Sunday, 27 February 2011

The Numbers Game

Lesson observations, school performance against OFSTED or SEF or SIP criteria, SATs results, optional SATs results, pupil reporting, assessment of individual pieces of work, pupil tracking ……. on and on and on. All of these areas have been blighted with the cancerous obsession with assigning numbers – see my Blog http://becktonboy.blogspot.com/2007/06/assessment-2-what-are-results.html ..... 3 years old and still apposite I think.

The attempt to squeeze children into a spreadsheet and fit them on a graph fills me with nausea. The whole crock of levels, numbered targets dreamed up from numbered lists of mythical, often non-sensical levels, tracking an individual's or a group's progress against these phantoms is utter, utter rubbish and of absolutely no value to us or the children we teach. They barely have any meaning when applied to schools because they are so inaccurate and so very easily influenced, measuring not how well a school does anything, except make the figures making up the spreadsheet look good. They are beloved of the number crunchers and their attack dogs because they are not really interested in real education.

Good teachers or schools that end up having to take the numbers game seriously because of the damocletian threat of funding impact or interference, just think Woodhead or clone/OfSTED, end up frustrated and confused. The fault is not theirs it lies with the bizarre, pointless system we are trying to operate in good faith.

My advice to anyone having moral or philosophical difficulties with levels (not standards) of achievement: operate the system in the spirit it was created: make everything look as good as you can as quickly as you can, by the least damaging means possible and try to get on with educating in the time and with the energy you have left.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Extra Curricular Clubs

When I was in my very first job I thought back to my own school days and the extra curricular activities I was involved in, giving me opportunities and experiences I would never have otherwise had, involving all manner of sports, including table tennis, cricket, football, athletics, swimming but especially rugby with annual tours and 2 or 3 day 7-a-side tournaments, a 3 week foreign language exchange, a 10 day educational trip to Italy, drama, even foreign language movies. The spiritual, intellectual and personal enrichment but above all the self-confidence I gained from my involvement in those activities made my teenage years bearable, my early adulthood fun and they continue to influence my life.

What made all of these activities possible? dedicated teachers who freely gave up their time sharing their knowledge and imparting their passion for things they loved beyond the curriculum. I remember with tremendous affection every one of those teachers to this day, not just their names but their faces, their voices, their quirks, their laughter. In my 2nd year of teaching I started a lunchtime club and have been doing them pretty well ever since in every school I have worked in full time.

For the last 25 years I have worked pretty much full time in primary schools, sometimes in 2 schools on part-time contracts, sometimes on supply and wherever I could I have organised at least 1 after school club- I gave up on lunchtime ones in about 1983, there was just too much to do, even then. My busiest extra curricular years saw me running 4 after school computer clubs for different year groups, all with a waiting list, as D+T coordinator I assisted and funded a Nursery Nurse setting up an embroidery club and another a keyboard club. Even when I had a sabbatical leave spread across a term I did not miss a single club, sometimes only going to school at 3:30 after a day in pursuit of my research project. At that time I was the only teacher running regular all year round clubs. A member of senior management ran one lunchtime club for a few months round about the time of inspections and the PE coordinator trained a couple of seasonal sports teams but that was it.

Why? why did I do it? why did I never look for or expect payment? when some NOF funding became available which could have paid me I got the school to use it to buy equipment. Two answers emerge in the TES forums: I was merely doing what is expected in many schools and all teachers should do it or I’m an idiot for threatening my work/life balance for no payment. A scene from the movie Yakuza with Robert Mitchum springs to mind, where Tanaka Ken explains to Dusty the Japanese concept of giri – the relevance is not that I think running an extra curricular club is a duty, obligation or even a burden, it’s more the idea that if you don’t feel it, you haven’t got it. I don’t owe it to those distantly remembered teachers who gave up their time to enrich my life, rather I wish to honour and emulate them because of my admiration for and appreciation of their love of what they did, their generosity and dedication towards their pupils.

If anyone tried to make me do a club I would steadfastly refuse and fight them to the death but I will carry on doing them until I retire mainly because I love doing it.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

L.O., L.O. what’s going on here then?

Let it be said from the outset, I accept that lesson observations (LOs) are a fact of a teacher’s life, an unpleasant one for many but a fact nonetheless. I have developed a profound dislike of them, based on my experience over the last 15 years in my own setting. This does not detract from the inherent illogicality and weaknesses I can point to or reduce the concerns I have about the conduct and use of LOs, the dangers in relying on them for monitoring T+L and above all the abuse they are open to.

I entered teaching at a time when you would be observed as part of your training and probationary/NQT year, occasionally by the LA and perhaps by HMI. Then came Thatcher and the Tory education ‘reforms’ of the 80s, ushering in the era of ‘accountability’, amid a never ending series of upheavals and restructuring, a torch so shamefully picked up and, far from being thoroughly and deservedly doused, carried on by the Labour administrations of the Blair and post-Blair years. Serving as a fitting symbol of this whole period, OFSTED was formed as the new inquisition, ensuring schools implemented every facet of the increasingly centrist dogma emerging from government, unlike their HMI predecessors, who were feared and respected by schools, they became feared and despised. Inspections were no longer about finding out how schools were doing, they were about ensuring schools did what they were told. LAs, schools and teachers were shamefully quiescent through all of this, bullied into accepting more and more ridiculous intrusions and demands, hounded and harried by the implicit and explicit threats from inspections, SATs and those horrific league tables. The LO was an intrinsic part of this process, a valuable tool for driving change, to put it another way: school managements, LAs and OFSTED all bullied teachers with LOs.

The rationale underpinning the frequent and regular LO is:
‘it is proven to be the most effective practice in teacher education and development. Teachers learn best from other professionals and an ‘open classroom’ culture is vital: observing teaching and being observed.’ The importance of Teaching, The Schools White Paper 2010
This idea is echoed and extended in many contributions on the TES forums:
‘How is [the headteacher] going to learn what the quality of teaching is like unless they observe?’, (the purpose of the LO is) ‘to learn what the quality of teaching is’, ‘How exactly are [headteachers]to fulfil that responsibility [to monitor T+L]if they are unable to observe any lessons?’

My pre-emptive apologies go to those headteachers and PM reviewers reading this who conduct their LOs in the professional spirit of the ‘open classroom’. I would love to be able to say that I have found LOs stimulating or rewarding, a valuable tool of professional reflection and improvement. In the last 20 years I have been observed dozens of times for different purposes and in all of that time only 3 of those LOs came even close to that ideal. The rest suffered to a greater or lesser extent from the weaknesses which have brought me to my current position. My work as a union rep has served to reinforce and further inform that position.

The Heisenberg principle applies here: we know that the act of observation changes that which is observed. An LO can only tell the observer about the quality of teaching in an LO, more specifically that particular lesson, which is by definition not an ordinary lesson. I know of one case where an LO was conducted by 3 members of management: the headteacher had been the PM reviewer and consistently found fault with the teacher in question, using these observations as an argument against awarding the teacher a permanent TLR for the work they were doing in an ‘awaiting appointment’ TLR post. As the teacher approached Threshold progression a new PM reviewer was assigned and in the first LO the observer was monitored by the DH as part of the observer’s training and the HT attended to observe the DH in their monitoring role. How could the presence of these 3 senior managers not impact on the conduct of the lesson for both the pupils as well as the teacher? As a footnote: the observer graded the lesson good, the DH and HT insisted in feedback that it only be graded as satisfactory, pointing to illogical as well as inaccurate faults with the lesson. Despite their role being only to train the observer, the DH fed this judgement back to the teacher and it stood. This is an extreme case but serves as a graphic example of the Heisenberg principle. It also illustrates another key weakness of the LO: its unfair and irrefutable subjectivity.

A New Yorker once told me that it was impossible to walk the streets of the city for 30 minutes without infringing at least 12 city ordinances: I likewise defy anyone to conduct a lesson I could not find sufficient fault with to declare it only 'good' or even ‘satisfactory’ if I really put my mind to it, using any of the observation criteria I have ever seen. I have lost count of the hostile LOs I have been subjected to or been told about and in almost every case the ulterior motive or preconceived outcome was apparent. The introduction of performance related pay as a future development when Performance Management was being introduced was hotly, even vehemently denied and denounced as conspiracy theory but duly arrived as many of us predicted and now colours many an LO. Weak heads have the perfect weapon at their disposal to deny or delay pay progression beyond M6 – all they have to do is ensure PM observations are only satisfactory or just find a few faults to give justification to their ‘judgement’. There are many other factors which can colour the outcome of the LO, among them, personal antipathy, promotion of the macho, hard message culture encouraged in new managers, retribution, spite, keeping people on their toes regardless of the damage it may do to their self-esteem, plain egotism, bullying, ongoing campaigns to harry a person into leaving because they are ‘awkward’ in one way or another and even just the observer being slightly doo-lally: I have been involved with or heard firsthand accounts of all of these.

Challenging the judgement of an observer is almost impossible, precisely because it is a judgement. Objective LOs based on criteria are a myth – a comparison of the current OFSTED criteria with the comments from observers to justify judgments made based on them is confirmation enough. ‘Ah, but the observers are trained to use them, aren’t they?’ is one of the more na├»ve (or self-justifying) counter arguments I have heard. Indeed they are but a couple of hours in a training room with an LA or OFSTED trainer is not going to overcome the many personal, even deviant motives observers can and do take into the LO with them. Just how objective are the criteria used in LOs? My school has been unable to provide me with any reasonable description of what constitutes 'sufficient' use of AFL, a definition of how fast 'pace' is and how it can be measured etc etc. 1 pupil not excited by and enjoying a task, going off task or losing concentration during an introduction or missed out of questioning in a plenary can give excuse enough to downgrade a lesson. Training for observers does not get round these problems, it merely reinforces their credibility if anyone dares to challenge a judgement. One of the popular criteria used is subject knowledge but many managers conducting observations haven’t taught or planned consistently beyond perhaps 1 subject they like, sometimes in years. I know of numerous cases of negative judgements made on lessons based on a poor understanding of what is being taught. As an ICT specialist in a primary, I know that none of my observers could teach what I am teaching and some of them have found that hard to bear. Should a teacher have the grit to take their sense of injustice or outrage beyond the feedback session where do they turn? a complaint, judged by the head, filed away? a grievance or pay panel hearing, conducted by governors predisposed to support a headteacher, as most are? even when the teacher has a good case, it will all boil down to that ‘judgement’ in the end.

There is a widespread, unthinking presumption that observations raise standards of T+L which I find dangerous but it fits neatly into the look-good culture we have grown used to working in. The act of observing may point to a problem, assuming the observation is undertaken without prejudice, using the right tools, but it certainly does not improve the quality of anything. Weighing a pig does not make it heavier, nurturing it does – it may even turn out that the scales are badly wrong. For a teacher to improve their practice after an observation they need genuine vision, perceptiveness, analytical skills and use of experience by the observer resulting in sensitive feedback, advice, provision of INSET, mentoring and modelling. What many teachers actually get is negative feedback, admonitions to do better, perhaps some utterly useless refresher course (actually an open invitation to resign) and guess what, more observations!!

There is a further misconception that the LO is the only form of monitoring available to managers, beside flicking through planning. Monitoring could be about gathering information from various sources: the drop-in used properly (sadly not likely, it has emerged as another SIP box to tick or tool of harassment for inadequate management), peer observation, team teaching, modelling by senior staff (just having a larf) but what many teachers experience is an observer sitting in a lesson ticking a sheet or wandering around nit-picking, cherry-picking and finding fault.

The grading of observed lessons gives the lie to the open classroom claim. Just as SATs have nothing to do with children and their achievements but everything to do with generating numbers to fit into spreadsheets, so too lesson observations which are graded have nothing to do with school improvement or professional development. Grading is too easily used as a weapon against particular teachers, as a way of keeping staff from progressing beyond M6, as a tool for bullying or retribution, as a means of maintaining the illusion of control for a weak manager. Observing lessons is theoretically a way of checking on standards of T+L but it is a bit like saying a gun is for keeping the peace - it can be used like that but unfortunately often isn't and we need to keep an eye on that usage and especially the user.

Every year I take my car for an MOT, the second I drive out of the test centre, it is no guarantee or reassurance that anything on my car works or is safe. On the road I mingle with several million people who have been declared competent to drive by rigorous testing in an objective, skills-based test – I always stay very alert when moving among them. LOs are about as much use as any test result: tests only tell you about the ability of the candidate to take that test on that day, LOs tell you about a teacher’s performance in that LO, with that group of pupils, in that setting, at that time, assuming (and it is a huge assumption) that it was conducted fairly, reasonably, with professional skill and intent.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Embedding ICT in the Primary Curriculum

Some of us remember how IT, as it then was, got treated when the topic based, more creative curriculum was the order of the day: generally it was subsumed or ignored. This was kind of built into the system and fitted in well with the reality in schools. Most primary schools had only a handful of computers and fewer staff able or willing to use them. Many remained boxed in store rooms having been bought in by the LEA. They were shared out on a rota basis in the best organised schools. When the National curriculum was published and teaching IT became a requirement it was a guaranteed certainty that no school had enough equipment or expertise to deliver even part of it. The NC continued slowly to emerge chrysalis-like (ie not looking like anything involved in its conception) with a separate IT curriculum and a bewildering array of cross curricular links ‘embedded’ in the various other subjects; bewildering because the same objective could appear in different subjects accorded different levels of attainment. Data handling was a case in point, with the same skills and content appearing in History, Geography, DT, Science and Mathematics in addition to IT.

The first NC was so bloated it was impossible to fit into any school’s curriculum and it made sense to try and incorporate identical or similar objectives into cross-curricular schemes of work. Then came the onslaught of discrete subject teaching virtually required by the new inspection frameworks wielded by OfSTED. This was however partially contradicted with IT, soon to be re-branded ICT, because each subject area had IT requirements built in. The attempt by the QCA itself to include ICT into its schemes of work for other subjects can make quite funny reading. A typical example: “D+T Sandwich Snacks: create a database to store information from a survey of children’s favourite fillings”; as if any teacher in their right mind would take a couple of hours from an already overstuffed timetable to design a database, teach their children to enter data and use search and graphing tools to achieve the same as they would get by asking for a show of hands and knocking up a chart in Excel or a graphing app. As to whether most teachers would have the skills or interest in doing such a thing? the question requires no answer. Curriculum 2000 made none of this any better.

The new Primary Frameworks have proved even more impenetrable. It was trumpeted that ICT would be embedded at every stage in the new Literacy framework, what a joke! The vast majority of ICT references are to presentation skills (typing up to you and me), although typing skills are included up to Y3 – my enquiry from our Literacy coordinator as to when they intended to introduce typing practice into literacy lessons has not been answered and I’m not holding my breath. Realistically, I don’t really know where the time would come from. Other ‘embedding’ of ICT involved the exciting ‘multi-modal’ texts in Y1: sound files and graphics, taking digital photographs (well targeted ICT skills at work here, especially given that our nursery children are already doing this!) and of course reading ‘on screen’. Numeracy is even worse, the main use of ICT appears to be for teaching, relying heavily on the good old ITPs, some of which were coded in Latin.

The New Primary curriculum is of course only a spectre but if what must be one of the worst websites in a short education online history is anything to go by (and it may well not be) the further embedding of ICT and raising to the level of a ‘core’ subject – much trumpeted but not actually included anywhere I have come across yet - could prove to be illusory. All the areas of learning have an ICT Across the Curriculum link and Cross Curricular Learning tab with the rather bland children to develop and apply their literacy, numeracy and ICT skills statement in their Programme of Learning but that covers a multitude of omissions.
Typically teachers feel comfortable with word processing but nothing much beyond clipart, backgrounds, fonts and styles, few teach the use of tables, drawing tools, mail merge, forms etc. Whenever I see ‘Internet research’ on planning I shudder – it’s the modern day equivalent of the lazy ‘project work’ of yore and the more complex skills of advanced searching, checking plausibility or reliability, even downloading and filetype conversion tend to be neglected . PowerPoint is popular but it is used like a more flashy word processor and many features languish unused, unconsidered. Many teachers are happy to let their children loose on paint applications using basic tools but vector graphics is another matter. I have yet to meet a non-ICT enthusiast who uses spreadsheets for anything but producing flashy graphs. Most control and sensing software and hardware are regarded with trepidation. Databases? I don’t really need to go there.
Left to cross curricular integration in the curriculum, the majority of primary pupils would rarely progress beyond a low level of ICT attainment. The use of digital still or video cameras looks like an advance but will children be learning much more than the 5 year old in the Windows’ ads? will they be manipulating their photographs, editing their videos? or just dumping them into PowerPoint or Photostory and WM with an unedited soundtrack?

As ICT funding dries up over the next few years there may well be moves from deep within the bowels of LAs to silently shrink it. My own LA ICT team are very good generally but in the end they will toe the line and probably implement or manage the downgrading, rather than leading any opposition to it.

Skin deep

Beauty is aphoristically in the eye of the beholder, I would also contend that the same is true for modern educational progress and achievement. Both of these seem to be as much related to the agenda, self-interest or ambition of the observer as any real attribute of the observed, indeed the latter can be something of a superfluous embarrassment in the process.

There are those whose role is to police, supervise and support our work: inspectors, advisers, an army of consultants, many (not all) are well intentioned, skilled, of huge relevant experience but they do not necessarily serve us or their own public agenda well with their misinterpretations, cover-ups and lack of courage.

During my long career in teaching I have come across many examples of waste, tokenism, hypocrisy, complacency, pretension, outright lies and the (possibly deliberate) use of jargon or organisational complexity to cover up confusion and meaningless drivel:
• SAT results so twisted as to be meaningless even for those for whom they are intended –I hasten to add that this group does not include parents, pupils or ultimately their teachers
• the new Primary Frameworks and their accursed website - why are all government websites so utterly, utterly useless, even the ones such as BECTA (RIP) driven by ICT professionals?
• PFI projects, where the true costs and limitations are never talked about or reported upon because these processes are usually driven by people with a vested interest in a positive outcome
• the non-admission of failure in the numerous additional and incredibly expensive interventions used in the last decade in a desperate attempt to appear to raise standards: appear, can you mean this? well, yes. Actual raising of standards is never the reality, it’s all about the graph, as long as it rises, all is well.
• I have commented elsewhere on schools covering up and exaggerating the true nature of their pupils’ achievement and the confusion this can cause. It is positively harmful for the pupils, the schools they move on to, their new teachers who can experience self-doubt when confronted with a mis-assessed pupil, their peers, the pupils who miss out while their teachers sort out the ensuing mess.

This list is hardly exhaustive, some of the memories are probably so appalling that I have blocked them out.

I have contributed to a number of TES debates on a variety of linked issues, one called, appropriately enough “VLEs, the Emperors New Clothes?” The metaphor of the emperor’s clothes sums up my feeling that education is dogged by forces which are only interested in what things look like, not what they actually are. Educators are then bullied into making their efforts fit the ‘vision’.

Achievement in education has become truly skin deep and the casual visitor to schools eg inspectors, like the queen, must think that the whole world smells of new paint.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

What Have I Got Against PPA in Primary Schools?

(please note, this is a work in progress)

From the outset PPA in primary schools has been beset by issues of accountability, cancellation, postponement, calculation, and entitlement. It has become a focal point for tension and an additional thing for some of us to keep one’s eye upon – as if we didn’t have enough of those. These are all distractions from our business, the education of our children. In some schools it becomes an ongoing sore point – check the TES forums for confirmation of this.

Even more significant to me than this waste of time is the wedge PPA drives between the class teacher and their pupils: that all-day-every-day relationship is vital in so many ways and deliberately taking teachers away from their primary pupils is very damaging, NQTs end up with 20% of their contact spent elsewhere, ASTs with up to 30%. If the school organises management time during the school day that can also eat into the time teachers spend with their children. Most assessment systems are useless for determining individual or even group needs but the close relationship between the primary teacher and their class gives the teacher a unique, daily insight into the capabilities, achievement and needs of all their pupils. Most primary teachers have a good overview of their pupils precisely because they spend so much time with them, working in many different contexts, accessing so many different learning styles.

For some pupils a change of teacher, even on a predictable basis, can be very stressful and/or a great opportunity to explore the boundaries of the school’s behaviour management system.

The quality of work done by cover teachers can be very variable, especially when they have not planned the majority of the work themselves. If they do plan the work themselves they are not likely to be aware of links, weaknesses, points to emphasise, which might have come to light in other lessons conducted by the class teacher. No amount of careful planning and thorough evaluation of previous individual lessons can help the incoming teacher take as much advantage of learning opportunities as the class teacher.

In many primaries PPA involves the class teacher relinquishing part of the curriculum to either another regular teacher or even a random supply teacher. This can easily break the natural links and development opportunities which emerge during the delivery of any kind of joined-up curriculum. I can testify to this having been a specialist PPA cover teacher: if I am away, few of the teachers I provide cover for even attempt to teach the lessons I have planned, which disrupts the flow of the part of the curriculum I am charged with delivering. I work very hard at being aware of what classes in my school are doing on a weekly basis but am keenly aware of how impossible that is to do satisfactorily. The class teachers don’t bother keeping up with what I am doing because they are not responsible for that part of the curriculum and ignore it pretty much. Not teaching particular parts of the curriculum deskills class teachers, leaving them liable to poor performance or a steep learning curve in an area of little confidence when there is a change of personnel, in the case of absence or when they change school.

PPA was basically introduced as a sop by a government dead set against raising teachers’ pay in the light of their crippling workload and they would only discuss any Pay and Conditions issue with a group of unions mostly representing the interests of secondary teachers who wanted a more robust system to protect their non-contact time - quite rightly so, I have worked in the secondary sector and appreciate many of the issues surrounding impromptu cover, but the ‘rarely cover’ regulations should eventually deal with most of those.

What is really needed in our primary schools is a real effort to tackle the issues of workload and pay which have remained essentially unresolved in the last 20 years….. PPA is hardly the answer.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

What am I like...?

Any ideas on how best to deal with difficult, stubborn and cynical member of a department? This question was posted on a TES forum and gave me pause for thought, mainly because I knew it was how I was seen by certain managers at my own workplace. This is the result of that thinking....

I have been called all of those things (and worse), which told me more about the person saying it than it did about me. How to deal with people like me?
Well ……..In my own case I am heartily sick of people spouting edubabble at me, it mostly contradicts the edubabble previously spouted at me and merely serves to damage the standing in my eyes of the babbler. Don’t pretend babble is anything other than that.
Never, ever, ever use the phrase ‘playing the game’ in my earshot, I will explode, messily.
Don’t try to bully me or push me around, I have had it lots, it just irritates me and every now and again I bite back.
Don’t pretend that the latest government initiative is 'really useful' when you make me sit through yet another pointless training session watching video clips of unnaturally small classes of well behaved, bright, motivated children.
I am very sick of people telling me to do pointless, unproductive, wasteful, stupid things because it looks good.
Be prepared to admit that it’s really a lot of recycled tosh but we have to do it because the DFCS/LA says so, that is at least honest.

I am additionally sick of managers without skill, vision, understanding or other leadership qualities, who are always desperate to cover up their incompetence, ignorance and personal failings.

On the positive side: engage with me, debate with me, have a clear idea of people’s roles and functions, be prepared to convince me rather than just tell me and if it comes down to a judgment call, I will be the first to say ‘It’s your call’ and respect your decision. Know, accept and even admit to your own limitations.
Above all: listen to what I have to say without trying to dismiss me with words like stubborn and cynical. It’s a poor substitute for discussion.