If you could give any Christmas present as a gift to teachers, what would you choose?
It has become a tradition each year for me to blog about my Christmas wish list, then turn the blog into a video call-to-arms as such for the year ahead. Last year, I wrote specifically about issues outside of our control and not much has changed, although we have seen the birth of the Chartered College of Teaching and the publication of the EBacc report.
I write to you so that you can pass this message on to every teacher, in every pocket of the U.K. I’d like teachers to start making the changes we yearn for, rather than rely on policy-makers. Over the past three months, I’ve had the privilege of working ~2,675 teachers; almost 15 times the total number of colleagues I have worked with over the past 24 years. It has been a fascinating experience and in my teacher-training role, I have already visited 21 schools in 4 countries, leading 50+ training events. During each session, whether working with teachers or senior leaders, I survey the audience using Poll Everywhere to gauge the mood of each sector, reporting the same workload issue time and time again (example here). I suspect more school leaders will read this post than the other 50% reported who have not read this national publication!
I hope you can make my wish-list come true.
School leaders must start to determine the agenda in our schools. I’m not saying that the responsibility lies only with school leaders – we still have rogue inspectors visiting our schools making binary decisions, fuelled by their bias or the things that they should not do. This aside, it is my conclusion, having conducted tens and tens of work sample scrutinies over the past decade, that book-looks are dangerous and unreliable.
We must change the dialogue. This notion that we can determine a child’s progress from an exercise book. Of course, looking at a book gives us a picture, but so does ‘looking at’ a lesson without grading it. However, I fear we may still be stuck on the ‘looking for’ methodology when we make an assessment of students and teachers from the work that is in the book (or not). We still wait for the evidence …
I have outlined three key solutions to reduce the marking frenzy.
A. Marking Frequency
I would like to see every school move away from a marking policy to a feedback policy. More importantly, for every school to remove a particular frequency of marking and in its place, promote marking that is proportionate to curriculum time, where marking is regular – and in whatever form, written or verbal – and always considers marking episodes that are meaningful and motivational for the student, and manageable for the teacher. If marking fails to do those three things, then you are not marking for impact. You are simply marking for observer purposes and compliance.
B. Coloured Pens
I understand the need to use various coloured pens to make marking and feedback more accessible between teacher and student, but as soon as this notion is applied for evidencing and observational purposes, again, schools have lost the purpose of marking. Worse, teachers are beaten over the heads and placed under capability and/or increased pressure to mark and mark and mark. Forget the purple pen of progress, forget the Yellow Box. Just mark with meaning and use whatever utensil you like, as long as it adds value to the learner and leaves them with more work to do than you.
C. Graded Work Scrutinies
For over 10 years, I have conducted all various types of the book scrutiny to get a sense of what is going on in classrooms in departments. Despite my best efforts to train people and reduce in-house variation, many if not all, have been conducted without reliability when the net is widened and others are involved in the process. Sadly, like anything we do in schools, a process is only as reliable as the people who use it. And guess what? Humans make mistakes, particularly busy people.
Looking in student books is only useful if a) the student and teacher is also involved in the conversation with the observer b) prior data is included and the book is not looked at in isolation and c) that the observer is either a subject expert and knows the student, or is not making an assessment of the quality of work, but is rather just looking at. I have heard more and more examples of Multi Academy Trusts who are replacing grading lessons with graded work scrutinies instead. In worst cases, this is happening to teachers once a half-term.
Jury: If your school does any of the above, it’s not a school I’d like to teach in.
Some folk think performance related pay will solve the recruitment crisis. When I quoted this at a recent training event to 200 school leaders, there was a ‘chuckle’ in the room.
We are far away from the solution to this evolving debate; “pay for performance either hurts or promotes personal efforts” says Dr. Gary Jones. Deputy headteacher Alex Quigley (The Problem With Judging Teacher Performance) is also raising the profile that appraisal is a flawed process. In Search Of Research: Mathematical Intimidation is my take on the notion that appraisal is nonsense, and this after 10 years of leading whole-school appraisal for over 600 colleagues. I can only apologise. In my post, I argue that performance appraisal does not lead to teacher improvement. It leads to better evidence-gatherers and box-tickers.
We need to move away from the notion …
Schools, Multi Academy Trusts and local authorities have little idea whether their value-added schools have been calculated correctly … accepting that the termination of their jobs or the closure of the schools is a fair decision based on solid analyses. Research suggests (ASA, 2014) only about 1 to 14% offer educational outcome can be attributed to schools e.g. teacher effect. However, there are still many other factors, such as class sizes, resources and school budgets that can influence a teacher’s impact. The remaining 86 to 99% out-of-school factors are outside the control of teachers and schools. (Coleman et al, 1966)
Jury: I would be happy to work in a school who is considering moving appraisal toward a research-enquiry process.
5. Graded Lessons
This is old news, but it still needs a mention. According to the latest polls, 45% of schools in England Wales still grade lessons.
Using OfSTED / Estyn criteria, if a lesson is judged ‘Outstanding’ by one mentor/observer, research suggests that the probability that a second person would give a different judgement is between 51% and 78%. (Measures of Effective Teaching Project). In other words, as Professor Robert Coe writes from CEM, “if your lesson is judged ‘Outstanding’, do whatever you can to avoid getting a second opinion: three times out of four you would be downgraded. If your lesson is judged ‘Inadequate’ there is a 90% chance that a second observer would give a different rating”.
The research is clear on this – if your school is grading teachers (or the teaching – same thing) in one-off lessons or over time, then you are simply ignoring the evidence and simply choosing to beat teachers over the head with a stick.
Jury: If your school still grades lessons, it’s not only a school I wouldn’t teach in, I’d be reluctant to visit.
Only last week, I worked with two teachers in Hull – on very specific coaching criteria – and at the end of the process, they both were overwhelmed with its simplicity and its potential impact. Coaching transforms teachers. It empowers them and is the perfect whole-school ingredient for those who have moved on from graded lessons. It costs, but it may help resolve our retention crisis. If you are looking for a genuine attempt to replace a summative assessment of teaching with a formative model to genuinely improve what is going on in the classroom, coaching is for you.
Jury: I’d submit an application to work with you!
7. External Accountability
I couldn’t write this wish list Father Christmas without having one section written about OfSTED and the damage it has caused over the past 25 years. Why do teachers celebrate OfSTED inspections? Statistics report that approximately 11% of all schools in England are graded ‘Inadequate’ or ‘Requires Improvement’. According to the School Workforce Census, there are ½ million teachers in England. If my maths are correct, this means 50,000 teachers are working in very challenging circumstances. Having spent most of my career working in this type of institution, I know directly how tough this can be to turn up every single day, motivated to teach in challenging circumstances. It’s rewarding, but you do put your career and wellbeing at risk.
The situation is not helped by the current inspectorate. Work in an Outstanding school and you will get a badge, then a ‘pat on the back’ in recognition of all the hard work that your colleagues have done. However, what we fail to realise when one celebrates, is that this further isolates those who working in schools who may never, ever, see such an accolade.
I’m currently reading The End of Average and it is a very provocative book. It challenges the notion that we cannot make an average assessment of what we consider to be good, or cite a normal benchmark. If we celebrate our outstanding achievements, what we are essentially doing, is ‘waving at all the other teachers on the lower rungs of the ladder’, those who are working in more difficult circumstances. Every school has its challenges, but our current inspectorate’s definition of ‘Good’ is not a possible outcome for some.
Jury: If you are in a position to ignore OfSTED, I’d submit an application to work with you – however, we both know it is not a level playing field and the table can turn at any time …
Wishing you and your school the very best for 2018 – let’s get rid of some of this nonsense – it’s so easy to do!
As Donald Trump once said,