Tests Manipulated for Political Agenda: The Road Roller Approach to School Improvement

Speaking to school leaders on this subject at NAHT Conference 2017

Driving up standards,” a rigorously over-used phrase, but summing up how crude and unscientific the government’s approach to school improvement is. Is it built on a notion that improved output results from increased input? On a factory assembly line, perhaps, but in the classroom? If your class does not understand something the first time, you don’t simply say it again louder, you explain it differently.

“Raising the bar” – a similarly hackneyed phrase. The government does not have the monopoly on high expectations, and simply having high expectations is not enough. It is a skilled and continually up-skilled profession which improves outcomes (which is why the Chartered College needs our support).
They say:

“Limit the number of students who can achieve the top grade.” Why? To make the most privileged stand out more?

They say:

Limit the range of knowledge deemed valuable. Why? Does the world of work require clones?

When, in 2015, someone from DFE told me that 85% of children nationally would be expected to achieve an as yet undetermined standard at age 11, I enquired from which research the figure of 85% was derived. I received the answer, “It sounds challenging”.

Why limit the number of students who can achieve the top grades? To make the most socially advantaged stand out even more, perhaps?  It achieves the opposite of improving social mobility.

Consider how secondary teachers are now having to guess at the meaning of a new numerical grading system for GCSEs. Is this to allow grade boundaries to be set in order to achieve a particular quota?

Why are the score boundaries for statutory tests withheld, even after the tests are marked and the grades are in? Even though teachers are involved in discussions leading up to the setting of the score boundaries for a test, ultimately, it is a decision by a government department, the Standards and Testing Agency, which sets them.

Schools should, of course, be held to account, and data has its place to inform strategic decision-making. But how trustworthy and consistent is the data used to hold schools to account, and how open to manipulation?

Who said these words?

“Historically, the floor standard has identified only a small proportion of schools every year which are below that standard – and this year I can reassure you that no more than 1% more schools will be below the floor standard than last year.”

Nicky Morgan, 30th April 2016, NAHT National Conference.

This was a blatant admission by the then secretary of state for education that the government manipulate data to achieve a desired outcome or support a political agenda.

Those who determine pass mark thresholds have the power to make the data tell whichever story they require and to match the current political narrative – rising or falling standards, “grade inflation and dumbing down”, widespread improvements required, “haven’t we done well”, etc.

Adjustments made to pass marks to alter the proportion of students achieving ‘A’ grades (grade deflation/inflation) may be a well known phenomenon, but is it morally justifiable? It results in ‘A’ or ‘9’ having different values for different cohorts. It results in applicants for a job being potentially advantaged or disadvantaged depending on the year in which they sat their exams.

This is the scandal which underpins a brutal and broken examination regime, and one which, I believe we have become normalised to. The current system of statutory tests and public exams is wide open to politically-motivated, grade boundary manipulation.

“Driving up standards?” Sounds tough doesn’t it? But rather than empowering the profession to raise standards, grade boundary manipulation is hindering us from becoming the international beacon of excellence we could be. They call it “rigour”, which seems to translate as “make them learn the prescribed knowledge sooner.” At the expense of what? Curriculum breadth? Workplace skills? Mental Health? In place of deep and broad learning we are being encouraged to provide for a narrow educational diet to satisfy the soundbites and ambitions of self-serving, tough-talking politicians.

See also:

BBC – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-39735251


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Government Control the Number of Schools Deemed Failing

In my previous blog post I demonstrated how school test results are used to generate the statistics required to tell a story.  On 30th April, at the 2016 NAHT National conference, Nicky Morgan confirmed this in her speech when she stated:

“Historically, the floor standard has identified only a small proportion of schools every year which are below that standard – and this year I can reassure you that no more than 1% more schools will be below the floor standard than last year.”

How is a Secretary of State able to make this assurance?  It is because the government have already decided the outcome even before the children have taken the tests which will produce the results by which the schools will be measured.  For an explanation of how this is achieved, see How Trustworthy is School Data.

The perfect pattern, as far as the government is concerned, is incremental improvements year to year, with the strongest results reserved for the year prior to an election, in order to be able to boast that schools are improved because of government reforms to education.

This is morally wrong.  It is a manipulation of the figures, but it is also a blatant manipulation of the general public’s perception of how an entire education system is to be perceived.  The knowledge that these tests are so clearly designed for ranking schools and shaming those which most need support, and that the quota of schools falling below floor standards is decided in advance, makes a mockery of the entire test regime.

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How Trustworthy is School Test Data?

How Trustworthy is School Test Data?

Schools should, of course, be held to account for providing a quality education, and data has its place to inform strategic decision-making.  But how trustworthy and consistent is the data used to hold schools to account?

This hypothetical test has maximum marks of 50.Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 11.22.28

Three hundred hypothetical students sat the test.

The blue columns show the number of students whose total number of marks fell within each bracket.

The green columns show the percentage of pupils achieving within or exceeding each score bracket.

Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 11.21.5937% scored 39 or more.

90% scored 19 or more.

70% scored 29 or more.

Using this process it is possible to set pass mark thresholds to arrive at the desired percentage outcome.

Is this how Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 11.22.44pass mark thresholds are decided?

Were this the case, then those who determine pass mark thresholds would be able to make the data tell whichever story they required – rising or falling standards, widespread improvements required, etc.

Adjustments made to pass marks to alter the proportion of students achieving ‘A’ grades (grade deflation/inflation) may be a well known phenomenon, but is it morally justifiable?  Might it result in ‘A’  having different values for different cohorts?  Might it result in applicants for a job being advantaged or disadvantaged depending on the year in which they sat their exams?

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Lecture Theatres in Kindergarten

by Rebecca Frost

Illustration by Rebecca Frost

What’s not to understand about teachers facilitating or coaching as well as imparting knowledge?  It’s not trendy or revolutionary in universities where lectures and tutorials both have a place.  Nor is it an alien concept in Early Years education in which formal learning and investigative or enquiry based learning both feature.  Coaching and facilitating of learning are also common professional development approaches in the business world.

So why all the perennial fuss and polarised arguments for and against different modes of teaching and learning?  I have some theories about the conflicting motivations.  On one side there are subject specialists who enjoy the status of expert, a view that accumulated knowledge should be digested by subsequent generations, and perhaps apprehension about anarchy arising from learners deciding for themselves which bodies of knowledge they consider important.  On the opposing side there are generalists who prefer a more empirical approach to learning and an indignation at having what we should know or think determined for us.   I also believe it is perpetuated by the opposing views on the need to measure and rank pupils.  It is certainly wrapped up in the conflicting ideologies of political parties.

My own position on this subject is quite simple.  Both modes of learning are equally valuable.  That is why in my school for half the day lessons consist of more formal or “traditional” teaching of essential core subjects, while the other half affords opportunities to apply core skills, access a broad range of teacher-designed (or facilitated) learning activities, as well as some freedom to act upon intrinsic motivation.  However, we don’t presume to have achieved “mastery” (the latest buzzword) or to have redefined the meaning of the word “outstanding”.  What we are doing is engaging in a joint research project with University of Cumbria to evaluate our approach, and continue to mould and shape how we teach based on sound research evidence, rather than supposition or conjecture.

The most objectionable and dangerous polarised view is held by those who would make early years education almost entirely formal in nature.  These must surely be either people who were themselves denied the joys of playful discovery in childhood or who see education as a kind of conveyor belt or assembly line.  And to those who say that class size really doesn’t matter, I say that depends on the mode of teaching.  Picture a lecture theatre full of 5 year olds.

To get a glimpse of teaching and learning in my school, see our video.

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School Leadership – Career Progression or Career Termination?

This was my speech to NAHT National Conference 2015, Liverpool, 2nd May 2015.

  • A message to the headteacher considering taking on the headship of a school in challenging circumstances…
  • Congratulations!  You’ve mastered your juggling act.  You’ve mastered plate-spinning.  You’ve been told that you are an outstanding performer.  Now for a real challenge – the tight-rope.  All you have to do is forge a straight path without stumbling.  At the other side you will be rewarded with a true sense of pride and achievement and a standing ovation.  Go on – you can do it!  But I should just mention a couple of things.  There is no net to catch you if you should stumble or fall.  And the circus ring-master is a little impatient; he won’t tolerate it if you should take a little too long to reach your target.
  • Why are fewer deputies aspiring to headship?
  • Why are some headships difficult to recruit to?
  • Is it that the current system of school inspection and accountability is increasingly a deterrent to ambition?
  • A narrow set of accountability measures combined with political agendas are making it increasingly precarious for anyone to take on the tightrope walk of leading a school in challenging circumstances.
  • Headteachers who take up post in challenging school settings, regardless of their established standing or reputation, can swiftly be relabelled according to the school’s most recent inspection category.  This can allow insufficient time for a long-term strategy of improvement to take effect before a downward spiral of stigma and pessimism takes over, undermining the headteacher in the eyes of the community he or she serves, and ultimately impairing the school’s progress.
  • Conversely, the reputation of a new headteacher who takes up post in a school which is already well established as a “good” or “outstanding” school, can benefit from this strong starting point, providing he or she maintains all that is good.
  • This state of affairs trivialises what is a complex and demanding undertaking and may in fact discourage or deter headteachers from taking on schools in the most challenging circumstances.  We all know that sustainable, long-term school improvement requires phenomenal insight, ingenuity, dedication, and skill, securing the commitment of an entire community to a shared vision.
  • It is essential that any future system of school inspection actually motivates heads to take on schools in challenging circumstances, seeing it as a career progression, rather than a high-stakes gamble which could culminate in career termination.
  • Stigmatising a school to the extent that community support for that school evaporates is counter-productive and pulls the rug from under a programme of school improvement.
  • As we have heard our president say – “Ofsted no longer has anything to do with school improvement – it’s become punitive and we have lost faith in it.”
  • Inspection judgements should be based on broad ranging measures including an appraisal of school ethos and culture, high quality professional development opportunities and most importantly, strategic planning which is likely to bring about long-term improvements.
  • We therefore call upon national executive to campaign to ensure that any future system of school inspection or peer review gives credit for long-term vision, tenacity, ingenuity, and which takes account of the particular challenges presented by each unique school setting.  We must replace an inspection culture characterised by denigration and doubt with one of expectation and faith in strong school leadership to stay the course and finish the job.
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High Performance – Without the Shouting

As with achieving sporting success, a mixture of scientific understanding, patience and hard work is needed to create the best conditions for effective learning.

Take reading, for example. As a teacher of 6 & 7 year olds I continually had the privilege of seeing the lights come on as each child reached the point of “reading readiness”. Up to that point, some parents worry that their child is falling “behind” in learning at an early age. But then, through a combination of skillful teaching, maturity and patient nurturing, reading suddenly makes sense to their child, and they’re off!

Children who have books read to them from an early age, who learn that books contain magic and wonder, who learn that books are a window into a vast world full of possibilities, who visit the local library, who receive books as gifts – I’ve seen for myself that these children have the foundations for success in literacy at GCSE and beyond, regardless of the age in years and months at which they become fluent readers. But I’m also convinced that if we push “too much, too soon,” we risk undermining confidence and interest in reading.

From birth onwards, children have the ability to detect anxiety in the adults who care for them; it is a basic survival instinct. In the same way that adults can pass on a fear of spiders, adult anxiety about early learning can result in children developing self-doubt or even cause them to “switch-off” rather than risk being deemed a failure. This is why it can be extremely unhelpful to children’s later progress if they are harried and nagged to engage in a formal approach to learning before they are ready. It is more helpful, by far, to create in them such a hunger for learning, that when they are given the opportunity to learn such an important skill as reading, they simply devour books.

This month, a group of 127 experts, in an open letter, have called upon the government to rethink its policies on early learning. The signatories of the letter are experienced and knowledgable people driven by extremely high aspirations for learners. In their letter, they compare our education system with Scandinavian systems in which formal education begins at 6 or 7, but which “consistently achieve better educational results as well as higher levels of wellbeing”. The letter was dismissed out of hand.

I am tired of hearing government spokespeople shouting down anyone who cites research evidence contradicting their own polices. They do so by belittling them with ridiculous retorts, such as accusing them of seeking to “lower expectations”, as though they have the monopoly on “high expectations”. This is utter nonsense. Why would a group of academics, teachers, authors and charity directors who have devoted their professional lives to the cause of improving education – with more experience in education than the politicians who criticise them – seek a “dumbing down”? These people are lambasted for merely questioning the wisdom of policies often based on simplistic assumptions, dressed as evidence and cloaked in rhetoric.

In long jump, to leap further you take a long run-up and jump as late as possible before crossing the line. Not so in education, according to the policy makers, who assume that to achieve better grades children must simply jump sooner and higher.

In the same way that skilled sports coaches help athletes understand how to tune their bodies for high performance, effective teachers help learners to tune their minds for effective learning. But unlike the policy makers, teachers also know that simply shouting “higher, faster” is not enough.

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Keeping Learners in the Driving Seat

When you are “in the zone” and focused on a task, it can be frustrating when someone interrupts your thinking to ask a question.  To ask “do you have a minute?” can feel awkward when asked of someone who is clearly ensconced.   But on this occasion I was the one interrupting…

I had the great privilege of talking to some very sophisticated learners between the ages of 9 and 11.  Their brief required them to keep within a budget to meet a client’s complex requirements.  Powers of reason, mathematics, communication and negotiation skills all came into play to tackle this extremely complex task; a task which had them completely absorbed.

So when I interrupted, the workers very courteously downed tools momentarily.  Their answers to my questions were concise, considered, articulate and well-reasoned (see below).  Then, with just enough of a pause to be polite, they were off again, ignoring my presence as best they could and getting on with their learning with a strong sense of collaborative urgency and purpose.

I’ll come to the subject of my questions and their answers in a moment, which are remarkable in themselves.  But even more significant to me are the sophistication and drive with which the children worked and the pedagogical approach which facilitates it.

At present, there seems to be a polarised debate developing about the relative merits of different modes of teaching and learning.  On one side of the argument are those who advocate the teaching of skills which enable pupils to learn for themselves.  Opposing this view are those who are arguing that it is more efficient to uphold the traditional view of the teacher as the knowledgeable expert who imparts high standards of literacy, mathematics and general knowledge.  In the middle are those who consider that both modes have value to a lesser or greater extent.

At the heart of this debate there appears to be fundamental differences of understanding about the purpose of education: whether it is a purely academic pursuit or preparation for success in its broadest sense.  When I observed this lesson in progress it left me in no doubt about my own convictions:  that we best serve our learners when we empower them to such an extent that they are in the driving seat of their own learning.  But who disagrees with the need to master core skills of literacy and maths, or says that factual knowledge is not useful?

Consider the educational approach of Tertiary institutions such as our great universities.  Here the learning diet consists of lectures or master-classes, in which the teacher is the expert imparting their extensive erudition.  But the majority of the student’s time is spent in self-directed learning, coursework or assignments.  Therefore, it seems reasonable to argue that it is correct for primary and secondary teachers to aspire to a similar balance in order to achieve accelerated learning.  For primary pupils to be hungry for learning and have the nimbleness of mind to tackle complex tasks without much recourse to their teacher – surely attributes which will prove to be assets when these young people are gaining employment in a few years’ time?

Now, what were my questions to these industrious young people?  I was interrogating them on the subject of their allocation to working groups as determined by the teacher.  I asked them what they thought of this procedure.

“I prefer to choose to work with my friends,” said one, but continued: “although you do learn who is good to work with.”

“If you are with your friends you are more likely to argue,” said another.  “If you are not, you just have to get on.”

The responses continued as follows:

  • you get to cooperate with different people;
  • you get new ideas;
  • we all work well together;
  • you mess around more if you are with your choice of friends.

I believe that these young people will stand the strongest chance of success in the workplace by being both highly literate and skilled in mathematics, as well as having developed the motivation, initiative, flexibility, collaborative skills, self-awareness and capacity to learn which I saw demonstrated in this lesson.

I’ll try not to make a habit of interrupting the learning too often.

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