SATs- one size will never fit all

Yesterday’s policy announcement by Mr Corbyn reignited the lively debate about the place of assessment in primary education. In response, I offer my own opinion.

Paper and pencil testing is an important component of assessment design because many children benefit from recalling and recording information. Furthermore, if a test is to be national and standardised, cost and organisation dictates that it is pencil and paper.  Unfortunately, by making the test national, standardised and pass/fail, many children with excellent understanding and skills learn to perceive themselves as stupid. I am one of those people who would welcome the abolition of SATs not because there is anything wrong with them but because on their own they are a poor way of assessing a child.  Whilst a significant proportion of children who benefit from tests also enjoy them, including SATs, there are an equally significant proportion to whose skills and understanding this form of assessment fails to do justice. If we abolish SATs but keep testing as one component of a far more intelligent assessment system, we can impact positively on the education of all.

Over the last 30 years, I have taught many children who have excellent memories and flourish in tests. I have taught children with a wide range of barriers to memorisation who struggle in tests. Some of this latter group had excellent understanding. I could assess this in different ways including their sense of humour where they understood meaning beyond the literal or plays on words at a young age. Some children who found memorisation difficult had brilliant spatial awareness. This is not about learning styles nor multiple intelligences. Rather, assessment design has to reflect the diversity within human beings and within child development.  To place too much emphasis on the paper and pencil test or to use it as the single simple assessment tool undermines the education of many children.

An intelligent assessment design system is underpinned by the capacity of the school to get to know the child well. This begins with home visits before the child starts school. Understanding the child’s interests and development to that point enables the pedagogy and curriculum to fit the child not the other way round. Care should always be taken to ensure that visits to families should not be about judging the home. Early interactions should acknowledge that the parent is the expert on the child, albeit a subjective one, and that we need that expertise as much as parents need our collective subject knowledge, curriculum and pedagogy.

As the child grows, our understanding of them needs to be informed by a relationship that includes time to listen and observe as well as test against a curriculum designed to give children knowledge, understanding, skills and experiences. As well as clear modelling of concepts and well thought out questioning, there should be a real sense of purpose, audience and resource in order for the learning to tap into intrinsic motivation. A shared pride in a child’s achievement and a desire to take the next step should be the outcome of assessment not a grade nor a sticker. Subject specific pedagogy should bring the child and curriculum together so that talents can be celebrated beyond memorisation.

The arguments against a more nuanced primary assessment design is, include, that teachers do not have the time. I would argue that, whilst we are limited, knowing the children, listening to both them and their parents saves time in the long run because we stop wasting effort on making the child fit the pedagogy and the one style of test. It should not be for the individual teacher to know, celebrate and challenge the child but for the whole primary school community. Another argument is that the assessment described briefly above, as well as being idealistic, would be subjective and schools could not be judged on it.  That being the case, perhaps it is time that schools were judged on an exam undertaken by staff (including headteachers) each summer to determine how well the school knows their children.



Reading against the tide

One aspect of education policy is, and has always been, the use of schools to try and address society’s ills. Governments have more control over citizens who attend schools than almost anyone else and politicians use this power to try and change cultures. Alongside prisons, schools are the places where people are forced to attend. Therefore, in recent times, it has made sense to use the institutions and their curricula to try and stop everything from obesity to international terrorism. None of this works partly because it is imposed on schools from the outside but mainly because the factors that contribute to the issues have nothing to do with education. Hearteningly, recently, teachers have sort to address a societal issue that is educational by trying to prop up the book as a significant cultural form in the face of technological and societal change that undermines it.

In my own school, we are having a year of reading with monthly events and a general reinforcement of the joy of reading a book. In the schools that I am privileged to visit I hear staffroom discussions about the “literary canon” and the quality of non-fiction amidst an appreciation of some of the excellent children’s authors drawn from across the ages and (hopefully but not always) across cultures. Whilst teaching children to read a wide range of books is mandated in the 2014 curriculum, it doesn’t seem to me that this is the driving force for what is happening. There have always been teachers who are passionate about books and now they have found themselves listened to because the diminishment of human potential if children do not read high quality literature for pleasure is increasingly obvious even to those who as adults no longer read books. There is an increasing understanding drawn from anthropology and experience that without storytelling and books, our humanity is changed at a fundamental level.

I fear that the enthusiasm and hard work of those promoting the reading of books will fail in the long-run. Just as with drugs education and religious catechesis, a bit of teenage peer pressure will have a far greater impact than a primary school teachers’ passion for reading. Those teenagers caught with a book can be labelled “geeks” and sneered at by peers. In reality, teenagers read a lot but the majority do it off screens not with books. Gaming is the dominant cultural form for teenagers which would be fine if the quality of reading material within games supported the development of vocabulary, imagination and thought. For a significant proportion of adults, social media provides the majority of reading material. In a it’s way, social media provides a platform for story telling but our ability to tell stories has been diminished and what we read on Facebook etc does not draw us into a narrative but simply asks us to judge with an emoji. As we evolve, algorithms that link our online preferences to consumption and politics do not require us to love stories nor do they develop our vocabulary, thought or imagination.

The skill of the author is no longer rewarded. Average earnings for full time writers have dropped to £10,000 a year. As with other areas of work, many talented people are receiving a pittance while others who are far less talented earn far more.

Set against a background of powerful global forces, what teachers are attempting is heroic. To provide children with the experience of enjoying a book that will for a few be life changing is worth the effort as we hurtle towards the day our brains are wired up to the computer and our virtual reality headsets remove the need for us to be fully human.

If we were serious about teacher well-being

I was prompted to blog today after reading this TES article

Written in the concise style of the TES, the article is right in identifying respect as a key factor in well-being.

For ideological reasons, successive governments have pursued policies that undermine respect for the teaching profession. The political motivation for governments to attack teachers and schools is threefold. First, it is a political calculation to blame teachers for issues around child development and achievement because the message is popular with parents who are a far larger group of potential voters than teachers. Secondly, criticising the education system, and the teachers within, creates a climate for change when cuts are perceived to be necessary. Finally, criticism and a reduction in well-being encourages teachers to leave keeping staffing and pension costs down and allowing third parties to create indirect profits.

The same process is applied across the professions of the public sector because universal healthcare and education are unaffordable with current levels of taxation.

The cost of recent education policies has been paid for by the reduced well-being of those who have a vocation to teaching or healthcare and therefore put up with the pressures foisted on them and justified dishonestly with terms such as “higher standards” and “social mobility”.

The success of the policies can be seen in: the falling average age of teachers; the lowering of average pay; the reduction of qualifications to enter the profession; the fast tracking of young teachers to senior leadership and the low retention rates. Within these trends are the anecdotes, from across the system, of teachers suffering from increased mental and physical health issues.

In order to cut costs, aspiration has been stripped out of the system. The impact is devastating on education and reduces teacher well-being.. The lack of aspiration to enter the profession among young people is the same issue as the lack of aspiration to be a middle leader or headteacher. This negativity has seeped down through the profession from the DfE.

If we were serious about teacher well-being, we would raise the entry requirements (academic, experience and interpersonal); narrow the teacher’s role to a realistic focus on balancing nurture, inspiration, knowledge and skills (as opposed to expecting schools to tackle all social ills); develop effective cpd models and career structures.

If we were to serious about teacher well-being, retention would not be an issue and we wouldn’t have to train so many teachers.

If we were serious about teacher well-being, schools would have far greater capacity to meet children’s needs.

I’m off to yoga.

When the kids are united – should school children protest?

At my primary school in the 1970s, we had a patch of grass. Not big enough for a football pitch but, when I was three foot tall, it appeared to stretch a long way and offer plenty of opportunities for enjoyment. As is common in schools, we weren’t allowed on our grass in winter for fear of mud being brought into school and the grass disappearing. One sunny, spring day, two Year 6s decided to protest at not yet being permitted to play there and led us children to go and sit on the grass. In the 1970s, sit-ins were the protest of choice for young revolutionaries whether intent on over throwing the social order or playing on a patch of grass. Inevitably, the protest petered out when the headteacher came out and told us what would happen if we didn’t get off the grass. We vacated and the ringleaders were led away; presumably to be shot as was the corporal punishment way in the 70s. The event was a reflection of the time rather than a justifiable protest.

Protesting was fashionable in the 70s partly because the country was going bankrupt. It’s hard to convey now just how bad things were: industry was beginning to shut down; strikes were common (at one point, we had a three day week and power cuts)and everything was grey (my recollection of the sheer greyness may be due to the black and white TV we watched); music and fashion were dreadful. There was a lot to protest about.

Today, there are echoes of the 1970s in our economic woes but the issues caused by contracting public finances are dwarfed by the environmental disasters unfolding. At the end of the 70s, the fear of nuclear annihilation was very real and CND became popular among teenagers but armageddon was only a possibility whereas young people today see through live streams and social media the reality of a planet of increasing temperatures, rising seas, famines, plastic polluted oceans and fatbergs. The failure of my generation to vote for politicians with the courage to take action and more recently our decisions to give our votes to politicians who refuse to acknowledge the issue even exists is so serious that young people are right to take action. However short-sighted and self-defeating walking out of classrooms appears, it cannot be as short-sighted and stupid as refusing to act for the future because it will reduce our spending power now. The protest will no doubt fragment, be hi-jacked, be discredited and disappear but the sense of shame I feel as a member of a generation too selfish to protect our natural environment will last my lifetime.

“Flowers won’t grow
Bells won’t be ringing
Who really cares?
Who’s willing to try?
To save the world,
That’s destined to die.
When I look at the world
It fills me with sorrow
Little children today
Are really going to suffer tomorrow

Marvin Gaye 1971

Melbourne 2017- impressions

8 days is hardly long enough to judge a city and certainly not insufficient time to pass comment on the people who live there so I will try to avoid too many sweeping statements in this reflection.

I’m writing this on my iPhone screen in glaring sunlight so please forgive typing errors.

There are some aspects of Melbourne that I have loved. The tram system makes travelling around as a tourist very easy. Within the city centre, travel by tram is free and the services are frequent. This has meant that we could get anywhere we wanted to go within 30 minutes of anywhere else.

Walking around Melbourne is significantly more relaxing than the majority of cities I have visited. There is neither the sense of pace of London or New York  nor the in-your-face rampant commercialism. The lack of road signs made getting lost a regular occurrence on the first couple of days, the grid system of roads made finding yourself again easy.

The architecture is fascinating with a mixture of colonial pretension, gold rush frontier facades and 21st Century glass and metal. In common with many cities, the docks have been regenerated to create smart apartment style accommodation.

Sport plays a bigger role in the cultural life of the city than anywhere else I have visited.  With  clearly defined seasons for Australian Rules Football and cricket, good weather and high spec stadia across the city, large attendances are enjoyed in every sport played (including the relatively woeful soccer teams).  The Melbourne Cricket Ground (referred to locally simply as the “G” -saying an acronym of 3 letters apparently too much effort if one letter will suffice) is as good a venue as anywhere in the world with its 100, 000 capacity, wide concourses, almost queueless bars and parkland approaches.

Despite a traditional masculinity associated with the country, women’s sport is taken very seriously, seems well supported and heavily invested in.

As with most big cities, Melbourne celebrates comparatively liberal values. There was plenty of evidence of a desire to celebrate diversity across the city. I grew particularly fond of the concrete anti-terrorist blocks which have been used to promote LGBT rights or stencil profound quotations.

On first impressions, this seems a city for the young (although, at 36,  the average age is the same as Birmingham) The suburb of Fitzroy both exemplifies the bohemian approach to life that exists across the city centre and also takes it to a level I haven’t experienced in other similar areas of UK cities.  An edgy frontier feel combined with a promotion of the arts and a roof-top cafe culture made for an interesting evening wander.

Partly thanks to the devaluation of the pound since Brexit, Melbourne is, at the moment, expensive for tourists from Britain. Everything is at least 20% more than in England and the impact on my pocket was felt particularly when eating. We travelled long and far to find a relatively inexpensive meal but everywhere paid between £12 and £20 for snacks (pizzas etc) and £25+ for any real food.  Even McDonalds appeared more costly in Melbourne because there was no “savers menu”. My personal favourite for over-priced food was a Fredo Frog in the supermarket for the equivalent of £1.50. On the plus side,  when eating vegetarian and vegan diets seem at least as well catered for in the city as in UK.

Another of the more obvious over-priced items in Melbourne is alcohol. Australian beer, while improving from the Fosters/Castlemaine domination of the market in the 90s, remains weak and tasteless and at approximately £8 for an equivalent pint is an expensive indulgence. As with food, we bought drinks in lots of places but found little variation in price.

Culturally, the city exists in an interesting tension between awareness of colonial heritage, the overwhelming injustice of its foundation and a desire to support something distinctively Australian and modern. There is an acceptance that the indigenous culture that was all but destroyed was more creative than the  imported European influence that followed. Popular music appears to struggle to move beyond a celebration of AC/DC and Neil Finn and therefore a great deal of UK music is heard in shops and bars.  Unlike the moribund music scene, Australian art seems far more confident and outward looking judging by the interest in the current exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria “The Highway is a Disco” by New South Wales artist Del Kathryn Barton.  Melbourne also boasts a fine Centre for Contemporary Art on the Southbank of the River Yarra.

For all it’s liberal aspiration, Melbourne has obvious levels of inequality. Homelessness appears as almost as widespread as in Birmingham. It is a city that is built on and exudes both white privilege and post-colonial guilt. Along with many other cities in the world, Melbourne appears to struggle to share its obvious success with the poorer suburbs. As a result, a vibrant, young city excludes a proportion of its own population from the elements that create its success.



Teaching apprentices – not worth the risk 

Identifying a person’s potential to be a professional teacher has defied previous attempts to create an objective, systematic recruitment process. Subject knowledge tests, psychometrics, observations, interviews, formal professional references, character references, headteacher hunches and any combination of the above have been tried in different places and at different times. The only constant in the processes, the need for a degree, is now being jettisoned. This change in policy is not being introduced to improve the system but because schools cannot afford to pay qualified rates of pay even though those rates are too low and the working conditions too poor to attract sufficient teachers in the first place. 

Without an agreed system of recruitment,  schools, who now dominate teacher training, take a risk averse approach to identifying potential. This is justified because children’s learning is the end product and should not be put in jeopardy by poor teaching. The problem is that without a concensus over the best way to measure potential, headteachers’ approaches to risk will be subjective. At the moment, too often a young person is taken on to school-based teacher training because they are already known to the school. Sometimes, they are personally known to the headteacher. Sometimes, they are related to the headteacher. This “better the devil you know” approach is encouraged by government who see schools “growing their own” as the best way to recruit young staff. The blame for a failure to recruit can, in this system, be laid at the schools’ (or MATs or TSAs) door not the Department for Education’s. 

Teaching apprentices are just another manifestation of the search for a cheap workforce. It will be particularly popular with MATs who believe that they have a successful teaching formula (or even a script) that can be delivered by anyone.

Teaching is not a profession for everyone. Just because you have a degree does not mean you will have the capacity to undertake the distinctive  intellectual, emotional and physical challenge of being in the classroom. You need the ability to combine subject knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, understanding of complex human development and strong interpersonal skills. Taking away the degree requirement opens the door to more people who may not have the capacity to teach at a time when we have no concensus over how to identify those that can. The new criteria for selecting teachers seems to be weighted towards a willingness to work for relatively low pay, often as a gap year activity. 

We have had apprentice teachers before, in Victorian times with the monitorial system. That this was abandoned as a false economy, due to the low standards, is now conveniently forgotten. Nowadays, just as with the recruitment crisis, any fall in standards can now be blamed on MATs rather than the one step further removed Department for Education. Teaching apprentices are a political gamble that will backfire if the parental vote contributes to a government’s fall. The policy is also a significant gamble with children’s education every bit as dangerous to the life opportunities of an individual as the pedagogical experiments of dedicated traditionalists and progressives. 

The answer to teacher recruitment is frustratingly simple. It involves a long term plan to increase teacher training entry requirements based on an agreed criteria (to the point where people like me would not get on a course), courses would be rigorous and last five years and pay at the end would be at least in line with other professions (not solely for material well-being but because teachers’ status is crucial to successful systems). Such a plan would require a significant political and economic investment by the state. The question for politicians, and those who vote for them, is whether our children and our society is worth it. If we believe that teaching and learning in society is not worth the investment, we will continue to see ideological experiments, markets and short-term policy making blight education. 

Walking the teaching tightrope – implications of emphasising memorisation in primary education

In tonight’s staff meeting we were discussing Clare Sealy’s @ClareSealy excellent blog post on memory along with Dylan Wiliam’s (@dylanwiliam) TES podcast last week. This post is an attempt to organise my thoughts. 

Clare’s blog gives a clear account of the difference between, and implications of, semantic and episodic memories in relation to how we retain information. She argues, persuasively, that we should focus our teaching on semantic memory and, in doing so, strip out the pedagogy that creates episodic memory i.e. the many-hued resources for the complicated activity designed to teach a new concept over a one hour lesson. 

The problem, as Clare points out, is that the opposite (the monochrome, monotone, monotonous lesson) is also episodic because we remember the boredom, not the content. Emotions are never neutral and learning is never context free. That isn’t to say that we should ignore neuroscience. We have a lot to learn and intelligent application within our teaching will benefit many children especially, as Wiliam points out in the podcast, those who struggle.

For some children, the thoughts that overload or more accurately divert their minds are related not to the pedagogical devices with which we seek to engage but peer relationships. There is little difference here between adults and children. Our emotional state is tied up with relationship. Part of the human condition is to feel insecure about, and in, relationships with each  other. Children learn less effectively after a playtime because they’ve spent free time in the complex and challenging world of their peer group. Their memories of the day are episodic but focused not always on our exciting pedagogy but who said what to whom. In response to the children’s thoughts  being elsewhere,  we may teach in ways that keep their focus but don’t necessarily help store, and/or practice retrieving, new information in the long term memory. There are, of course, many other variables, beyond our peer relationships, that contribute to our emotions, the contexts of learning and the extent our episodic memories dominate our thoughts. These would include how much sleep, fresh air and exercise we have. 

In response to what neuroscience is telling us and what we already know, it strikes me that we have three choices. First, we can spend a disproportionate amount of time on social and emotional learning to try and help children become receptive to new information. Secondly, we can suppress children’s relationships and emotions within schools through contolled routine. Thirdly, we can seek to maintain a balance between development and memorisation that nurtures the child, engages through pedagogy and makes use of neuroscience to build long term memory in the learner. Another metaphor, alongside and related to “balance”, is of the teacher  walking a tightrope between pedagogical excitement and tedium. This tightrope is the third option above which will meet the learning and development needs of the largest number (but not all) children. 

For primary teachers, part of the  complexity of our work is curriculum design. Each subject we teach has both a unique knowledge base and way of applying that knowledge.  In every subject, emotion and imagination play a role once knowledge is acquired. However, the relationship between knowledge, emotion and imagination varies by subject.  To take an obvious example, to remove emotion from art is to downplay the humanity of the learner and of the subject. The same is true, in different ways, of maths or science. Just as, for a broad education, the differences between learners are as important as the similarities so the uniqueness of each subject is crucial in determining the way knowledge is stored and applied. With ten subjects to teach in primary schools, the tightrope of the teacher is that much harder to walk. 

Whichever way we look at our work, we must not lose sight of the children who face significant barriers to the process of storing and retrieving information in their long term memories. Increasing the amount of practice through tests and reducing the excitement in lessons may not support all children to store information in long-term memories. There never will be a magic wand for learning. Those children who struggle to store and retrieve must not be left to feel of lesser value. They must not be labelled as failures because this will feed a narrative of failure from a young age. Clare Sealy is a superb headteacher of a school that nurtures children in secure relationships. We all need to undertake teaching in all its complex fullness to be effective educators. In that context, applying the work of neuroscience is very important to the success of our children.