We can rebuild it

As I write this, I note that Dr Rebecca Allen’s Caroline Benn memorial speech on teacher workload has received 60 Retweets and 107 Likes on Twitter. If you haven’t read it, do. Even if you are overburdened with your own workload.

Citing DiMaggio and Powell, Allen explains the isomorphic pressures which have resulted in schools becoming more alike, and how this has contributed to increased expectations on teachers. She points two fingers: one at reforms of Ofsted; the other at increased school funding under Labour. These are classic cases of unintended consequences, for I recall the little cheers we uttered when we heard the inspectors would come in smaller teams, and when we realized for once that we had a government that believed in investing in public services.

What went wrong?

Smaller teams and shorter notice meant that headteachers became a sort of chief inspector-in-residence. Schools engaged in continuous self-evaluation, so that they would be in a permanent state of Ofsted readiness. Heads looked across their boroughs at other schools to see how they had survived inspection, and concluded that they must do the same. They already had data on summative outcomes for pupils, and they already had a box full of policies, but – when asked to describe the quality of teaching and learning – how could they do that? They did what we often do when stuck for an answer for quality: they reached for quantity. They increased the frequency of data drops, the amount of marking, the numbers of boxes to be ticked on a lesson plan. They did this (I stress), not because they were bad people, but because they were good people being asked to do something they could not do. How many outstanding teachers do you have? What is the proportion of outstanding lessons taught in your school? These are Alice in Wonderland questions, particularly when we agree that we have not agreed on what outstanding actually is.

If ‘small Ofsted / big SEF’ was the cause of the change, a rapid increase in schools’ spending was the means, says Allen. Leadership teams mushroomed, and rather than let their hands be idle they were put to work on gathering, sifting and analysing all this data, inventing interventions and trackers to shift the data, and creating performance management systems  to hold staff to account for the data they had themselves fed in. This part of Allen’s speech makes for uncomfortable reading for some of us: this is the part that Ofsted did not force on us, the part we (i.e. those of us who were SLT) inflicted on ourselves (i.e. those of us teaching the lessons). How often did I demand information from colleagues in a certain format, by a strict deadline, for a purpose clear only to myself? How often did I conduct learning walks from which I learned little, and after which I shared even less? How many weights did I add to the wrong side of the work/life scales?

I don’t think Allen mentioned it, but I would point a finger at a third culprit here: analytics technology. We can now know how many homeworks the music teacher set last term, and at what point in the week year 11 students are more likely to access it online. We can now identify eight different types of disruptive behavior, and say which ones are favoured by the white boys, or the Greek girls, or the summer-born. We can now measure the rate of progress of every child, in every year, in every subject at any point in time. We can because, as with the Six Million Dollar Man, ‘we have the technology’. And, because we can, we must. And, because we do, we also have to do something with all the data we collect. We have to address the underperformance of the music teacher not setting the right amount of homework, and of all of those teachers (that is all of them) who have students not making the progress the flight path demands. We have to – we tell ourselves – because, if we have this knowledge and do nothing about it, we are letting down the students, the school and the profession.

bionic woman 3

We can rebuild it. Allen makes her own important suggestions about slowing the rate of curriculum change and rethinking teacher contracts. I make my own. With Amanda Spielman in charge, Ofsted have made many encouraging noises about investigating the consequences of their existence – the messages they communicate to schools about the sorts of things they ought to prioritise, for example. Justine Greening at the DfE has published excellent guidance on increasing flexible working. These follow reports and the poster on reducing teacher workload. I cannot fault this messaging, and I note also that the Department is tendering for bids through the Teaching and Leadership Innovation Fund to address workload. They recognise the problem, but I am not sure they yet recognise the causes of the problem. These are undoubtedly the twin devils of external and internal accountability. We can address the inadvertent pressures school leaders apply to their staffs, and we can congratulate those who are ‘brave’ enough to run their schools as if Ofsted were not there. But, so long as Ofsted is there, there is a limit to how far that courage can take us. I doubt we will ever arrive at the day when the top line of an inspection report reads: ‘This is a great school because it ignores everything we say.’ School leaders do load too much on the backs of teachers, but they do so because of the load which is on them. Ofsted, were it to follow its own logic, would not just stop grading individual lessons: they would stop grading schools. Then, perhaps, schools could get back to the business for which they were built.


Social inequalities in access to teachers

Social Market Foundation Commission on Inequality in Education: Briefing 2




April 2016

The quality of teaching is the most important school-based determinant of educational

success. Previous research shows pupils make less progress when they have a teacher

that does not have a formal teaching qualification; is newly qualified; less experienced;

without a degree in the relevant subject; and when teacher turnover at their school is


Our new analysis finds that schools serving lower income communities are more likely to

have teachers with all these characteristics. This suggests they face greater recruitment

difficulties in hiring staff and offers one explanation as to why there continue to be

substantial and persistent inequalities in educational outcomes between pupils from

disadvantaged and more privileged backgrounds.


Read the full report here http://www.smf.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Social-Market-Foundation-Social-inequalities-in-access-to-teachers-Embargoed-0001-280416.pdf


Talking to the younger me.

PGCE Graduation

Who was this man? And what became of him? Twenty-one years ago, I gained those 4 letters after my name which turned me into a teacher. This was UEA. Graduating on the same sunny day were two people – still dear friends – who would be best man and woman at my wedding; and Annie, the amazing person who would become my wife. It was a good group, that Class of ’95.

I note from the photograph that I am wearing the same suit that I graduated from my first degree in five years earlier. I had spent the intervening period teaching English teachers in Poland, an experience which had left me with a determination to qualify. It had also left me with a mere £40 in my pocket when I landed in Norwich. The picture is of a grateful man: grateful because I had been allowed to follow my dream without having to pay a fee. The country invested in me. Twenty-one years and several thousand students later, I am still at it, so perhaps the country feels it invested wisely.

What were my expectations then? I had by this time already secured my first post, teaching History at Warren Comprehensive in Barking and Dagenham. I had no idea of London geography, and didn’t realise that to get to school from our flat in Hackney would take a cool two hours. Ofsted had only recently been invented, which everyone told me was a ‘bad thing’. (Chris Woodhead, the first Chief Inspector, was certainly known to be a ‘bad thing’.) I had no particular career ambition. The words, ‘I would like one day to become an assistant head, leading professional development and spending hours on twitter’ had not occurred to me. I had some notions of making learning History fun. I think I half thought I might get some time on the side to pursue my other ambition, to write.

Some of my students would say my lessons are fun. I have found some time (though rarely the energy) to write. Promotion came too, but not too hurriedly. I spend much of my time now with teacher-trainees, and I wonder whether if the man I was then had met the man I am now would either think the younger me should become a teacher. Would I have taken on the debt to train? Would I have baulked at the government interference in local education authorities, the imposition of academies, the tearing up of pay and conditions agreements? How would I have responded to an Education Secretary referring to me as the Blob, or labelling to me as coasting, or inadequate? Told I was in for a 50+ hour week, I would have been fine. I would have been prepared for the behaviour, the marking, the shifting demands of the curriculum. I had trained on a blackboard, so I might have looked askance at an interactive whiteboard. If I had shown me Google Images or You Tube, I would have called me a witchdoctor.

I fear I might have walked away. I had other options after all. (All teachers – with their degrees, their life experiences, their idealism – could have been something else.) I didn’t share my tutors’ loathing of first-generation Ofsted: I saw the point of an inspectorate insisting on improving standards. The Tory Secretary of State was Gillian Shephard, who had been a teacher and seemed still to respect them. The National Curriculum was a baby of 7, and there was considerable political consensus when it came to schools. I am not certain I would have joined a profession abused the way it is today. Now it is merely the plaything of ambitious ideologues, politicians bent on hiding them away from parental or local accountability, sacrificing them to carpet salesmen and religious proselytisers. When the best have been allowed to become academies and the weakest have been forced to, then the rest will just be hoovered up aswell. I didn’t sign up for that 21 years ago, and I doubt I would today.

To the young man in the photograph I say, I am proud of what you did. You made the right choice for the right reasons, and along the way you have had a lot of laughs. I hope you can keep smiling.


The Path to Success which is Paved with ‘Grit’.

This recent report from Demos and Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham proposes that ‘Character Development’ replace the Ofsted judgement on the Social, Moral, Spiritual and Cultural provision in schools. They claimed this was necessary,

 “to ensure the next generation of school graduates are equipped with the social and professional skills critical for them to become successful and civic-minded individuals in their adult life.”

This was followed by evidence from Wellington College and Harvard Graduate School of Education, widely covered both on BBC and the TES. They surveyed 4000 pupils and found that those with ‘grit’ are not – as is sometimes claimed – more likely to lead unhealthy lifestyles as they pursue excellence. Carl Hendrick (@C_Hendrick), Head of Learning and Research at Wellington College, says,

 “This project is an attempt to measure the more unmeasured aspects of student progress.”

What would Demos, or the University of Birmingham, or Wellington College, or the Harvard Graduate School find if they came to my school? Sans a definitive manifest of what builds character, I could propose some of the following, activities outside the formal classroom that we have made room for over the past year or two.

  • The Big Read, where everyone in Year 9 was given the same novel to read, and events and competitions were organised around it.
  • A Singing School. We put this on our improvement plan, and collapsed our timetable for a day for all Year 7s to sing tunes from Joseph.
  • We enthused our Year 9s about First Give (successor to the Youth Philanthropy Initiative), where they competed to bid for £1000 for a local charity.
  • Our Student Leadership body have raised money for victims of the Nepal earthquake.
  • Our Year 10 XL club organise the Christmas party for our senior citizen neighbours.
  • We do the customary amount of work experience, Duke of Edinburgh Awards and out of school sports activities.

I could add more. My colleagues work hard at this, and we have very many active citizens amongst our student body. But I do wonder how we would fare if Demos got their way and Character was given equal billing with attainment by Ofsted. I might reach for the type of evidence that catches my eye, the sort that’s not necessarily put through the validity sieve. I would note that, very often, colleagues, who have otherwise committed to an after-school session aimed at their own professional development, send their apologies because they have to work with a group of students who are in danger of missing their controlled assessment deadline. I would click on the school calendar, which has an orange bar running the length from October to June placing a ban on all Year 11 trips. (We also forbid trips for Year 10s and Year 9s from February onwards.) I would list the students who miss chunks of their Easter and half-term holidays because they are lapping up exam revision sessions, run by colleagues who are similarly missing their holidays. I might ask the question: Are we promoting the unhealthy lifestyles – the sleep deprivation, the foregoing of rest – that the grit-researchers at Harvard are keen to discover are absent?

The reason we focus so relentlessly upon attainment is obvious: for us, floor targets are never far below our feet. Our Progress 8, our Ebacc percentage, our key marginals: these measures mean everything for the status of a local authority school keen to avoid the notice of a Regional Schools Commissioner. We track our data, and we track the interventions that our data suggest we need. For many of our students, their ‘social capital’ will mean little if they don’t also have a C in English and Maths. It might be character-building to go buttock-to-buttock with a star of rugby union (as Nicky Morgan didn’t quite say), but our students will need to place their grades on their CVs before their areas of interest. And when I say ‘our students’, I imagine this is true for the vast majority across the country whose social background doesn’t already afford them a huge advantage in life.

Character is great stuff, we should all have a bit of it. But I discern another message lurking between the pages of the Demos report and the Wellington research. For those schools already attaining at the top end, ‘grit’ is a more effective way of setting their students apart from the rest. Let Ofsted also measure the quality of their debating society and the quantity of their charitable giving, the lines spoken on their stage and painted on their playing fields: then we will truly see those best prepared for a successful adult life. It won’t be the kids from my school.


Ill Communication: Technology, Distraction and Student Performance

Fascinating study from LSE on the impact on student performance of technology. Amongst other things, it finds that bans on mobile phones in school improved test scores for students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. They say, “restricting mobile phone use can be a low-cost policy to reduce educational inequalities.”



8 out of 10 cats: Ofsted surveys school leaders’ views on the impact of inspections

As schools break up for Easter, Ofsted offer this present. Taken from the evaluation surveys they conduct after each Section 5 inspection, they have concluded overwhelmingly that school leaders found the process useful.

  • Nearly all leaders would take the inspection recommendations to improve their schools.
  • 92% found the process fair and accurate, and  that the demands of inspection were reasonable.
  • Whatever the costs, 82% found the benefits outweighed them.
  • Nearly 4/5 said that their inspection confirmed the actions they were already taking to improve their schools.

Ofsted does not collect similar responses from school teachers, who might be expected to take a less positive view of the process.

The full report is here


Improving Social Mobility through Education: The Sutton Trust

The Sutton Trust’s report from their Washington Conference, co-sponsored by the Gates Foundation in December 2014. http://dodsmonitoring.com/downloads/misc_files/DEVELOPING_TEACHERS%20-%20FINAL.pdf


“In the most successful schools the leaders provide direction and support, but also trust their staff and encourage creativity, innovation and a degree of risk-taking.”


  • 6 components of great teaching
  • 7 least valid teaching practices
  • 6 approaches to teacher assessment
  • 6 principles of teacher feedback
  • 5 characteristics of a world class system (increased autonomy for teachers and leaders; better PD for teachers, backed by a College of Teachers and NCSL; Ofsted rewarding schools that create evidence-based policy; ensure accountability measures support genuine achievement; collaboration between schools in a self-improving system.)
  • Teacher development strategies from the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, USA
  • From John Tomsett, 4 practical steps for making time available for professional learning (adapted from Tom Sherrington)