Why primary school leaders should seek out and hire those subject specialist teachers.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last year or so, you’ll be aware that the Ofsted framework is changing. I’ll admit, I wouldn’t need an Ofsted framework to force me to look at the substance of curriculum or to ensure that school culture develops the (scholarly) whole child because I already believe in it wholeheartedly. This is the evidence informed approach that, for me, boils down to thinking about what the children are thinking about at all times of the school day, including during transitions. It’s an interesting thought process that seems to add clarity to my continual questioning of accepted ‘best practice’ or ideology and I am aware that my perspective seems radically different to the majority of educators. In this blog, I’m going to make the case for hiring subject specialists to teach in primary schools and I’m hoping, fingers crossed, that school leaders will actively seek out and entice those subject specialists to perhaps switch from working in secondary schools to working in primary schools.

Science laboratory research and development concept. microscope with test tubes

What I have found is that I can tell when an older KS2 cohort has been taught by a subject specialist. I remember one cohort a few years ago who were all super keen on history and also seemed to know a lot about the scientific aspects of engineering. I knew their former teachers: one was a historian and one was a former engineer. Coincidence? I don’t think so. Sure, they were also very experienced teachers who knew what was what when it came to behaviour management, but when the baton was passed to me and I taught those children any aspect of history or science, their brains lit up and they were making more connections compared with the cohort I had taught before them who had not been taught by those two teachers. When any child answered, it was almost like I could hear the typical words and sentence structures of these two teachers and it was uncanny.

I’m pretty lucky in that I have a few subject specialisms to offer, but I would say my significant offering to that particular cohort was music: I took them on a journey from vicious hatred of music lessons to driving their parents mad by repeatedly playing the Star Wars theme tune on the recorder and generally loving reading, playing and performing music on both the ukulele and the recorder. It was a very special moment when the entire class got to dress up (the boys all wore tuxedos and the girls all wore ball gowns) and perform in the evening music recital which had hitherto been the preserve of those children who were being taught by the peripatetic music teachers.

The reason those children didn’t like music initially was that they didn’t have much knowledge and could only play three notes on a recorder, so they were very, very frustrated. They wanted to experience success and I knew that what they needed was not to be fobbed off with opportunities to be experimental or feel good in the moment, but to be given real knowledge (both know-how and know-that) and the opportunities to rehearse that knowledge to the point of automaticity. And then they could get experimental. The whole process also really helped to develop their scholarly dispositions because of the very demanding expectations to concentrate. They also suddenly became very supportive of each other as they saw how this ‘everybody on the same bus’ approach enabled the children with SEN to shine and for the nerds to be humbled because ‘banana-fingers’ tended to happen when you were too confident and tried to rush ahead! Who knew that a knowledge-rich curriculum coupled to evidence-informed pedagogy could also be good for mental health and social skills, eh?

Based on the above personal experiences and from what I have read about the importance of knowledge, the ideal, I believe, is for there to be a balance of subject specialists in primary schools so that as children go up through the year groups, they benefit from the sparkle of subject expertise in each subject area. What I found is that both children and their parents then looked forward to being in my class the next year because it was like the ‘extra special thing’ for that year group. And yes, before you ask, of course I taught all the other subjects too. What you also get as a bonus when hiring a subject specialist teacher, is someone who can lead that subject for the school. They can ensure the curriculum is well sequenced and that includes providing advice on teaching, resources, planning and assessment. What I have found is that even when teachers are given access to a well-resourced and sequenced curriculum and know that knowledge needs to be imparted, there is still a big need for CPD on evidence-informed pedagogy and short-term planning.

A typical pedagogical problem is when a teacher is adapted to constantly trying to win the attention of children by teaching through asking endless discovery questions or through planning for what children are going to be doing and feeling rather than what children are going to be thinking. There are a few reasons why a teacher might have adapted this way that I won’t go into now*, but for school leaders up and down the country, I would say this latter aspect of planning for what children are going to think about rather than what they are going to do or feel is but one of many subtle yet dramatic shifts in approach that needs to happen to put the substance of the curriculum at the heart of what we do. I should also point out that I am a big believer in second chances and the importance of winning hearts and minds first and foremost when it comes to staff development. Teachers are adults, not toddlers, therefore the logic and purpose of any change or initiative, which should be all about what is best for curating the memories of children rather than pleasing Ofsted or consultants/advisers, needs to be explained and who better to explain that than a subject specialist who is passionate about their subject? Likewise, typical misconceptions and worries that teachers might have** can be thought about before they arise.

Over the years, I’ve heard a common argument against hiring and promoting subject specialists which is that these subject specialists were somehow born naturally good at their subject and therefore don’t understand how young children might struggle. The thinking is that they would then either frighten children off that subject or bore them with ‘dry’ rote learning. This is an accusation most often leveled against mathematicians and there are probably a fair few mathematicians up and down the country who may have been prevented from become primary subject leads in their schools as a result. I’m hoping that this will also change as the new framework moves in and leaders realise just how valuable their primary teachers with degrees in maths, history, sciences, languages are.

Subject specialists love their subject and tend to foster a love of learning that subject in the children they teach. Let’s give them those opportunities to feel valued and bring extra sparkle to children’s education.

Who’s with me?

*A very interesting metric that could be developed by inspectors/advisers could measure the degree to which teachers have adapted in this way. What it would show is (for experienced teachers) how the culture and leadership of the school is behind the scenes or (for NQTs) what they’d been taught and inculcated on their ITT course.

**A typical misconception is that you can’t have, for example, a bit of drama in a history lesson.

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How can a five year old manage this expectation?

A few months ago, I decided to learn Arabic. I’m just about able to fight the urge to procrastinate when it comes to retrieval practice, but it is still really difficult to learn. It’s like I’m five years old again and it’s a fascinating experience because it tells me so much, first hand, about why phonics is really important. There’s something else that became apparent when I first learned how to form the letters – I just couldn’t practice my letter formation when people were talking and moving around me. Funnily enough, it’s the same when I am trying to read simple sentences because I have to concentrate so much to sound out in my head and blend and I am so unbelievably slow that I have to go over and over the same sentence in order to a) work out how it sounds and then b) work out what the words mean. It is incredibly frustrating and when at home, on my own, the temptation is to do the bare minimum and then have a glass of wine, particularly if people are buzzing about around me and occasionally interjecting with questions about what’s for dinner.

In order to be successful when practising my Arabic reading and writing, I need silence. I need to concentrate. The acts of early reading and writing involve almost meditative levels of focus and when I am in class and the teacher instructs us to read and translate a paragraph, or write some simple sentences, we all fall to complete silence. This is despite the teacher saying that we can chat among ourselves to find the answers. Who are we? We are engineers, accountants, educators, consultants – relative experts in our field and yet when it comes to learning this language we are all five year olds again, making silly mistakes and feeling incredibly frustrated.

arabic
See if you can spot my mistakes

Our progress is painfully slow. Along the way, some have given up and not returned to class. Along the way, those of us who are doing more practice outside of class are edging ahead and are more confident in class – this causes the less confident to hold back even more. I can see it happening. It’s like a mini ecosystem of learners and you can predict who is going to end up achieving highly and who is going to reach a cul-de-sac of learning and bail out at some point in the near future.

You know I’m going to start talking about reception year. For me, this experience gives me insight into the the frustration that a typical five year old feels. If we look at single letter formation, when you are first learning those letters, they do actually look very similar to each other and it’s so easy to get confused. Also, if you don’t pay attention to the initial instruction as to the exact sizing, position and direction of the pencil stroke, then you will create a bum letter that you rehearse over and over which is then very difficult to re-learn. The teacher must see what you are doing at all times so that she can correct you as soon as you make a mistake.

Knowing and experiencing the above, I feel it is a miracle that any five year old is able to learn and rehearse the code or letter, word and sentence formation in a typical reception year setting where continuous provision is the main mode for rehearsal of the basics. The ones who are able to carve out a path ahead of others typically have the following attributes in place before they start school

  • Ability to communicate (vocab and social rules already learned to automaticity)
  • Higher levels of concentration/focus
  • Respect for authority
  • Knowledge/recognition of letters and sounds already taught to them by parents
  • Ability to sit properly at a table for short stretches of time without fidgeting or constantly putting their hands on everything and everyone
  • Ability to hold a pencil properly

For these children, there is a little extra cognitive load ‘space’ where the usual noise and hubbub of a reception year classroom does not impact so much on their ability to rehearse what has been taught to them. I often wonder whether overall intelligence as measured in later years is really a manifestation of ability to concentrate in the toddler and early school years – those children who are able to intensify their learning experience just because they are better able to hone in on the teacher so that for any unit of time, they are extracting and assimilating more knowledge than their peers. Further, their increased confidence that comes through witnessing their own progress (and getting positive feedback) means that they are more likely to choose the activities that require counting, writing, reading etc.

There is so much in this situation that is left to chance and despite being told over and over again that children learn best through play, I simply cannot agree that the vital ingredients of academic success should be left to chance in this way, not only because it ignores what we know about cognitive load, but also because academic success is predicated on scholarly dispositions and the latter is definitely not inculcated with continuous provision – so many five year olds would be drawn to messing about which is the equivalent of us adults having a glass of wine and putting the telly on instead of practising our Arabic! I did some work experience at a private school during my SCITT year (had to get special permission for this) and they basically had formal learning for what needed to be taught and rehearsed to automaticity and then plenty of play and downtime for the children (‘Oh no no dahling, we do things differently’). Reading, writing, mathematics, stories and religious/scientific/humanities knowledge were special, respected, exciting, hallowed even – certainly presented as interesting in its own right and not needing to be ‘hidden’ on a table of toys masquerading as counters.

A few months ago, I was asked if I’d like to visit an EYFS setting that had been attended by royalty – I was told that it was trad all the way. You know, I think that it shouldn’t just be the children of society’s elite that experience the best start – it should be all children and parents certainly should know about and be allowed the genuine choice here…..

Who’s with me?

 

Keeping everyone on the knowledge bus

We all know that Ofsted are changing their approach come this September and that there will be more of a focus on curriculum ‘substance’, and lately I have been wondering whether we should also think again about how we meet the needs of children with SEN. I like the bus analogy; for me, inclusion means doing as much as we can to include all children on the same learning journey, rather than creating a thousand different learning journeys and all those children just happen to be in the same room. I thought I’d share a few aspects of what we do in our school as well as my own slightly more radical thoughts on how we can be more inclusive.

I would wager that in every primary school in this country, children with SEN are being given extra support with their reading, writing and mathematics (as well as a multitude of other interventions). Teachers will also provide scaffolds, work with those children while the rest of the class is getting on with their practice, target extra questioning, ensure they get the majority of the reading volunteer’s support in the afternoon etc. Even without a piece of paper stipulating the extra provision the child is entitled to in school, teachers will adapt and personalise education for children with SEN in their class partly because they are professionals and partly because they are kind people who genuinely want what is best for all children.

It’s this adaptation that I see as really effective when I observe lessons. It helps that I know all the children who are in need of extra support and I can see that targeted questioning, the provision of scaffolds, the extra rehearsal of vocabulary that teachers are seamlessly weaving into their practice. An outside observer may not see it though. A certain kind of teaching style is also proven to be more effective: there are approaches that keep everyone on the bus rather than let the higher achievers fly off at the expense of other children falling behind. For example, choral response, explicit teaching and the provision of plenty of practice. If you have a noisy classroom and lots of low level disruption, that approach won’t be possible and you’ll probably end up resorting to a carousel approach which then allows some children to hide in those unseen moments and spaces, opting out wherever possible and never learning to concentrate.

I would argue that one the best things school leaders can do to provide a more inclusive knowledge-rich education for children with SEN is to ensure that the culture, routines and rules of the school are sufficiently rehearsed such that there are moments of zen-like calm that allow that uninterrupted, intellectual thought for all. It is during these moments that children with SEN can hear one crystal clear voice of the teacher and then get on with their independent work without their more confident and already-knowledgeable friends disturbing them. If those children are not making good enough progress every time we analyse the standardised scores of the end of term tests, maybe it is not the teachers’ fault, but the culture of the school that is holding those children back – thankfully, Ofsted will also be giving this crucial aspect of whole-child education greater weighting come this September. There is also a need for us leaders to ensure that our most vulnerable children are free from worry about moments of the day that are relatively unstructured, such as transitions in corridors and this is part of the reason why I am a big fan of a rather old-fashioned approach to corridor rules and routines. All it takes it one tiny kerfuffle, breach of personal space or silly/inappropriate comment and a child with SEN is then spending the lesson not thinking about the knowledge, but thinking about whether someone might ‘bump’ into them again. Children with SEN need us adults to protect them from that.

Of course, we also need to close gaps if we want children with SEN to have more confidence in class, but I wonder whether our approach of providing overlearning opportunities by mostly catching them up should be switched completely by mostly providing opportunities to overlearn in advance of lessons (aka pre-teaching). You know, just flip it all around. The assumption here is that we are in agreement that many children with SEN need additional teaching and practice in order to proceed through and be able to access the curriculum at the same rate as their peers. I’ve also been thinking about the psychological implications of catch-up and close-gap interventions for children with SEN vs. using mostly pre-teaching. I think the former fosters passivity, dependence and low self-esteem. Where is the empathy here for what the child is thinking and experiencing?

I’ll give you a simple maths example so you get where I’m coming from: a very young child with SEN is given some extra time working on their number bonds within 10 and anything else he didn’t quite get in the previous day’s maths lesson during the morning registration period, as per the SENDCo’s recommendation. Then, in their main maths lesson, all the children are working on applying their number bonds within 11 – 15. From the child’s perspective, he’s got more to think about and remember than the average child, plus he struggles to remember anyway, so the number bonds that he’s tried to learn in assembly would probably fall out of his head as he works on different number bonds with the TA’s support in the main class. Looking at this very small but crucial aspect of core knowledge, this is probably another reason why said children end up constantly counting up and down on their fingers. However, for me, it is the psychology of that situation that is most interesting – they’re always on the back foot and always needing support and then catch up, so they feel inferior and in order to manage the extra requirements to learn more material per unit of time (1 day), they outsource some of the cognitive load to whoever is around them in order to cope: they become passive and more dependent on adults.

How about this instead: the child with SEN is provided with lesson material in advance of lessons as a de facto ‘intervention’. I think parents would be more likely to help in this situation because they would absolutely love the idea of giving their child a head start on all the confident and loud children in the classroom. If we go back to that very simple maths example, if the TA knew that the child was going to have to add 4 to 9, then he could provide that exact calculation during the assembly/early morning intervention time. When the child is in his main maths class, they are not only being provided with overlearning opportunities, but the opportunity to feel incredibly confident in front of their peers and this is massively powerful for engagement.

Now, you might be thinking that the approach above is cheating somehow. If they knew that 4 add 9 was coming up in their lesson, then instead of working it out in their main maths lesson, they might just be ‘lazy’ and try to commit the maths fact to memory and then recall it at the salient point, say, when the teacher gives an example of a word problem which requires adding 4 to 9. Well, what is wrong with that? I wonder whether there is too much emphasis on children constantly working everything out as if this demonstration of understanding is the most commonly accepted ‘evidence’ of learning. Perhaps what is required is a collective shift in thought over this – ‘understanding’ is a fleeting moment, whereas learning is a long term change in memory and practice is what makes the difference: you only know if a child has really learned something if that something is still indelibly printed in his mind weeks and months later. If the child began to realise that it’s really worth paying attention during those interventions, then they’d be more engaged. If they knew they were going into the main lesson armed with knowledge, they’d also be looking forward to some positive airtime and respect from peers and this might stop them from wanting to misbehave to get attention. They’d be on alert for the moment when that little piece of knowledge might be deployed and then they would have their moment to shine.

I think it is the same with the foundation subject lessons too. Referring to the above ‘cheating’ comment, let us think about that one child who is so enthusiastic in our history lessons. You know the one who is chomping at the bit to hijack the teacher’s instruction and get into a discussion about the salient points of medieval history that have piqued their interest. The teacher is compelled to give this dear sweet child that extra attention because ‘it would be such a shame to hold them back’. But where did this child obtain this enhanced schema that lights up so brightly during history lessons? How are they so eloquent in their written and oral communication? The answer is through wider reading and intellectual conversation, usually at home. Is that not ‘cheating’? We just say they’re naturally gifted somehow and isn’t it so wonderful that they’re engaged and enthusiastic, unlike Tommy here who doesn’t seem to follow or understand.

Assuming you’re still with me at this point, you’re probably now wondering about practicalities. Unlike some education consultants, both you and I are probably in agreement that we do not possess the ability to alter the space-time continuum during the school day, so how can we provide that advanced overlearning for children with SEN as an entitlement? Just off the top of my head, I can see the worth of perhaps giving those 6 children a slightly extended day and they could come into school half an hour earlier. The teacher would then provide some extra retrieval practice and then pre-teach, using some interesting pictures, objects or stories, some of what will come up in the afternoon’s foundation subject lessons. They could have a few moments rehearsing and reciting some simple sentences and they could maybe write those sentences too. However, there is the fact that primary teachers typically get into work for about 7.30am and start work immediately. Tacking on an extra half hour of teaching is not impossible, but without careful consideration of workload implications, we would burn up all goodwill and enthusiasm, particularly if we forget to give praise and thanks to teachers for their hard work – that extra time would need to be sacred, not subject to constant interruption of noise, or random throwing in of extra children to appease pushy parents. How could we save the teachers half an hour of prep every morning? Well, many teachers have to create and then photocopy worksheets and resources, so why not invest and provide something more for them that is ready to use.

OK, if the extra provision isn’t possible, then really the only option is to recruit an oft overlooked asset and ally: parents. ‘Yes, but you’re getting the parents to do your job for you’ is the easy reply. Again, let us think about that ‘natural’ historian identified earlier: their parents have always purposefully taught their child extra knowledge in the home, so why not give parents of children with SEN the same secrets to success. All it would take is for the SENDCo to talk to the person in charge of the long term curriculum, for parents of children with SEN to be brought in and to receive an information session about what their child will be learning in the next half term with signposting to good books and TV programmes, and then for teachers to produce little slips daily with vocabulary and knowledge to rehearse in simple sentences that could then be used in the next lesson. Imagine the conversations that would result! The key to the success of this is the fact that parents of children with SEN would be empowered to give their child a head start on every one else, or at least be able to stand on their own two feet without having to always sit with the TA or the teacher. I’ll never forget the moment of joy when an older girl with an EHCP in the first class I ever taught ditched her one-to-one TA and decided to do her maths test with a group of rambunctious boys instead – a massive turnaround given when I first met her and she would cry when leaving her mum in the morning. This is a very powerful narrative indeed because I’ve always thought that the underlying psychology of parents’ complaints about provision for their child with SEN is more to do with a worry that their child will look and feel inferior to their peers, possibly even be bullied about it. What they want, rightly, is for their child to be happy and have friends like all the other neurotypical children and at the root of their ‘demands’ for more help, more resources, more one-to-one time is deep heartache for their child.

We have the power to turn this around by giving those children overlearning in the form of advanced knowledge.

Who’s with me?

Has behaviour got worse?

I saw this question on twitter and thought I’d write something! The answer, which we all kind of agree on, is both yes and no. This is probably going to be another one of those posts that no one dares retweet, but which gets thousands of views and I’ll receive a flurry of private comments from front line staff who know exactly what I’m talking about.

We’ve definitely moved on from that time when the local comprehensive on the wrong side of town was literally the school of hard knocks, particularly if it was an all-boys school. My husband, and probably many other men of his age and background who were at secondary school in the 70s and 80s, had his nose broken even though he’s really one of the loveliest, kindest people I’ve met (and he puts up with me, which is saying something). What has changed since then? I genuinely wonder whether there is another factor at play, perhaps one that is biological in origin that would shift the normal distribution of male aggression to the, er, ‘left’? There’s this whole subsection of educational theory I have which is centred around the steady decline of T levels in the male population and the possible implications (such as effects on cognitive function – fascinating) for that, but I once got ticked off by a devout Christian last time I talked about it in the staff room. Apparently, talking about that aspect of biology is not ‘appropriate’, so I will just have to leave you all to ponder the fact that I believe the absolute decline of the ‘school of hard knocks’ has a biochemical rather than a mostly  cultural/social/political origin.

However, I do think that low level disruption is getting worse, or rather, teachers are having to work harder to keep a lid on it all. The increase is steady over time and is a major factor I believe in the increasing rates of teacher burnout. The reason for the increase in low level disruption is because of changes in parenting style (a steady trend towards wholly following the child’s wants and needs, waiting for everything including civilised behaviour and communication to develop naturally) and societal opinion towards educators and authority in general. This has meant that many children’s underlying thinking habits have flipped completely. In the recent past, you know, when we were children, the default modus operandi was to behave because we all seemed to have more of a conscience, the possibility of feeling shame and a little bit of fear of the teacher (or failing that, the headteacher) who may tell our parents and then we’d get a double ticking off if we misbehaved or were disrespectful; now, the default modus operandi for many children is to do their own thing, constantly in scan mode for the slightest chink in the armour of the adult in the room, or a window of opportunity when the adult isn’t looking. They don’t have the habit of obedience and automatically doing the right thing any more.

I don’t have much proof of this because no one’s been measuring over the years (sorry), but I do have a very valuable source: a plethora of teaching assistants I have met who have worked in schools for 20 or 30 odd years. They shake their heads and tell me that the way children (and parents) are has definitely changed. The insouciance of even the youngest children is, for many teachers and teaching assistants, both frightening and disheartening, and then when they tell the parents about an incident, the parents either point the finger of blame at the school, the leaders and the teacher, or makes excuses for their child. Many people will read this and attack me personally or try to punish me for my observations because I have committed the heinous crime of failing to see all children as angels, but I assure you I am entirely neutral, observant and analytical – this is not the children’s fault (I can’t emphasise this enough). It is the fault of a cowardly society that let them toddle onto their own path of development and make their own choices over and over again even though they were immature and lacked wisdom, perspective and experience. Basically, hardly anyone wants to tell children what to do and those that do are made to feel ashamed about it. We’ve all been infected with a kind of constant guilt that only the Catholics would truly understand; hell, we feel guilty about just giving children knowledge (ie that other heinous crime of ‘telling children what to think’), never mind telling them they can’t swing their jumper at their friend’s head because needs.

It is up to us leaders to ratchet up the rules and routines in order to do what we can to make things safe and to prioritise the learning, and then teachers support this by building an inclusive team spirit in their class – as for the underlying psychology, now that is slightly more difficult to change and this is the reason why I believe school culture is paramount. It is no panacea though.

There are a couple of other factors that I believe contribute to a general worsening of behaviour. The first is to do with simple lifestyle and nutrition: modern parents have been led to believe that children need less sleep and on top of that let children choose (there’s that choice thing again) bedtimes, as well as their food. The result is tired children who exist on nuggets and chips. Further, I think that children are increasingly insulin resistant through constant snacking/grazing, such that they are more and more likely to be riding a blood sugar rollercoaster. The thing about dips in blood sugar is that they are implicated in meltdowns and general irrational behaviour, particularly during the hormonal surges and increased energy demands of puberty – you absolutely cannot reason with a child at that point and yet we educators insist on having an intellectual discussion with a very young child who has lost the plot because they are utterly exhausted and hangry. If the child hasn’t been taught to self-regulate such that self-regulation is a habit, then you’ve got the ingredients for lashing out.

Finally, and I know I seem to be constantly banging this drum here, there is the impact of massive increase in screentime and screen addiction in the very youngest of children that secondary teachers and leaders have yet to come across. Aside from not being able to concentrate because nothing is as stimulating as the crack cocaine of entertainment (the video game and the youtube clips) and aside from not being used to looking at a face and knowing all those subtle facial expressions because we’ve even been on the tablet computer at the dinner table, we also have the side effect that children just don’t read or look at books or play/invent games with their siblings/friends as much these days. This means that while schools might be making great headway with teaching children the mechanics of reading (phonics), there is a steady decline in average rate of accumulation of knowledge and vocabulary that comes from reading books on a regular basis and an absolute reduction in the numbers of children who achieve all three facets of reading competency that makes a truly fluent reader: decoding, knowledge and associated vocabulary, and the habit of reading for pleasure that comes through sheer practice. This manifests in poor comprehension (don’t understand what’s going on) and poor creativity in terms of story writing (got no ideas). What’s this got to do with behaviour? In my opinion, an awful lot. If a child knows he’s not as good as others, then he’ll find other ways to gain their approval (through messing about). If a child can’t access the learning and feels so frustrated that he gives up, then he will find other things to do according to what he defaults to, which is messing about. Sometimes children develop the habit of just running out of class and then running becomes a thing that they do.

So, based on the above, what are my recommendations for improving behaviour?

  • Make reading fluency the priority and that means increasing/diverting funding to reception year/Year 1 in primary schools, particularly schools in WWC disadvantaged areas where parents themselves are not fluent readers. This is because the process of becoming a fluent reader needs really intensive adult input until reading becomes a habit and children find it easy and enjoyable. One teacher and half a TA with thirty children is not enough to mitigate for 60 odd care-givers who have partially or wholly signed off on the whole rules n routines (including bedtime story) thing.
  • Just as a headteacher needs to have a powerful vision that unites all teachers for a worthy cause and ensures that they are all working towards realising that vision as a team, we also really need some kind of national education leader that has a powerful vision that ensures all, INCLUDING PARENTS, are working towards realising that vision. If you look at Charter (sorry Barry to rope you in here), all the teachers are working hard as well as the leaders – it’s certainly not the case that the HT has said teachers can kick back and enjoy the good behaviour ride. If we extrapolate to a national scale, the equivalent of the HT has told the equivalent of the teachers that they can absolutely kick back and enjoy while everyone else does all the hard work of facilitating their child’s divine right to experience constant happiness and praise. Parents need to be galvinised and that needs to involve some honesty and higher expectations.

Who’s with me?

 

The power of a school’s reputation should galvanise the pupils themselves……..

We all want and need great leaders – people who possess a vision that fills us with hope, can give us a sense of belonging and who have the ability to rally us all with their powerful speeches, evidence of trustworthiness and general clout. These days, it seems as if our nation’s leaders fall short on all counts and instead we are immersed in a narrative that reminds us how weak and needy we are and how we all need to be saved, protected from ourselves. Rather than a ‘we can do it if we work together as a team‘, we have ‘you can’t do anything, so we need to do it all for you‘ that everyone seems to love.

Compare this to war time when bombs where dropping on London: did we all just lie down and die? No. We sang songs, shared precious resources via rationing, sent our children into the countryside, turned off the lights and grew our own vegetables. Of course, it is easy to look back through tinted lenses and romanticise what was a traumatic time for so many, but I genuinely think that if we were faced with the same threat today, we wouldn’t be so communal about it all. That sense of belonging has all but been wiped out over the years and where our collective energy used to be devoted to The Team, we now expend enormous amounts of energy bickering among ourselves as we vie for the position of most put upon and discriminated against, going around accusing ‘others’ of not giving us enough special treatment or handouts to the point where people are now genuinely arguing about pronouns.

Schools, I think, are a microcosm of all this. Looking at so many school websites you will see generic taglines using one, some or all of the following words: learning, love, life, respect, achieve, together, success…..these grand statements surely can’t have much substance if the reputation of the school doesn’t back up the statement? I could bet a million pounds that if I turned up at a random school and interviewed a few parents they wouldn’t tell me that the reputation of their son or daughter’s particular school was such that all children became curious, lifelong learners. There’s only really one group of state schools with a cast-iron reputation that precedes them – the Catholic schools. Why is this?

I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was very lucky to attend a Catholic secondary school. I was one of the very few non-Catholics (we were church attenders though) who was offered a chance to interview for a rare year 7 place and I glided in off the back of the fact that I genuinely loved learning, could recite huge chunks of the old King Jame Bible and also played the recorder. Sure, I had to prove that I wouldn’t wreck the academic vibes, but the majority of the school had secured a place through being Catholic and were drawn from working class or immigrant homes. However, the school’s reputation was strictly academic. We girls beholden to a higher standard and we (mostly) bought into that. So did our parents. If we didn’t, then a stern nun would remind us – we girls were better than that. It was just the way it was and nobody really questioned it; this was despite the fact that many of us had what some modern educators would view as genuine excuses to not do well academically or even ‘act out’ in the classroom and disrupt others’ learning. The culture of the school, the academic ethos and the vision unified us girls in our mission to achieve, achieve, achieve. We delivered those results and in so doing passed on the baton of the school’s reputation to future generations.

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It was this very scholarly culture that caused us all to put our worries to one side, unite and work towards a higher purpose of acquiring knowledge and then going on to forge our paths in the world. Some of us wanted to be scientists, some of us wanted to be economists – whatever we want to be, we wanted to be the best. The culture of the school didn’t just cause us to invest our energies in academic pursuits, it also caused us to stop investing so much of our energy in pursuits that were, in the grand scheme of things, pretty pointless, such as treating every day like a fashion show, trying to get a boyfriend or generally feeling sorry for ourselves (and lots of us had genuine reasons to feel sorry for ourselves). Furthermore, the fact that our sights were set on achieving academically also protected us from the seductive forces of evil that were literally on our doorstep: the gang culture, the knives, the crime and the drugs.

At no point did the teachers in our school have to put on extra revision sessions or teach small groups to try and chivvy some of us girls into getting the bare minimum standard. We girls didn’t need that because the culture and reputation of the school, the fact that we were united towards a higher purpose of academic achievement, compelled us to work hard. It stopped us from bickering among ourselves and it stopped our parents from bickering with the school.

Fast forward around a quarter of a century and I’m looking around schools before deciding to apply for my first paid teaching position. One of them is a Catholic primary school and I’m being shown around by the headteacher, a small woman with a big presence such that when we enter various rooms you can sense a slight intensification of productivity as everyone collectively ups their game. As we enter the year 6 classrooms, I notice the tables are all arranged in rows so that the children are facing the front. This is quite unusual for primary schools, so I say to the headteacher that I’m surprised to see this because the children would need to focus more and work harder as a result. This was her reply (something along the lines of):

‘Well of course. We’re a Catholic school. We have higher standards and we expect more.’

And that was it really and you couldn’t argue with it. What about the need for children to chat, share ideas (and copy each other)? We’re a Catholic school. What about those children who can’t concentrate because of x, y or z reason and therefore shouldn’t be expected to listen to an adult for any length of time? We’re a Catholic school.

These two experiences lead me to think about which state schools in the UK have a reputation and a USP that precedes them such that you know what you’re getting before you step through the front door. Michaela is one such school – the vision is very clear, that academic culture galvanises everyone and I mean everyone to invest energy towards a higher purpose of academic endeavour as well as the inculcation through various ingenious means of those traditionally British dispositions – politeness as a habit, waiting your turn, thinking of others and not of yourself, thinking before you speak, deference to authority. Charter, down at Yarmouth? Even the caretaker’s on board with the vision, such is it’s power to galvanise anyone and everyone who happens to be within earshot of Barry Smith and the students (about a ten mile radius when the poetry is being chanted). What do I learn from this? Firstly, that there is untapped energy, a well-spring of enthusiasm existing with pupils and their parents that could be directed toward the higher purpose of not just academic achievement, but in being a better person and having an overall positive effect on the world (here you can see I have an interest in Confucianism). Secondly, that people, children included, need a real leader and not a manager. Finally, what is needed from this leader is not so much a narrative about how much they can do for everyone and their problems, or how sorry they feel for them and how much they want their children to be happy all the time, but a courageous narrative that is causes everyone, including the pupils themselves, to put their problems, excuses and endless bickering to one side and to start working hard towards a higher purpose.

Because, as those fearsome nuns would say, we’re better than that.

Who’s with me?

 

 

 

 

Are they really learning, or have you (accidentally) planned for a 1000 inequalities?

WARNING: the content in this blog post is probably going to irk you (a bit).

This little piece of edu-thought is what happens when you read something like this and then are given the amazing opportunity to implement a direct instruction program of mathematics across most year groups in a primary school. I crudely crunched some year 5 PUMA data on Friday, during a pupil progress meeting, and even though I knew of the evidence base for direct instruction, I was truly shocked to see the increase in average standardised score across the cohort – from around 95 to over 100 in just a TERM. This is in a school situated in one of the most deprived estates in the country. The visual of all those reds and orange cells turning into green – massive, massive thanks to the hard working teachers, utter professionals who bought in to the vision and this project, trusted the evidence-base and then made sure that other aspects of the curriculum (the program intent is fluency in number, something that all secondary maths teachers would be on board with) were adequately covered as well. The privilege of overseeing such a dramatic reduction in inequality really got me thinking about the curricular and (somewhat unusual) pedagogical features of the program and how they contrast with what is generally considered ‘best practice’.

It is these features of best practice that I would like to highlight to you now and ask you to think about whether they are genuinely as good as is commonly perceived, but first you must choose to abandon the whole concept of ‘naturally good at….’ and consider that perhaps ‘not being good at…..’ is not so much about natural ability, but really a manifestation of a lack of: decent instruction, adequate practice and opportunities to reheat that knowledge at frequent intervals. Also, I need you to have the courage to question (you can do it quietly inside your head, no need to raise this in a staff meeting and make a pariah of yourself) what you have been told MUST happen in every lesson, whether it be for Ofsted, or because a consultant has told you, for example. I give you permission to think for yourself! In case you’re not aware, I should probably let you know that the features of the program are:

  • Carefully, oh so carefully, sequenced delivery of core knowledge, both ‘know that’ and ‘know how’, including how to solve word problems
  • Systematic retrieval practice that constitutes the majority of the calculations practice in a lesson: understanding is developed during that practice (connections are made) and core knowledge is transferred to all long term memories in the class
  • A script that cuts out the waffle, uses common words and phrases to dial down cognitive load and is so carefully thought out, that, if followed properly, misconceptions don’t arise in the first place. The teacher gives the children everything they need to know and at no time are children expected to discover for themselves
  • A lesson structure that is pretty much the same every lesson, thus eliminating the need for dead-time where the teacher would be explaining (over and over) what needs to be done
  • Via the script, interactions with children are more likely to be choral response (rehearsal for the many, not the few) and individual questioning uses cold-calling rather than ‘hands up if you’re the most confident and already know everything’. The script is planned at the level of children’s thoughts at any one time. This makes every lesson almost like a scene from the film Inception.
  • Throughout the lesson, the class stays on that learning bus together and no child is allowed to opt out or fall behind. The ‘practice’, to onlookers, seems ‘too easy’, but the program is designed for success now and transference of core knowledge to long term memory in order to ensure that each child can access those harder problem solving questions later on
  • Frequent whole-class marking and direct feedback to shimmy everyone along with pace and rigour

So, now you know the main features (yup, it’s very different, weird even), let’s look at just a few features of ‘best practice’ and really think about whether they’re as good as everyone says. What I’d like you to do is think not so much about what children are doing and feeling at any one point in lesson time, but about what they are thinking. Seriously, it’s only when you imagine yourself inside that child’s head that the full realisation of how we as a profession are not only entrenching, but possibly augmenting, inequality is revealed.

Choice:

Surely this is a good thing, right? Children know what’s best for them and being given choice makes them feel empowered and confident – everyone knows that! OK. So let’s get inside the children’s heads. You’ve just given children some carefully sequenced knowledge and now they’re ready to go practise, so you give them a choice of what to do, a ‘chili challenge’, perhaps. You might be the best teacher in the world that causes all children to automatically choose the best thing for them, but while you’re explaining the different challenges (and pleasing the inspector because differentiation), what are they thinking? They’re thinking about what chili challenge their friend is going to choose so that they can pick the same one. Whatever they’re thinking at that point, it’s not going to be about the little piece of knowledge you’ve just given them – it’s going to be anything but the knowledge.  For those disadvantaged children who have gaps in their learning and are struggling to hold on to what they’ve just been taught, being asked to choose what to do will cause that knowledge to fall out of their heads. This is one of the reasons why so many children, when finally sat down at their tables, end up sticking up their hands and saying ‘I don’t get it.’ The other thing to consider is the psychology of that situation: when we constantly give children choices like that we’re also teaching them to think the following:

  • That there is such a thing as natural ability – great for the (currently) high attainers*, but terrible for low attainers (who are over represented by the disadvantaged) who gradually give up
  • That natural ability also extends to ‘capacity to work hard’
  • That one should be expected to be given choices all the time that suit what one is feeling at the time (think about what happens when the child has to sit their exams)

Deviation from the ‘script’ via general conversation:

You’ve all heard of the Mathew Effect, right? Good. But have you thought about it in terms of conversations with various individuals in the class while the rest of the class is listening? This tends to happen when, during the main input, a high attaining child throws up their hand and the teacher momentarily deviates from her own plan of instruction (where she might have sort of made her own script in her head before the lesson) in order to answer a really interesting question, one that takes those involved in the conversation off on a joyous tangent of discovery and realisation where that warm, fuzzy feeling and ‘love of learning/maths’ is demonstrated to the person with the clipboard. Frequently, a few other children will also be able to join in with that thought process and will start calling out in an attempt to join in and feel the love because children are like that. But what are the other children thinking? These are children who already struggle and are just about clinging on to what the teacher is giving them and who then have all those thoughts blown out of their heads and replaced with various permutations of ‘Shit, how…..what……..eh? Why is Hermione so good? I’m so shit at maths. Oooh, Jamie is pulling a face at me, ha ha, yeah I’m going to pull a funny face right back at him! I am the king of funny faces and the teacher isn’t even looking at me!’

A typical reply to my highlighting this kind of inequality is that teachers feel really sorry for the higher attainers if they’re not challenging them enough. They worry that higher attainers will be ‘held back’, bored and feel thwarted if they’re not continuously given opportunities to race ahead, shine, do more and trickier practice, engage in higher level conversation with the teacher. The fact remains that the price of giving bespoke opportunities to higher attainers is at the expense of lower attainers, particularly when it comes to differentiated conversation and as a profession we seem to be OK with that. Or are we? I will return to that question at the end of the blog post.

Working walls:

For many teachers, there will still be an expectation that they will either overtly refer to a working wall during the main teaching input, or that children will refer to them when they’re working by themselves. The person with the clipboard will have a box on the observation proforma called ‘working wall’. The thing about working walls is that some children come to rely on them and if we go back to our ‘think about what the children are thinking’ challenge, what are those children who are more likely to rely on a working wall going to be thinking? Well, they will think ‘I don’t know, so where is the answer to X so that I can then do Y that the teacher has asked me to do?’ Far better to have retrieval practice for all, surely?

Open-ended tasks (as the main form of rehearsal/practice and particularly if discovery based or designed for group work):

In some schools where all the children are able to focus and who also bring in an ocean of knowledge from home, all the children will be thinking about what you want them to think about, maybe making new and correct connections too. However, in a typical lesson where children are real children and not learning vector quantization automabots, how are we ever sure that all the children are thinking about the knowledge we have just given them? At any one point in time, some children will not be thinking about what has just been taught to them. You can tell me that that is not the case because your class does growth mindset now, but statistically speaking, there will be some children who are thinking about other things like lunch or honing their knowledge of how to make others laugh, or perhaps thinking about what you want them to think about, but still drawing the wrong conclusions – as a profession, we seem OK with taking that chance, even though we know that such a situation is more likely to hold the disadvantaged child back in their learning and perpetuate inequality.

Schematic of a machine learning algorithm (taken from John Salatas’ ICT researchblog)

There are probably a few more examples of ‘best practice’ that when looked at through the prism of ‘what are children thinking’, might seem somewhat dubious. Please do feel free to add to this post by commenting below on examples you can think of and that you are now questioning. For me, this whole journey has actually shifted the way I teach. I’ve always been a trad, but I now use so much more choral response in my teaching practice, and I plan for what children are thinking at any one point in the lesson, being keen to ensure that everyone is thinking about the knowledge. Frequently, this means my doing one question and their then doing a similar question in turn, all the way through the lesson. I do whatever I can to ensure that nothing is left to chance.

*Returning, as promised, to the issue of what to do with higher attainers in these kinds of lessons, I do understand that if there is compromise, then it is their learning potential, erm, potentially. These are children who are what I call ‘super-focusers’ and they tend to be prolific readers in and outside of school such that for any unit of time, they are gaining more knowledge and making more and more connections than anyone else. However, allowing them to do and learn something different also risks their internalising that they’re naturally good at, say, maths – this can lead to a sloppiness of working out, lack of systematic approach to problem solving, a poor attitude to wisdom and expertise and the risk that further down the line, a learned laziness embeds that eventually curtails their potential. I know this happened to me because when I went to a mad private school, I was accelerated to a year group above my chronological age and then when I went back into the state system (and you’re about to sense some serious sour grapes on this), I was told ‘We are not elitist and Hannah will be returned to learning with peers her own age’. It was all way too easy and I switched off. I’d actually be in favour of accelerating children up year groups and then when they get to year 6 they’d be in a small group of super-mathematicians, rather than have the current scenario where we let lower attainers fall further behind and never really catch up (even with interventions).

This has probably been the most enjoyable blog post I have ever written and, regardless of which maths (or history, or geography etc) program you are using, I hope the content has caused you to look again at your short term planning and think about what the children are thinking.

Who’s with me?

 

Imagine a world where reports were truthful

How many of you are teaching in an exam year group and feel under enormous pressure right now?

I don’t know all of your stories, but I’m often contacted by those on twitter who are trying their best, often in difficult circumstances, and yet still aren’t making their targets. Wouldn’t it be great if it wasn’t all on us?

I think that the transfer of almost total responsibility for attainment to class teachers and SLT such that they’re all of a fluster could be avoided if we used a bit of honest sharing of information with parents, really opened their eyes and galvinised them into action. How? Well, I’m drawn to yearly national testing, computerised assessments as is used in other countries, but the difference would be that what is reported to parents is just the percentage and associated grade (grades that parents understand and have a frame of reference for: like ‘A’, ‘B’ etc), plus the child’s ranking in the year group and the benchmark percentage constituting a certain amount of knowledge retention which means they have ‘passed’. You know, I’d settle for in-house end of year testing in all the subjects with the same information being shared, including with the pupils themselves.

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You might be thinking that all schools do this anyway. Well, no they don’t. At the end of reception year, we give parents a report about the child’s achievement against the 17 ELGs and whether their child has met a standard called a ‘Good level of development’. The parent is also given a copy of the child’s ‘Learning Journey’ which will contain masses of photos of her child smiling and discovering, with jugs of water, how the polarity of hydrogen bonds allows the disassociation of ions in salts and describing this process using accurate vocabulary and dance moves. At the end of year 1, parents will know if their child is able to read (which is different from being a reader and can lull the parent into a false sense of security), and will have a report about progress and achievement against year group expectations using a plethora of numbers, symbols and colours, accompanied by a lengthy write up of how much they love different subjects and have had fun along the way. Year 2? It all changes to working towards, working at and working at greater depth within the expected standard in reading, maths and writing as well as another immensely flattering, symbol-infused, report on the other subjects. Year 3, 4 and 5 will end in colourful, lengthy, flattering and complicated reports and then year 6 will end with the parent finally finding out if their child can actually read, write and add up which is great, but involves scaled scores that sound great but apparently aren’t (because parents associate the bell-curve generated ’95’ with ‘95%’ which is genius level in their minds), and then when we get into year 7 their child will be tested all over again and so the fandangled reports that tell us everything and nothing start coming home, but with statements about inference and creativity instead of the superfluous ‘what Johnny enjoyed’ type comments.

At no point will a parent be officially told that their child refuses to sit still or work hard – instead, cloaked comments such as ‘Johnny is a lively and popular member of his class and when he feels confident, will choose to take part in extended writing’ will be written. This is a code that teachers deploy, hoping that the parent will get the hint, yet knowing deep down that they never will. As a collective institution, we are now scared to tell the truth. Who or what has presided over that particular development? A quick google and I can find the following comments by parents on the nature of their child’s school reports:

“I don’t know about phrases and clichés but I hate reading watered down politically correct comments. If one of my children is being a little bit of a -shit- nuisance then just write that and tell me when and by doing what, none of this watered down rubbish. It doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom but it doesn’t have to be all sunshine and light either, if X does well in his/ her reading, writing and arithmetic but fails to focus and sometimes can be cheeky or disruptive in pe/ drama etc then just say that”

Another parent of a child with SEN writes:

“I want it to be honest – and they never ever are. I know my DS is behind. He’s on the SEN register etc. I don’t want to hear he’s fine. He isn’t. I want to hear that he’s behind – and how much by”

There are so many more of a similar nature out there.

For the most part, I think parents are not aware of what the true standard is at any point in time and where their child is relative to this until it is too late. Parents do not have a frame of reference like the class teacher does, particularly if their child has no siblings. If they have had a poor education themselves, then anything the child achieves will seem amazing in comparison and even if they somehow get wind that their child is behind, they are placated in many ways. At the centre of all this is the child himself and is he even aware of where he is relative to his peers in the posh school up the road? No.

I guess, like many aspects of life, we take our cues from those around us and the culture we are immersed in. The narrative that permeates all our thoughts can be summed up as ‘the government should do more for us; that’s what we pay our taxes for [and everything that is bad in our lives is the government’s/someone else’s fault]’. Successive leaders play into that with their endless promises and those who have the courage to make us feel uncomfortable with some kind of truth we rise up against, hunt down, destroy. Could we hypothesise that teachers in private schools are probably the most vulnerable to parents ‘hunting’ them down? Even so, for every parent incensed by the insinuation that their child is less than perfect when ‘clearly it is the teacher’s fault’, there is a parent who would be very grateful to know where his son is relative to his peers both in terms of attainment and in terms of attitude to learning. This parent genuinely wants his son to do well.

I’ve always thought that we are missing a trick when we choose to placate rather than shine a light on the truth because, to me, there is this whole treasure trove of collective energy and enthusiasm that parents could bring to the education table if only we had the courage to tap it. Not only that, but tapping the energy and enthusiasm of parents would instigate a domino effect of increased energy and enthusiasm for learning in the pupils themselves. A great example of this, albeit on a smaller scale, was revealed when I implemented a series of timed number fact tests across a school, with children being given their absolute score and time and therefore knowledge of where they stood relative to their peers as well as whether they had got a ‘PB’ (personal best). The intent was fluency, but the impact reached further than an increase in fluency: the children themselves were galvanised into working harder once they started seeing their own scores go up, and within little groups in classrooms there would be friendly rivalry which acted to raise the standard of the entire class. As a result of these regular timed tests, children increased their resilience and mental strength as they pushed themselves further, learning zen-like focus and a positive attitude to quizzing for memory. With the child friendly language of a ‘PB’ and the no-nonsense results of scores and times, the parents were enthused and started helping their children at home too because, all of a sudden, all stakeholders were made truly aware of the gold standard, that benchmark for true fluency (it’s higher than you think). Did we buy any fancy schmancy tech? No. Did we get an expensive consultant in? No. All I did was make a spreadsheet with many tabs that teachers could print tests off and asked staff to put a timer on the whiteboard, with in-class marking afterwards.

The other thing that happened was that suddenly the top mathematicians started getting kudos and respect, airtime as it were. This was a transfer of dominance away from those who reveled in being the silliest, the loudest, or the most disruptive, for these children and their poor attitudes to learning and authority were shown up as they saw everyone else catch up and overtake (let me tell you that children with SEN thoroughly enjoyed overtaking others because all you need is effort and lots of practice you know!). This is a very powerful lesson that must be learned early, before it is too late, but it does require enormous courage on the part of the leader or teacher in charge. Even with lots of preparation and careful implementation, they must brace themselves for the fallout of that initial day of reckoning, the inevitable and instinctive reaction of those who are shown up and suddenly made aware of the truth about themselves and who will then seek to stop others from knowing the truth – they would much rather maintain the status quo which is that the silliest, loudest and most disruptive get most of the airtime.

How does a series of maths tests relate to end of year reports? The principles are the same – that of letting people know where they really are relative to others because they deserve to know the truth and then choose to act upon it. All it would take is daring to share the percentage results of end of year tests, the ranking and the passmark with an honest comment about attitudes to learning and then we would suddenly have literally millions of people working with us, rather than against us.

Who’s with me?