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What happens next?

June 15, 2020 3 comments

There’s a lot of talk at the moment about next year and how grades will be awarded. It’s a massively tricky situation for all really, I don’t know what will happen, or what’s the best course of options, but here are some initial thoughts:

“Teacher assessment”

Many people seem to think that next years exams will be cancelled and teacher assessment will again be used. I think this option is quite a weird one. This year we have gone down that road, and it was probably the best, or only, option available at the time. I know that we, and teachers everywhere, have spent a lot of time looking at evidence and making sure we get it right. I’m confident that the vast majority of our students would have got the grade we have predicted them this year. I saw “vast majority” as there are often students that revise the exact right topics the night before and surprise you, or students that bomb for various reasons (I.e. the couple who break up after 4 years together on the morning of paper 1, the student that comes down with a weird illness that zaps their energy etc).

What I’m not confident in is that the students will get the grades schools are predicting. The “standardisation process” that keeps getting mentioned worries me. It seems to suggest that they will look at prior data from schools, apply a formula to calculate how many of each grade schools are gonna get, and assign grades based on the rank order. This isn’t teacher assessment, this is “grades based on something the students in question have no control over”. I hope I’m wrong, and that the grades are oser to being actually what teachers are saying, but we shall see.

If this process were to happen next year, it will be massively more difficult. Depending on how much school students have missed we will have little reliable data to see where they are and what they would get. The rigour we managed this year wouldn’t be there and I don’t know how we can do it effectively.

Cutting the curriculum

On the surface, these seems a sensible option. Less time to learn? – give them less stuff to learn. How do we do it though? The curriculum isn’t in a prescribed order, some students will have already spent a lot of time studying the bits that get cut, while others wont. This itself is a massive disparity and grossly unfair.

I did think further on this. Logistically I imagine it would be possible to cover this by setting up the exam with a section A – answer all question, section b – answer x amount of questions. It would take some doing to ensure the challenge was still equal for everyone no matter what questions they choose, but logistically I think it would be possible. And for those not looking to study A Level maths this is probably a great option. But for those who do wish to move on to study A level, some may end up with big gaps in knowledge that they need. So it’s not ideal. But probably is workable, but would need planning from right now and we would need to know exactly when schools can reopen fully, and I don’t know when we will know that.

Test the whole thing and lower grade boundaries

This is definitely the simplest solution. If we can reopen fully in September I imagine this is the option that will probably be used. It would still give us the problems of the other options though. Some students would have managed to cover all the content, some wouldn’t. Students would be getting higher grades from lower scores meaning students we would normally expect to thrive at A Level would be coming in with massive gaps. Students would be under immense pressure sitting the full suite of exams with much less learning time than previous cohorts. Missing potentially half their course (for 2 year gcse courses).

Repeat the year

This would be a drastic step and could cause all sorts of logistical problems. Who repeats? Just year10? Then year 9 will have similar issues to the ones mentioned above. Everyone? Then do we put school start dates off a year? Will we have no year 12 the following year? Will it switch our education system from 6-19? How will universities cope with a year of no students when current year 10s reach that age?

I don’t know what the answer is. I can see major issues with all these suggestions. We are living though a bizarre time and no one has seen anything like this before. Touch wood, we never will again, but we somehow need to make sure that the current generation aren’t massively disadvantaged by a fluke of the year they were born in. I certainly don’t envy those who are having to make this decision, but having seen the shambles they’ve made of everything else during this pandemic I wish that there were people in charge who I had more faith in.

If you have any thoughts on these, or any other possibilities I’d love to hear them. Please let me know in the comments or on social media.

Terminal Exams

May 10, 2020 Leave a comment

Earlier this week I came across this post from 2014 in which I was thinking about the then upcoming switch from modular A Levels to linear A Levels. A move from short exams occurring throughout the course to 3 long ones at the end.

I was excited by the prospect, mainly because the earlier stuff is easier once you have learned the harder stuff, and on top of that their is more time to teach if you dont have to go into revision for exam mode every few months.

We’ve been through it a few times now, so I thought it might be a good time to revisit the subject.

What’s happened?

We switched from 6 short modular exams to 3 terminal exams, and the link between AS and A Level was severed so marks gained in Y12 no longer count toward your final grade. This to me made a lot of sense and I didn’t want to enter any for AS exams. The first year we didn’t enter them, but since the decision has been made at a whole trust level to enter, so that those who leave to go on to apprentices etc still get a qualification.

That first year we were the only subject in our school not to enter, and we gave them internal exams at the same time. We didn’t have anything to base grade boundaries on and it didn’t tell us much about the students abilities. The next year we struggled to get through all the year 12 content in time and didn’t have as much exam prep time as we would have liked before sitting AS exams. This year we re did the SFL and were done teaching new content by mid march, which was handy in the end.

I’m in two minds about AS exams, they don’t count for anything once they finish year 13 and it adds additional pressure. But it does give them additional impetus to revise and ensure the Y12 content is thoroughly stuck in their minds. When all the subjects but us sat them we found that the students revised a lot more for their other subjects which makes me think that it should at least be a school wide decision.

What about the other exams?

Losing the repeated exam windows has definitely helped with the scheduling if learning. Its given me the flexibility to teach in the order I feel is lost sensible, rather than teaching stuff in a certain order as that happens to be the module it was put in. The fact we dont need to go into exam mode and revision mode as often is also of benefit allowing more time to focus on understanding the mathematics and the concepts that students need to understand in order to succeed. For certain students though, I feel they would benefit from that “oh crap” moment when they don’t revise for the first exam and fluff it. But I think thise students are less common than some suspect.

How do the exams compare?

Obviously the spec has changed, so it’s not a direct comparison, but I feel that the linear approach allows a wider range of questions, different topics can be merged into different questions and there have been some really nice racing questions so far. My worries in 2014 about the length of the exams seem unfounded as I’ve not heard anyone complaining about the length, although have heard some of them say they needed more time.

What about the spec?

I like the new spec. It has lots of fun maths in it and I feel it’s a good broad range if maths to know for moving forward into higher education. I’ve very much enjoyed teaching it. I miss some of the stuff that isn’t there, but all in all I think it’s a good spec.

In summary

I still think that the linear model with terminal assessments is preferable over a modular model. I’m torn as to whether I think AS exams should be sat or not and I’m a fan of the new spec on the whole.

What are your opinions? Do you agree or do you think modular was/is better? Why have you come to this conclusion? I’d love to hear all views from both sides, please let me know in the comments, via email or via social media.

Social Mobility or Social Justice

June 11, 2019 Leave a comment

Last week I was doing some research and I happened across and interesting report from the education select committee reviewing the work and the future of the social mobility commission, following the resignation of all the commissioners. The report itself had some damning things to say about the government’s treatment of the commission and the distinct failure of the government to work to achieve a higher standard of social mobility, despite the prime minister stating that social mobility would be a priority of her government.

The thing that interested me the most was the discussion about social justice vs social mobility. The education select committee expressed a feeling that social mobility seems to focus on raising people up the ladder of opportunity, and can sometimes leave people struggling to get onto that ladder. They discussed that the current focus seems to be on picking a few out of poverty and giving them an opportunity to attend a good university. Their recommendation was that the name of the commission be changed from social mobility to social justice and that their focus be to look at all policy changes from a social justice viewpoint to ensure that it was working for all. These recommendations appear to have been rejected by the government.

Roll forward a few days and I read an article about the opposition policy announcement that they would alter the name and focus of the commission from social mobility to social justice and switch its focus from picking a few to lift out to a radical new way of thinking which aims to help everyone. When I read the article I could see that the opposition had clearly read the education select committee’s report. That they too feel that after decades of failure by consecutive governments from both sides of the house to achieve a more equal society a radical overhaul in the approach was required.

To me this seems a sensible policy. Tweaking has failed, we’ve rehashed the same policy ideas over and over and all we have seen is a greater inequality than we had before. Surely it’s time to rethink? But then I read the backlash. The education secretary spoke out against the idea saying it was “downgrading the importance of social mobility”. Let that sink in, the current government have downgraded the importance of social mobility so much that the entire commission resigned due to government actions and their education secretary is accusing this policy of downgrading the importance. The hypocrisy is ridiculous and there is also a condescending overtone to those who do not want to move towards a graduate career. To write these people off as being “without ambition” is wholly wrong. A university education is not the only measure of success.

Then there is the idea that getting students from disadvantaged backgrounds into university is even a good indication of social mobility and reducing inequality. In a world where unpaid internships and old boys networks are the biggest steppingstones to the top jobs getting to university is only half the battle. A shift of focus from social mobility to tackling the inequality in society at all levels is, for me,  a welcome one.

Further Reading:

Education Select Committee report mentioned above, The future of the Social Mobility Commission: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmeduc/866/86602.htm

TES report on Labour policy and Hinds’ response: https://www.tes.com/news/labour-swap-social-mobility-social-justice

Letter from Prof Reay (Cambridge University) on social mobility: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/jun/28/social-mobility-is-the-wrong-goal-what-we-need-is-more-equality

 

Eid and Exams

June 15, 2018 2 comments

Today is the day that all the students in year 11 at my school, and I believe a majority across the school, sat their final GCSE paper. It was a physics paper. Today also happens to be Eid al-fitr. Eid is a holy day in the Islamic faith and marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

Eid al-Fitr is an important day in the Islamic faith. Muslims start it out by attending the mosque for prayers, before sitting down to share a meal with their families, which will be the first time they have done this during daylight in a month.

I teach in a school where, I believe, around 30% of the student body practice Islam. This year has been particularly hard for year 11, as many have been observing the fast of Ramadan during their exam period and have had to miss important parts of their Eid rituals and celebrations in order to sit their final exams. Eid al-Fitr, and Eid al-adha – the most important Islamic holiday, follow the Islamic calendar and as such move year on year. Next year, Eid al-Fitr falls on June the 4th, the same day as one of the English Language GCSE exams, which ALL y11 students will sit, along with Business and music exams. This date will also feature A Level papers for English Language, English Lang and lit, art, RS and Chemistry.

Personally, I would advocate for all holidays of all the major religions to be made bank holidays as the UK becomes an increasingly wonderful multi-cultural and diverse place, but I understand we are a long way from that dream becoming a reality. However, I am certain that a more achievable goal is becoming a society that manages to schedule GCSE and A-Level exams around such an important event.

Many students this year have been disadvantaged this year because they have had an exam on a day that is massively important to them, their families and their religion. GCSE exams that fell today cover science, taken by the vast majority of students, and Citizenship, an exam I would argue was extremely important. A level exams that fell today were PE, Economics, English literature, Mathematics, Further Mathematics and Chinese.

In the 2011 census Islam was the second biggest religion in the UK behind Christianity, and also the fasted growing religion. There are many local authority areas in the UK where more than 25% of the population follow the Islamic faith. These included Bradford, which is where I work, Blackburn, Luton and Birmingham. Some areas are over thirty, which includes Tower Hamlets, which has around 35% of its population following Islam.

GCSE and A Levels are important examinations; they massively affect the future of those that sit them. The stresses on students at this time is massively high and I feel that it is hideously unfair to make this more difficult on one subset of students purely based on their religion. To have a few fallow days during the exam period would mean what? Lengthening the session by a few days?! Surely it’s time we stopped punishing students for what they believe in.

Single exam board?

July 2, 2016 Leave a comment

This post was written prior to Michael Gove being knocked out of the leadership contest. It was first published here, on Labour Teacher on 8th July 2016.

Way way back in the days of the ConDem coalition, we had an education secretary named Michael Gove – a man who very soon could be our prime minister. Give polarised opinion within tele profession. Many chastised everything he did, and other rushed to defend his ideals. There were some, like me, who took each idea on its merits, chastised some and celebrated others. (You can read some of my thoughts on his tenure here.)

One of the ideas he had that I liked was the idea of a single exam board. We had a situation where it.was considerably easier to gain a C in maths on some boards than other and that, to me, seemed quite ridiculous. This idea was quashed before it started due to “EU monopoly laws”.

Last week after a long campaign I was left heartbroken by the decision taken by the (slim) majority of the country for the UK to leave the EU. I had looked at the pros and cons and am certain that remaining would have been the better option. I tried to find positives, but there were few. People celebrated the fact we would no longer have Cameron (a man who I generally detest) in number 10, but even this was a negative as the names I the frame to replace him make him look a much more reasonable option. Some of the folk in the running make him look positively Marxist.

So I continued to look for positives, and I remembered the idea of a single exam board. Surely this would now be back in the table? Especially if, as I suspect will happen, Gove wins his parties  leadership?
This would mean students from around the country were all sitting the same exams and we sold have a situation where you knew exactly what each grade means. I’ve got my fingers crossed.

Examinations, Examinations, Examinations

May 3, 2016 4 comments

This post was first published on the 3rd May 2016 here, on Labour Teachers.

Sometimes it feels like the government’s main three priorities are examinations, examinations and examinations, and this fact has certainly led to many people involved in education to express their disagreement and disappointment with the system.

Most recently, a large number of people with children of a primary school age have chosen to keep their children off school in protest against the new SATs test their children will sit. This has caused me to spend some time thinking about this, and try to put together some views.

Exam factories

One of the leading criticism of these tests is that it drives schools to shrink their curriculum and focus heavily on the content which will be examined – meaning subjects like art, music, history etc get widely ignored and children miss out on an important part of their education. I can certainly find agreement with this, however I think this is already an issue with the SATs as they stood, so it doesn’t seem to warrant the furore of the new tests, which can only compound an already prevalent problem.

What are they for?

This is a key question,  and I think that a different answer to it would lead to a different outcome. The tests as a marker for informing future teachers of a students ability are very helpful. The tear that SATs were boycotted we saw real problems with the grades reported by primary schools as there were massive inconsistencies from school to school. However, this argument alone seems to be silly, as what we see often is that students primed and drilled from the test from September to May achieve well, but then do no more maths from May to September and often regress. If this was to be the sole reason then surely they could be abolished totally and secondary schools could complete diagnostic tests on entry?

The other answer to this question is to measure school performance, and this is a real can of worms. It is this exact fact that leads to the exam factory conditions and the gaming the system and as such causes a load of problems. The other side of it is, however, that there needs to be some way of ensuring that schools are doing what we expect them to do. I don’t know what the answer is, but I tend to think high stakes testing is not the answer.

Is it just a problem with SATS?

No, all the issues outlined above are transferable to GCSE and A level exams. Again, I don’t have an answer, but I think that there must be a better way to treat 16 and 18 year olds than to make them sit high pressure, high stakes, examinations at a time of increased hormones knowing that if they go wrong that could seriously affect their life chances.

I don’t have the answers, but I do feel that there are answers and our job in opposition is to find them and present them to the public, showing that if they vote differently in 2020 we can give them a better way.

Further thoughts on the white paper

April 13, 2016 2 comments

Recently I read the white paper “Educational Excellence Everywhere”, it’s an interesting document, and I wrote my initial thoughts when I heard the headlines on Academies here then my initial thoughts having read the first chapter here. Since then I have read the rest of the white paper and have digested it and I wanted to share some of my thoughts in it, discounting thoughts on whole scale academisation as I’ve written about that before.

Great teachers everywhere they’re needed

My first thought when reading this chapter title was “surely that’s everywhere?” The section focuses on getting the best teachers into the most deprived areas using cash and promotions as incentives. I can certainly see a need for this, but I worry that there could be negative outcomes for some.

If all the good teachers go to the struggling areas, who’s left to teach those kids in the middle ground, not deprived enough to be in one of the key areas but not rich enough to be at a fee paying school?

I also worry that those gaining these promotions would be the game players, the ones who put their own results above everything else, including their students. The type of leaders who push students into courses they have no interest in and wont benefit from because they will gain a good grade that reflects well on them. These are not the sort of people we want to be putting in charge.

In fact,  it is the prevalence of leaders like that, who assign much more importance to some kids than others because of the effect they will have on the results,  that leads to the most able kids from disadvantaged being more likely to fall behind those with similar prior attainment but a more advantaged background. This is usually as schools forget abut these more able students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds have less help outside school.

Recruitment and retention

The white paper acknowledges the recruitment and retention crisis and suggests some ways in which it will try to improve the situation. The aims of reducing bureaucracy and workload are certainly well meaning and would benefit not only retention but the quality of teaching. Some of the ideas mentioned – ie the possibilities for replacing QTS – however seem like they will in fact be more paperwork heavy.

Leadership

The idea of improving leaders in our schools to improve teaching and also retention is a good thing. The incentives they will offer and the alterations to accountability framework to be more progress based should encourage more great leaders to take up roles in challenging schools.

I’m very much in favour of the move from threshold passes to progress, but I’m worried that attainment 8 and no of grade 5 and above will actually be the important measures in practice, so I’m waiting with interest to see how it plays out.

I like the idea of improvement periods, which give new heads a god length of time to turn around schools deemed to be requiring improvement. I did wonder how this would track to heads who took over just before the inspection, and I worry that there seems to be a suggestion that an RI grading would mean a new head.

Fair funding formula

There wasn’t enough technical details here for me, but in principle it sounds like they are considering all the right things – levels of disadvantage, needs of pupils, needs of a school (ie more money to rural and island schools who would go under otherwise as they serve communities with too few children to fill the schools).

Parental involvement

The aim to have all schools involve parents more is a noble one, and one that should be striven towards,  however I have recently come across some research that showed in disadvantaged areas of california that policies to discourage parental involvement actually had a positive effect while those that encouraged it didn’t. This suggests we need to look at how we are involving parents and make sure that it is I’m a manner that is beneficial to all.

The College of Teaching

I’ve been a little reticent to get behind the college of teaching, it seemed at first to be the answer to a question no one was asking and that it wouldn’t have any benefit. The white paper, however, suggests that a large part of its role will be ensuring teachers have access to educational research and are involved in creating it through their own journal. This is a positive thing in my view, as are the ideas they have regarding ensuring the profession is more savvy when it come to research and evidence to stop any more fads like brain gym gaining footholds in the shared consiousness.

What are your views on the white paper? I’d love to hear whether you agree or disagree with anything I’ve said. I’d also be interested to hear if you picked up on anything I’ve not mentioned or if you took a different inference to something in the white paper than I did. Feel free to comment here or contact me via email or social media.

A parents hope for the primary years

April 10, 2016 Leave a comment

This post was originally published here on Labour Teachers 6th April 2016.

It’s parents week on Labour Teachers this week, and that has gotten me thinking about my daughter, as she embarks on her journey into education. She’s 3, she’ll be 4 in July, which means when she is 4 years and 6 weeks she will start school,  and that seems far too young!

She’s excited, she came on the visits to te prospective primary schools and we discussed together which ones we all liked before we put the preference form in. She was perhaps a bit too honest, announcing loudly on one tour that she much preferred the other two we’d seen at that point! We find out where she will be attending in a fee weeks.

I do worry though, I worry that as soon as she walks in she will be judged and assessed, and I worry about what the state of the British education system will be if the ideological asset stripping continues. Will there even be a public education system by the time she hits 13?

Schooling is a long process, and there are some things I would like her primary school to provider her with:

A) a good grounding in the basics – she can write her name and a fee other things, knows what all the letters look and sound like and can count, I would like her schooling to build on these basic skills.

B) a wide range of interests topics – I think that during primary schooling a wider curriculum is better, if an area piques her interest then we can explore that with her. I remember my parents building on things I’d learned at school with me and I hope to do the same with her.

C) some great friends. Some of my best friends are the ones I met at primary school, and I’m hoping daughter can build some equally enduring friendships in her time there.

These are my 3 hopes from her primary schooling, none of them have quantifiable targets attached, and I tend to think that the majority of the new tests and measures for the primary sector are about measuring teacher performance, rather than improving outcomes for children or appeasing parents, and that seems a little backwards to me.

Working Together

April 8, 2016 Leave a comment

This post was originally published here, on Labour Teachers 11th April 2016.

The other day I was out with a friend of mine and he was regaling us with stories of when he spent some time in Finland as a teenager. He was there as part of an exchange programme and said his experience meant he was not even the slightest bit surprised when a few years later the world media were hailing the Finnish as the world leaders in all things education.

It was a different part of his story on the Finnish that really got me thinking though, one not explicitly linked to education, but one which may tells us some things about the culture and certainly one which has applications within the education sector.

“I nearly got fined for Jay-walking” he said. “There were no cars visible so we just crossed the road, to the horror of our Finnish hosts.”

“Bit keen on it over there are they?” I asked.

“Yeah, but they explained why and it makes perfect sense. They look at it this way, all it takes is one car to slow down and that can lead to a traffic jam. Most cars slow down because some has run across the road when they shouldn’t have, so if nobody does then the whole system works much better.”

He was right, it does make perfect sense, an d the fact that apparently the whole nation buy into it perhaps gives an insight into why they seem to get other things right, or certainty did in the past.

It made me think about the systems in place within schools – and how they are limited by their weakest link. If you have a strict policy on no headphones in the classroom,  but some teachers allow them, this leads to other teachers losing lesson time because students argue that “Mr Jones in IT let’s me.”

If you have a system that escalates from a warning to being send to a removal room for a lesson,  to spending the rest of the day in isolation if you either refuse or mess about in the removal room, but then the behaviour manager who you call out when someone refuses to go to the removal room don’t place them in isolation it undermines the system and gives those students a perceived free pass.

If you are lenient to a student because they have a tenancy to kick off when challenged the other students will pick up and this and it will cause issues when you aren’t as lenient on them.

If established teachers don’t get on board with a new stricter behaviour system because they feel the old system suits them it causes all sorts of problems for newly qualified teachers who are trying to implement a system. Students pick up on this and argue that “Miss Thornley doesn’t give me a warning for that.”

Systems can work very well, but if they aren’t used properly they won’t work at all. A badly designed system that is used well and consistently will have more impact than a perfect system that is used haphazardly and only by half of the staff.

Perhaps the Finnish faith in their transport system is indicative of a culture that is build on everyone following structures that are aimed to benefit the whole, even at the expense of a short term gain for the individual. And perhaps that shows us a glimpse as to one of the reasons why historically their education system has been successfully.

Even if this isn’t the case, and their is no link between their road awareness and their educational prowess, that doesn’t mean we can’t take these lessons and apply them in our schools. We should be working together to follow the policies and ensure that we implement them as a team.

If you don’t agree with the policy discuss that with those in charge of putting them in place and express your feelings, try to get them changed. Don’t undermine them as that will hurt your less experienced colleagues, and your students,  the most. If you are working somewhere with a policy you feel strongly about and can’t get it changed, then the sensible option is to look for alternative employment, as it’s likely to be an ideological difference between yourself and the senior management and you are never going to happy with the way they run the school.

Whole scale academisation

April 2, 2016 Leave a comment

This post was originally published on Labour Teachers here, on 30th March 2016.

A week or so ago I came across this article in the Guardian. Apparently the government are finally ready to own up and set about forcing all remaining English schools into academisation.

I wrote here, last June, about this and how I wished they’d just get on with it and own up to it rather than trying to push little bits of legislation out at a time to achieve their overall “not so” secret aim.

The academisation of all English schools is something that fits well with the Conservative ideology of small state. They are removing local authorities from the picture and placing the money that would have been spent on LEAs into the hands of private companies – some for profit some not so.

The original idea was to get more of the money into schools, by cutting out the middle man, but as MATs have grown we see in many places that actually we’ve just replaced the middle man, only instead of one with public accountability with got ones with hidden agendas.

I’ve worked in various academies, in single school trusts, small MATs and a big MAT. My experiences have been fairly positive. The large MAT were up to something that were unacceptable, but our head was fighting for the school and successfully got us out of the trust and into a much smaller one. In the smaller ones I’ve seen people who care in the driving seat, and so they’ve been working from the right frame of reference to make the right difference.

I do worry, though, about the possibility of abuse that comes from moving the focus from LEAs who are in the public sector and accountable to private companies who can run schools more like businesses, losing the focus on education and people and moving it to the “bottom line”.

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