The Universal Panacea? The number one shift in UK education I wish to see in my lifetime

3-ages-of-manMany of the blog posts submitted for this project have dealt with the subject of fear and, I suppose, at its heart, so does mine. But mine comes in the form of a question directed at all of us. Teachers, Department leaders, school management teams, local authority councillors, Government ministers. When it comes to creating better education systems, what exactly are we afraid of? This post will try and explain myself but, for the kick off I would say that the number one shift in UK education I wish to see in my lifetime would be an end to the hierarchy which creates the conditions of fear. Deep breath. Here goes.

Our politicians don’t really care about schools. Regardless of political persuasion or who is in power at the moment – I teach in Scotland – Education has only ever been a tricky political football. Unlike any other policy though, it is the one on which, along with the NHS probably, everyone has an opinion. Everyone sits at the back of a classroom at some point in their lifetime. Even politicians sat at the back of your room scratching their arses and picking their noses at one point or another. So we all have an opinion and politicians, more than anyone, know how emotive a subject it is. When it is going well they celebrate their wonderful policies. When it goes badly they pass the buck, blaming local authority leadership or, in collusion with the media, pile scorn on the teachers whose results just ain’t good enough for the money they are paid. All fuelled by fear of the ballot box.

Please work with Local Authorities, all Local Authorities, to make the system better. When it goes badly then don’t blame, step up. It’s your responsibility too.

But that doesn’t happen. Budgets are handed down – and I use the word ‘down’ deliberately – to Local Authorities. There are some great ones in Scotland. Supportive, inclusive, collaborative. Then there are others. Belt tightening policies hit schools all the time. Quicker to speak up against teachers. Quicker to strangle ICT access through fear of litigation. Quicker to preserve the status quo through fear of change. Now this is surprising because when schools shine, which they often do, there is no shortage of local councillors tying up the Nike trainers in order to get down to school quick enough for the photo op. If we are to reach our potential in schools then we need to be fully supported in our local community for the simple reason that our children deserve it. They are the children of constituents and future voters. Local authorities need to take a more long term view of education. Stop being afraid of the ballot box.

Please work with schools, all schools, to make the system better. When it goes badly then don’t blame, step up. It’s your responsibility too.

Then the hierarchy moves down to schools and school leadership. An almost impossible job, right? Possibly, and I do, genuinely, have huge sympathy at times for management teams. There are so many ridiculous factors which they have to deal with when running a large organisation. They have large teams of teachers to manage, huge swathes of children to oversee. But too often they are afraid of the same thing local authority is afraid of. The parental phone call. The suggestion that someone tried something new in class and little Tommy didn’t like it. As a result, management becomes more important than leadership. It is good that things never change because it is easier to manage.
Schools need more freedom to make local decisions and, rather than worry about permissions and worry about repercussions, need support from above. Change is slow enough. Allow teachers to change when they see fit without fear. The famous criticism of Henry Ford was that he desired conformity so much – in workers, in product – that when he needed creativity and innovation his workers had forgotten how to. There is a very real danger that staff in school simply stop bothering to be innovative because it is too much bother. Don’t let that happen.

Please work with teachers, all teachers, to make the system better. When it goes badly then don’t blame, step up. It’s your responsibility too.

Near the bottom of the heap, we find teachers. Those above often forget that the classroom is where everything happens or at least starts. The frontline. The teacher relationship with the students is the key factor in education. However, too many of us accept mediocrity and the ‘good enough’ in our classrooms. Sorry. I know that is controversial and I’m not necessarily speaking of you, the reader, but we all know it is true in classrooms in every school. Yes, management need to create the conditions under which we can all flourish and work to our maximum but we also need every teacher to want to change. To stop being afraid of changing practice. To stop refusing to accept that change is needed. In Scotland we are undergoing the greatest curricular change in my career. There will be no more big changes., It is a rocky road but change is happening. All teachers need to get that. It is our job. Our responsibility.

Please work with children, all children, to make the system better. When it goes badly then don’t blame, step up. It’s your responsibility too.

Children come at the bottom of this hierarchy. Those who should benefit most from this system come last. Think about that for a moment. Of course there are exceptions to every rule. But, in my experience, very often what is best for the education of the child is not the top priority.

Effective learning and teaching should be at the top of every priority list in schools. Which means that from top to bottom, bottom to top, everyone needs to ensure that we are creating the best conditions for learning and teaching. Anything or anyone that gets in the way of that needs to be told. Stop being afraid. Let’s start telling them.

A Quick Feedback Strategy

If we’re not giving students feedback on their learning then, frankly, what in God’s good name are we doing? There is nothing else which should have a higher priority in your teaching.

David Didau – The Learning Spy

David’s comment from a recent blog post inspired me to think more carefully about feedback. His blog sets a standard for the rest of us, I think, because he makes us feel uncomfortable about our own practice, the mark of a true leader of learning. Coupled with an unhealthy period of time watching Dylan Wiliam keynotes on you tube – a man who looks more like a Bond villain than anyone I’ve seen – I came to realise that, yes, more than anything, feeding back is the key to everything we do. And I’m never convinced that I’m doing enough of it.


I took this idea from ‘Embedded Formative Assessment’, the best book on the subject I have yet to read, and I’ve read a few. My S1 class of twelve-year olds have been working on similes and mastering the apostrophe recently and I wanted to assess their progress. They undertook a small Writers’ Craft exercise where they had to recognise features of a writer’s style and continue the story in the same vein. All well and good. Some simple success criteria allowed them to peer and self-assess before handing completed work to me. So that was Friday.

Marking on Sunday involved something completely different for me. Anonymous feedback. It has become very clear to me that when you give a grade for something then the learning in the task ends. It is also sometimes difficult to get the students to read, or at least pay much lip service, to comments. This strategy attempts to address that.

I wrote nothing on the papers but on a prepared grid, I bullet-pointed five comments linked to each paper. In them, I commented on success criteria, whether achieved to not, along with a little hint towards something specific to their writing. e.g. ‘This was a great name for the character’, or, ‘you used two very effective similes here.’

Screen Shot 2013-01-23 at 20.41.54

In the follow up session, I handed out papers with nothing on them but also gave four anonymous grids. Groups had to read all comments and decide which comment was linked to which paper. This meant they had to read the comments and had to find areas of weakness – or strength – in their own writing. The discussion they had and the disagreements at times were the most effective learning experiences in the whole task.

Students then took that feedback and began to rewrite their stories. What was clear was that the learning comes through the discussion and the targeting of criteria. The end product is very often not especially important in terms of learning but the process of mastering the skills seems to develop more through discussion and collaboration. I’m really impressed with the results. Not the stories but their new approaches to reading comments. And maybe I’m getting more of a handle on genuine feedback which works.

Setting by Ability – Why?

If you read my blog regularly, it may not surprise you to read that I have always been against setting and grouping by ability. For one, it never is truly by ability but by a set of attainment or exam results which cannot be a completely accurate judge of a child’s ability. For another, in thirteen years of teaching I have never seen any evidence of setting achieving what I’m constantly told it is meant to achieve.

In ‘Grouping pupils by ability in schools’ by Ed Baines, another essay in ‘Bad Education. Debunking Myths in Education’, the writer tries to make the case that setting is done for all of the wrong reasons and, in some circumstances, can be detrimental to the education of some. Ability grouping is the most common form of setting in Secondary schools in the UK. It seems to be accepted – and here I can only talk about my own experiences – that it is ‘best’ for all kids as we can focus on individual needs more appropriately if there is less of a disparity in ability in one class. The data doesn’t seem to back that up.

What Ed Baines has found is that, in the higher ability groups, overall average effect seems to be negligible. There is evidence of slight improvements in some cases – when a curriculum is specifically designed for that ability group –  but more often than not there is very little or no effect. In some circumstances the pace of curriculum coverage can cause some students to fall back in higher ability groups.

In lower ability groups, setting can prove disastrous. The pace of work drops as it is believed that lessons need to be more structured and repetitive for lower ability groups to function. This breeds boredom and disengagement at a time when creativity and inspiration is needed more than ever. Add to this the removal of the advantages of working with those who are more able and you can see who gets the bad deal here. It doesn’t help that, as Baines found in his research:

‘… schools may tend to allocate the most knowledgeable and experienced teachers to the high ability groups and the less knowledgeable or experienced teachers to the low ability and difficult classes.’

Which, when you consider that the main argument for setting is to give everyone the best opportunities, seems to be self-defeating in the extreme.  What appears to happen in these less able groups is that a culture of negativity towards learning flourishes, entrenching social divisions and low expectations in both students and teachers.

The more successful setting by ability seems to happen with ‘Within Class Ability Groups’, which is rare in Secondary school but very prominent in Primary. The ability to differentiate group tasks with the advantage of changing to mixed ability peer groups seems to be the most successful model.

So, in the face of this evidence and very little which proves the opposite, why do we do it? Politicians argue that this is what the better off parents want. The old Private school argument without the cash. We want our kids to be removed from bad influence. It possibly makes teaching and planning for teaching easier for teachers. It seems vital that school leaders are seen to be addressing these issues and, on paper, setting seems to make sense.

However, Ed Baines argues, the evidence suggests that, educationally, it doesn’t work. There may well be evidence to the contrary but we at least need to be having a mature conversation about why we persist with it in most Secondary schools.

No Such Thing as a Bad School

‘It would be tempting to conclude that any school in which every student gets five good GCSE grades must be a very good school indeed, and any school where four out of five students fail to do so must be a very bad school, but as we shall see, things are not quite so simple.’

                         Dylan Wiliam ‘ Are there ‘Good’ schools and ‘Bad’ schools?’

Reading ‘Bad Education -Debunking Myths in Education’, edited by Philip Adey and Justin Dillon,  this week, I became increasingly aware that my highlighter had gone into overload. This well-researched and levelheaded book attempts to address some issues in education doing exactly what it says it will. Debunking myths like class size, learning styles and grouping by ability. Regardless of your stance on any of these issues, and more, I heartily recommend it.

bad education

The highlighter suggested to me that I might want to address some of these issues here on the blog. Dylan Wiliam’s essay entitled ‘Are there ‘Good’ Schools and ‘Bad’ Schools?’ is the opening chapter. In it, he claims that there is no real thing as a bad school. It might seem strange, especially to some of our national media, that this is the case. We hear stories of nightmare schools, those who still appear lower down the ‘league tables’, which, allegedly, don’t exist in Scotland any more. But every year at exam time the same news programmes turn up at the same schools to publicise the best exam results. But what exactly are they best at? Educating? Having the best teachers? Hmmm. Something about that doesn’t seem right.

The reality is somewhat different, however. What Dylan Wiliam says is that, according to the data, there is very little difference in any schools, even those in the private sector. In fact:

‘… controlling for the social class of the students, students in state schools and private schools in the UK perform about the same…’ Dylan Wiliam

The data suggests that schools are more or less the same all over and that it doesn’t really matter which school you go to as long as you go to school. In terms of progress, there is little difference.

So, instead of measuring the number of A’s our students get we should be looking solely at the progress they are making. The only factor we should be really addressing is the learning they are doing rather than the best grades overall. But that’s difficult isn’t it? Progress isn’t a good media story. Five Higher A’s is a great story.

So how might this knowledge change the way the public thinks about our schools? How might this change the way HMI in Scotland, and OFSTED in England, report on our schools? How might we begin to change the reputation of so-called ‘bad schools’ and remove the label? Bad press like this means that schools can, due to placing requests, become tainted by reputation; morale amongst staff drops and it becomes difficult to turn that around. And it’s all based on a lie.

So when we either look on enviously at others with a good OFSTED or HMI report- or look down at them –  what are we really doing? Is the grass ever greener on either side? What should the Inspectorate be for? They should be the experts who help us get better not tell us we’re not good enough. If we, as teachers, have any worth, then we already know we need to be better. It’s like the old story of the stand up comic who wants to now how his act can be improved. ‘Well, you need to be funnier.’

For me Dylan Wiliam’s essay confirms the notion that blaming the kids or the school or the management is really a waste of my time. All I can really do is teach better. Every day.

Blogging – A Message in a Bottle

‘To write…is like putting a message in a bottle and tossing it into the sea: its destination is uncertain.’ Gabrial Zaid

One of my abiding memories of the school holidays when I was a child was watching on old TV show in black and white, ‘Robinson Crusoe’. The programme had a very distinctive title tune (see below) and seemed to have about a million episodes. The poor sod was never getting off that island. Later in life, my friends and I used to hum that tune loudly whenever one of us returned from a particularly unsuccessful sojourn to the nightclub dance floor. (see last post for more.)

Anyway, I digress. My blog has been in existence for two years now. I enjoy writing it. I enjoy writing. I enjoy the nice comments people leave through twitter and the blog itself. What I don’t particularly enjoy is anything negative that comes my way. I’m only human. However, I’m not perfect, my blog posts are never perfect, and, suffice to say, I am aware that writing a blog involves some level of self-promotion, along with the thoughts and ideas I like to share, so I develop a thick skin.

Once your writing is out there, then it’s out there and people are entitled to take what they want from it. They might completely misinterpret what you’re trying to say, might quote you completely out of context, might even choose one line which fits their own beliefs. The problem is, as soon as you press publish, like Robinson Crusoe and his message in a bottle, there is little you can do about that. Turn off your comment access? Quit Twitter? You could. But you’d be cutting your nose off to spite your face. Best to brush yourself off and start all over again.

There is a pattern with blogging, I think. You start off on a wave of good publicity as your fresh ideas come pouring out. The things you’ve always wanted to say and have formulated in your mind for ages come flooding onto the page. Then, when those initial posts have dried up, you try to think about what to say next. The danger is, now that you like the nice comments, you go looking for nice comments. Big mistake. Your blog will come across as insincere, affected and contrived. If you’ve nothing to say leave it for a while. Otherwise write like no-no-one’s reading it. It’s the only way. And, if people don’t like what you’ve written, at least you’ve started a conversation.

Blogging and Twitter are just microcosms of real life. No matter how hard you try to avoid people you will not get on with, they will always be there. Get over it. Be honest in your writing. You won’t always get it right. And not everyone is your pal.
As Jane Austen said: ‘I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.’

Just throw your bottle out there. See what happens.