Of Wasps and Education

A long time ago I lived with Jim, a zoologist – the sort that actually liked to know about animals. He taught me, contrary to all popular English culture, to be friendly to wasps – to sit still and observe rather than flap about, leap up, scream, etc. Actually, I was an easy pupil because I’d not had that particular education and was stunned and appalled when, as a 15-year-old, newly-arrived and attending my first English school, I witnessed a fellow pupil smash a stray wasp to death rather than simply let it out of the window as we would have done ‘back home’. Anyway, Jim used to let the wasps land on his finger and drink lemonade – a trick I subsequently performed (without being stung) in front of many a bemused audience. Since then, I’ve learned lots about these clever insects. They can recognise each other as individuals and they can recognise human faces. Allow a wasp to do its zig-zagging buzz in front of you it will learn what you look like and generally fly off, leaving you alone.

This year, I’m one of the very few to be concerned that there are practically no wasps about. Nor many other insects. I take their absence as a bad sign, where I suspect most people are just happy not to be ‘pestered’ by them. I did see one last night though, whilst waiting with my fellow band members before a gig. It took me a while to realise why they were jumping up and flapping their hands – it was a lone, wasp interested in the meat in their pork baps, so I did the trick; the wasp landed on my fingers and took the small piece I offered. I didn’t get stung, it didn’t get tangled in my hair, it didn’t land on my face or do any of the the other things that terrify people. It didn’t bother me at all and I could continue to sit on my hay bale and calmly contemplate the beautiful evening.

So how does this relate to anything? Well it’s something like this: what I have learned about wasps trumps popular culture and folk knowledge, and allows me to make both a compassionate and a superior decision. This is what I consider to be the goal of education. Yet, it’s a losing battle – education is pointless in the face of both a widespread, ignorant culture and a ruling minority that makes decisions for us, based not on evidence and expertise (badger cull, abolition of dept of energy and climate change), but for some other agenda, unnoticed by the majority and unfathomable to the rest.


Got the T-shirt (a moderate tale)

Given that teacher assessment is a nonsense which lacks reliability, and that moderation can not really reduce this, nor ensure that gradings are comparable, our moderation experience was about as good as it could be! It was thus:

Each of we two Y6 teachers submitted all our assessments and three children in each category (more ridiculous, inconsistent and confusable codes, here), of which one each was selected, plus another two from each category at random. So, nine children from each class. We were told who these nine were a day in advance. Had we wanted to titivate, we could have, but with our ‘system’ it really wasn’t necessary.

The ‘system’ was basically making use of the interim statements and assigning each one of them a number. Marking since April has involved annotating each piece of work with these numbers, to indicate each criterion. It was far less onerous than it sounds and was surprisingly effective in terms of formative assessment. I shall probably use something similar in the future, even if not required to present evidence.

The moderator arrived this morning and gave us time to settle our classes whilst she generally perused our books. I had been skeptical. I posted on twitter that though a moderator would have authority, I doubted they’d have more expertise. I was concerned about arguing points of grammar and assessment. I was wrong. We could hardly have asked for a better moderator. She knew her stuff. She was a y6 teacher. We had a common understanding of the grammar and the statements. She’d made it her business to sample moderation events as widely as possible and therefore had had the opportunity to see many examples of written work from a wide range of schools. She appreciated our system and the fact that all our written work from April had been done in one book.

Discussions and examination of the evidence, by and large led to an agreed assessment. One was raised from working towards; one, who I had tentatively put forward as ‘greater depth’, but only recently, was agreed to have not quite made it. The other 16 went through as previously assessed, along with all the others in the year group. Overall my colleague and I were deemed to know what we were doing! We ought to, but a) the county moderation experience unsettled us and fed my ever-ready cynicism about the whole business and b) I know that it’s easy to be lulled into a false belief that what we’ve agreed is actually the ‘truth’ about where these pupils are at. All we can say is that we roughly agreed between the three of us. The limited nature of the current criteria makes this an easier task than the old levels, (we still referred to the old levels!) but the error in the system makes it unusable for accountability or for future tracking. I’m most interested to see what the results of the writing assessment are this year – particularly in moderated v non-moderated schools. Whatever it is, it won’t be a reliable assessment but, unfortunately it will still be used (for good or ill) by senior leaders, and other agencies, to make judgements about teaching.

Nevertheless, I’m quite relieved the experience was a positive one and gratified and somewhat surprised to have spent the day with someone with sense and expertise. How was it for you?





The nonsense of ‘teacher assessment’ – an analogy

As we approach the start of the new school year, some of us will be continuing to try to make a silk purse out of the sow’s ear of  the new assessment requirements, ‘formally’ introduced last year. Whatever system individual schools decide to use to approach this farce, teachers will be expected to make judgements based on ‘teacher assessment’. Almost everywhere, this will be accepted without question, so I’m going to try to outline in simple terms just how I think it does not make sense.

I’m using a high-stakes analogy in which human judgement of performance needs to be seen to be as reliable as possible – the ‘execution’ score for competitive gymnastics as follows:

  • 6 independent, highly skilled, judges
  • 1 individual is judged on 1 performance at a time (and within a limited time)
  • Each performance has a small number of clearly defined criteria
  • There is no conferring (or moderating!)
  • The maximum score is 10 and points are dropped for errors

These are pretty good conditions for a high degree of reliability and yet the judges still arrive at different scores. Because of that, the top and bottom scores are dropped and the remaining 4 are averaged. Even so, the resulting scores are often ‘disputed’, although queries and official objections are not allowed. The judges are not the coaches and will not be held to account for the performance of the gymnasts.

Now let’s compare that with teacher assessment in an English primary school:

  • 1 class teacher, most of whom are not experts, neither in the subject, the curriculum nor in assessment
  • 32 individuals are judged on multiple performances in multiple subjects throughout the year
  • There are hundreds of criteria (somewhere along the lines of 130 for the core subjects in year 5)
  • Reliability is expected to be improved by moderation and discussion (conferring!)
  • There is no way to eliminate outlying judgements
  • There is no transparent way to score or translate observations of performance into grades

In most schools, there will be some kind of tracking system whereby teachers will be asked to make termly entries along the lines of ‘developing, meeting, exceeding’ and degrees thereof, for tracking purposes, culminating in a final decision which will indicate pupil attainment (readiness to move to the next stage) and teacher effectiveness for that year. In many cases, in spite of union objections, these judgements will form part of appraisal, promotion and performance-related pay. Is there any way, under those circumstances, that teacher assessment can reliable enough to be used for the high-stakes purposes expected in English primary schools?

Too much stirring is spoiling the pudding

The world of education seems to me to be currently in a state of frenzy, particularly in England, but probably fuelled in good part by US ideology. Teachers, like myself, who actually read the bulletins, follow the research, go on facebook, watch the news etc., (maybe there are some that do none of these) are assailed from all directions, with the underlying message that something must be done. For example – in random order:

  • RI/Good/Outstanding
  • Ofsted’s new directives
  • Just Ofsted!
  • Coasting schools
  • Failing teachers
  • Failing heads
  • Teachers want to leave
  • Workload
  • The New Curriculum is good/bad/indifferent
  • Mastery
  • Levels were a bad idea
  • Assessment for Learning is a wonderful thing
  • Progressivism was a terrible idea
  • Trojan horses
  • Text books are great/not great
  • Phonics is good (as is grammar!)
  • Academies will save us/damn us all
  • Parents have the right to choose
  • State schools should be more like private schools
  • Close the gap
  • Practice should be based on research – take your pick which piece
  • Marking is essential feedback/not essential/done badly
  • Independent learning
  • Individualised trajectories
  • Whole class teaching
  • Age related expectations
  • Progressive targets
  • Accountability measures
  • Observations are important/detrimental
  • New technologies are going to save us/damn us all
  • SMCS
  • British Values

I could go on, and readers of this blog could probably add hundreds more items to the list. When I read articles, blogs and research online, everyone has an opinion. Sometimes there is ‘evidence’, although not the kind of evidence that would be accepted within the ‘hard’ sciences. If we teachers were to try to take on board everything that they tell us, so that we are not ‘failing teachers’, we’d become useless. And what are all these methods, tools, strategies, for, exactly? An improvement in attainment of 3 months? Really? Is that anything? I meet successful former pupils – I can not begin to think how I can relate their success to something as nebulous as a 3 month difference in attainment in primary school, even if I could believe that such things can be measured. (In fact, give us that measuring tool – it would help us all a lot!). And then, what is the measure of their success? Are they making a useful contribution to the economy? Is that what it’s about? I really don’t think it is or that it should be. I would like it to stop, now. Nothing can operate well within a climate of such unremitting, frequent and conflicting input and I don’t believe it’s as complicated as all that. There have been successful educators in the past – we have to admit that teachers must have managed it before we had so many directives and all this ‘evidence based practice’. Some of my own teachers were brilliant, but that’s not even the issue. The responsibility for learning, lies with the learner, not the teacher! If we continue to believe we can ‘fix’ things by directing our remedies at the teachers, we’ll fail. The main issue with the teachers is not what they do but what they (don’t) know, and a focus on teaching distracts us from that issue. English teachers are themselves the product of the system and the result of a culture that has removed the responsibility of learning from the learner. I’ve seen this myself, where, if a teacher lacks subject knowledge (for example in the new computing requirements), they do nothing until the CPD is provided for them, yet we live in a technologically advanced world where access to information has never been easier. If we really want to remedy the ills of the English education system, we should:

  • stop making up new responsibilities for teachers
  • stop endlessly tweaking the system
  • recognise that we can’t ‘close the gap’*
  • require excellent subject knowledge
  • recognise that the learner is responsible for their learning

*’closing the gap’ is a phrase for another tirade. Try closing the gap between my sprinting time and that of Usain Bolt!

Teaching lessons v educating

I have some half-formed ideas floating about in my head that reflect some misgivings I’ve had for some time. These relate to dominant ideas about teaching, learning and the whole nonsense of ‘lessons’. When I met a new head, many years ago, I remember her saying to me that what she wanted to see was ‘at any given time, there was learning going on’. Well apart from it being highly unlikely that there would be no learning going on (unless, I suppose one is unconscious), I took issue with the whole idea of ‘snapshots’ showing anything useful at all. This is because I don’t believe it’s all about lessons and particularly not about whether learning has taken place between the start of the lesson and the end of the lesson. For ‘lessons’ read ‘sessions’, since this is what it seems to mean to school leaders, OFSTED and many teachers.

I don’t want to see that my pupils have made progress from the start to the end of the session. I don’t care about that. I want to know that I’m educating my pupils – something which is not defined or limited by their behaviour changes within periods of time assigned to sessions. To wax anecdotal for a minute, I know where some of my best learning came from in my own primary school and it wasn’t about any single lesson. It was about taking a subject area, whatever it was, driving it forward over a period of time and taking it as far as we wanted to go. It required teacher expertise and access to quality materials. There may have been ‘lessons’ or even ‘sessions’ but I wasn’t aware of them as discrete events.

I think, for a long time, we’ve been forced (particularly for observations) to teach ‘show’ lessons; to perform a lesson, hoping for the best and hoping that they see what we’re trying to do and that it doesn’t end in tears. I’m glad that OFSTED are suggesting a move away from this focus, but it’s taken long enough. I may also have finally persuaded leaders in my own school to look at lessons in context and to hold a discussion with teachers about what they’re doing and why – where they’re going with the lesson – where it’s come from. That’s also taken long enough. But it’s still about observing lessons – about snapshots – and they’ll still expect to see whether pupils ‘have learned’ within that lesson. As if that’s something that can be seen, anyway. What if the learning were being measured, even according to the greatly flawed, ham-fisted, descriptors we’ve been given? What if they all showed ‘learning’ at the end of the lesson? Are they actually being educated? I wonder if much of the frustration at the failure to embed effective AfL practices can be laid at the door of this type of lesson. We’re still not doing it properly, apparently. We don’t have time for it in our lessons. We’re not assessing the pupils’ learning properly. It’s all a bit of a shoe-horn operation. But I wonder if we’re focussed on educating, rather than teaching lessons and measuring learning, whether the formative assessment wouldn’t just be a part of the whole process.

‘We haven’t the time’ – the problem of teacher CPD in England

It is an expectation on teachers around the world, that they maintain and develop their subject knowledge and understanding through professional development. This is often a matter of personal choice with management support for what is seen as a priority. In some countries, teachers are expected to document their commitment through a reflective portfolio. Access to CPD (continuing professional development) couldn’t be easier than it is now. In addition to the ubiquitous search engines that can lead to a fractal exploration of any subject or question, are a range of high-quality online courses proffered by reputable institutions. In the last couple of years, I’ve accessed several, myself. But how likely is it that teachers in English schools are even contemplating their own CPD, never mind systematically and seriously pursuing it?

Not very likely, I think, from my recent experience of trying to engage teachers in committing to improving their own subject knowledge in essential, key areas of the curriculum. These are otherwise dedicated professionals working in a school with an ‘outstanding’ reputation, but advancing one’s own knowledge and understanding, independently in one’s own time is a step too far. This is a problem. Much research points to the quality of teacher subject knowledge as a key factor in pupil attainment and yet it is known that this falls far short of what it should be in primary schools, particularly in subjects such as science and technology. I was party to a discussion recently about how this could be addressed, given the fragile state of science education in England and our desperate attempts to stabilise it before we lose it altogether. Teacher CPD was seen as a major issue. This led me to thinking about how CPD could be better embedded in real world practice.

So many unhelpful directives are forced upon the profession and the workload has genuinely become excessive (yes really!), that it’s not surprising that teachers are resistant to anything that hasn’t actually been demanded in black and white. We are all expected, however, to undergo a yearly process entitled ‘appraisal’ and I think it might be time that subject knowledge became a central feature of this process, with time being dedicated specifically to CPD. Would it be too much too expect for teachers to identify and demonstrate through certification, a level of knowledge appropriate to the teaching of the subject and for school leaders to commit to resourcing this in time and materials?

Oh look, I’m right again

Being in any profession for more than 20 years (yes, me) means you may have had to watch the same old stuff go round again and again. Sometimes something is brought back having been thrown out because it didn’t work the first time and nobody else is old enough to know that it isn’t new and wonderful. Sometimes it’s something that was abandoned against your best protestations, only to make a reappearance some years later as a good idea. Often, we just throw away good old stuff and replace it with tat – but that’s a different story!

I’m currently feeling the need to vent spleen over the reintroduction of a weekly ‘singing assembly’. That’s all very well – perhaps we could cope with the sudden change in our timetables (having already spent many hours trying to get everything to fit), since it could be generally argued that collective singing in a primary school is a ‘good thing’. However, we used to have a singing assembly. I ran it. I didn’t want to – particularly as it always needed to have overtones of collective worship – but I put that aside and concentrated on getting the best out of the whole of Key Stage 2 and a bunch of disparate, pupil volunteer musicians. We did pretty well – there were 3-part harmonies and instrumental accompaniments. I mainly plundered the gospel repertoire for its sheer musicality. Then one day, without explanation, I was unceremoniously ‘thanked’ for everything I’d done and informed that it was not going to happen any longer. I did object, in spite of not really wanting to have to run the damned thing in the first place, on the grounds of there being no more collective singing, and possibly very little singing at all. Now, some 5 years later, we’re told that the lack of collective singing is an issue and so we’ll be having singing assemblies once a week, led by a paid outsider. It’s unlikely that anyone will have the courtesy to say I was right.

Yes this is rather petulant but only one example in many of just how little value is placed on experience and expertise. It’s all about rank – as it has ever been – and in education those are very different things.