The restless globe

Trick(y) Question: Which is the fifth largest ‘country by population’ in the world today, and will be the third largest by 2050?

Answer: After China, India, USA, and Indonesia, the fifth largest today is ‘all the peoples of the world who are living in a country that is not the one they were born in’.

Scientists generally agree that about 70,000 years ago, Sapiens from East Africa spread into the Arabian peninsula, and from there quickly overran the entire Eurasian landmass. The history of humankind is one of restless migration. We happen to be witnessing at present, often in grim TV images, that natural human characteristic, but that restless urge to move has always been with us. We have long been global citizens, divided by our nation states.

Pundits and commentators in all spheres of human endeavour like to compare peoples and nations, and build news stories around international comparisons. Take the recently published Portland index of so-called ‘soft power’: the ability to achieve influence by building networks, communicating compelling narratives, establishing international rules and drawing on the resources that make a country naturally attractive to the world. Well, the UK comes 1st out of 30; Finland is fifteenth; China 30th.

In education, the international comparators come fast and furious. We can quote PISA (reading, maths and science) or TIMSS (maths and science) to cheer us up one year or depress us the next. Last year’s report from the OECD on literacy and numeracy proficiency placed Korea and Spain at the top, the US and UK at the bottom of a list of 21 countries. Yet another report suggested Britain could add trillions to its economy if it only had the education standards of Poland, Vietnam and Estonia.

We routinely position polar opposite ideas in order to determine which is right. Whenever we follow this process the result is people on both sides trying to thrust their views forward. Positions harden rather than consensus being achieved.

Let us take the recent debate promoted by a TV documentary set in a Hampshire secondary school where students experienced the Chinese way of doing. 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. Each generation is a fresh start and all students have the chance to exceed the achievements of their parents. Their overall expectations are high and they deliver.

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 do Singapore and Hong Kong. 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 Hampshire 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 which prepares people for leadership in a complex world. In the UK 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 the teacher.

Maybe what we should be taking from Asia (and Poland and Estonia) is their belief in the power of hard work and their belief in students’ ability to succeed. And helping students to understand that they need to take some ownership for their own progress, enjoy the fact that difficulty in any kind of learning is pleasurable, and pursue the route to mastery.

We are restless people wanting to improve how we do things, in all walks of life. 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. And in the UK, we should remember to champion our ‘soft power’.

References: The Restless School (John Catt) by Roy Blatchford. High Performance Learning: How to create World Class schools (Routledge, January 2016) by Deborah Eyre.

Advertisements

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 #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.

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 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

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