Shanghai versus England

We do so love the adversarial debate in our country. We routinely position polar opposite ideas and debate them in order to determine which is right. Of course whenever we follow this process the result is bigoted people on both sides trying to thrust their views forward and positions harden rather than consensus being achieved.

The latest, highlighted in a BBC TV series, is the debate about whether Shanghai teaching is better than English teaching. Shanghai, riding high on the OECD tables, and England languishing at 20th. Shanghai reportedly all rote learning and discipline, and England characterised by harassed staff managing increasingly unmotivated children. What a stereotype this is!

I have spent a large amount of time in the last eight years working internationally and as part of that have advised the countries who are certainly performing highly in OECD terms. So I think I know something about this particular matter.

Have no doubt, Asia including China is indeed the ‘Asian Tiger’. It pulsates with optimism and evidence of rapid progress is visible at every turn. Education merely reflects this wider ambition. The Hong Kong Education Bureau staff smiled when I explained that the reason I asked about the demographic profile of the schools I visited was that in my country the family into which you are born is a strong predictor of how well you will do in education. ‘Not so in ours’, they replied. Each generation is a fresh start and all students have the chance to exceed the achievements of their parents. And they mean it! Their overall expectations are high and they deliver.

Of course they do not deliver using the same methodologies as we do. If you know anything about learning Mandarin you will know that traditionally it is acquired through memorisation, with students learning new sets of symbols each day and practising them by rote. So the rest of their education system mirrors this kind of approach. That is not to say that it lacks vision.

The Confucius education tradition has a proud history and dictates that education should encourage the student to think about how he should live his life and interact with others, and the forms of society and government in which he should participate. It’s not just learning facts but it does place the onus on the student to make the most of what they are offered. This is where the idea that the Chinese value hard work comes from. They do, but so does Singapore and Hong Kong, etc. They believe that hard work rather than background – or even innate ability – is the key to success and that anyone who wants it can achieve it.

So why are they seeking advice from English educationalists? Well the answer is that we have our own proud tradition. At its best our education system develops individuals who can think for themselves. They are encouraged to question and debate ideas and the result, when done well, is that we produce students who can innovate and problem solve as well as

having strong subject knowledge and expertise. Note our very successful creative industries and our record for innovation in all fields as opposed to just routine production.

Yet, both we and Shanghai have our problems. In Asia the challenge is to find an educational style that builds on their success but at the same time encourages the problem solving and innovative thinking that prepares people for leadership in a complex world. In our case our education tradition seems to create a mixture of excellence and mediocrity as it is much more teacher and school dependent. It’s harder to manage students who think for themselves and question and this has to be done in an environment of mutual respect.

Maybe what we should be taking from Asia is their belief in the power of hard work and their belief in students’ ability to succeed. Plus, helping students to understand that they need to take some ownership for their own progress.

One thing is for sure: grafting an educational approach from another educational tradition onto our education system is unlikely to lead to success. We can learn much from other countries and adopt some of their ideas. But wholesale transfer never works – education is context related and reflects a country’s society and ambitions.

Professor Deborah Eyre

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 #2 | Fanning the glowing embers

When a school hits rock bottom, as mine had a year before I joined, there are two key tasks for the leadership and governors. The first is to rebuild the school: to nurture the phoenix as it slowly rises from the flames so that every child gets the world class education that they deserve.

The second is to show the world that we are being successful.

In the early days, when the embers of growth are barely glowing, the pressure to grade lesson observations is immense. Governors and HMI demand evidence for every small scrap of improvement over extraordinarily short periods of time, despite the overwhelming evidence that deep and embedded school improvement is a slow burn not a flash fire. And to be honest there are times when hard messages are best served by hard evidence.

However, where in a teacher there is potential and sometimes deeply hidden talent, the blunt tool of grading simply slows the growth and undermines the trust that school improvement requires. Indeed Ofsted in 2012 clearly stated that what is needed is clear ‘technical guidance’ for teachers. We know that the most effective way of developing teachers is through well-planned coaching programmes, and that the best teachers are able to review their practice against an agreed set of teaching and learning non-negotiables.

Coaching in its purest sense takes time, time that children in struggling schools simply don’t have. But developmental conversations can save time; they gently fan the glowing embers and build the reliable source of oxygen that reflective teachers need. Time spent in classrooms discussing what is going on, and reviewing the options available, means that teachers respond immediately to feedback, and apply changes with immediate effect. The result is success, promptly shared with other staff and repeated in every classroom.

We need as well to clarify the purpose of shared professional time in class by clarifying how we can best make judgements about the quality of learning in our classrooms.

As Ofsted are in retreat on the issue of lesson observations we might look to them for a lead, and judge learning on all the evidence that we have in front of us. In our school we evaluate the quality of learning by drawing together the information we get from:

  • Regular conversations with the children
  • Rigorous data analysis (of the data that really matters) with the evidence that backs teacher judgement
  • Quality of the work in books (especially that of the most vulnerable and the more able)
  • Structured conversations with teachers about teaching and learning
  • all of the time spent in classes.

We call these our Quality of Learning Judgements and take all the evidence into account so we can give teachers high quality, focused feedback and carefully plan the associated support – based on their efforts over time rather than on the single snapshot of an observed lesson. This builds the trust that deep learning needs, which in turn builds faith in the leaders who are held to account for the improvement in the school.

We have the evidence that our external judges require, and for the first time in years it is rigorous and robust. Most importantly, our teachers listen to what we are saying because they hear the pedagogical discussion instead of the grade that previously managed to switch off the ability to learn and reflect in so many teachers.

So let’s get this right. Let’s make the shift from grading to coaching and bring about the change in judgements that our teachers and children deserve. And prove to the world that we are doing a great job.

Jane Ratcliffe is Headteacher of Millbrook Primary School, Oxfordshire.

Herd Immunity

The last few years has seen a rise in the number of cases of measles in the United Kingdom. The reduction in the percentage of children being vaccinated, either with MMR or with the single measles vaccine, makes it easier for the virus to spread and this has prompted action from policy makers and health professionals.

Vaccination works on herd immunity, meaning that a certain percentage of the population need to be vaccinated to make it extremely difficult for the virus to spread. This varies from virus to virus, but for measles herd immunity is achieved when 95% of the population are vaccinated. Above this number everyone’s happy. Below it, things start to happen.

In this case 95% can be effectively considered to be ALL.

In the field of education it is obvious that the only figure we can use to define ALL children is 100%. Unfortunately politicians develop policies that exclude a certain percentage of students and leave them exposed to the symptoms of the metaphorical policy virus. In some cases policies have been enacted that politicians are perfectly aware disadvantage a percentage of the population. In other cases the realisation has been retrospective. I shall provide examples of each.

In an article for the Sunday Times on the 1st February 20151, Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan wrote that she would “launch a war on illiteracy and innumeracy.”

We will expect every pupil by the age of 11 to know their times tables off by heart, to perform long division and complex multiplication and to be able to read a novel. They should be able to write a short story with accurate punctuation, spelling and grammar,” she said. In this case I suspect that Mrs Morgan simply didn’t realise, despite her position, that some children have profound and multiple learning difficulties and that, aged 11, may well be at the 12 months level of development, for example.

So, in this case, all doesn’t really mean all. By extension, though, she demeans the achievements of a small, but complex, percentage of the population. Their achievements count for nought as the above target becomes the sole definition of success. It also makes it significantly harder for schools to be more inclusive as there will always be some students that will not achieve this at the age of 11.

The scrapping of National Curriculum levels in September 2014 was another example of a complete failure to consider 100% of children when formulating policy. National Curriculum levels no longer exist, but P-Scales do. My suspicion is that policy makers were oblivious to the existence of P-Scales until it was too late. An announcement was made and then someone like me asked the awkward question, “What about P-Scales?” Cue nervous scrabbling around before a swift decision to keep them. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s worse. Maybe they were aware and that suggests a clear lack of understanding of how those children develop and progress.

For three years I was fortunate to have the Secretary of State for Education as my local MP. Michael Gove used to meet with local Headteachers termly and this provided us with an ideal opportunity to bend his ear about policy. I was able to do so when the Year 1 phonics check was launched. Research findings suggest that phonological awareness in children with Down syndrome is only weakly associated with learning to read2. They tend to be more successful with a logographic approach and I brought this to his attention. I explained that this check could artificially label some children as poor readers/failures. His response was to say that he was fully aware of this, but that a measure was required and that this was the best option. In this case the policy was created in the full knowledge that the progress in reading of some students would be excluded, but this was considered acceptable.

In January 2012 Michael Gove cut the value in school league tables of over 3,000 vocational qualifications in an attempt to stop “inflated league table rankings3. There may well have been large-scale gaming in order to influence league table positions (the incentives that drove the behaviour of schools is an article in itself; however the academic good/vocational bad message was a clear one.

I am fortunate to have a very intelligent parent population and they are utterly convinced of the critical role of vocational education for children with learning difficulties. With only 10% of adults with learning difficulties in work4, and the majority of them part-time, only a fool would exclude this from their curriculum. The message from the centre, though, was clear. These are poor, second-class qualifications compared to academic equivalents.

I was very hopeful in the early stages of this parliament. We had a Prime Minister with a son who attended a special school, a Secretary of State for Education whose sister had been to a special school and a former special school Headteacher as Chief Executive of the National College of Teaching and Leadership. We couldn’t have been better placed for all to truly mean all, for education policy to be truly inclusive. And yet, on the eve of a general election with virtually no serious debate on education policy, we still have our most vulnerable children excluded from the herd.

Jarlath O’Brien is Headteacher of Carwarden House Community School, an 11-19 special academy in Surrey, and a NET Leading Thinker.