Context is king


Over the weekend Nicky Morgan made comments on how she proposes to deal with ‘coasting’ schools. She confirms that she means those that ‘just’ get enough to be RI or those where ‘every child doesn’t make progress’.  Whilst we could argue about the semantics of ‘coasting’ I fully agree that schools that seem to consistently be 3/4 need to be sorted.

However, throughout this all there is an implication that a ‘one size fits all’ approach will work. This is where there will be problems.

The schools that Nicky is referring to have huge challenges;not just getting better results. We’re not talking about the Outstanding school that drops to Inadequate overnight due to their lack of British values. We’re talking about schools that are usually in socially deprived areas or unique social situations. Recruitment of teachers is hugely problematic ( more than other schools) and the poor reputation of the school usually comes before any of the good.

But these contexts are not new. They’ve been this way for years and years. One of them used to be on the largest council estate in Europe. The crime rates and deprivation are nothing new. Some are in areas where they are guaranteed work in local industries regardless of grades. Some have low aspirations.

The problem is that these are rarely taken into account. I don’t mean make excuses. I mean take into account the context of the school and then deal with it head on. Telling these schools you will become an Academy means nothing unless the people that ‘take over’ understand and can deal with the intricacies of the context. One academy chain that seems to be working well in one area of the country may have absolutely no idea how to deal with this next school. And we’ve seen this happen locally. Some are now into their second sponsor. The first having no idea how to deal with the social issues the schools presented. Coming along with great pedagogical ideas and visions that just don’t work in this context.

I’m passionate about this. I’ve worked in these schools. I’ve seen students achieve great things in some subjects but not in others. They’re not impossible to teach. They need the right teaching for the right context. We need teachers and leaders that know how to get the best from these students. Not leaders who once got a job there 10/20 years ago and are sitting pretty, doing very little on 60K and retiring on it. Or a leader from the other side of the country who’s only worked in a completely different context.

So when Nicky sends these new Headteachers and NLEs in to rescue these failing schools what are the chances they will have experienced these contexts before? NLEs have to be from good/outstanding schools (or those from a category up to these). How many Headteachers does this actually apply to? And are they the ones willing to move to help out another school? With great respect to Headteachers that have always lead Outstanding schools I’m almost certain there’s only a handful of these that would know how to deal with these school contexts. Skills transfer but context doesn’t.

I’m sick of seeing the same local schools bounce between 3 and 4. Even worse when the Secretary of State for Education comes to praise it one minute and the next it goes into special measures. Let’s get real here. These schools need targeted, specialised help, in some cases some of the current staff may be able to do this with leaders who know what they’re dealing with. In others, most of the leadership needs replacing.

I can’t stand any more local headlines where new Heads say they are ‘turning around’ the school or ‘vow to make it outstanding’. Let’s get on with the real job; recognising the context & putting together a strong team to manage it.

Either way a ‘one size fits all’ approach does not work. Becoming an academy doesn’t work. They already are.

Context is king.


What if we didn’t ever use grades with students?


I have already blogged on how I think data should be more about the learner and what’s happening in their learning, the current mindset on grades and also how we could report without any grades or levels. Students are focused on grades and in some cases they mean more to them than formative feedback. My own small research shows this:


Students value a grade/level more than formative comments.

This makes me consider,

What if we never give, refer to or report any numbers?

From a secondary point of view, key stage 3 is the simplest so I will consider key stage 4/5.

Most schools use key stage 2 data to look at progress through to key stage 4 using this from the DfE to decide if it is less/as/more than expected progress.

Screen Shot 2011-07-22 at 11.04.39

Teachers and consequently students are under pressure to move their grade towards at least expected. This method relies on teachers knowing what a student needs to do in their work to move on a grade, two grades etc  There is pressure on teachers to ensure the student is ‘on track’ and sometimes the pressure means that teachers add inflated predictions to the data collection system.

Grades seem to have a power to change attitudes and behaviour but not necessarily for the good. Lots of research has been done on the impact of summative feedback over grades.

Kohn sums up the key issues with grading:

  1. Grades tend to reduce students’ interest in the learning itself
  2. Grades tend to reduce students’ preference for challenging tasks.
  3.  Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking
  4. Grades aren’t valid, reliable, or objective.
  5. Grades distort the curriculum.
  6. Grades waste a lot of time that could be spent on learning
  7. Grades encourage cheating.
  8. Grades spoil teachers’ relationships with students.
  9. Grades spoil students’ relationships with each other

So I propose we consider dropping how grades are used by most schools at the moment and consider the impact of a different model.

What are the alternatives?

  1. Give feedback first, then grades once students have responded to feedback
  2. Give feedback first and the grade a week later
  3. Never give students grades on individual pieces of work but an overall grade at a given time i.e once a term
  4. Never give students grades but teachers record these in a mark-book which isn’t shared with students/parents
  5. Never give students grades until a grade is needed i.e a reference for further study

Phil Race also suggests this process for feedback:


Featured in Phil’s book – Making Learning happen

Potential issues with these

  • The grade is still the important factor
  • Some teachers choose give students grades
  • Students don’t know how they are relatively progressing across their subjects.
  • Parents & students might not ‘like’ it. Current mindset is grades matter.
  • Progression can’t be mapped so neatly in an excel spreadsheet or graph.
  • Teachers will have to use exam board criteria carefully and knowledgeably. (an issue?)
  • A current trend in assessment is using diagnostic questioning using multiple choice. How can you ‘not’ report a %?
  • Will it move back to the old APP grid style marking? (Is this a problem?)

Potential benefits

  • Students don’t compare so much
  • They’re always focused on what they need to do to improve
  • Teachers may focus more carefully on what students need to do to improve
  • The converse of Kohn’s list

Possible resolutions

  • Start this process in year 7 so they know no different
  • Diagnostic/Multiple choice
    • Don’t give % at all. Analyse question by question with them for understanding. ( but they will then add up their correct/incorrect answers!)
    •  or use these at intervals during the learning. Only report to students the improvement % not the actual % For example at the start of the course a student gets 2/15 and in the middle 7/15 and by the en 12/15. You would tell them their increase not how many they got right.
  • Use KS2 data to tell students/parents their expected KS4 grade and then use ‘on track’ and ‘not on track’ with students and parents – Isn’t this essentially what they want to know?
  • Use Phil’s process – using marks but student generated

Is it worth ditching grades or instead, refining summative feedback so that grades become less important?


Kohn –   includes a nice list of references for further reading

Phil Race – Making Learning Happen

RIP Lesson observations. RIP feedback.


I’ve been thinking about and discussing lesson observations this week. So I thought I’d share my thinking.

A summary of mine and others’ experience of lesson observation is the following:

* You’re told (or sometimes not) that someone is coming to observe you. It could be anyone. Trained or not. SLTS or otherwise.
* They stay anything from 20mins to the whole lesson.
* They have a set of criteria they need to find evidence of. Until recently the evidence was just watching the lesson.
* They ticked what they saw or what they think they saw. Some came with ideas in their head already as to what does/doesn’t fulfil a criteria
*They complete the observation proforma. At the bottom there’s usually space for a grade (or four) and strengths/areas for development.
* They arrange a time to ‘feedback’
* In this time they say what they think they saw and what they thought was good and what they thought they didn’t see became an area for development. In some cases they might ask the observed ‘How do you think it went?’ They pass the observed the piece of paper.
* The piece of paper was filed and not seen again unless put in a PM/threshold folder
* And if the teacher was unlucky, had the ‘wrong’ observer, a pedant watching, an inhumane leader or untrained eye watching them it may finally result in soul/career destroying consequences. As a minimum, tears and at its worst losing their job.

So what was the point of all of this? In many cases it was done to say it had been done. For some they could enter the numbers on a spreadsheet and in rare cases it might link to some sort of CPD that might help address the area for development.
The benefit of this model was it was relatively quick (lesson, writing, feedback) and it didn’t require much thought or engagement from either side. It was mostly seen as a judging process and the judge had power to make or break.

Now things are moving on from this model and I’ve had thoughts on how things could move from ‘Lesson observation’ to a ‘Review of progress’ coaching process that is very different.

It is important at the start to say ‘why’ are we doing this? What is the purpose of this process? If it is for PM or to tick boxes we’re on a loser.

My belief is that anything that is done in this process should benefit the teacher and in turn directly benefit the students or help to develop the reviewer in a particular way, that doesn’t include for the benefit of their spreadsheet.

So I propose that a range of aspects are looked at some of which I will discuss:

  • Teacher discussion
  • Student discussion
  • Questions posed
  • Book look
  • Data
  • Live classroom experience

The first and most important throughout the whole process is…

Talking with the teacher (with all other documents with you)

Not one thing should be judged or decided or added as an area for development or written without a discussion with the teacher. The ideal that this is well before the reviewer goes into the classroom. If not, there should be a reasonable amount of time for the discussion after the lesson.

I propose we ditch the phrase ‘feedback’. It has developed connotations of judgement, that the person observing is in some way in a higher position to make a comment or that it is being ‘given’ to the teacher. In a coaching model what is recorded is what has been discussed. Strengths and areas for development are decided by the teacher in the after lesson discussion NOT on a piece of paper handed to them by an observer. Let’s say ONE thing is enough to develop, unless it is a simply resolved area.

The data must be discussed. No judgement must be made by a reviewer about the data without a discussion. Data can be very informative but also very dangerous.

Questions posed

I propose that as part of the review the reviewer comes up with key questions for the teacher and students before, during and after the lesson itself. These may change with the lesson. Every proforma should have a large space for questions and these must be asked either in the lesson or in the after lesson discussion.

It’s the answers to the questions that are important. They are the things that can help create a full picture of what is happening.

Have you ever asked a teacher you’re watching…

  • How is it going with this group?
  • How do you know?
  • What have you already tried with them?
  • Why did you do X? Did it work?
  • How might you resolve X?
  • What is working well with them?
  • What are the challenges?
  • What happened in previous lessons?
  • How does this lesson’s learning sit in the overall scheme?
  • What will you do with them next lesson? Why?

Coaching and asking the right questions is far more powerful in terms of development than giving a target in a ‘praise sandwich’ and writing down a target for a teacher they don’t agree with.

Book look

Another dangerous process that without full explanation from the owner of the book and the teacher can really misidentify what is going on. Is it really possible to see ‘learning’ from a book? Can you see ‘real’ progress?

In no circumstances should a teacher have their books reviewed and recorded ‘results’ on paper without a discussion about them.

Why are we doing this?

Giving grades has always been dangerous. They is a tendency to think that 2 is good enough and people take a sigh of relief when they get a 2. There are huge issues using numbers. We’re moving from using them with students so let’s replicate this with our own development. Using a coaching & reviewing model means that the teacher themselves are ‘in control’ of the outcomes and even someone considered to be ‘Outstanding’ has an opportunity to reflect and think about what they’re doing and the impact it is having. The review should not be in isolation and the decided areas for development should form part of the teacher’s personal development focus. If this model was fully implemented I can see that it could work with the PM process. But that’s another blog.

The past few years and weeks have reminded me…

Observations can be emotional & tiring.

We generally try our best.

We generally want a positive experience & to be appreciated.

We are humans.

The tail wagging the dog – Ofsted, accountability & how we run our schools 1


Having read Stephen Tierney’s blog post on accountability and other Twitter discussions on how Ofsted needs to change I have been thinking about the whole system of school accountability.

I think that for Ofsted to change and schools have to significantly change how they view accountability. Currently many schools run like this:

Who is most accountable? To who?

Who is most accountable? To whom? Who makes strategic decisions?

They run their schools for Ofsted. Using the criteria that Ofsted publish for inspections as a basis for what they do. When Ofsted make a press release it is repeated in school and if action is needed to change what the school is doing to meet this, then it is done.

They listen to every Government announcement and re-act to it regardless as to what was happening before (A classic case of this was schools entering early for English & Maths and then when it was announced that these figures wouldn’t count in league tables suddenly withdrawing the entries).

The ‘power’ of decision-making comes from the top. The people at the bottom are the ‘receivers’ of the decisions. They aren’t protected. They are just told that Ofsted/The Government have changed so we ‘have’ to do it. The tail is wagging the dog.

Is the tail wagging the dog?

These schools are confusing being accountable to Ofsted and allowing Ofsted to determine how things are done.

Whilst many blame Ofsted for this, essentially it comes down to the leaders in a school to decide what is happening in a school. Ofsted say:

We inspect schools to provide information to parents and carers, to promote improvement and, where applicable, to hold schools to account for the public money they receive. 

It doesn’t say, ‘by following  model X’. They don’t care how it’s done (within health and safety guidelines) they just want to check schools are doing what they should be.

So why aren’t schools making their own decisions?

They don’t know how to

Education is an odd system. If you’re a good teacher you get promoted to do things that aren’t directly teaching. Like leading and managing. Being a good teacher does not necessarily mean you are a good leader and manager. You may lack the strategic skills needed on how to pull together all the aspects of your school and come up with a coherent, manageable, effective plan. In this case you will then look to what is being ‘said’ in education and you can just follow that. If it comes from ‘above’ then you can always justify it.

They are scared they might get it wrong

This is high stakes stuff. You’re impacting the quality of education for hundreds and thousands of children. You’ve got to get it right. If it comes from ‘above’ it must be right.

They don’t want to – it takes too much

To come up with a  comprehensive plan  for your school is one thing. To implement it, monitor and evaluate it is huge. Schools are busy places. A dysfunctional leadership will make the task almost  impossible.

They think there’s only one way of doing things

The Ofsted way. There must be a ‘golden’ formula and Ofsted are the ones who are giving it. You spend their time trying to work out what this formula is from speeches,  press releases and Ofsted documents.

The next post will look at what Ofsted and schools can do differently to ensure that accountability and strategic decision-making are separated.