago, He described the culture change in comparison to another rite of passage. He envisaged success as a world where students on leaving school put on their L plates to say “I am a learner” rather than take them off because they passed or failed.

At the end of the day, throwing technology at an ill-defined problem doesn’t help. If the dialogue goes like this “the answer is X, what’s the problem”, you know we are the next in a long line of “modems in cupboards” initiatives.

I used to say that the biggest policy problem was the flawed belief was

NEW TEACHER = OLD TEACHER + IT

Add to that OLD WORLD (Teacher) NEW WORLD (Robot +AI).

The College of Teaching is a welcome development for me. Its aspirations fit my beliefs about what education needs to be, at the forefront of building the adults and workforce of the next generations.

Have a fun and productive 2017.

Chris is an independent Consultant specialising in Innovation and futures thinking. He has a 30 year background in IT and 25 of IT in Education. He is also a Patron of NACE, The National Association of Able Children in Education.

A dog owner’s guide to grammar schools by Harmer Parr

As Teresa May tossed the juicy bone of grammar schools to the right wing of her party, I was reminded of a request to buy dog food for my daughter.

Well, more accurately, for my daughter’s dog, as we left the ranks of the urban poor when we became one of those eponymous hardworking families. She was very specific about which kind it had to be, so I set off down the relevant isle in ‘Pets ‘r Us’, a phrase I certainly wouldn’t have got away with in my 1960s grammar school, in search of the correct product.

And there, thanks to freedom of choice, the problem started.

Not a choice of four or five products, but seemingly four or five hundred, all beautifully packaged, redolent with pictures of gambolling, happy dogs, and presumably differing from each other in ways that were too subtle for my human eye. With the help of an assistant, I eventually located the right one, wondering as I did so how our 1960s dog had managed to survive on a diet of leftovers. My primary school friends, who got their academic leftovers at the secondary modern schools in the town, were not always so lucky.

To think that we are about to recreate the binary system is apparently to misread the situation completely. Yes, there will be lots of grammar schools, but there will be lots of other kinds of school as well, possibly one for every day of the week. Independent schools and grammar schools will be sharing their expertise, providing a welcome respite for those teaching Year 9 set 6 on a Friday afternoon. Parents will have unlimited choice and are expected in droves to choose a grammar school. Let’s hope the feeling is mutual, and it chooses them as well.

Parliament, of course, is located in the middle of London, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the ideas emanating from it are located in the same place. Fifty-seven varieties may have some traction in Islington, but it is less clear how the idea can be applied to rural areas like Norfolk and Lincolnshire. Several years ago, I was able to admire the latter’s binary system at close quarters as I inspected the runt of a three-school litter in a small town.

The grammar school gobbled up the academic cream, leaving two secondary moderns to fight for the leftovers. The one I inspected was at the rougher end of town, and had strangely emerged as the school of choice for its local population. The staff at Hobson’s Academy (no, not it’s real name!) deserved a medal for the degree of damage limitation they achieved. I’ve not been back, but if anyone has opened a Free School in the area specialising in Latin and Greek my guess is that it’s not over-subscribed.

In the early 1980s Sir Keith Joseph became Education Secretary. He was not always an enlightened man. Once, on an interviewing panel, he allegedly told a black candidate to go back where he came from and grow bananas, obtaining the response that ‘that would be rather difficult in Haringey’. However, his analysis of the country’s education problems was more perceptive and more accurate.  We failed to educate the bottom 40 per cent of the ability range. The tripartite system envisaged by Butler’s 1944 Education Act had never materialised because of our antipathy to technical schools, and the binary system that had emerged had been singularly unsuccessful in reaching the parts that grammar schools could not reach.

When compared to the vocational education offered by our European neighbours, the criticism still holds good today. We’ve never managed to escape the feeling that vocational qualifications are a booby prize, and we’ve always managed to escape investing in them properly.

At the other end of the scale, our academic achievements compare reasonably well with those of Europe, except, of course that students emerging from the French and German systems usually speak two foreign languages as well. That may matter less in a post-Brexit world, where the default position of shouting loudly in English is likely to be more acceptable.

Teresa May presented her ideas under the banner of inclusion: better education for all. Experts are not to be trusted, so the current fashion seems to be to commission research and then do the opposite of what it tells you. As Keith Joseph noted, the major problem with the British Bulldog is its extraordinarily long tail. So the less obvious solution is to devote all our attention to feeding its front end, in the hope that some of the juice will drip down to those who’ve exercised their choice for a secondary modern.

Research also appears to show that overall academic standards are weaker in areas with grammar schools, so the answer there is to create more of them. Although, of course, standards will rise automatically when every school is a grammar school, just as they did when every school was required to be above average.

I’m sure Teresa May would not welcome a comparison to Mao’s cultural revolution, and his wish to ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’. But the Tories’ plans for education have a similarly experimental feel, and could produce a similar crop of weeds.

Let’s open lots of different sorts of schools, let’s have lots of grammar schools, and, not on the script, let’s have lots of unintended consequences. Schools who lose their critical mass of able students to surrounding poachers, schools who use their sharp elbows to acquire the ‘best students’, schools left with spare places so they can mop up the waifs and strays that no-one else wants. Will this, in fact, be ‘a better deal for all’?

So why did she do it? Evidence-free, counter-intuitive, potentially destructive of a system producing, arguably, better results than ever before. Well, the clue is in the term: ‘grammar schools’. It’s up there with motherhood, apple pie, warm beer and cricket on the village green. And given its ability to induce prolonged salivation amongst ‘traditional’ Conservatives, the shires will be drooling and dribbling for some time to come.

Teresa May can rightly say: ‘après moi, le déluge’. Let’s just hope the flood defences work. If not, the resulting torrent could drown the dog’s dinner.

Harmer Parr is a former HMI.

THE COLLEGE OF TEACHING: a defining moment for the teaching profession? By Derek Bell

On the afternoon of the 25th May I watched as HRH Prince Philip took the original 1846 Royal Charter setting up the College of Preceptors (with its 1998 supplement) from The President of The College of Teachers and handed it to the first Chair of the Chartered College of Teaching.

You may consider this to be a trivial piece of ceremony of relatively little consequence. Yet in its own way it could be a defining moment in the history of the teaching profession in England and, perhaps, beyond. Four years ago the Education Select Committee recommended establishing “a new, member-driven College of Teaching, along the lines of the Royal Colleges and Chartered Institutions in other professions.”

Since then several groups of people, including many classroom teachers and heads, have worked extremely hard in order to lay the foundations for such a body – the completion of which was formally and publically acknowledged in that moment. Although there are still some technicalities to be completed, this was the point at which the new Chartered College of Teaching emerged as a body in its own right.

Whilst no one, least of all the new board of Trustees, underestimates the challenges ahead, that moment of transfer also acted as a reminder of how deep rooted the foundations of the new Chartered College of Teaching actually are. Not only does the Royal Charter recognise 170 years of history it also embodies values and aspirations of, and for, the teaching profession which are still relevant today.

Although the language of the document may seem strange, key phrases refer to; promoting sound learning”, “advancing the interests of education” and “affording facilities to the Teacher for the acquiring of a sound knowledge of his [/her] Profession”. I would suggest that these fundamental ideas remain at the heart of the teaching profession today. Bearing in mind that in 1846 there was little or no provision for training teachers, the vision of those individuals who came together to found the College was crucial and in many ways underpinned the setting up of teacher education (both initial training and continuing professional development) which exists today.

There is much to thank the original College for but unfortunately over the years it has become overwhelmed by wider developments, not least the increasingly onerous involvement of Government in the day to day activities of teachers and their schools.

Thus that moment on 25th May 2016, is also a challenge and opportunity for teachers everywhere to reshape their profession so that it is fit for the 21st Century. The new Chartered College of Teaching, under its revised Royal Charter, has the potential to lead this development towards increasing and genuine professional autonomy for teaching and teachers.

It can’t be emphasised too strongly that this will take time but progress is being made. Visit http://www.claimyourcollege.org/the-colleges-history/ for a full account of developments so far.

Confirmation of seed-funding of £5 million, staged over 5 years, in the government white paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere, meant that it was possible for the Trustees to push ahead with a range of key activities including the appointment of the first Chief Executive which has just been advertised. They have also been working on details of membership and the activities the college will undertake over the next few years. Underpinning all college activities is the key principle that developments should be based on evidence and reflect the views of teachers.

Initiatives such as The Big Staff Meeting, held at the beginning of 2016 will continue to be used to inform the work of the college both nationally and regionally. In the autumn, the new Chartered College of Teaching website will replace the current http://www.claimyourcollege.org/ and events will be held including The Big Summit designed to provide a forum for mobilising knowledge and sharing evidence-based practice.

Perhaps more importantly this autumn will see the publication of a manifesto setting out plans for the new College in more detail. Currently (June 2016) details are under discussion but there are three major themes, among others, I would hope to see included in some form.

  • An emphasis on the real strengths of existing teachers and their practice, highlighting not just examples of excellent practice but the quality and commitment of the everyday practice demonstrated by the majority of teachers, headteachers and teaching assistants across the country. Gaining wider recognition for existing good practice would provide a sound basis on which to raise the status of the teaching profession.
  • The importance of building a genuine professional community which, over time, establishes its autonomy and independence becoming a leading body on matters of teaching and learning. In particular, it is important that this community is fully inclusive not only with regard to gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or background, but also to the many individuals who may have left the classroom in order to make valuable contributions to teaching, learning and education in different capacities. Clearly the majority of members of the college will and should be classroom teachers but the new College needs to retain the support, goodwill and contributions of this wider group of individuals – it cannot have too many advocates.
  • The need for high quality professional education, both initial training and career long CPD. The mark of a profession is that it is self-improving both as a body and as individuals within that body. The new College must have things to say and do with regard to training and development, influencing (and ultimately controlling) aspects such as standards, content, duration and expectations. Initial training must be a requirement and there should be an entitlement to ongoing CPD.

 

To this needs to be added the responsibility of ensuring appropriate opportunities are available and that they are taken up. If used effectively the introduction of an integrated Chartered Teacher scheme will provide the necessary recognition for all teachers who are well trained, keep up to date and, as a true professional, continue to improve and share their practice throughout their career.

Setting up the new College will not of itself bring about a transformation of the teaching profession or education more widely. However, it can provide a vehicle which can over time bring about change. Ultimately in order to meet aspirations it requires the contributions and support of teachers where ever they work.

Change will not happen overnight but a start has been made.

Perhaps, at this early stage of the new College’s development, as teachers and others involved in education, we should (with apologies to John F Kennedy) be asking not what our College can do for me but asking what can I do for our College – and through it the quality of teaching and learning for all our young people.

Professor Derek Bell, having worked in schools and universities as a teacher and researcher, was formerly Head of Education at the Wellcome Trust, and was Chief Executive of the Association for Science Education for seven years. He has carried out a wide range of consultancies in the UK and overseas and been a member of advisory/expert panels. He is Director of Learnus, a research associate at UCL Institute of Education and a NET Leading Thinker.

Moral imperatives for our schooling system by Brian Lightman

Some 36 years ago I was advised against going into teaching by just about everyone. ‘Go into business’, ‘become an accountant’ etc. etc. Thank goodness my rebellious streak and anger that this fantastic vocation should be seen as inferior to other careers led to my decision to ignore that advice. I have never regretted it.

All these years later I have been reflecting about how our system has moved on. Are we, as the Secretary of State recently said in a speech to ASCL conference, in a ‘Golden Age’ for education? Or, as other commentators are saying, are we in the depths of a really significant crisis around recruitment, retention, funding, school places and a frenetic agenda for change? Have the many different initiatives and government led policies I have experienced made a difference? And is the dream of governments stepping back from constant intervention in support of a largely school led, self-improving system on the cusp of becoming a reality?

Today there are three deep seated issues which need to be addressed by everyone who shares the belief that a civilised society must aspire towards the highest quality education system for all young people.

  1. There needs to be public recognition that we have an education system to be proud of which has changed for the better beyond recognition. Too many commentators and policymakers who have little or no experience of the state system perpetuate images of chaotic institutions, riotous behaviour, rife bullying and many other ills. Too rarely do we see images of the orderly and well led institutions staffed by highly committed professionals. We need to break the myths that pervade our education system.
  1. Our profession needs to rebuild its confidence. It needs to be able to recruit the best people, nurture and support their continuous professional learning, and of course it needs to be properly resourced. That is not just about funding but about access to high-quality support services for the many vulnerable children whose problems go beyond anything schools can address alone.
  1. Sustainability must be built into our education system. Countless initiatives often focused on structural change and high stakes accountability have not been given time to embed. Many of these initiatives had great potential but the five-year electoral cycle meant that they sank into oblivion upon the change of a government or ministerial team. If policymakers continue to eschew the need for stability, courageous school leaders need to capture those things that work and confidently build on that success.

We all know that the key to further improvement is situated in our schools. Here therefore are 10 questions for schools to consider as they continue their improvement journey.

  1. Do all members of the school community share, walk and talk a clearly articulated educational vision of the whole school community?
  2. Do curriculum planning and staff allocations reflect that vision and encompass the totality of experiences to which young people have access, and not just what they learn in the classroom?
  3. Does the school have a culture which embeds the celebration of success into all aspects of its operation, but equally recognises that failure is an important part of learning for everyone and that an ambitious, aspirational culture needs to take risks which will not always lead to successes?
  4. Is the culture of the school reflective, analytical, self-critical and informed by first hand evidence and research as opposed to a reaction to the latest accountability measure or ministerial whim?
  5. Is professional learning embedded in the culture of the school with a clearly defined ‘curriculum’ for all staff at all levels within the organisation?
  6. Has the school set out a clear recruitment, retention and succession planning strategy which demonstrates to potential applicants and serving staff that this is a great place to work which will help them to be better teachers/school leaders?
  7. Does the school’s planning cycle recognise that quick fixes do not lead to sustainable change, and do senior staff robustly challenge those who argue that they do?
  8. What steps are being taken to ensure that teaching staff have high levels of expertise in assessment?
  9. What systems are in place to ensure that the staff are suitably empowered to make effective use of data to impact on standards by understanding the questions this information asks, its power and its limitations?
  10. What steps is the school taking to prepare young people for their future careers by encountering employers, FEIs and HEIs and understanding that university is one of many options?

Brian recently stepped down from his role as General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He is working to help schools rise to this rapidly changing world of opportunities through his consultancy www.lightmanconsulting.co.uk  

‘Cultural education matters’ by Maggie Atkinson

Schools live and work as ever in exciting times. Darren Henley, Arts Council CEO, launched the Cultural Education Challenge in the late autumn. It seeks to guarantee universal access to arts and culture for all children and young people. He must mean it, or it would not have seen the light of day. The new Artsmark, having been reviewed by schools, is open at http://www.artsmark.org.uk

Cultural education matters. It is defined in the Henley review as opportunities to engage with archaeology, architecture and the built environment, archives, craft, dance, design, digital arts, drama, film, galleries, heritage, libraries, literature, live performance, museums, music, poetry and the visual arts. Pupils need to be doing, not just ‘engaging by receiving’. But there are gaps and inequalities at work.

Social mobility research says only two in five children from poor homes are read to every day, whereas nearly four in five from richer families are. Literacy research tells us those who are read to will then read both first, and more fluently. Children on free school meals are 12% less likely to join after-school clubs than their affluent peers. It follows, surely, that the disadvantages they face, and the inequalities attached to them, are compounded by and compound each other in and beyond education: not least, in young people’s future employment, and lifelong prospects.

Of greater concern in this context is that some disadvantaged communities clearly consider the arts and culture are ‘not for them’. Cultural settings may not reach out well, and some communities are at a loss as to how to reach in. They end up not engaging, especially given they may also have challenges in keeping roofs over heads and food on the table. Arts and culture then become self-selecting spaces. Those already engaged remain their key inhabitants. Those not engaged remain outside.

Addressing such inequality through schools’ work in this area could safeguard our educational, but also both our cultural and social capital. Artistic and cultural education and the development of creativity are rights under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (Articles 29, and particularly 31.). We need education to ensure all children and young people can explore and develop their creativity, learning to engage with the best of arts and culture across the ages. This is about both the accepted ‘greats’, and providing opportunities to build new classics for a new time. Their time.

Achievements in arts subjects transfer to those in others. Music projects like El Sistema in a range of UK cities and towns, or Opera North’s work in classrooms in Leeds, have proven to raise SATs results, attendance, behaviour, commitment and engagement. There are proven meta-cognition and soft skills impacts. Children and young people engaged in cultural learning practise skills for progress in learning throughout the curriculum, and their lives outside school. Brain science tells us every child’s development involves socialisation, and the development of individual passions and interests.

For economically disadvantaged pupils there are even bigger ‘wins.’ Cultural engagement expands the mind and the horizons, enabling children to pursue possibilities through their imaginations, developing their sense of belonging – and contributing – to their world.

Evidence from the Sutton Trust indicates engagement in cultural activities helps bright but disadvantaged students to do well. There is increasing evidence from schools using cultural approaches to learning that these approaches work because they both address the socialisation of the whole child, and show significant adults there is more to that child than first meets the eye.

Tomorrow’s employment market will expect to receive versatile school leavers. 16% of all jobs in London alone are in the creative industries. And the sector is growing at twice the rate of the UK economy. The CBI and the media regularly report employers needing workers who can think creatively. Such findings challenge all engaged in education to prepare young people for fast-moving, competitive environments. Restricting access to arts and culture, in the curriculum or extracurricular activities, and a concentration solely on core subjects, does not help poorer students to gain ground. On the contrary, it holds them back.

The government argues an ‘academic’ education is the best route to closing the gap. Nobody denies the value of maths, English, science, languages, the humanities. They are crucial. But they are only part of a rounded education. The danger is that with an accountability framework heavily weighting the EBAC, and rhetorical language side-lining arts and culture to a place where they become ‘nice to do,’ we restrict students’ capacity to grow. And in case we had forgotten, the Arts are disciplines. Their advanced study is academic, rigorous and demanding. Saying otherwise is both intellectually questionable, and counter evidential.

Schools are vanguards in ensuring children and young people access culture. They are the only settings that reach most children and young people. Schools, not children, must find ways of valuing the arts and culture as crucial pillars supporting a great education. We can’t ask for permission, or wait for non-existent additional funding to come our way.

Doing this, being this brave, will require some leaps of faith. Like all school-toschool collaboration, it will mean both cultural organisations working across schools, and schools working together. It will be about making deliberate choices. Many schools already adopt a cultural approach to support low income pupils. Some can already show extraordinary outcomes from opening up new opportunities, and standing by their choice actively to promote cultural education.

The new Artsmark framework recognises schools’ commitment to cultural education, working with partners. It is also a forum for schools to share expertise and ideas. If schools can gather enough data, surely they can show the DfE how much they value and will sustain arts and culture.

But this is not only a challenge for schools. The cultural sector needs to ask some questions. Why do some schools have few chances to engage? Why are cultural activities overwhelmingly accessed by higher social groups? How can schools work with arts groups to grow the next generation of participants and leaders?

The policy and funding contexts are challenging. That is not new. That being so, the arts sector and schools need – bravely, working together – to build rounded arts and cultural offers, within and beyond the curriculum, through which children’s and young people’s imagination, creativity and rounded achievement can be sustained.

Maggie Atkinson is a NET Leading Thinker and Chair of ‘A New Direction’ www.anewdirection.org.uk

Watching the clouds go by.

Over the past six months I have been conducting unscientific polls of how many primary schools currently set homework. Of around 300 school leaders that I have asked, around 70% do so.

Whilst this might not be representative of the national picture, it suggests that homework is regularly set in many primary schools. And this is despite the fact that the evidence for doing so is weak. This is what the education endowment foundation toolkit says:

It is certainly the case that schools whose pupils do homework tend to be successful schools. However it is less clear that the homework is the reason why they are successful. There is some evidence that when homework is used as a short and focused intervention it can be effective in improving students’ attainment. Overall the general benefits are likely to be modest if homework is more routinely set. There is clear evidence that it is helpful at secondary level, but there is much less evidence of benefit at primary level.’

So why is it set? How many hours per year of teacher time are spent marking homework? Primary homework is often defended because it ‘fosters independent learning skills’ or ‘it prepares for what is being / backs up what’s been taught in class’. My experience of primary homework at home is that it is a singular cause of family argument.

In some schools, homework is a competitive sport for a few parents and the work done at home bears absolutely no resemblance to that done in the classroom.

At the same time, homework can also be particularly dispiriting for those that come from a very disadvantaged background. Parents may be working long shifts at difficult times of the day.  There may be little space, and there may be very little quiet space. If something is important, it should be taught at school – including building resilience and independent learning skills.

Schools are fantastic places when parents engage with their children’s learning. This is one of the golden keys to success in schools where there are many children from disadvantaged backgrounds – where parent value-added takes more time to craft. But sometimes what we as parents believe to be intuitively true needs to be put right by professionals.

A significant proportion of parents would, I suspect, believe that ability grouping, small class sizes and homework are highly effective in raising attainment. The evidence suggests otherwise. Teachers battling away to ensure children complete homework – and then getting it marked – might not be the best use of their time. The time might be better spent planning for and evaluating the impact of their teaching each day.

That said, many things may work well in individual cases. Ability grouping and homework in particular are present in many successful primary schools. That may or may not help raise attainment in those schools – but I certainly think it is work a closer look.

So what could be done? I don’t think primary homework is going to go away. But more could be done to find out about best practice.

As the EEF report suggests, homework that is set in short, sharp and focussed bursts, with clear success criteria based on learning that has taken place in the classroom, might be a start: to provide an assessment of whether what’s been learned in school has been learned in depth.  And this could be backed up by pupil premium funded homework clubs where high quality support is in place for those that need it – replicating the opportunities other children get at home. Best practice for parental support for children with SEND provides lots of intelligent approaches too.

Schools could carry out a test and learn approach, with classes doing no homework, the more structured ‘short burst approach’, or just continue as they are. I think a best practice trial would be a brilliant thing for the EEF to lead on, a rich resource to plan future approaches.

A school leader said to me recently, ‘we do homework, but I don’t insist teachers mark it because we really don’t know who’s done the work’. Parents would be better off reading to their children, bouncing with them on a trampoline, or simply lying down with their eight year old and watching the clouds go by.

Marc Rowland is Deputy Director, National Education Trust

Thoughts on lesson observations #6 | Subject leader without portfolio

As a Special school we organise our approach to lesson observation on fairly traditional lines. They are generally conducted by the Senior Leadership Team and Subject Leaders, with a focus on staff appraisal and the monitoring of subject based learning, supplemented with peer to peer observations for particular purposes.

Recently I relinquished my role as a subject leader. I no longer have a responsibility for the monitoring and evaluation of a particular subject and yet as a Deputy Headteacher I still have responsibility for monitoring and evaluating this aspect of the school’s work. I am also mindful that not observing lessons on a regular basis would leave me at risk of being further removed from the reality of classroom practice.

So as a school we took the decision to reflect on the areas where formal observation is less likely to occur and consider how best to evaluate the quality of what takes place. We created a subject leader without portfolio.

In our 4- 18 context there are a wide range of areas of learning which are not subject specific but are still significant priorities for individual children’s development. These are not necessarily areas such as behaviour or the pupils’ social interaction skills, which form part of more formal observations within the classroom, but rather things such as: how adults support transitions between one location within the school and another during unstructured times; how teachers reduce the amount of adult intervention when encouraging pupils to work with a greater degree of independence outside of the classroom; or how we evaluate variances in approaches to supported social interactions during play, when pupils are supported by a wider range of less familiar staff.

So as we begin exploring this approach, here are a few examples of areas which may need further investigation.

Extension activities

This is part of the week where children are expected to work with a greater degree of independence on tasks which have been successfully completed 1:1 or within carefully structured subject based lessons. The expectation is that they will demonstrate an ability to generalise their learning without necessarily being directly supported by an adult. The importance of this time in the week is that it helps to reduce the risks of dependency upon the adult and introduces a wider range of resources, materials and expectations around the learned concept or skill.

Arrival into school

Our responsibility for learning starts the moment the child steps off the bus, ensuring that they arrive in the classroom ready to work. But beyond that transition from the informal environment to the formal one, there are many skills associated with the process of getting yourself safely and appropriately to the classroom. Can you navigate a busy environment, do you respond to spontaneous social interactions in the same way you do to expected social routines, are you able to avoid unnecessary distractions, and do you make well judged decisions about the order in which things need to be done?

These are all aspects of what we teach in the classroom, but are we evaluating as effectively the nature of these interactions as they take place elsewhere?

Play

For us, ‘play’ is a perennial concern. Not just the notion of learning through play and learning to play as elements of the taught curriculum, but the quality of what happens during break time. Here we generally have a broader range of children interacting with one another and a broader range of adults responsible for this. We are also likely to have a less generous staffing ratio than within the classroom. Yet this is a vital part of the school day in terms of developing our pupils’ capability to interact, communicate and negotiate successfully, and one which we are aware we could be doing better.

Choosing Time

This is an opportunity earned by pupils at the very end of the day to select a particular resource or activity to share with peers or use by themselves. This provides opportunities for a greater degree of self-direction and choice with regards to social interactions and the extent to which attention is sustained. Adults are often focused on supporting pupils with their personal care at this time, reducing the staff ratio and requiring a greater degree of independent participation from the children.

Although the above are areas which may appear to have less tangible impacts upon the attainment within the classroom, they are material to the creation of a culture where learning permeates the environment and where an atmosphere of calm and purposeful activity prevails. It also allows us to make informed, conscious decisions about where we may wish to increase the degree of variability and independence, ensuring that we are equipping our pupils to cope with a wider range of adults and other children responding in unexpected ways.

In taking a structured approach to the reduction of structure, we are aiming to ensure that our pupils are equipped for life beyond the school in its broadest sense.

Continuing the analogy of the surgeon and the scalpel, do we as schools need to be less focused on the major organs, and ensure that we address the patient as a whole?

Simon Knight is Deputy Head of Frank Wise School, Banbury, and a NET Associate Director.

The schools March 2015 Ofsted report is worth reading.