Why I think that setting students is a good thing & where it’s gone wrong

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I think that in many cases in secondary, students should be taught in groups with others that have demonstrated, through rigorous assessment (formal & informal) similar gaps in their learning. I believe that the arguments against setting are based on issues that are preventable by high expectations, clear systems and the professional behaviour of teachers.

The arguments against setting

It labels children and bottom sets are stigmatised

This only happens if it is allowed to happen. If the language used when referring to different sets is judgmental or in any way different then labels begin to stick. Don’t allow this language from teachers and students and it won’t be a problem. If necessary write it into a policy and always pull people up on it.

It seems that many schools have been very happy to relabel students with new key stage 3 models using terms like ‘master’,’developing’ ‘gold’ or ‘ beginner’ but are against setting. We need to ditch all labels and teach all students at the stage they’re at.

High ability students ‘pull up’ low ability students

This is awful. Truly awful. It is a teacher’s job to teach and ensure that all children achieve, not that of other students. Students are individuals in terms of progress, not a collective. I experienced this as a student and hated it; it was horrific. I wanted to learn and be stretched as an individual not have to help others that might not have the same level of understanding.

“Bottom” sets are poorly taught. Everyone wants the “top” set

Really? For a start that’s unprofessional. It’s also untrue. If the same systems for monitoring are used across the board then no classes should be poorly taught. It’s unacceptable for anyone to allow a class teacher not to have high expectations of every and any class. It is the role of leaders to ensure this happens. If we focus on progress, not behaviour, not attainment, then there is no difference in teaching any set; all teachers are working towards the same thing.

All students can achieve the top grade, setting limits this

Firstly, if you think that all students can achieve the top grade you’re deluded. That doesn’t mean we can’t teach to the top but if you genuinely believe that by setting you are stopping children achieve top grades you have some serious flaws in the teaching at your school. This is conflating high expectations with high attainment.

The students know what set they’re in and what it means

Even if you re-label groups, kids aren’t stupid, they know what set they’re in. So what? What does it ‘mean’? It doesn’t mean anything. The stigma comes from us. Why don’t we teach students to accept that we all have different abilities in different things? If our schools have a broad and balanced curriculum and extra curricular opportunities then all children should have the opportunity to excel. Pretending everyone is the “same” may not work in real life.

The arguments for setting

It makes teacher exposition simpler

Note it doesn’t change planning as such but when it comes to explanations and questioning, it is much easier to do this with a group of students with a similar level of understanding. It reduces the confusion there may be from those that don’t have the same level of understanding.

It stops students ‘switching off’

I once had a ski-ing lesson. I had never skied in my life before. In the group were people who had skied before and could clearly ski down the baby slope. I could barely stand up. As soon as the instructor went beyond my comprehension I switched off; I was bored and fed up. I just wanted to know how to start and stop. I didn’t learn this and fell over. I didn’t want or need to know about skiing on the higher slopes at that point. I now hate skiing and will never go again. You may argue that the instructor didn’t differentiate enough but how were they supposed to with a group of people that were all at different stages of understanding and experience?

It is unreasonable to expect a teacher to teach such variation in ability. If we insist on wide mixed ability grouping, how does it make students feel? Those that don’t understand and those that do understand and want to move forward quickly?

It makes individual targeting simpler

If I have a group of students that range from targeted grades G-A*, the combination of different areas for support are huge. Expecting a teacher to do this during a lesson is unrealistic. It promotes the nonsense of differentiating the lesson 30 ways for 30 different students.  A set is a micro version of a mixed bailout class; it doesn’t negate the need for differentiation but it reduces the complexity.

Using data to set ensures fairness

If we only use clearly defined and agreed data to set, it eradicates potential issues with certain groups. Research has shown that some schools (unconsciously?) set on factors that should never feature as criteria for setting: social class, behaviour, FSM, gender, attitude etc this is where setting goes badly wrong. Focussing  on progress using data is the simplest way to avoid these biases.

Where setting has gone wrong

  • Teaching quality
  • Setting for the wrong thing (behaviour, SEN, attitude, teacher’s preference)
  • The language used
  • Difference in expectations
  • Focus on attainment instead of progress

What needs to happen to ensure setting works

  • As soon as it is clear that a student needs to change groups, it should happen
  • Students should NEVER be moved set for anything other than their learning
  • Teacher language must always be positive and be based on high expectations for all. Certain phrases should be banned.
  • Teachers should teach to the top but with the correct support that the students/group need to access the top e.g no students should ever be told, you are targeting a ‘D’ and therefore you only need to get half marks.
  • Achievement should focus on progress not attainment.
  • Clear, agreed criteria should be used to determine the sets

I’m not anti-mixed ability. I think both options have issues and benefits. I don’t think that setting is appropriate for all classes in school. However the majority of the arguments I have heard against setting could be equally used against mixed ability and  some of the arguments I’ve heard for mixed ability can equally be applied to setting.

In my opinion the issues with setting probably take more of a shift to eradicate but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do it. Good teaching is good teaching but I think setting gives the teacher a bit more of a chance for supporting students as individuals.

Behaviour management: it’s more about belief 

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This blog will only make sense to those of you that have worked in schools with some challenging behaviour. If not, go work in one of these and then come back.

I’ve sat in classrooms where students have thrown things across the room and the teacher hasn’t seen. Where students have done no work and they haven’t been challenged on it. Where the entire class is chatting and the teacher has stood at the front carrying on teaching, regardless.

These lessons didn’t have these issues because the lessons werent all singing and dancing so that students don’t misbehave; this is rubbish. Perhaps controversially, I think that children’s behaviour is controlled by what a teacher allows to happen in class. Students have a responsibility to behave but if they don’t it is a teacher’s responsibility to deal with it.  If you can see the paper flying across the room or see an empty book then there’s something wrong.

There are some great strategies that teachers can use to promote routines and positive behaviour but unless you believe that these will work, they just become random actions. There are no ‘quick fixes’ to a challenging class, it’s the long term game of a battle of wills.

Students will only behave how you want them to if you have a 100% undying belief that they will behave. It’s a battle of wills not a set of strategies.

I’m like a dog with a bone. Students will do what they’re told in my classroom and if they don’t, there are instant consequences that will continue on and on until they realise that I always ‘win’. I usually say that I have high expectations but maybe I don’t. I expect that every student will do what they’re told when they’re told. That isn’t high expectations, that’s basic expectations. 
So where does it go wrong? 

With teachers that continuously struggle with behaviour there is a lack of belief, that leads to inconsistency:

  •  Either they don’t believe that that child can behave
  •  or they don’t believe in their own ability to deal with it 
  • or they don’t believe it is their job to deal with poor behaviour, children should just be good.

These are a recipe for disaster as they create a vacuum in the expectation & management of good behaviour. I’ve seen all three of these in my career. 

These beliefs manifest themselves in different teacher behaviours:

  1. They don’t believe that that child can behave-> excuses are made why the child doesn’t behave so no action is taken. “It’s just X misbehaving again”
  2. They don’t believe in their own ability to deal with it -> it’s too scary to confront so it’s easier to ignore it. Often these teachers don’t ‘see’ the poor behaviour.
  3. They don’t believe it is their job to deal with poor behaviour, children should just be good. ->it takes up too much time that they can spend on other things so systems aren’t followed

The difficulty is working with a colleague to identify which of these it may be. It becomes more of a soul searching exercise that some may not wish to embark on. It takes a lot to openly admit and then work on these. In some cases it means a change of personality of the teacher which is a step too far.

Poor behaviour comes from children, managing the consequences and redirecting the direction of behaviour habits is down to the teacher and their colleagues. It’s a really tough job but in 99% of cases, with the supporting systems, it is doable. But only if you believe it is.

The tipping point; when does more teacher work not equal improved outcomes?

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Teachers clearly work more hours than they’re contracted. Survey after survey finds teachers working 60 hours a week and teachers leaving the profession due to workload. However, from classroom to classroom, school to school, these hours spent working are not consistent. There are some teachers who don’t work ridiculous hours and yet their lessons are still taught and their students are still learning.

At which point, does doing ‘more’ make no difference to the quality of the outcome?

What is the minimum a teacher needs to do to be effiecient and effective?

How can schools run systems that maximise teacher time & support them in keeping workload manageable?

This post isn’t really about workload. It’s about considering what is the minimum that a teacher and a school need to do before the work and systems have minimal or even no further impact. How many leaders and teachers consider the relative time/cost of what they do? 

Examples may help explain my point.

Teachers

Some teachers spend hours and hours planning lessons. At what point does making an extra resource or an extra PowerPoint slide have little or no impact on learning, and could easily not be created, thus saving time?

Leaders

Most schools get teachers to enter data into data management systems. Some have to do this 6 times a year, what if this was only 5? Would it make a significant difference? What about 4 times? What is the optimum time that should be spent on this to have the most impact? When does it become a waste of time that could be spent on something that would have a bigger impact?


I do think there are some people that are addicted to work so work many more hours than they need to. Some people think aesthetics are important and spend time ensuring things are neat and attractive in their lessons. This is a choice. I want to consider where the line can be drawn between necessary and optional.

The biggest issue with working out where the tipping balance is that few things that teachers do can be directly attributed to learning but can be deemed necessary to support the process. Adding data to a spreadsheet doesn’t improve learning in itself but may have benefits to the teacher and leaders in order to further support learning.

We could work out a ‘worth it’ rating for everything we do. If it has direct impact on learning and is time/cost effective then it will have a high ‘worth it’ rating. However if it takes a huge amount of time or has little tracable impact on learning, it will have a low ‘worth it’ rating and needs to be ditched. Leaders should consider everything that happens in a school and work out how it can be completed in the shortest amount of time with the peak amount of impact.

What ‘worth it’ rating do these teacher/school tasks have?

  • Marking
  • Writing end of year reports 
  • Whole school meetings
  • Department meetings
  • Coaching
  • Line management meetings
  • Writing development plans
  • Performance management

Finally, it is important to consider variation between teachers. If you take a set of books for marking, one teacher may take 30 minutes to mark them but another teacher 2 hours. Some people can come up with a development plan in minutes and others in hours. Might these differences make the difference in the working hours that teachers use? Might it be useful for some school CPD to be directly focussed on training and supporting people in doing the core tasks in a time efficient manner? (Not a time management course, direct support for individual tasks)

The idea isn’t to get rid of everything teachers have to do but consider carefully how each thing is impacting their work hours. Linking everything back to learning is crucial and whilst we can never pinpoint exactly the impact each task may have we can consider the ‘worth it’ value, and tweak or ditch anything at the wrong end of the graph.

How to teach (it’s not rocket science) 

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I’m so lucky to have an NQT this year. Working with new teachers is a great way to reflect on your own teaching.

We were discussing teaching styles and I told her the following:

“I don’t care how you teach. Talk at them, put them in groups, jump up and down, do what you want. All I care about is if they’re learning. Have they learnt what they need to ? How do you know? If not, what are you doing about it?”

To me these are the fundamentals of teaching. Keep it simple. Whistle and bells teaching is great if it fulfils these. If not, you’re wasting your time. If it takes three lessons of students researching, making a poster and presenting one core concept I would argue that is a waste of time; there are more efficient ways to learn. 

There is caveat to these. Due to the small amount of time we see our students, our job is to maximise the time we have with them and the time we don’t have with them. Our planning should ensure that learning is the priority; not fun or tick boxing for SLT/school policies. We are the experts and allowing students to engage with our expertise, to me, is what teaching is about. 

Last term a student said to me “Wow Miss, how do you know all this stuff?”. The ‘fun’ in my lessons comes from their inquisitive questions. They want to know more. It’s my job to make sure they are learning, enjoyment is secondary. In most cases it comes as a natural consequence.

However this isn’t enough. Whilst we cannot pin-point learning in a lesson, there are strategies that seem to be as close as we can get to checking learning. I’ve always used testing in my classes but it’s only recently that I’ve seen the research that suggests how important it is for long term learning. So testing becomes the way to check if they really have learnt what you think they’ve learnt. But the best thing about testing is that it has a double bonus; it contributes to the learning itself. Repetition of content over a period of time helps to embed it and allows students to be able to apply it in different contexts.

The beauty of this view is that I don’t spend hours planning. Any resources I create are simple and focus on a key idea they need to understand. Most homework I set now is quizzing. It contributes directly to learning. It’s premade and marks itself. 

If you have an NQT starting with you or you are one, remember teaching doesn’t need to be complicated. We just need to keep a focus on the learning; it’s not rocket science.

Should we critique or comment on other people’s lesson ideas?

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With Twitter and online teacher groups people share their lesson ideas all the time. For some it is a life saver, especially if you’re teaching out of your subject area. At events such as TeachMeets, people share their idea or lesson resource and the audience politely clap.

However at which point should you stop and make a comment if something is wrong or if you don’t agree with it? Or do we just leave it, either because of British ‘manners’ that dictate you  shouldn’t mention anything or you feel it might upset the person sharing?

Does it make a difference if it’s a typo or a SPAG error compared to a bigger issue such as they have something factually incorrect? I’ve been more interested in research recently, should this help to decide if a lesson idea is a valid or effective one?

When does a comment become a criticism?

Should these be taken personally?

More pertinent to RE, should we say if we feel that someone is teaching something in RE that may sit elsewhere in the curriculum? Who is ‘right’? Without a National Curriculum and a past history of AT2, it seems that any thing can be wedged into an RE lesson.

There are many many times where people have shared stuff and others have said how ‘amazing’ it is, and it isn’t amazing. I’ve sat on my hands and haven’t commented. The horrific long list of emails being ‘cheeky’ and asking for a copy of it makes me want to cry. I once sat in a teacher presentation on literacy where there were SPAG errors. No-one said a word.

Do our students deserve to have a certain quality of curriclulum or resource or does anything go? Who decides?

Or should we respect the fact that someone may have spent hours on this and ignore any issues?

Is there a best way to critique or should we all be open to people’s comments on work we make public?

Should we only comment if someone directly asks for feedback?

Do we have a moral responsibility to ensure that everything students see is of a high quality or do we keep quiet and clap everything and anything?

My concern is that if we shut down any sort of dialogue on these things that lots of dross is shared, but the other extreme is that people don’t feel comfortable to share anything. Is there a middle ground?

*Please do point out any SPAG errors in this and feel free to comment/critique/ feedback.

A brief guide to the new GCSE grade boundaries

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  1. There will be no UMS. These were for modular exams. Everything is now linear.
  2. The DfE have published descriptors for 2/5/8, however they are mainly meaningless because:
    1. It will depend exactly on your board for the actual criteria that will be used for your specification
    2. Exam boards will not use these to allocate grades
    3. Grade allocations are based on numbers of students NOT these descriptors.
    4. What a 2/5/8 will change every year depending on the cohort and the teaching. As teachers get used to the new courses, they will get better at teaching them. This doesn’t mean more students will do better.
  3. Essentially your students are in competition with each other and with every other students sitting that paper. All students cannot achieve a 9.
  4. You will not get any grade boundaries from anywhere until a set of results has been published. It is no-ones responsibility/fault to do so. They are only ever generated after a session, you’re just used to lots of previous sessions with their boundaries. Make them up if you’re desperate but you’ll 99% be wrong.
  5. You cannot use the way the DfE/boards will calculate grade boundaries to work out in-house boundaries. They use numbers of students you will use quality of work against a mark scheme. They’re two very different things.

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6.  You cannot use old spec grade boundaries to calculate new. RS GCSE is a great example. Last year for Edexcel a students needed 96% for an A* and OCR needed 82%. This is % of marks. Again, Ofqual documents reference % of candidates NOT marks. You could use the number of entries data but that won’t help you in-house as you don’t teach the entire cohort of entries.

7. A ‘good’ GCSE and a level 2 pass will be two different things. A 5 is a good GCSE. A 4 is a level 2 pass.u

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Essentially my advice is to teach students what they need for the specification you’re doing (and beyond) and teach to the top. Each specification has sample assessment material. Use the levelling/marks and support all students to full marks. Any SLT that thinks you can create any boundaries or descriptors yourself are deluded and are best pacified with something they can enter onto their spreadsheet. They’ll get a shock in 2018…..

 

References

1-9 grade descriptors for all subjects

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/grade-descriptors-for-gcses-graded-9-to-1

Current grading vs new grading

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/537147/Postcard_-_Grading_New_GCSEs.pdf

set of postcards going through some basics

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/your-qualification-our-regulation-gcse-as-and-a-level-reforms

Ofqual blog

https://ofqual.blog.gov.uk

This is all to the best of my knowedge and for classroom teachers, not data managers.

You’re a great teacher….so here’s your punishment

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Punishment may not be the best phrase, but there are so many times that leaders in schools use their great teachers which are only justified because they’re ‘good’ teachers.

Here are some things I’ve heard about:

  • Always taking visitors to their classroom
  • Ensuring Ofsted go to their classroom
  • Putting a ‘naughty’ student in their group because ‘they’ll deal with them’
  • Giving them ‘bottom’ sets as they can ‘teach them’
  • Making them lead things (on the same teaching hours as ‘not so great’ teachers)
  • Mentioning their name all the time in meetings ( once or twice is nice, more than that is just embarrassing)
  • Saying ‘Well they get good results…..’ for justifying an action that isn’t related to results, involving that teacher
  • Always involving them in whole school initiatives as they’ll ‘do it best’
  • Assuming they’ll be happy to always go above and beyond without recompense
  • Giving them the jobs/tasks/classes/rooms/resources that others wouldn’t want because ‘they’ll cope’
  • Keep being pushed to take more responsibility even though they just want to be a classroom teacher

So if you’re a leader in a school, think carefully how you treat your ‘great’ teachers. Giving some teachers more to do because they’re ‘good’ may not be the best way to manage them.