Category Archives: Epic Post

Notes from #mathsconf6 – 10 things to take away

We like lists because we don’t want to die.

Umberto Eco

Hello all. Instead of writing a comprehensive report on the goings on at the latest #mathsconf in Peterborough this weekend, I’ve decided for reasons of efficiency, saving time and my sanity, to boil my findings down to the 10 things that had most of an impact on my thoughts. Hopefully you’ll find this just as useful, if not more so!

As Wikipedia showed, people are willing to share their knowledge and insight for the greater good, in their own time, without being paid.

I do not have any grudge against people who charge for sharing their time. Our profession has ever increasing demands on our time, and so whatever we can offer, and yet hundreds of people showed up on Saturday to learn about, share ideas on and celebrate the teaching of our subject. You cannot argue against this idea, and I want to personally thank everyone involved for all of their contributions – particularly the speakers and La Salle for putting everything together, but also people like Rob Smith (aka @rjs2122) who ran the tuck shop and the raffle without any expectation.

What can be seen as ‘traditional’ should carry no less weight for being so.

Andrew Taylor’s opening speech had much of what could be seen as ‘old school’ thought that unsurprisingly still holds consideration presently:

  • The Cockcroft report stating that we should not believe that it is fair for students to be entered for an assessment where they can only attempt a third of the Mathematics covered in the paper (he was talking about the CSE then, never mind the new GCSE).
  • The influence of SMP – developing and nuturing coherent approaches and pedagogy, not just resources and CPD; bringing users together; creating a curriculum model that drove assessment, not the other way round.
  • The example of leadership in Mathematics as a way to create opportunities for staff, understanding that good Maths teachers are rare and valuable, and that they should exercise that potential power.
  • The adage “whatever management tells you to do, don’t do it unless it helps students” – can this be argued with?
  • Nobody gets clever by sitting an exam: we have to understand the purpose, timing and assessment framework when putting together tests so that they are right and proper for the stage of a student’s learning – interestingly, Taylor stated that “teaching to the test is the right thing to do if the assessment is purposeful in it’s aims”. We can argue either way if the new GCSE is purposeful or not – but that is not a troubling thought taken out of present context.

There is still a place for intellectual approaches in the leadership and management of departments.

Ben Ward (aka @MrBenWard) and I took the stage in the first group of sessions to talk about data. Whilst I looked more at the practical opportunities to record, monitor and analyse data, Ben made connections to the wider running of a department and links to school leadership. One point that was made in our talk is that data in itself is not the end – it is the means to help make decisions, and widely, part of a set of tools in the case for forming arguments, i.e. the use of ethos, pathos and logos to form a rhetorical case.

  • Ethos in terms of appealing to authority – i.e. in the case of your teachers, using their professionalism to come to a conclusion of where to take a group of students forward to improve their understanding. In terms of management, demonstrating that you have a clear handle on the progress of students and what it is that needs to be focused on to make the greatest difference;
  • Pathos in terms of appealing to emotion – how do you get your staff to own and care about their data? By helping them see the bigger picture and how thought and planning on their part will not just impact on the life chances of those in their care, but also for them to see the contribution their efforts make on the greater performance of the department;
  • Logos in terms of appealing to the facts – gut feeling and hearsay is not enough. By providing objectivity to what are often subjective arguments, effort can be targeted more properly and in a more structure fashion.

Cynics may say that you should not have to persuade staff to take a course of action based on data – that staff should have the freedom to make their own decisions because they are professionals. I would retort with that idea that it is because they are professionals that they should use every scrap of evidence and support to help the make better judgements about their planning and interventions.

Some people think that the designing of questions and a marking policy is a complex process, but I can assure you it’s even more complex than that.

Ben Stafford gave a wonderful insight into how assessments are written and the level of detail that goes into getting a question right. I discovered some insights that I will take away when writing questions to test student understanding:

  • Ask questions that are unfamiliar – are you truly testing students if it’s completely obvious what they’re being asked to do?
  • Front load information, and ensure it’s laid out in a way that anything key doesn’t lack clarity.
  • Do give a clue to how students should answer.
  • Remember that in assessments parts of questions are independent of each other – if students can’t answer part a) of a question that should not prevent them from answering part b).
  • Avoid the need for students to assume a line of thinking. Set out the parameters of the question carefully, thinking about the language you use. Use as few words as possible, but enough for a student to understand what the question is asking.

There was also the argument regards reliability and validity. If you test enough students, you’ll get a statistically reliable result. But is it valid? Where you are giving marks for partially correct questions there has to be a level of structure in the mark scheme for validation to occur.

Even in an arena without politics, some people can still pursue an agenda.

I can appreciate why someone might ask about how one caters for EAL students in assessments. But Ben’s talk was not the right time, not was it the right stage or environment. There are lots of questions to be answered in that regard, but it was unfair to put Ben on the spot.

Don’t overthink things.

Well done to Megan Guinan for completing the Pringles Challenge! She passed on her know-how to her family – and look what happenedtwice!

Optimise the amount of questions you ask to get student to an objective, rather than bombarding them with practice.

I am a great fan of Craig Jeavons‘ work – practical, easy to follow ideas that can be implemented very quickly. As well as reiterating principles laid out by the likes of Bruno Reddy on working on the right foundations, building a culture for learning in your classroom, he also talked about how with whatever concepts you want to bring to your teaching – don’t go in all guns blazing. In relation to problem solving, ensure your students have good number sense, and an understanding of proportion. Incrementally develop problem solving as part of your day-to-day practice, and then don’t be afraid to start going ‘off piste’ or leaving things ‘open ended’.

I took one thing away from Craig’s talk that we are already looking at developing in our teaching practice in my department: the idea of “if I only had five questions to get students to the objective I want them to achieve, what would they be?”. I often worry with students that they can labour too long on the easier, rote elements of an exercise and not face challenge much earlier.

Through the use of minimally different examples, moving from one question to another with only one or two elements of procedural variation, you can actually get student from a low level of entry on an exercise to something quite complicated rather quickly. Tieing this in with proper review time that takes students through these five key questions, I do feel one can get students to be dealing with more contextual problems much quicker.

Some teachers and departmental leads are not responding to very public discussions and information sharing.

I was rubbing my hands at the thought of Eddie from OCR, Graham from Pearson and Andrew from AQA going toe-to-toe in front of a baying crowd. I’m only joking, but I was looking forward to some real insight cued up by some thoughtful questions. Unfortunately a large chunk of the talk was given up to answering the questions “what do the new grades look like” and “do you have an assessment package to support the grading of students”. I mean, COME ON. Have you been living under a rock? We’ve known the answers for a long time now. There are no, and have never been any ‘graded topics’. The grade descriptors given by the DfE are deliberately vague. As for assessment packages – the exam boards have been incredibly open around how they are as much in the dark as we are. They have sample assessment materials and supporting documentation to try and help guide us – but nobody truly has all the answers. All they can do is advise.

The decision to be made about GCSE tiers has been simplified somewhat.

I did baulk a little at the question “please can we have guidance on tiers?” – but gratefully we had something proper to take away from those who need to make such decisions. As I heard it – and I’m welcome to be corrected – the current fallout rate of students taking the higher tier, i.e. getting U – is 1% of entrants. Based on the standards of grading expected for the new GCSE, 10% of students currently getting a grade on higher spec would only get a U.

Also, bearing in mind that there will only be a sixth to a third of questions that students working at around grade 4 to 5 might confidently be able to answer, then asking these students to sit for 4 and a half hours (4 and a half hours!!!) with the confidence only to be able to accumulate at best about 25-30 marks per paper is perhaps placing undue stress on students. The system will still be gamed, don’t get me wrong, but the risks are even greater.

Even for an experienced dog like me, stay hungry.

It never fails to impress me how I can walk out of a conference absolutely buzzing with ideas. I am paying real attention to refreshing my teaching practice at present; all of the workshops that I attended helped my thinking about what I can do to get students a) retain concepts b) improve their problem solving skills and c) be prepared for exams.

I’d like to thank Ben Ward (aka @MrBenWard) for collaborating with me on our workshop on Getting The Most From Your Data – he’s a brilliant example of the modern, informed and proactive department leader, and I absolutely recommend that if you’re not already following him via Twitter then it’s about time you did.

Mark McCourt (aka @EmathsUK) has done a blinding job in launching and continuing the National Mathematics Conferences – I and a lot of people get a great deal out of each and every workshop and long may they continue. I’ll even let him off the fact that he doesn’t follow me on Twitter!

I hope the more concise approach to my notes from #mathsconf is just as enlightening and a little less demanding. Future posts will aim to be just as concise, but with more of a teaching and learning focus from now on. Watch this space!

Building a Mathematics Department: Assessment

“Of course, it is very important to be sober when you take an exam. Many worthwhile careers in the street-cleansing, fruit-picking and subway-guitar-playing industries have been founded on a lack of understanding of this simple fact.”

Terry Pratchett


There’s a bit in The Fib And Other Stories, by George Layton, the final part of the book, where the protagonist is about to take an exam. He’s prepared by revising the history of the Napoleonic Wars, no other preparation. Just the Napoleonic Wars. His teacher isn’t convinced, and as it transpires, the teacher’s lack of faith is justified: there’s nothing on the Napoleonic Wars in the exam.

The whole book is quite melancholic but this bit in particular always strikes me hard. I always remember thinking – even at a very young age – “how was that allowed to happen?”. But then that’s how it was in those days. There was no such thing as accountability, league tables, progress measures and the like. Students went to school, and if they did well, great, and if they didn’t, well that’s just how it was.

Like most things in education, the picture is very different these days. The goalposts haven’t such moved as been shifted to a completely different field, in a different district. Assessment, rightly or wrongly, is the rudder that steers the departmental ship these days. Values, morals, vision etc are all subject to outcomes – the bottom line. Having a clear idea what the bottom line is going to look like is the difference between a department that is celebrated and left to their own devices and one that is heavily scrutinised and brought under the SLT ‘support’ banner.

I want to clarify something. When I talk about assessment, I’m not talking about students taking the GCSE or A-Level exams proper. I’m talking about how teachers obtain clarity over the knowledge, skills and understanding obtained and retained by students, their fluency in the ideas that are required of them to succeed in Mathematics, and their ability to formulate solutions to problems. I’m talking about finding out what students don’t know. I’m not going to get all Rumsfeldian here, but when you don’t know what students don’t know, how are you going to ensure their success?

‘In house’ assessment

In my mind, there are three levels of ‘in house’ assessment. The first is zero-stakes, formative assessment. The second is low-stakes formative assessment. The third is higher-stakes, summative assessment – although this should also be used formatively. Only the latter should be used to determine the progress of a student. Combined, all three levels of assessment should build the picture of the degree of mastery a student has over a topic.

Let’s look at each of these in more detail.

  1. Zero-stakes formative assessment

Simply, this what goes on minute-by-minute in your classroom. Questioning. Mini-whiteboards. Exit tickets. A teacher should be constantly gathering data to inform a) whether students are understanding the concept in hand b) to what degree they understand it and c) how this informs teaching moving forward. Simple in implementation but very effective when done properly.

2. Low-stakes formative assessment

In my department we use regular mini-testing to bookend a block of learning. There’ll be a mixture of questions covering the different ways a topic can be tested, and it forms part of the marking and feedback we give students. No grades are given, just a yes/no judgement against assessment criteria. This is a continuation of what Dani Quinn had put in place, simply because it works. It gives the teacher a stronger picture of the level of understanding a student has acquired. We then have follow up review time to go through the test, addressing key misconceptions and then using DIRT to close any gaps identified. It’s not zero-stakes because the test is done in exam conditions, and we do give some level of judgement on students’ performance. However, it’s low stakes because it doesn’t matter how students perform, they’re given opportunity to close the gap and make progress in that area.

3. High-stakes, summative assessment, used formatively.

It is the nature of the service we are in that we need to get frequent summative judgement of a student’s progress. A test like this should be used to gather an overall understanding of what a students has retained and understood over a longer period of time, ideally around 6 weeks. 6 blocks of assessment every six weeks allows enough time for things to be forgotten and retrieved, whilst frequent enough for a teacher to be responsive to a identified issue, either through lesson planning or intervention. It is imperative that this test is not just on what has been covered in the intervening period – it should cover learning in previous terms, and even previous years, to determine how secure students’ prior learning is.

The teacher, then should be building a topic-level analysis for their class.

Now, David Thomas explained this much better than I ever could. I have my own template that people can use. It’s RAG rated, purely for visualisation purposes, and this is done automatically based on what mark you choose to give for each topic/question. Ultimately, what you’re after is topic and student level analysis.

Topic level analysis determines what you might need to recover or completely re-teach, depending on performance. Don’t forget however, students might have performed particularly well on a topic, but an eye should remain on how students recall these topics over time.

Student level analysis determines with whom you might need to put intervention in place. This might be what you do in the classroom, but more likely time outside of class. Since you have a topic-level analysis rather than a grading, you’ll be able to determine specific interventions rather than trying to affect a too general approach.

But what about grades?

I’m going to say this now. Avoid grading topics. It’s that simple. A Mathematics grade reflects an understanding of an accumulation of topics, rather than particularly being able to provide a solution to a problem at a given standard. Now this is changing, as I’ve alluded to in a previous post, and assessments should reflect that. Grading should only reflect a summation of coverage of a range of topics and questions of varying difficulty.

This goes against what happens in pretty much all other subjects. In English, Humanities and the Creative Arts, you can take a piece of work at a given grade and continually give feedback and development points until it is up to A* standard, potentially. That cannot happen in Mathematics presently. The top grade, be it A*/Grade 9 is given because of that aforementioned aggregate of understanding, not because a student can answer all the A*/Grade 9 questions. It is not the central theme of this blog post about why this is the case.

Pre- and post-teaching assessments

I really like Kris Boulton’s proposal of a pre- and post-teaching assessment. By this I mean the following: before covering simultaneous equations, for example, test what students know about the topic (it might be nothing, which is fine); use this to inform what to teach them, and to what level; test what students now know at the end of this teaching block. It’s powerful in the sense that it clearly identifes progress that students have made, it informs short to medium-term planning, and it fits in the mould of topic-level analysis.

I’m tempted to explore this further myself in the future – Kris shared this in March, and it’s on my ‘projects’ list. I think this methodology could be useful for another reason…

The impact of the teacher

Now, say you’re a head of department and you’re looking at the topic-level analysis. It stands out that all of Y10 have significantly underperformed in, say, using scatter graphs. What does this tell you? Well it might be that the question that is quite tricky, but the likelihood is that you’d identified a gap in your teachers’ subject knowledge too. This could also be the case in questions where the emphasis is on problem solving, presenting a case, analysing statistics, etc.

This is the another facet of the power of building a topic-level analysis: it can indicate what professional development you and your team need in terms of their subject knowledge, teaching and learning of problem solving, etc. If your assessments, and the analysis of them, are frequent enough, you can be responding to this pretty quickly, both in terms of coaching your staff and using this to improve the understanding of your students.

Don’t fear data

Reading the Twittersphere you can get a sense of a backlash against the use of data to inform teaching and learning, because people feel that data ignores ‘the story’ behind students. My viewpoint is this: if your assessment is frequent and detailed enough, you’ll build ‘the story’. If you simply rely on a summative score for a whole range topics, you’ll lose your story of that student, of course. However, we have to be careful that ‘the story’ does not become ‘the excuse’. Students ultimately have to take GCSEs and A-levels and it does no good shielding them from that reality. By working a fine level of detail and identifying the gaps in a student’s knowledge early enough, we can provide them with a range of tools and support that will prevent ‘the story’ taking control of the chance of student’s success.

In summary

There are three levels of assessment. Zero stakes assessment such as questioning and the use of mini-whiteboards should be used to ‘steer’ that lesson and any subsequent teaching. Low stakes assessment should give a quick overview of a student’s understanding of a topic, and time should be given to reflect on that assessment to identify areas for development and act accordingly. High stakes assessment, such as half-termly, termly and yearly testing, will obviously be used to judge the progress of students in terms of a summative grade, but most definitely should be used formatively to further develop the big picture. If used correctly, ‘the big picture’ should not just ‘weigh the pig’, but identify teaching and learning opportunities, intervention priorities and CPD needs for you and your staff.

If you want to know more, I suggest you look into the work of Dylan Wiliam, Kris Boulton, David Thomas, Paul Brambrick-Santoyo and Doug Lemov.

Building a Mathematics Department: Roles and Responsibilities, Part 1

“In dreams begin responsibilities”

W.B. Yeats

So far in this series we’ve looked at analytical and evaluative processes – auditing one’s department and deciding on a vision for where you want your department to go.

Now we start to look at the more decisive actions. In this post, we start to look at how you start delineating the positions you wish your staff to take, and what that means in terms of the activities they should undertake. I’ll warn you, this is a long one…

I’ll be honest. I find this is one of the hardest tasks a departmental lead has to undertake. The fact of the matter is that it is extremely rare that you get chance to appoint the team you want automatically. Even if you get a clean slate and recruit a completely new team, you’ve then got to develop the ethos and culture you want to see in those staff. In some ways it’s easier to mould a pre-existing staff into how you want them to operate. But that takes time.

Stick, twist or burn

In sporting circles, coaches often have a dilemma upon being appointed to a new team. Do you:

  • Maintain the status quo?
  • Restructure the system of play to fit your team?
  • Restructure the team to fit your ideal system of play?

Let’s look at these in more detail.

Maintaining the status quo should only happen if a) the team is already high-performing; b) there is a great deal of personal responsibility taken up by the staff in the team; c) succession planning is in place; d) the team is open to constant development (which seems to go against the concept of ‘status quo’, but I mean this in terms of a value system rather than a resistance to change).

Restructuring your system of play should only happen if a) the team is skilled and (in the past) successful enough to merit that and b) you are confident enough to maintain what was successful in your system and make it fit within a new context.

So, that leaves us with restructuring the team. Now, there are some caveats to this. The first is that how do you know your system of play will be successful in the context you find yourself in? What makes your system better than the one that is already in place? How are you going to implement this system, and what will be the impact on your staff of these changes?

Whichever direction you take, you are going to find yourself in the position of giving someone something to do. So how does this happen?

Four Frames

In Reframing Organizations, Bolman and Deal talk of there being ‘Four Frames’ that a leader views their world, and therefore through how roles and responsibilities should be defined:

The Four Frames are

  • Structural
  • Human Resource
  • Political
  • Symbolic

Time to dig a little deeper:

The Structural Frame is concerned with the tasks, technology and environment that an organisation is concerned with. In other words, your hierarchical structure should match the ultimate aims that your vision outlines. So if data is really important to the vision you are undertaking, you need to have someone in your team who is responsible for the recording and analysis of data. On the flipside, if you think that something is low priority, then it should not form part of someone’s job description.

The Human Resource Frame is concerned with creating a familial group, respectful of individual attributes, qualities and needs. Your department should be tailored so that staff have the opportunity to get a job done whilst feeling good about it, either because they enjoy it or they appreciate its worth. This is hard, but is easier if your team have contributed to, and therefore buy into your vision. Look at the capabilities and needs of your team: you wouldn’t necessarily put an NQT in charge of say, designing assessments; likewise you wouldn’t necessarily ask your most experienced member of staff to organise the stock cupboard (unless they specifically enjoyed doing it, and it was a good use of their time).

The Political Frame is concerned with creating an arena for competition. This is a controversial frame but in my mind an inevitable function of an environment where ambitious people participate. This frame in the past may not have correlated with the teaching profession, however as schools become more business-like it is increasingly important. When you look at your team, ask this question: where is the power concentrated? Is your team egalitarian, or do certain individuals carry clout? If the former, great. If the latter, you need to break that, especially if they do not fit your team’s vision. Ideally this is done by working with those individuals so power is more fairly distributed. If they hold clout but do not do the job they’ve signed up for, it’s a hard road ahead, but not an impossible one. There is always the unfortunate and ultimate answer, but that should be avoided as much as possible.

Finally, the Symbolic Frame gives meaning and ritual to the roles that individuals undertake. Often staff like formal titles, and the more importance that the title seems to give to an individual then they will play up to it. Not everyone is like this – many just want to do a good job – but all members of a team need to feel they are playing a part in the performance.

The role of a leader is to manage the interplay of these frames and fit your team around that. As I keep saying, this is not an easy task to undertake, and you will make mistakes. But as you keep balancing the four frames and start to come to a consensus of action, then you’ll see success.

In the next bit of this two-part process, we’ll look at how you determine exactly what needs doing, and who does it.


Actual Maths: Setting My Stall Out

“Structure doesn’t make a story formulaic. The writer does.”

Peter Arpesella

To start

Just as I began to write this, Dani Quinn stepped up with a similar post. It was a great feeling knowing I’m not the only one with similar thoughts to mine. So, here goes. I apologise in advice for the amount of inverted commas in this blogpost.

I’m using my new start at a new school to tweak my teaching practice. I’ve rarely had a bad lesson per se – and in terms of lesson obs the last ‘satisfactory’ lesson I taught is a distant memory. I get good results and where students have underperformed under my tutition it’s not been for a lack of support on my part.

However, I’ve seen a lot of good practice being shared by the Twitterati over the past 12 months and I’ve made changes to my lesson structure accordingly, often with pleasing results. However, I am a man of routine, and what I’ve always done is have a single structure around which I can build a lesson. Now ‘progressive’ teachers might balk at this. But I have my methods, and they work. Here they are…

The classroom

I’m lucky to have a very nice classroom. The school I’m in is only 10 years old and it’s well maintained. I have a large standard whiteboard and – for the first time in my 10 year long teaching career – an interactive whiteboard that works properly, is solidly built and responsive. Sadly it’s a Promethean board, and all of my interactive lessons were on SMART notebook. The import function on ActivInspire doesn’t like my Notebook files for some reason, so that’s 700 plus files that I’ve created, tweaked and curated over the years that are sat waiting for me to find a way to convert them.

In my class I have tables set up so students sit in groups of at most 6. This aids distribution of books, resources and equipment. They’re laid out so every student is pretty much facing me whilst I’m doing any explanations. I’ve flirted with the horseshoe format in the past and I think I actually prefer it, but the room doesn’t facilitate it really. I don’t have tables in groups just for group work. I’m with Bruno Reddy on this – I don’t really think it’s as effective as some make out and I only have it going on in lessons where the activity or concept taught allows for it.

I’ve never really been a massive fan of intricate displays – I think they’re distracting. But things like the flowchart and periodic table might find their way into my classroom in the near future. I will be putting up students’ own work at some point. Also, I’m very lucky that the desks students work at are quite big. The classic formica desks that most schools have are often too small for Y10 and Y11 students and can be distracting too.

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Thinking Aloud: There’s Nothing Like Common Sense

“One person’s craziness is another person’s reality.”

Tim Burton

Bip, Bop, Bip, Bop…

Time for another analogy. People complain – rightly – about moving goalposts, and how it’s harder to achieve standards when the expectations change seemingly month on month. There’s a two-pronged issue here. The DfE have one agenda, OFSTED another. With this in mind, it’s like the whole education system at the moment is one giant game of Pong; the paddles being the government and OFSTED, and the education system being the ball.

All that’s happening at the moment – be it a College of Teaching, Mr Wilshaw’s constant ‘stick deployment’, the Workload review, the recruitment crisis – they’re all symptoms of a lack of trust in teachers.

What amazes me is that qualified teachers must have been through some sort of education to university level. In other words – they’re not thick. So why is the governance of education so patronising?

Over the last few days I’ve been thinking. Does it really have to be so difficult? So I started to formulate a five point plan…

1. Teaching should be a profession, and stay as a profession

To quote Wikipedia, a profession is a vocation that requires specialised educational training. So this includes lawyers, accountants, doctors, architects, engineers, etc. As soon as the government advocated the wave of unqualified teachers that are now presently in our midst, the concept of teaching as a profession was finally lost.

I say finally, because it has been a process that has been happening for years. I know one shouldn’t rely on Wikipedia, but it makes some good points about the elements of professionalism:

  • Regulation. Well, this is the one thing that seems to be determining the professional status of teaching. We have the DfE, OFSTED, OFQUAL, HMI… In fact teaching seems to be one of the most regulated bodies around.
  • Autonomy. Ah. Here’s the first problem. Teachers have very little autonomy. If anyone can tell me a subject that has the slightest hint of true autonomy and I’ll happily pay you £2000.
  • Status and prestige. Hahahahaha… sorry. The political football that is education, and the media spotlight that seems to blame teachers for everything, means that the status and prestige of teaching have never been lower. In other countries, they have Teachers’ Days (Teachers’ Days! Perish the thought!) that celebrate the contribution that educators make to society. I feel in the UK there is an anti-intellectual movement at the moment, where celebrity is promoted over real contributions to society, and the bashing of teachers is central to that.
  • Power. Our power as teachers stems from the trust of those who we serve. As I said previously, there is very little trust from who we serve, so therefore we have no power.

All of the other points in this manifesto stem from these principles.

2. Lead us from the front

In conversation with a very experienced colleague yesterday, he likened the decision makers in education to the Russian military generals in WW2. Their methods were thus:

  • Tell the soldiers what to do.
  • Watch the soldiers do it from afar.
  • If they got it wrong or were unlucky, they died.
  • If they refused or ran away, they were shot.

He said something had changed in recent years, and this template could be applied to leaders today. I don’t necessarily agree, because I think this scenario is not a fault of leaders but of the constraints they are in. I think that, again, this is a symptom of the lack of trust in teachers. Compare this with Henry V sort of ‘band of brothers’, ‘we happy few’, ‘once more unto the breach’ leadership, where the leader stands with their teachers and shares the burden. Whilst there has to be accountability in any profession, at the same time those who make the decisions have to take responsibility for them, in a collective sense, so teachers need to be worked with, rather than against.

This is the same with OFSTED and HMI. I wonder if at times the inspectorate have a sense of the influence their judgements have over the future of the careers of so many people. I don’t think they do. This is increasingly worrying considering the subjective nature of an inspection, despite obvious attempts from the top of these bodies to rectify the situation.

When I mean lead from the front I don’t mean for leaders and regulators to be soft. I mean that by through their decisions they value the contribution that teachers make, rather than question and judge, and ‘remove’ on a constant basis. Give teachers autonomy, and watch them thrive.

3. Realise that educators are not childminders or surrogate parents

It’s a brutal truth that many families have both parents working. Childcare is therefore an issue. However the increasing cost of childcare has resulted in an expectation for teachers to take up the slack, somehow. The classic example of this is the ‘snow day’. When a headteacher deems it unsafe for school to open, it is for safety and well-being of everyone on the site. Yet this fact is ignored, and they’re lambasted for closing a school because parents subsequently have to go out of their way organise childcare. Well forgive me, but if you have a child, they are your responsibility first: schooling should come secondary to parenting. Also what would happen if a child suffered an injury when a school stayed open? Exactly.

Likewise I lose count of the amount of ‘issues’ that teachers are expected to deal with in schools – citizenship, nutrition, extremism, racism, entrepreneurship, grit, resilience… I’m 100% behind the idea that schooling should be about developing character as well as academic skills, but it is not a solution for all of society’s ills, especially when the tools and resources to deal with such problems are taken away from us (like closing the Connexions service: what a travesty). There has to be some part on the parent and other organisations to support teachers in this regard. I’m not saying teachers should not play a role in improving society – I’m saying they should not be the only ones responsible.

4. Get the incentives to teach right

There’s a belief that to get people into teaching, you’ve got to lure them with financial incentives. Presently you can get paid more to train as a teacher than to be a first year teacher. Insane. All this does is create a scenario where people train because of the money, and then are put off by the workload, negative status and sheer grind of the job.

As Dan Pink, Dan Airely and many other behavioural economists and researchers have found, there is a point where financial incentives do not work. I’d go as far as to say that most successful teachers don’t go into it for the money. In fact, they’d be mad to, because there’s a wealth of other jobs that are better paid, less regulated and less bureaucratic.

Most teachers join the profession because they want to make a difference to students’ lives. A noble ideal yes, but the truth, ultimately. There are other perks – the holidays for one, apparently, although tell me of a teacher who doesn’t do some sort of work through them. Likewise the ‘hours’, but as we’ve seen from the teacher workload survey you’ll be hard pressed to find a teacher that does under 50 hours of work a week, a large part of that at weekend. Oh, and there’s the pension,but that seems to be getting chipped away at every year as well!

So the incentives have to be different. So what about external incentives like free or subsidised healthcare, childcare, and so on? Internal incentives, like reduced teaching hours in school to allow time for proper CPD to take place; reduced paperwork (much of what we do is duplication of other stuff); and daft as it might sound, I’d bet my bottom dollar that a free school dinner, tea and coffee (and some nice biscuits) would make life just that little bit easier for staff. I’m just hypothesising, but I hope you can see where I’m coming from. I’m not saying teaching should be easy, as any fulfilling job has to be challenging. What I’m saying is that everything possible should be done to allow teachers to focus on the challenge of improving students lives, rather than dealing with the daily drudge.

5. Education policy should be determined by academics, rather than politicians

Michael Gove’s great failing was not his decision-making methods. Michael Gove failed because his ideology was (is?) outdated and attempted to place a template of ‘old school’ education on present society. The irony of this is that the ‘old school’ was very much the ‘secret garden’ that James Callaghan spoke of and Margaret Thatcher knocked down the walls of.

I liked some of his ideas. An attempt to create a national exam board for each subject was a principle of pure genius. The GCSE reforms were absolutely right and fair (I’m not sure about the idea of changing the grading system, but that’s another discussion).

The problem was that it was all a case of ‘I know better than you do’, and this was the problem. He didn’t. There was a lot of doublespeak in terms of ‘Finnish models’ but not actually employing any of their concepts. The Shanghai project clearly has merit but it seems to be done out of spite – “British education is failing so it must be the fault of our teachers – let’s go ask the opinions of a people whose culture is completely different from our own”.

Much of what politicians are swept up in when it comes to education is anecdote and hearsay, thought experiments and hubris. Policies should be based on sound academic research that take into account actually what happens on the ground in schools every day.

I’ve mentioned my fears of an anti-intellectual agenda from government and it appears to be coming into reality. There is a short fall of engineers, teachers, doctors, nurses, architects in the UK. Why aren’t they coming through? Our education system does not allow for it to happen. We value personal ‘wants’ over the national ‘need’, and curriculum choices reflect that. Another one of Gove’s master strokes was to knock the BTEC ‘worth 4 GCSEs’ phenomenon on the head. For me he didn’t go further enough but at least there was an acknowledgement that academic rigour was being lost in the system.

To address the anti-intellectual agenda, and to take education from being a political football to a centrepiece of modern Britain, we need to give policy over to the academics. Why? Two reasons:

  1. Education policy at the moment changes so frequently that we’ve got a generation of students who might have similar grades but know completely different things, at varying levels of difficulty. For example, and I’m only talking from personal experience, the GCSE was meant to be standardised. It is no longer the case. Policy needs to be longer term, so that teachers’ and leaders’ stress is reduced because they what will be coming up in 1, 2, 3 years time rather than the monthly whims of a policy wonk in Whitehall.
  2. It creates a scenario where education policy is based on evidence rather than ‘stuff’. I’ve seen all sorts of ‘revolutionary’ ideas. BrainGym, PLTs, Learning Styles, Emotional Intelligences all have come and gone because in most cases the science is either a) non-existent or b) needs more work. ResearchED are trying to make moves in this regard, but processes like this need backing from the decision makers. Something like a ‘National Education Research Board’, perhaps?

My ideal scenario would for policy to be decided by proper academic research, and then driven by – and I know some people will not be happy about this – a ‘bulldog’ like Michael Gove. I think sometimes when policy is brought in teachers are too often treated with a softly softly approach, but what happens is that the impact of the message is lost by treating us with kid gloves. If the policy is shown to be working, and it’s proven with proper evidence and not blind belief, then it needs to be implemented. We cannot let our beliefs cloud our capabilities to improve.

So, in essence…

Teachers are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. The competing agendas of government, policy makers, OFSTED, the media and industry are creating a debased and unstable education system in the UK. Part of this is the slow destruction of the professional status of teachers – the removal of autonomy, status and prestige in tandem with increased and tighter regulation. Leadership of teachers needs to be through positive example and use of the ‘carrot’ as much as the stick. Don’t treat struggling teachers like deserting soldiers. Treat teachers as educators, not childminders or factory staff, and they’ll feel worthwhile, and turn the corner.

Likewise, the incentives for teaching need to be beyond the pay, ensuring that teachers can concentrate on the job of improving students’ lives rather than ticking boxes and producing reports. Finally, policy should be grounded in proper, relevant scientific research, and implemented swiftly to maximise impact.

Will the College of Teaching solve this? I’m not so sure. I’m worried that it’ll become a glorified GTC. A College of Teaching could be my ‘National Education Research Board’ if allowed, but if it becomes a political football, well, it’s going to go the same way as the GTC did.

Presently, the efforts to improve standards in education can be boiled down to “if it isn’t working, use a bigger stick”. The time will come soon where those in charge won’t be able to wield the stick! Also, choose the right ‘carrots’. Throwing money at the problem usually attracts the wrong people. Teaching should be a lifelong vocation, not a job, and government needs to facilitate this.

The Art of Leading a Department: Be a Reflective Practitioner

Even if you think you’re doing well and have it all figured out, there is a voice you will always inevitably hear at some point which nags at you and says “but wait…” Don’t ever dismiss it, listen to what it has to say. Life will never be close enough to perfect, and listening to that voice means stepping outside of yourself and considering your own wrongdoings and flaws.

Ashly Lorenzana

If you’ve missed any of the series so far, click here for all of the previous parts of this series.

Just a bit of a warning, this is the first ‘EPIC POST’ that I’ve wrote. My posts are usually quite long for blogs, normally about 1000 words. This goes well beyond that. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

My Core Belief

I have been through a few interviews in my teaching career and one of the questions I am most asked is:

“What makes a good teacher?”

Now there’s some stock answers. Good subject knowledge; excellent planning; placing the students first; developing positive relationships. All those sorts of things. But in my mind these are all results of being a good teacher. They’re actions, in a sense, rather than a character, or ethic.

My answer would be: A good teacher is someone who is a reflective practitioner. That’s it. Everything else, to quote my great university lecturer John Slater, is ‘bean counting’ – the extra layers around the central, all-powerful kernel.
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Thinking Aloud: Are There ‘Two’ Mathematics?

“They laugh at me because I’m different; I laugh at them because they’re all the same.”

Kurt Cobain

Imagine you decide to learn a new language. As you’re a bit keraaazy you decide you’ll pick something totally left field. A language that relies on little of that which is native to you; symbolically extremely varied; can be communicated (and this is a key point) in a variety of different notations, orthographies or diagrams and whilst is used commonly across all nations is misunderstood by the majority of the population.

You know, of course, that I am talking about Mathematics. Mathematics is a study, of number, geometry, algebra, statistics, etc.

Every single day – EVERY SINGLE DAY – we come across a mathematical construct of some sort: a 20% off sale; the gradient sign on a hill that we’re driving up; the reading on our weighing scales; how long the Sunday dinner will take to cook; these are all situations where we’re using Mathematics. We are constantly making sense of the world around us through the means of Mathematics.

Mathematics, therefore, is a language in its own right, a means of communication as well as a system of study. It is the language through which we make sense of the world around us at a technical level. We describe using words but those words are in themselves descriptors of the Mathematics we use.

Now for me, at a school level, are we teaching Mathematics, or how to communicate mathematically? Presently, for me, we are trying to teach both. Let’s use an analogy. English at Secondary level is taught as a language (the syntax, grammar, spelling etc.) and as a study of literature (prose, poetry, etc). The language part focuses on the rules and systems. The literature focuses on the application and interpretation of the use of the language. In the present Ks1-KS4 curricula for Mathematics, we teach everything together, both the rules, the application and interpretation, right the way through.

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