7 Deadly School Sins

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In 2010, Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit from a simple Twitter account through which he rapidly became the 'most followed teacher on social media in the UK'. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday...
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What if schools could work more effectively?

In some schools, something is not quite right, and based upon the countless messages I receive via social media, I’ve had a go at naming some of these things that have no impact on learning.

These are the 7 greatest sins – starting with the most severe – taking place in some English schools today. I write them with the hope that they will be exposed and isolated over time.

7. Evidence and Progress

The two terms blighting our profession today – ‘evidence’ and ‘progress’. Last week, as part of my work with the NAHT Accountability Commission, we looked at new NFER research on accountability systems across the globe. What was fascinating, was that other OECD jurisdictions who are often cited by our politicians as performing better, are doing less with assessment and school evaluation when compared against others (i.e. England who is doing more)! Countries such as Japan and Singapore – who ranked relatively high in PISA tables – have external evaluation, yet choose not to publish inspection outcomes.

We seem to developed a position within England, that state school teachers have to backtrack and evidence all the work that they have done throughout the year. This is to justify performance related pay decisions or worse, to prove to external visitors ‘what they have been doing’ for someone who may visit their classroom for 20 or 30 minutes. What a mess we’ve got ourselves into! Teachers speaking with students in class is evidence, and a student will then act on this and make immediate progress. The problem is, that moment may not be directed linked to the final data capture, plus an observer will have missed that eureka moment in that one lesson.

Instead, all schools have a duty to disseminate the latest research with teachers as part of their working terms and conditions. Can learning be observed? Is data a reliable measure of student progress? Tune in next month to learn more about my Verbal Feedback research project with UCL.

6. Marking

Over the last nine months, it has become blindingly obvious in the I schools I have worked with across the U.K., that in every single school and regardless of context, teachers are struggling under the marking frenzy. Whether this is due to perceptions of effectiveness or demands from elsewhere is yet to be evaluated. It is my belief, that even if a school has a zero marking or homework policy, the best intentions are trumped by external forces. For example, parental expectations or exam board regulations.

Any school can make matters worse, by insisting that every teacher marks using a specific coloured pen and requires teachers marking [insert X number of times] every [insert X period of time] to prove support consistency. As soon as that happens, a teacher’s workload shifts from ‘how effective the feedback is’, towards ‘what colour pen’ one should use and ‘how often one should mark’; engineered to keep senior leadership pressure off. The problem is exacerbated by work scrutinies where school leaders try every possibility to monitor consistency and quality – an impossible ask because we often observe teaching and learning and go fishing without the bait.

If we are still trying to achieve and understand what effective feedback is and what has the greatest impact on learning, then what hope is there for parents? Instead, we need to dramatically reduce marking commitments in every school. More importantly, we must communicate to parents what we are not marking and why.

5. Data

We have become so obsessed with data within our profession, that teachers are potentially making up to 64,000 data calculations every academic year. In more extreme examples, Multi Academy Trusts are ranking their schools across the trust in a bid to raise standards by department / subject. Can you imagine being ranked lowest for performance if you were a head of science in a secondary school? You may be performing better than other core subjects in your school, but ranked (by subject performance) in the lower quintile when compared against another 20-40 schools in your subject, across the organisation.

P45 anyone?

It’s an easy sound byte to say you’re “not data-driven” when your school is in a good position (according to the latest league table measures), even though every teacher knows that teaching and learning is so much more than just a number. MAT leaders who are ranking schools, perhaps inspecting them on top of OfSTED, could be fuelling the retention crisis and teacher mental health in return for a rosy appearance at the top of a league table. This apparent success in turn secures more pupils and funding – and so the cycle continues. Value added measures give a false perception of teacher and student performance. If we stopped relying on them, policy makers and MAT leaders may feel that they have lost control, but what would actually happen, is the burden and cost would be reduced if moved to a local level.

Instead, strip back data duplication. Collect less and as a result, it will become more accurate and meaningful.

4. Appraisal

Can you imagine working towards a ‘be ready for OfSTED’ appraisal target? I can … and I suspect 1,000s of other teachers have too. We simply need to ask ‘does performance related pay make you a better teacher?‘ and consider if appraisal actually improves learning, or teachers who are really good at evidence-gathering to prove their worth. It is a well-cited statistic, that “teachers offer about 1 to 14% impact on educational outcomes – which can be attributed to schools – when the other 85% are attributed to factors outside of our control.” Yet, teachers are judged by 100% of the outcomes.

Using data for an individual teacher’s performance is simply mathematical intimidation. Why? Well, there’s another group of teachers who are also impacting on the student as well. Graham Nuthall sums up the problems with ‘assessment of students’ in his research

Someone has taken his only pen away from the class clown. Its being passed around behind his back so that every time he thinks he’s worked out where it is, he gets it wrong. Most of the class who know what’s going on can barely restrain themselves from bursting into uncontrolled giggles. The teacher thinks they are smiling in appreciation at something she has just said that she thought was really quite clever.

In a minute or two, she will gather up the test papers and send them off to get scored, some covered in doodles, some, like the class clown’s, largely blank. These scores will be entered into machines where they will be transformed in complex and sophisticated graphs and tables that politicians and newspaper editors will use to berate and praise – you know that story.

Instead, schools should develop a research line of enquiry to develop themselves and the school. For example, why does every classroom have a ‘class clown’ and what impact does this have on overall school performance? I’ll be sharing a document on this site later in the summer – schools will be able to download and adapt.

3. Lesson Planning

Should teachers write detailed lesson plans? Well, quite frankly no! How on earth can we expect a teacher to write documents for 800 hours of teaching each academic year? Yet, even if we do not wish our teachers to do this day-to-day, we somehow expect them to demonstrate the same paperwork trail for observations, appraisal or when external visitors visit the classroom. Something entirely abnormal from day-to-day classroom work.

Every teacher should be able to plan a lesson effectively, and there is nothing wrong with a school or line manager testing this, but what and how we expect lessons to be planned shouldn’t necessarily have to be written on paper. There will be countless Initial Teacher Training providers who are unaware of the latest OfSTED guidance: trainee teachers no-longer need to submit detailed lesson plans for observed lessons – and for inspections. Thank goodness! Gone are the days of producing something entirely abnormal to appease a visitor into your classroom.

Instead, train teachers in the art of lesson planning and adapting to meet the needs of students; this does not mean a paper exercise.

2. Teaching and Learning

Gosh. Where to start here?! Let’s keep it simple. If your headteacher is choosing to grade teachers in lesson observations, in one-off lessons or over time, they are simply ignoring the research and are choosing to keep teachers on their toes – or, put more bluntly, to beat teachers over the head. If a lesson is judged ‘Outstanding’ by one mentor/observer, research suggests (Measures of Effective Teaching Project) that the probability that a second person would give a different judgement is between 51% and 78%.

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”.

Instead, all schools should look to nurture a coaching culture and place teachers at the heart of classroom performance.

1. MockSTED

Jee-whizz! The worst punishment a headteacher can offer their own workforce. Part of me can sympathise – especially when the data is against you – but I don’t think I would ever advocate a monitoring check on an entire school workforce as a) a litmus test and b) to keep people busy. As if teachers aren’t busy enough?!

How could we develop a less-threatening, more supportive process to inform future actions for everyone, rather than just what the leadership team will self-evaluate when ‘it’s OfSTED turn‘.

Instead, conduct departmental reviews that are regular and in-house, with the occasional external pair of eyes who is a subject specialist. Read an example department diagnosis.

When did we allow ourselves to get into such a mess? What if we valued schools and their work in different way? What if we placed teacher retention and student mental-health as a more valuable outcome than exam performance, could politicians, parents, teachers and students work more effectively? What do you think?

12 thoughts on “7 Deadly School Sins

  1. Very well said, these sins are the reasons that most teachers struggle with workload and ultimately leave the profession. As newer generations of head teachers and leaders come through we can only hope they share the same vision as you. I’m a middle leader and getting some of these processes reduced is hard work! Thanks.

    1. It is incredibly hard work – especially when external accountability pressures predict a school to be in decline – when we know schools are so much more than data. It’s a difficult ask for school leaders to do the things we believe in, versus the evaluation and scrutiny that we know schools use to evidence for external validation.

  2. I am a HLTA, I teach English! I mark in 3 colours and have to imput tracking data… there is something seriously wrong here

  3. I know for certain that this is not just isolated to England. Wales is in a big huge downward spiral also and all of the “sins” identified go on here too.

  4. That’s interesting. I’ve worked with a number of schools and school leaders and I know much of what is here is also true. My heart was warmed by the recent recommendations by Donaldson to Estyn. Wonder if any of the 34 recommendations will happen?

  5. All of these things have changed teaching from being a worthwhile enjoyable profession to being an unenjoyable exhausting waste of time. We have lost the most important thing and that is effective teaching of young people. None of these Sins support this. When will management wake up to this? If teachers are too exhausted to teach in the classroom how will our young people thrive. If our teachers are mentally exhausted how can they help with the wellbeing of our charges. After 17 years of loving my job, I decided, with great sadness, to leave the profession. Hopefully things will get better for the new generation of teachers.

  6. I did 10 kesson plans for my PGCE, then none for 16 years until I moved to England. The Sins above certainly destoyed my love of teaching. However, fortunately my job has changed to wholly outreach so still lots of paperwork, but definitley less stress and fewer hours (when I time manage properly

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