‘New Year 2016’ by Geoff Barton

I can’t claim actually to have known former Education Secretary Michael Gove.

Yes, I sat in the audience at some conferences he spoke at. I was on the side-lines at a couple of meetings and a dinner where I glimpsed first-hand his well-known mix of the witty and the unctuous. And he once stepped out of a lift in the unglamorous basement of a west London hotel, pointed at me, and said ‘It’s Geoff Barton, isn’t it?’. Then he turned and walked away.

None of this amounts to knowing Michael Gove.

But when his departure from the Department of Education was announced, back in July 2014, I decided to send him one of my custom CD mixes as an understated farewell gift. As visitors to our school know, I occasionally inflict a compilation of uplifting and sad songs, plus cheesy ‘Geoffy B’ jingles, as part of a desperate throw-back to my childhood ambition to be Radio One’s next breakfast DJ.

Whether my small musical gesture of goodwill ever reached the departing Secretary of State, I have no idea. But the CD wasn’t returned in the post and hasn’t surfaced on eBay.

So, no, I didn’t know Michael Gove. But I did know what he stood for. I knew what his ambitions for schools were. We all did. However strenuously we disagreed with many of the approaches and policies he unleashed, we couldn’t avoid being aware of his overarching belief that education liberates, and that the education world needed to intensify its ambition to liberate those whose backgrounds, family finances or postcode would serve as a limiter on a child’s aspirations.

Now, with the aftermath of the Gove project smouldering gently behind us, we stand gazing out at another year: 2016. And it already looks as if we’re in for one of unprecedented of change in education – just as we were last year and the year before.

We brace ourselves for seismic changes to qualifications at pretty much every level. KS2 tests will be different. GCSEs will be different. A/S and A-levels will be different.

Some of the big beasts of the current educational jungle are due to leave the forest – Glenys Stacey leaves her role overseeing the exams regulator, Ofqual. Sir Michael Wilshaw will step down from Ofsted later in the year.

Meanwhile a new national Schools Commissioner, in the shape of the well respected Sir David Carter, takes up post at a time when there’s a government determination to see every school an academy or free school.

That’s just some of the stuff going on beyond the school gates – the ritualistic machinations beloved of policy nerds and the Twitterati. In reality, most of it will hardly impinge on most of us most of the time. We’ve quite enough to be getting on with in our own schools and classrooms – some of it extra work provoked by the relentless thrashing-about by a government that too often confuses change with improvement; and some of it simply the ever-intensifying workload felt by all who work in an education system which is being flogged to its limits.

Which brings us to our current Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, the person who oversees that system.

I have never met Ms Morgan. But, in contrast with Mr Gove, I have no idea what she stands for. Apart from occasional exhortations on building character (a good thing, we gather) or teaching children that our roots are as a Christian nation (pretty unarguable), I’m not sure what we could ascribe to our Education Secretary as a defining philosophy, vision, or non-negotiable point of principle.

Sure – there’s a new Education Act in the offing. This may provide something of a route-map. But so far it’s sounding as if the only actual ambition is to make a reality of the Prime Minister’s determination to see every school in England an academy.

And in my book that’s hardly a vision. Instead it’s a lot of structural tinkering built on a decidedly unproven assumption that academies are by definition better than the kind of schools which in most countries would be seen as the norm – local community schools.

So if academisation really is the big idea, no wonder we feel deflated. It misses the point that what matters most in education is, quite simply, the quality of teaching and learning.

And, as the Scripture tells us, ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish’.

Which is why I’m determined to keep ignoring all those who think my job is anything to do with academy conversion, takeovers of other schools, business plans and boards of directors. It’s all a huge distraction from the important stuff.

I’m convinced that my role is simply to create a culture where we can recruit more great teachers, help them develop, make sure they can learn from each other, and leave them in peace to do their best to build the skills and knowledge of the next generation of young people.

For that, we owe it to our teachers to enable them to focus on the classroom whilst as school leaders we protect them from the swirling madness of external initiatives and political wacky wheezes.

So a key part of our role in the coming year, I’d suggest, is maintaining the confidence to do what matters most in our schools, for our students, for our communities, and not to let ourselves be distracted by anything that isn’t going to help a teacher in our school to teach better or a student to learn more effectively.

How compellingly simple, principled and unarguable is that?

Let’s make 2016 the year of great teaching.

Geoff Barton is Headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, and a NET Leading Thinker.

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Open letter to the new Secretary of State for Education 9th May 2015

Dear Secretary of State,

I have had the privilege of working with many of your predecessors and their Ministers over the past 25 years. Distinguished politicians have their framed photographs on the wall in the foyer of the Department of Education, dating back to the early post‐war years. Your photo will one day join them. Your influence over hundreds of thousands of everyday lives will be significant during your term in office, and perhaps beyond.

Education has featured rarely in the national election campaign. At local level on the doorstep, voters spoke only of having a good local school – that was their proper message. The British public has also rejected the idea of politicians ‘weaponising’ the National Health Service. Might you be a pioneer and establish a parallel National Education Service, with a view to taking the detail of education practice out of the political arena? What a legacy that would be.

The distinguished brain surgeon Henry Marsh titled his recent autobiography Do no harm, a singular message he wishes to pass on to all doctors. As the new Secretary of State, please make sure the first question you ask your DfE and political advisers is: ‘Do we need a new policy in education?’ (It seems likely doesn’t it that the government will have bigger fish to fry in the coming parliament.)

There are two key areas of education policy and practice where we need your legitimate democratic leadership:

  1. Establishing a fair funding system for primary, special and secondary schools across the country
  1. Securing a sustainable stream of good entrants into the teaching profession.

Concentrate on these two pivotal issues and you will win plaudits from 25,000 headteachers, voters, and fellow politicians. If you subscribe to the self‐improving school system, you might do little else, besides being a careful and thoughtful guardian. Don’t be tempted to put your indelible stamp on the Office with further initiatives. Rather, leave in five years’ time (Theresa May is a model to follow) proud to have done no harm.

If you stray beyond the two areas above, please opt for sustaining and embedding what has been legislated for in recent times: all schools good schools; raised levels of accountability and pupils’ achievements; the new curriculum and examination arrangements; pupil premium funding.

Finally, daring you to be different in just one direction: suspend Ofsted inspections of good and outstanding schools for one year; afford headteachers the space to shape that self‐improving, self‐ regulating school system. Then go visit a hundred schools and ask their views.

I’m sure the profession, governors, pupils and parents wish you well in your new Office of State. With a little more time, I would have written you a shorter letter. Less is always more.

Yours sincerely,

Roy Blatchford, Director, National Education Trust

Thoughts on lesson observations #5 | Spot Coaching

It certainly feels like a brave new world. My colleagues and I have rightly exercised caution in the first few weeks of piloting ‘spot coaching’, but we know why we are doing this. I have also reminded them that the old way of observation was far from perfect and to remember those colleagues bruised by feedback and judgement received long after the moment had passed.   All too often I felt a quantified lesson grade distracted from any qualitative feedback, irrespective of whether the feedback was deemed to be of any use or not.

What is different now is that feedback is purposeful, developmental and (critically) nearly always provided in the heat of the lesson. However this is not at the exclusion of an extended conversation after the lesson (often better for the exchange during the lesson). Such instant feedback provides the teacher with the perfect opportunity to re-work, trial something new or embrace an opportunity to digress to deepen pupils’ thinking in the ‘here and now’.   That may require a little more courage and faith in oneself to speak up or interject when it might be safer to remain silent, but the silence is over in the ‘new world’.

We have a duty as leaders of learning to help our colleagues move their practice forward. If we worried excessively about the possible consequences of our words on others then we would never open our mouths and we would cease to lead. I held on to this very thought when recently observing Year 7 scientists researching forces at various ‘learning stations’ in a rotational group activity. The sight of one pupil’s insufficiently statically charged balloon falling to the floor as other pupils’ balloons remained steadfastly attached to the wall, resulted in much hilarity from the rest of the class.

The teacher initially joined in the laughter, but instead of capitalising on this moment she then sought to bring the class back to order and move them on. I was like a gazelle across that classroom to catch her ear and whisper that she should make much more of this event before resorting back to plan. My colleague then expertly explored why this event had just occurred with the whole class. Her skilled questioning probed their understanding of the different roles played by the relative forces involved. This even prompted some pupils to ask more searching questions on the effect of gravity on Earth and in space. It was wonderful. A productive conversation continued after the class left, during which my colleague confirmed that she would not have otherwise seized that moment.

There have been more occasions when I have intervened discretely, talking in whispers and then standing back, than not. But there have been times when I have found myself playing a more active ‘team-teach’ role.

On one occasion, enrolled as the ‘teaching assistant’ by prior arrangement with a newly qualified teacher, the successful re-working of a Year 9 technology lesson owed much to a relationship built on trust and mutual respect with all ‘distance to power’ removed. Carefully considered and sensitive use of language and action quickly established this fact with the pupils and always actively sought to build the confidence of the teacher. Here was an example of collaborative teaching without prejudice or judgement, but plenty of running commentary and feedback. My heart sank a little when I was later asked for the written feedback; I dutifully wrote up some notes of our conversation and politely explained that, ‘I don’t really complete observation reports anymore.’

On rare occasions, I have felt no compulsion to utter anything at all – the moment never arrived. Not necessarily an indication of the quality of learning observed, but rather due to a greater need to take stock and retreat for further thought and contemplation – but always with the intention of returning again soon.

I visited one colleague three times in the space of three days before I was ready to intervene. On this occasion, I was intrigued by her framing of a Year 8 science practical experiment, setting pupils up to test the hypothesis: The shape of an object determines how quickly it can move through a liquid. I returned a little later, by which time the teacher had brought the pupils back together to sum up their test findings in the context of the original hypothesis. This was my moment. I quietly put it to her that she should then swiftly challenge each individual to write their own new and improved hypothesis. She executed this supremely as evidenced by the articulacy of pupils’ findings – the justifications of their concluding thoughts post-experiment – expressed through the fine statements they composed in the last ten minutes of the lesson.

‘We are not judging them so they are now actively seeking out feedback and advice,’ said one senior colleague recently. There are few things more encouraging than when colleagues engage with others in a dialogue about their own classroom practice. ‘A paradigm shift?’ questioned another senior colleague.

The next step is to roll out our new ways of doing. Establishing a new classroom observation protocol to reflect the ‘new world’ is essential, especially if we are to safeguard colleagues from clumsy interferences from well-meaning and high spirited headteachers! More importantly, we need to build up the team of active coaches and empower as many colleagues as possible to provide high quality ‘on the spot’ feedback and frequently engage in meaningful professional dialogue.

I am left in no doubt that immediate feedback, in the same way that a tennis coach or dance instructor provides, has powerful potential as a professional development tool in teaching. Our recent work has been exhilarating. I hope never to grade a single lesson again.

Keith Grainger is Principal of Garth Hill College in Bracknell, Berkshire. He has been teaching for 23 years.  

Collection of posts on lesson observations

Here is our growing collection of posts on the subject of lesson observations from our leading thinkers.

1. The surgeon and the scalpel

2. Fanning the glowing embers.

3. The clearing fog

4. Changing the silent process of judgment.

5. Spot coaching.

6. Subject leader without portfolio.

Feel free to share your opinion of lesson observations in the comments section below.

Thoughts on lesson observation #4 | Changing the Silent Process of Judgement

Many years ago, I attended a training session for those new to mentoring PGCE students. As I saw this as recognition that I was now ready to teach the teachers, I approached this challenge with appropriate reverence and solemnity.

Part of this training included observation protocol. It included such wise advice as to make sure you did not interrupt or speak to the teacher and to sit silently in the lesson. I absorbed this guidance, never questioning what appeared to be a long established protocol. Those who had observed me as a student had always sat mutely in my class, scribbling furiously in their silent process of judgement and now it was my turn to judge.

As every English teacher knows, the greatest impact you can have on a child’s writing is when you intervene at the point of writing. Intervention after the writing is complete is not as effective and it can be soul destroying. Imagine you are 11, have written two sides of A4 for the first time in your life, only to be told after you have finished that you have done it wrong! Instead, if the teacher had paused this youngster after half a side, assessed what was written so far and offered guidance, then success would have been, if not assured, then at least a greater possibility.

So now imagine sitting opposite a colleague who is giving you feedback on a lesson, helpfully suggesting a number of things you could have done slightly differently to enrich learning. Having sat on both sides of this conversation, I have been either frustrated that  we are discussing something that is now fixed in time and I cannot improve, or feel like the old man in the Harry Enfield sketch: ‘You don’t want to do it like that, you want to do it like this…’

Wouldn’t it be better if the observer piped up in the lesson?  To have removed the shackles of silent judgement? To intervene at the point of teaching?

The tremendous benefit of having an active observer is that you are often so busy running the lesson and managing the multitude of micro-moments which all combine to make a lesson, that you miss out on opportunities for forensic analysis until the moment has passed. An active observer would be able to work with you during the lesson to highlight any tweaks that could be made to deepen pupils’ understanding, or to gently nudge learning towards excellence.

For this paradigm shift to happen there need to be some ground rules. And we are busy working on them!

You and your active observer need to establish a clear purpose for the observation and identify parameters for the active observer’s role in your lesson. Are you happy for them to interrupt you in front of the class to push the lesson in an unexpected direction? Are you brave enough to? Or would you prefer for them to wait until pupils are working to have a quick discussion about learning points? Are you comfortable enough to allow pupils to notice you are working on your own professional development and therefore improving their learning?

Essentially, this collaborative professional development in a lesson must be reinforced by discussion and reflection after the lesson. This active observation will enhance, not replace, the post-match analysis. What it will enable you to do is have a richer, deeper learning conversation about pedagogy and practice. It will replace the feeling of ‘if only you had said something at the time, and then I could have done something about it’.

Active observation is going to take some getting used to. It may mean mistakes on both sides while we find what works. But if we want to make progress, we need to challenge the status quo. After all, when you learned to drive your instructor did not sit next to you mutely watching you veer in to oncoming traffic, only to catch up later, huddled in a silver blanket by the side of the road, to consider WWW and EBI.

Kate Dutton is Assistant Principal at Garth Hill College, Bracknell, Berkshire

Thoughts on lesson observations #3 – The clearing fog

The clouds that contour the Brecon Beacons whenever I walk along Offa’s Dyke provide a flip metaphor for the fog of the educational landscape. I spend many weekends walking these wet cold mountains: an escape from the electric hum of London. The high winds on the ridges are a natural antidote to the world of work: of Shadwell, Wapping and Aldgate. This recent Easter, the peaks have seemed more than 200 miles away from lesson observations, marking, and spreadsheets.

In school, we continue to talk post-Ofsted about how we “do” lesson observations and why. Increased team sharing of best practice seems instinctively the next move forward for us. We work with the principle that explaining how to improve delivery and provision within lessons is more important than defining it in a snapshot moment.

Databases of judgments and labels (which we have) perhaps do less to improve the quality of an individual’s teaching than collaborative and democratic planning and review. Our individualised Improving Learning Programme has strong impact in this way. Providing staff with a co-planner and reviewer of their choice and using IRIS Connect software, but giving also time and space to reflect is imperative.

It is also a complex conversation to un-teach judgement, to un-teach our comparative self which marks ourselves against each other. As recipients we want to know where we are and often where we are in relation to others. This impetus to judge and to define comes through fear of the hard hand of external judgement. Of course it is disingenuous to say we can throw away lesson judgements completely. However we do it, when we walk into a room we make a judgement unconsciously. Whether it is on a score of 1-4 or “promising” to “fine”, there is a decision made of the quality we see. From that comes reflection on what is needed for the whole team of staff and what steps to take next.

Mutual coaching and peer-review, allied to better research, form part of the maturing vision that all schools are developing. It mirrors, of course, wider thinking by researchers who have long argued that we should be less interested in ‘accountability’ and more in professional improvement.

We are all discovering that the scoring of teaching quality formerly used by Ofsted and aped by schools only measures what Robert Coe calls “poor proxies for learning”. There persists an unwillingness to accept that observations are limited in scope and worth. A culture of tyranny and rank ordering of teachers doesn’t allow you to go beyond being a satisfactory school. The problem is partly the two competing aims generated by lesson observation appraisal cultures: between what may actually be needed and what needs to be seen to be done. This clash is keenly felt by professionals. Despite a desire to focus on dialogue and mutual commentary, teachers and leaders still find it difficult to step outside the scaffold of judgment.

The long horizon afforded during my Brecon walks reminds me that judgments about lessons and staff are always decisions about people. Judgment labels people. It is unhelpful at best, and at worst can retard development and pupil progress. Observations of others’ performance and the systems we use to do this have to be considered, intelligently-informed and emotionally cogent. In almost all cases, improving teaching is a long-term goal, not a quick fix.

But what about accountability? Coe’s research highlights the inadequacy of lesson observation judgements in this regard. Both the reliability of judgements and the validity of observations are problematic. We have attempted at Bishop Challoner small steps to ameliorate these effects. Our regular cycle of observations is all now paired. We have done this for three years and the ethos should be of shared evaluations. Research by Kane (2013) seems “unambiguous in suggesting the importance of having more than one observer. The gain in reliability from adding another set of eyeballs is more than twice as large as that of adding another observation from the same observer.”

Observing to judge and observing to advise are subtle distinctions, challenging to implement, but we must grow a more sophisticated professional development world.

As the sun brightens during my walks over Brecon I notice again the shape of the valleys here, reminding me how things are rarely mono-causal. Lesson observations have to be done with an awareness of our flawed ability to make judgements. It is hard not to think that more research is needed in UK school contexts about the impact of punitive lesson observation regimes both on the core ethos of the school and on the standards agenda itself.

Nick Soar is Vice-Principal and Head of the Girls’ School
Bishop Challoner Catholic Federation of Schools

Beyond Special Education

Beyond Special Education

By Simon Knight

As part of a panel at the London Festival of Education I had the opportunity to discuss the nature of transition beyond special schools for young people with special educational needs and disabilities. This addressed not just the pragmatics of a person with complex and highly individualised needs moving from one education setting to another, but also the broader issues around the opportunities available beyond education.

A statistic which I mentioned as part of the discussion was that, according to the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities (2011), 65% of those with a learning disability would like to be employed and yet only 6.8% (Department of Health 2014) are. It made me think about how much effort and financial support is being given to addressing social mobility for those from challenging economic backgrounds, through organisations such as the Sutton Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation, and yet how little is given to those with a learning disability. Neither group chooses to face the challenges that they do, yet as a society we seem to have only committed to support some. Hardly an example of equality of opportunity.

However there are things which can be done to try and ensure that those with a learning disability have a better chance to realise the potential that they build within themselves through their education. There are things which can be done to challenge the perceptions of a society which sees the potential in the poor more easily than it does in the disabled.

One area in particular which may have a profound effect is the extent to which Special schools feel compelled to reflect a mainstream paradigm when it comes to communicating our young people’s capability to those beyond the school. We continue to focus on the accreditation of skills and knowledge through certification, which may have limited currency within the wider communities in which we exist. I suspect many employers would find it difficult to understand the difference between Entry Level 1, 2 and 3, or potentially to know which order they go in in terms of complexity. How many employers are familiar with the successes contained within a personal progress qualification?

One area in which we can take greater responsibility within education is to critically evaluate the quality of the accreditation we use and the extent to which it is understood by those beyond school. We need to ensure that accreditation accurately captures and articulates what has been learned and achieved, rather than just determining what is to be taught. Our young people are inherently unique and that must be reflected in whatever certification they leave us with. It makes me wonder whether schools might serve their students better by creating bespoke approaches to achieving this, rather than relying on commercially available tools.

We also need to ensure that what we teach within the school setting is transferable to environments beyond the school and the supportive structures which we put in place to scaffold success. The completion of targets may provide a professional feel good factor and lead to the creation of OfSTED friendly data sets, but the acid test of what we teach is the extent to which it can be applied elsewhere. A failure to do this is to create false expectations on paper which cannot be realised beyond school and is an abdication of our professional responsibility to prepare those we work with as best we can for a rich and varied life.

A further area for consideration is the extent to which additional information is communicated to other agencies and organisations. The emergent EHCP provides a potential opportunity for the successful integration of services within the administrative processes which surround the young people we work with, but this has yet to be realised. Until those lines of communication are better constructed we need to ensure that what we know is shared in a way that is unequivocal.

This may go some way towards challenging the culture of low expectations, which can at times exist, amongst those less familiar with the capacity to astound that young people with a learning disability possess. There is a relatively new technological tool which can be used to do this utilising multimedia, demonstrated below in ‘Shane’s Wiki’ https://vimeo.com/80887952, that leaves no doubt as to the unique characteristics and capability of the young person. Making effective use of tools such as this may work to better ensure that the momentum a young person builds through their education is not lost in transition.

Sharing Shane’s Wiki from Rix Research and Media on Vimeo.

We also need to challenge the extent to which special schools and those who attend them are absent from the broader education discourse.

Whilst significant amounts of money and intellectual energy have been expended revising the legislative and administrative systems which govern special education, little has been spent on the provision itself. It seems that the young people we serve are marginalised by consecutive Secretaries of State for Education failing to speak on their behalf, when we have Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools failing to analyse the inspection outcomes of special schools, when we conflate education and social care by having the Minister responsible for special educational needs entitled ‘Children and Families Minister’. We need to ensure that people with a learning disability are politically visible.

Finally we need to challenge the preconceptions of a society which is fearful of difference and ensure that we as schools do everything we can to be active participants within our communities, bringing them into us as much as us going out into them. After all it’s not just schools which have a duty to be inclusive.

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