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.





Why do we continue to find it so difficult to cater for the most able students?

Image via @gapingvoid

Image via @gapingvoid

Ofsted has again concluded that not enough is being done to ensure that the most gifted students from non-selective secondary schools achieve their full potential[1]. This comes as no surprise to those of us who have been working in this field for a long period. The issues are well rehearsed, the danger-points well known and the solutions clear, yet we seem unable to make significant progress. Whilst some schools do really well, they remain the minority.

In my book published 1997[2] I quoted HMI reports from 1992 and 1978 which were saying just the same thing. In 2010 this remained an issue[3] and it is still one now. So whilst differing types of school structures – GM school, specialist schools, academies, free schools – may come and go, and the curriculum be regularly updated, the same problem remains.

Where we have issues in the education system generally we also – unsurprisingly – find them related to the most able. The three groups most at risk are: students from disadvantaged backgrounds, more able boys, and students in schools where able students are in a minority. Nationally, boys and those from disadvantaged backgrounds are currently the most likely to be underachieving and so able boys or more able students from disadvantaged backgrounds are merely one symptom of a more general problem. We won’t solve this aspect unless we tackle the wider issue of why these groups underachieve in our education system, whatever their ability level.

In respect of schools where ‘able’ students are in a minority, this is just short-hand for low performing schools. Where expectations are low they are low for everyone including, but not uniquely, for the most able. So again we need to tackle the wider problem and raise general expectation levels not just offer something separate for a selected group.

Sean Harford, Ofsted’s National Director of Schools, quoted in the Education Endowment Foundation newsletter said “While inspectors found pockets of excellence, too many of these children are not being challenged sufficiently – and thousands of highly performing primary pupils are not realising their early promise when they move to secondary school.”

This is well known territory. We know that secondary schools struggle to create challenging opportunities in the classroom and often shy away from the inquiry based learning approaches that engender this challenge in favour of more routine practice and teaching-to-the-test. This happens more frequently when teachers are teaching unfamiliar new curricula, when they are teaching subjects which are not their specialist subject, or when low level behavioural disruption is commonplace.

Equally, the temptation to ignore those who can already demonstrate mastery of the test requirement is strong in a test driven environment and leads to ‘good enough’ rather than excellence being the order of the day. It is here at the classroom level that we need to focus effort so that expectations and levels of overall classroom challenge improve. When this is done all students raise their relative levels of attainment not just the most able.

The Ofsted report highlights KS3 as a particularly troublesome area with Year 7 being an undemanding year for many more able students. Over the years secondary schools have looked at many approaches to improving continuity between primary and secondary. Maybe an important focus is therefore accurate diagnostic assessment early in the Autumn Term of the transfer year. Establishing learning needs is just as important as ‘settling in’ and for the student those early weeks are an indicator of what is to come. Lack of early demand leads to boredom – not a great way to start secondary school.

The quotes from students in this Ofsted report are also depressingly familiar and mirror those collected by NAGTY (National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth) in the 2002-2007 period and from many research studies predating that. Where students are actively involved in their learning they thrive; where it is an impersonal done-to-them experience they don’t.

Finally, careers advice and guidance. We know that one difference between middle class families and those from lower socio-economic groups is the middle class parenting style which Annette Lareau[4] calls ‘concerted cultivation’. This means they leave nothing to chance and see their role as ensuring that their children receive all to which they are entitled. By contrast those from lower socio-economic groups adopt a less interventionist approach restricting their role to care. If this is the case, then it is not a surprise to find that in the chaotic approach to careers advice and guidance which exists in our school system, those from disadvantaged backgrounds are losing out.

In this respect schools must act in loco-parentis for vulnerable groups and aspire on their behalf – remember the novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – and this is best and most effectively done where they take that role of behalf of all their students. At the very least schools should be explicit in Year 7 about the fact that students from this establishment go on to a wide variety of post-school destinations including top universities, but that to have a chance of joining them students need to be prepared to work hard throughout their secondary schooling and persevere when the going is tough.

The real message from Ofsted’s recent report is that when there are problems in the education system generally, the most able students are not immune. They suffer along with everyone else. We can seek to resolve this by providing special opportunities for an identified group called the ‘most able’ but we are more likely to be successful if we expect more from all our students, and make those expectations explicit.

We need to move away from creating sheep and goats and only expecting high attainment for a small minority, and instead pitch at a higher level in all classrooms and help all of our students to have a fighting chance of securing an ambitious post-school destination.

I welcome the fact that Ofsted continues to monitor provision for high attaining students but suggest we need a new approach to tackling this issue. Ofsted sets the regulatory framework. I think it must consider whether its current approach drives mediocrity rather than excellence, and hence underachievement amongst the most able is an inevitable outcome.

Professor Deborah Eyre is a NET Leading Thinker

[1] Ofsted (2015) The most able students

[2] Eyre.D. (1997) Able Children in Ordinary Schools. London: David Fulton Publishers

[3] Eyre.D, (2010) Room at the Top. London: Policy Exchange

[4] Lareau, A. (2011) Unequal childhoods: Class, Race and Family Life. London: University of California Press