Some Ofsted comments from reports – new things to look out for?

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Check uniform

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The school was given 'good'. Data not everything?

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Speaking 'ad hoc' to parents. Wouldn't be as accessible in secondary?

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Adult behaviour was watched. Does this define British values as listening, communication and respect?

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Check uniform standards again

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Don’t celebrate inappropriately

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Don’t tell children their answers are ‘brilliant’ when they’re not!

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Make sure classrooms are ‘attractive’ and ‘clutter free’

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And organised

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Ensure broad and balanced curriculum

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Ensure behaviour is ‘superb’

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And finally don’t shock your staff!

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Should Ofsted inspectors formally share what they’ve seen?

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I’ve been thinking about this for a while. I know a well trusted and respected colleague who is also an inspector. Whenever I see her I’m desperate to ask if there’s anything exciting or useful going on in other schools that I can steal or adapt. But of course she can’t really do this. Not in a 2 minute conversation anyway.

So if inspectors are the ones travelling around seeing what works and what doesn’t work, why don’t we tap into this huge resource?

Most of us have little time to share. Twitter is the quickest and easiest way to do it but 140 characters is limiting. Blogs are great but are inspectors ‘unofficially’ allowed to share the ins and outs?

You may say, this is the domain of networks, chains and teaching schools; to share good practice. I’m afraid to say that throughout my career I’ve never benefited from this. It’s too bureaucratic. At best it means time out of the classroom or a tired two hours after teaching a full day.

Maybe Ofsted need to be revolutionary and instead of discouraging its inspectors to offer inspection advice as a consultant they should formally require it in an official capacity.

A system where annually an inspector has to run a focussed webinar or write a detailed blog post (and respond to any questions) or run a seminar (not all during the school day) They could have specialisms; behaviour, data, assessment, leadership etc. they could share all the good practice they’ve seen over the year in this focus. If it’s annually it reduces the risk of schools being directly identified although if it’s good practice why would they mind? Maybe they could sign to agree for their systems to be shared.

Is this what the Ofsted case studies do on their site? How many people read these? Are they accessible? Do they give us the opportunity to ask questions?

So, I propose instead of seeing inspectors just as the judge and jury we start to use them as the ‘eyes and ears’ of education. Pulling together the great stuff that is going on around the country. Maybe this may help to shift the often negative views of Ofsted to one of collaboration and support.

Does learning & ‘showing progress’ always have to involve new content?

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A teaching & learning leader told me that to be able to show progress in a lesson you cannot be just dealing with what you already know. There has to be new content. Gaining confidence in something was not acceptable and would result in no progress and therefore the lesson would be inadequate.

I ignored her at the time and carried on teaching as I always have. Of course when observed, I played the game and ensured it happened to be a new content section being observed. I knew she hadn’t actually thought about what she was saying. She was just repeating what the expensive Ofsted consultant had told her. What she actually meant was that, in the opinion of the inspector, you will not be graded outstanding unless everyone in the room can recall something at the end of the lesson that they didn’t know at the beginning.

So why don’t  I believe this to be true?

Firstly she has reduced a complex matter of learning down to one simple outcome. ‘You can tell me something you couldn’t have told me at the start of the lesson’. In a way, it didn’t even really matter what it was or how complex the idea was, just that you could prove they didn’t already know it.

Secondly, she failed to acknowledge that when we ask children what they already know, they’re not always accurate or have the same criteria for ‘knowing’. If I was to ask a student ‘Do you know the differences between the Catholic Church and the Church of England?’ they may respond ‘Yes’ only for me to find out that all they know is that one of them allows divorce. They’re correct but that’s not really just what I was after. It depends on what and how we ask them about prior knowledge as to what they will say they already know.

Keeping with this point, I am convinced there are children out there who have cottoned on to this. They know that if at the start of the lesson they say they know nothing, it will take less effort for them during the lesson to go through what they actually already know than to learn something new. Essentially we are lazy learners and the easy life is much more preferable.

Next I have reflected on my own learning to see if what she said is true. In the past 12 months I have immersed myself into Twitter, blogging and have attended as many of the edu events around the country that I could afford to. I will be honest, I haven’t ‘learnt’ anything new in some of the optional sessions that I have attended. I mean I heard things I’ve heard before. However, I believe that I still learnt from these sessions. By listening to things I already knew I thought about them more, I reconsidered if they were applicable/useful to me in my practice, I patted myself on the back if I felt I was doing it well already and some times I day dreamed and thought through things I wouldn’t have normally had time to think about regarding my practice. In these cases it wasn’t the ‘knowledge’ that was important but my own reflections, how the sessions made me feel and how they boosted my confidence.  Time for reflection has been key to my learning. Cheesy as it sounds I was nourished by being surrounded by like minded people. People that cared so much about education they’d given up their own time and possibly money to be there. That in itself was part of my learning. This would all be ‘inadequate’ using her criteria.

Finally, her reasoning was that unless you could somehow display your learning then it hadn’t occurred. If there wasn’t anything on the post-it note at the end then learning hadn’t happened and the child had made no progress. As we know, this is utter nonsense. Learning does not necessarily happen in neat chunks. Its not always visible. And interestingly the learning that has happened may not be exactly what the objectives said it should be. In my case, in the sessions where I had already heard the content, my learning was probably not as the presenter had planned nor what they would ever know about. It was personal to me.

Many schools have woken to the realisation that this Ofsted myth was in fact exactly that, a myth. In the meantime  it has destroyed the confidence of thousands of teachers across the country, me being one of them. The damage it has done is immeasurable. Should we all write it on a post-it to measure it?

I know the whole progress in a lesson thing is old news but like a bad relationship it has taken me a while to get over the insanity of it all. I haven’t done much reading around this area and maybe should but my instinct is that the answer is ‘no’. Learning is more than learning facts in a 60 minute period that can be regurgitated at the end. Learning is more subtle and in many cases far too difficult to pinpoint. We need to consider individuals and their learning instead of making broad statements about progress. We need to engage with research and theory rather than with expensive consultants who come to ‘tell us’ things*. We should be wary of just accepting things education and be open to discuss learning instead of telling people how to teach. Only then can we genuinely start to reflect on our own teaching and what ‘works’.

* There are some fabulous consultants out there. It’s the way in which schools use them that is the problem.

The importance of a classroom

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In my career I have had a variety of situations regarding classrooms.

I was lucky for 5 years to have my ‘own’ room and it was rare that anyone else taught in there. It was large. I got it organised. I used the space and storage exactly how I wanted. Students knew where to get things from. Everything was stocked. If you came in you would easily find a board pen AND the board rubber. You could easily find lined paper or a set of colouring pencils. If a student asked for anything, I would have it to hand instantly. It was my domain. My beloved classroom.

And then I started working on SLTs. Suddenly, you’re teaching less and you’re last to be allocated rooms in the system. Some would say ‘rightly so’. You’re timetabled to teach RE in a science lab. You have a class in an English room. This shouldn’t be a problem right?

Wrong.

I cannot explain how unhappy I was doing this. I have arrived into rooms where the teacher desk is so covered in paperwork that I cannot fit my laptop onto the surface. Often I have sifted through it and seen the hard work that children have produced unmarked and unvalued in scruffy piles.I have arrived to have a whole whiteboard covered in text and of course, absolutely no board rubber to clean it off.

Classrooms where remote controls are not in the obvious place or don’t exist in that room. Rooms where there is no lined paper in sight. A room where you can never refer to your own subject specific displays and you cannot put up examples of your student’s work.

And then there is the table set up. Going from rows to horse shoe to groups. People used to say ‘quickly get the students to move the desks around at the start and end of the lesson’. They clearly haven’t worked with secondary aged children for a while! Why should the start and end of my lesson be ‘table arranging’?

I have also taught in a dual campus school. You had to drive in your break time from one campus to another. Some people didn’t drive and walked. In the rain & sun. You would arrive to class completely shattered, needing the loo and you have no time to set up, let alone make sure you’re ready standing at the door to greet the students with a cheery smile. It was only at that moment when you realised that you hadn’t brought the worksheets left on the desk at the other campus that your lesson fell apart. Or forgetting a board pen and there not being one in the room. Really? How can there not be a board pen in a class room?!

At it’s worse I taught in 14 different rooms. 14 different systems to conquer before I could start my lesson.

So now, having taken a demotion, I am in the luxurious position of having ‘my’ own room. I am beyond happy. I LOVE MY ROOM. It’s organised. I know where things are. Anyone teaching in there knows where things are as they’re in the logical place i.e the board rubber is next to the board, the remote controls are on the desk. Someone said that the kids had told them I’m ‘OCD’ about my room and how it’s organised. I admit it. I am.

Don’t get me wrong. This is no-ones ‘fault’ ( well you could blame the Government for funding I suppose!). However for the quality of my teaching it is essential. I genuinely feel my teaching is better because of it. Think about that. Think of the impact it may have on students on a daily basis. What if they had four classes in a row they were table shifting?

So what does this mean for you?

If you have your own room. Relish it. But ensure that for anyone coming into that room you make it accessible. Welcome them. Don’t scowl when they bring their huge trolley of equipment and large box of books. Offer to help. Ask them if they need anything specifically for that lesson. Make sure the board is clean for them. Offer some storage space for things hey need to leave in there. Ask if they want any display space.

If you are the leaders of a school, think about what you can do to help those that are nomadic. Should there be an expectation that every room has a ‘set’ of core items? Could a member of support staff help prep a room? Do a tour of your school. What do large piles of paper ‘tell’ the students and visitors about your school?  If your observation criteria includes something on classroom environment, think carefully about your expectations. What can you do to ensure rooms support learning for all, not just if you’re doing science in a science lab? Other suggestions for which I have had provided:

  • Bottles of water for teachers to grab quickly as they cross campus
  • Buy teachers a crate on wheels or flight bag

Remember, staff well being is central to a positive & healthy school.

Assessing without levels – A case of the emperor’s new clothes?

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Inspired by discussions about levels and @AlBrine reminding me of this document from the Dfe on assessing without levels, I’ve been thinking about some of the new models I’ve seen for assessment.

My understanding of why we’re getting rid of levels is:

  • They label children – “I’m a 4a”
  • They became over complex – They were only ever supposed to be whole numbers not broken down into a/b/c
  • As a result in some cases they became laborious to use
  • Also as a result the language used in them became -un-user friendly – teachers spent hours putting them into ‘pupil speak’
  • Parent’s didn’t understand them
  • They became a measuring tool for leaders to measure progress rather than focus on the learning each individual does

I’ve seen the following models:

  • Using GCSE (A*-G) grades from year 7
  • Going from two strands of assessment to five strands using 1-9
  • Using stages of learning i.e from novice to expert
  • Systems that use -1,0,1,2 to measure student achievement
  • Using the same descriptors i.e Blooms, but without the levels
  • Every assessed topic has it’s own set of criteria to show advancement of knowledge & skills

Whilst I have been selective in these models, all I can see the same thing happening again.

Whether a child thinks they are ‘4a’ or ‘F’ or an ‘expert’ or a ‘-1’ , it is surely still going to end in labelling? For example, “I’m ‘developing’  in Biology”. I know I’d be fed up being called a ‘novice’ or an ‘I4’.

Aren’t these just as complex as levels? Subjects will still need to use strands and each strand each new grade/number.

Do we really think that parents will understand them more? Especially as there is a high chance that the systems used between primary and secondary will be different and if they move schools almost certainly different.

Has any school announced with their new systems that they will record progress in a manner that doesn’t fit with a spreadsheet? I doubt it. So regardless, teachers will be under pressure to use these in the same way that levels have been to ensure your class is making progress.

If teachers are making up new criteria for every topic isn’t this going to take hours? God forbid someone wants to change which part of the curriculum you want to directly assess. What if one school says an ‘expert’ is one thing and another school calls that a ‘novice’?

I have also read some of the case studies and watched the clips from schools that have shared their systems via the DfE and TES. In the majority of these (perhaps with the exception of SOLO taxonomy) they seem to be a very similar system but with new labels and ‘made by the school’. In some cases they’re are similarly or more complex than the original levels. In the reports the authors have made some sweeping statements about levels and how their new systems are better but they’re not tallying up. Stating ‘levels put a ceiling on achievement’ isn’t true and to then share a system where there is a ‘top’ level which assumably is also a ceiling seems bizarre. Have people got carried away with their own rhetoric?

I’m not seeing anything that hasn’t really been done before; skills passports with ‘I can’ statements, using overriding statements to describe a student’s knowledge & understanding. None of this is new.

Some of the comments I’ve heard and seen about new systems really worry me. Comments such as ‘I can now regularly focus on progress’ , didn’t you do this before?! Nothing I’m hearing is new if you were assessing effectively anyway.

Have we got overexcited about being given the freedom to do what we want without being dictated to and ended up with exactly the same type of systems ?

A shift in mindset?

“The distinction between assessment of learning and assessment for learning is basically about the intention behind the assessment. So, if you’re assessing in order to help you teach better, that’s assessment for learning, and if you’re assessing in order to grade students, to rank them or to give them a score on a test, then that’s assessment of learning.”
Dylan Wiliam, ‘Assessment for Learning: why, what and how

(found in Alex Quigley’s blog on levelling)

All I’m seeing in some of these new models is assessment of learning.

So is the difference between the levels system and any new system just in our mindset? or more the mindset of the leaders in our schools?

If we have leaders who are still interested in children making exceptional progress then surely any method we introduce will go the same way as levels?

Any system that truly has assessment for learning at heart will probably not fit into a spreadsheet or SIMS. It may not be neat and our spreadsheets might not gleam with green boxes.

How many leaders will stop teachers having to enter data into a system at least once a half term? Or will it still be a case of the tail wagging the dog?

So should we be spending a lot of time and effort rewriting things that we think will focus on deeper learning and creating new data systems or are they just a case of the emperor’s new clothes?