22 Jan

New Ofsted Framework – a small school perspective.

I want to start this by stating that I think the proposed framework is incredibly positive and the emphasis on workload and evidence base has the chance to really make a difference for many teachers. Many will be warmed by the focus on a wider curriculum and the related insistence that an inspection should not cause an increase in workload.

There is some of it that does give me a cause for concern however. The biggest of this is the ’on-site’ preparation. This is where the school would be notified by 10AM the previous day of the inspection, but the inspectors would be on site for a half-day preparation on the day they call. The list of items they cover during this prep time is very similar to the current phone call, (school development plan, maps, staff list etc) with a few differences – wifi, single central register. And of course they expect to be able to speak to school leaders – and they will need space to do this. This is immediately problematic. There really is no small school in the land that will have random space, and spare staff, to be able to do this at such short notice. In a school where the headteacher is teaching and where there may be no business manager working (they may not even check the answer machine until lunchtime!) this is going to really make people anxious. It means for those expecting Ofsted there will always need to be ‘a plan’ in place just in case – a cost incurred and extra work already taking place. And, they haven’t even begun the ‘formal’ part of the inspection yet. This seems to be a step backward in a time where we look to using technology to save time and resources. The email / secure portal for sharing documents seems to work fine and the use of phones means that if the headteacher is off-site they can still get pertinent information.

On the other hand some of this proposed framework could, potentially, benefit the small school. The emphasis on a triangulation of evidence – ‘ connect lesson observation to other evidence: discussions with curriculum leaders, teachers and pupils, and work scrutiny’ could work very well in an environment for one leader is directly responsible for many elements of accountability. The chance to have a conversation, talking through how impact can be seen and how decisions are taken could be very beneficial.

Likewise for the focus on curriculum-level work scrutiny and on not taking a random sample of work. In a school where the curriculum is planned across 2, or even 4, years a holistic approach to the evidence in books and the ‘long view’ could work with a small school and give school leaders the chance to demonstrate impact over time. Of course small schools will need to put a bit of time into the long view themselves – including thinking about evidence, how long they keep curriculum evidence for and how they ensure their curriculum is incremental across different year groups. Schools will need a strong stomach not to start evidencing every little detail in ever subject, and Ofsted will need to take some responsibility and ensure they do not give the impression that this is needed.

The proof of any of these changes will be in the first crop of inspections that take place. And some will demand greater changes: I think they should cut out a one-word grade altogether (and much has been written on this topic) as well as ensure that they observe all schools and ‘outstanding’ schools are not exempt. But for a step toward recognising that they have been responsible for many of the workload-inducing practice over the years this Ofsted framework is a good start.

13 Jan

Why we ALL need to improve recruitment and retention.

A new education secretary era begins – and the advent of a new education secretary alllows us to take stock of where we are and, more importantly, where we want to be.

Recruitment and retention is a huge issue right now.

One that impacts on education at all levels, and crucially, one that threatens to get worse as we won’t feel the full lack of trainees for a couple of years. Many open letters have been written, conversations had and suggestions put forward – pay raises, less holiday, workload ‘promises’.

We now need to take some of the responsibility for this crisis –  Local Authorities and MATs and the culture that we have all created – whilst the argument that it is (or was) OFSTED driven still hangs around there is much that schools can do now to help turn the tide. We need to act braver, take responsibility for our own work choices and trust each other. As professionals.

Perpetuating Our Own Myths

Ofsted released their own ‘myths‘ documents and subsequent updates a couple of years ago now. They are attempting to ensure that they are not unduly adding to workload, or to the stress on teachers. This has seen some effectiveness – leadership teams in schools seem to be taking this on – rumbles throughout the system suggest that marking expectations, for example, are being reduced. ‘Wellbeing’ – possibly a fair bit of hype with this, but at least a conversation is taking place.

Trust is the key concept here.

For schools to effectively tackle workload leaders of all types need to stop double and triple checking everything done and intervene only when there is need. Schools where planning is handed in before teaching and in some places after once it is evaluated. Schools where marking is checked weekly, where book scrutiny demand a minimum amount of writing each week, where assessment data is decimalised and expected every half term.

Don’t get me wrong – we need standards and we need to strive for our pupils but we also need realism. We need to encourage open conversation so that teachers feel they can query school systems, can make suggestions and, most importantly, ask for help. This kind of culture comes from the top. Cutting staff meetings, reducing marking expectations, demanding data less frequently are all side effects of this culture, but they don’t necessarily create it. To create this culture you need to announce it – you need to actually tell teachers they are trusted. Book scrutiny, lesson observations, pupil interviews – whatever forms part of your strategic calendar all need to take place in an open manner – with teaching staff involved, not just closed door senior teams. Teachers need to be part of the system, not just be recipients of judgments.

What can change tomorrow:

– your next ‘judgement forming’ action needs to be open and shared with staff. Why are you doing it? What do you want to see? What are the criteria.. etc. Etc.

– senior staff: try just taking the class for a lesson or series of lessons, best way to learn about standards, expectations, behaviour routines etc.

– if there is an issue, and you are looking to rapidly improve standards give staff mentors that they can talk to. Don’t just give a list of things to improve and then a ‘we’ll be back in two weeks’. Give the reasons why changes will impact standards.

– regularly review policies such as your marking and teaching and learning with teaching staff. Try to get honest impact assessments – what does it mean for pupils? What does it mean for staff time? Etc. Etc. Does consistency mean consistency or does it  mean a couple of staff members working all hours and some staf members only  doing what they know will be looked at? Be honest!

– not use performance management to set data targets for class teachers. Data is, after all, a school wide product.

– don’t demand assessment data half termly. No need at all.

Again, all of these things rely on trust – and until we as a profession can honestly, and openly, talk about colleagues with a sense of professional trust rather than bickering and distrust.

20 Aug

How I teach writing…

A few steps into how writing is taught in my classroom….

 

Context

I usually teacher upper KS2 – but I have taught all KS1 and KS2 – and adhere to these ideas. At my school the pupils have targets – written marking by the teacher is minimal but feedback is expected in class with children acting on it as we go. Peer marking and self evaluation is also trained in to the children, using Even Better If and What Went Well. Obviously at Key Stage 1 this process needs to be modelled by the adult.

I rarely teach writing as a standalone. It is part of a purpose, linked to work we’ve done, a book we’re reading or an experiment we are doing. In short, every bit of writing we do in the classroom has a context, and a purpose, and is a learning opportunity.

Nuts and bolts

Grammar rules, spelling support and punctuation is also taught standalone, across the whole school, for 20mins a day. But writing sessions need to pull this learning in. Individuals have their focus for their own writing,  but we may have a class focus for new grammar or spelling rules as well. Displays make use of this – as well as key examples during reading.

Task Planning (them and me!)

I encourage planning – but by the end of Key Stage 2 I don’t really care how they do it. We model different ways of planning – e.g. Story board (pictures), story mountain or just good old fashioned boxes, but, to be honest I don’t care as long as they have an idea where it will end. Instead I will limit something via the task. For example when we were writing a biography we limited ourselves to the same template and to two or three choices (from topic work). No time wasted on ‘researching’ their favourite footballer. When we looked at diary entries we all did the same piece based on August from ‘Wonder’ – then we all knew where we started and where we were finishing. I rarely ask them to just ‘write’ – though I will sometimes give them a choice of the character to write a diary entry from.

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Success criteria?

When teaching I rarely give success criteria up front, instead as we get started I will give them something linked to the genre (or context)  and remind them of any grammar focus, especially if new. However I always stop them say, fifteen minutes in, and ask them to think any criteria the want to work on. They make a note of this at the bottom of their page. Note that for children who may find this difficult this will be modelled a part of a group, and if need be give a group success criteria.

Modelling

I’m a huge believer that the children cannot write it if they haven’t read it. Often as we write I will also write the task and stop and share. Often I will do this on the whiteboard as a ‘guided write’ to get thing started. Then I will pause the board, get them going and continue myself. When we stop in ten minutes or so to look at success criteria I will share mine, and they will share theirs. This works very well for younger children who can use my modelling as springboard. I also love working from poems and books. Sharing good writing, and not so good writing. Asking them to reflect on stories by writing diaries, school reports, letters etc.

Examples:

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Using ‘The Wall’  – Y5/Y6

We have been reading this book – and the children had found some of the ideas and concepts quite challenging. As such we spent some time focusing on vocabulary and themes – exploring the choices made by adults and how they could appear to children. To do this we did some ‘short writing’  snippets of conversations that the characters had with one another (focus on speech punctuation, and on formality) in the lessons before. Some of which were on our wall to remind us. We then built up to a write where we chose Liev (a kind of bad guy) and wrote two letters. One to a ‘higher up’ – e.g. An old army boss or his current chief and another letter to a friend. Both letters had to explain his motives and we discussed which letter would be more honest. With this activity the letter writing layout was reinforced, but also the diferrent language and grammatical feature a more formal letter would have.

Postcard to a Pirate (Y1/Y2)

A whole assortment of Pirate works went into this – including the reading of various picture books and previous work on the characters. Then we decided to write a postcard to a pirate. Simple really. We thought about what a postcard is, discussed language we would use and then wrote it in our books first. I modelled mine, and then those less confident continued from where I left off. A taught editing session (with year two the same principle applied  we read our work and looked for finger spaces, capital letters, and any words that didn’t seem right)  – then the copied it up.

Key points – to finish with! 

1. Context is everything – especially with the more tricky vocabulary. Make your  literacy lessons worthwhile. Don’t waste time  – if you want them to write biographies link it with their topic, scientific writing can be done in literacy etc. If you want pictures of a character do that in art.

2. Expectations need to be high. You know your children – so high but not unobtainable; if you want them to spot missing capital letters then you need to pull them up on it. I had a chart once (only needed it for a week) where every missed capital letter was a minute they owed me. Y6. It worked. Word walls and misspelled words regularly shared.

3. Work ethic – a school wide issue I know – but they need to get used to focusing on their work. They need to produce a minimum. I don’t always stop ten minutes in, but when I do I use it to reinforce not just the grammar and punctuation expectations but how much I expect to get done.  I give them a specific five mins where they can look at someone else’s work and get ideas – they edit and correct in a different colour so I can see how they apply their learning and we use books with space at the bottom for comments. Silence is the norm when they actually write.

4. Key questions – plan some of these if need be. Questions which interrogate the text and which they can ask themselves. Even with the pirate task above thinking of ideas such as why they are writing a postcard, are they friendly, or boasting? (Etc)

5.Editing is an important skill and needs to be taught and modelled. Edit your work to show them them the process and, with younger children, give them an aim to editing. E.g. Just sentences, or just capital letters. You want them, by the end of Y5 to be drafting and then editing a piece – google docs is brilliant for this is you can model as they type!

 

 

 

 

30 Jul

Clear walls = Clear mind!

 

This Tweet: 

This reminded me of an ongoing conversation that I have with teachers. Not just about tidying classrooms (don’t get me started on cables!) – but about their walls. It always seems to me massively counter-intuitive to suggest that classroom walls should be covered in stuff. Over the years I have argued with many head teachers who were convinced that every spare space of wall should be covered in, well, something vaguely connected to learning.  Lists of things to have; topics to be covered and how it should be set out.

This year when I planned my classroom I asked the children what they wanted on the walls – what they liked, what they used and, importantly, what they remembered with their eyes closed. Their current classroom is pretty typical – lots of grammar and punctuation hints (Y6) – topic ‘best’, maths working wall etc etc.

In a nutshell they could remember very little of their classroom wall when they were not in it! They felt proud of their work being up – and they wanted more of it. They found the vocabulary useful but could only really tell me ‘two or three words’ – and they really did not notice or remember any of the posters / extra displays (friendship reminders, class rules etc)




Those children who are coming to my classroom last year requested three key things.

Firstly they wanted their own space – in the school library we have a ‘proud of’ space for each Y6 – and they really, really liked this. I use it as a kind of ‘blog’ area.

They wanted words up that they can’t spell. Tricky this, as every child will find different words helpful, but they told me they can manage to keep it updated… Y6 also wanted grammar… same reason I guess.

Finally they liked the ‘polished’ displays… and we’re proud of their work on them, and they wanted to keep those. Interestingly,  not everyone, but enough to warrant me mentioning it!

Everything else… they were not bothered.

For me, I need a working wall, they might not remember it afterwarss, but somewhere to display the process we are working through is very useful during lessons and it certainly helps me organise my planning.

And finally, a special mention for the interactive display screen which they loved!

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24 Jul

Reflections on a PGCE

Just tell them…

Primary schools have a huge part to play in Primary ITT – trainee teachers seem to be in schools much more than ever before and it stands to reason that if we don’t like what is happening then we should stand up and say so.

The problem seems to be that in Primary there is a culture of ‘just stay one step ahead of the children’ – especially in history or geography topics where the teacher may do it once every few years. Moving year groups or key stages just compounds this – the curriculum across these very different age groups has very different demands.  Not to mention the fact that the whole thing changed three years ago with absolutely no support given for teachers to brush up on their own knowledge – European History study? Coding? The Americas?  And don’t get me started on chikdren’s literature – I firmly believe that their should be a reading list of core children’s books. I don’t really care what is on it, I just think it should be encouraged and seen as standard behaviour.

My own experience of teacher training now, as a Head, is very different from when I trained. My institution did their own English, Maths and Science tests. I remember talking about how to help children learn times tables by rote – how powerful chanting could be for memorising poetry and getting the ‘feel’ of the rhythm. We spent a day learning about animal habitats  – and then discussed how important it is to get the children writing up scientific study. I focussed on key stage 2 and my subject specialism was ICT (as it was) – and yes, we had a children’s book reading list.  I had to do an ICT test – and was tasked with learning how to create, and edit, a video. This was the year before (I think) – the national skills test. I remember trialling them in some London office and receiving my first, and possibly, last, crisp £50 note.

There was an early a lesson observation (seared into my mind!) – where I was really pleased with the ‘activity’ and the ‘busy’ classroom. My tutor sat down with me after the lesson (poetry) – and asked me a very simple question – ‘but what did they actually learn?’ – this question sticks with me now. Another memorable lesson involved the properties of solids, liquids and glass. My year 2s could not get the concept of gas being ‘all around us’ – as I was teaching it. We had balloons, we had huge sheets of paper, we made aeroplanes but I was getting more and more frustrated trying to get the children to guess ‘what was in my head’. In the end, convinced that I was on some educational version of Candid Camera I asked my teacher mentor what she would have done. In another memorable quote she answered – ‘just tell them – tell them first and then ask them to explain how we know it is true.’

School based?

Now, when trainees are ‘school based’ – there is a danger that school leaderships value the trainee who can control the class, who can please parents and who keeps the children smiling. The VAK culture – where teachers have to ensure they are hitting the needs of all learners means that our trainees are at the whim of their current class and their current leadership team. Unmanageable workloads and expectations of ‘cover’ will not help trainees. A school that ‘grows their own’ purely for fast track leadership will not sustain our system. I’m not against these systems, I just want to make sure we keep an open mind about the role of other institutions that have grown up recently.

We need to value what our profession actually does – educate.

The quality of teacher training is very patchy – and will always have an element of subjectivity – but it is right to be under the microscope like this. Those providing the training have a duty of care to their trainees and ensuring that the job is manageable is one of them. ITT providers should be able to challenge the demands of SLT in schools, should be a able to share the latest thinking with the schools without throwing out everything else that works. Universities sadly seem not to do this.  Certainly in my time as a school leader none of the tutors have ever engaged me in professional debate about why I do things in my classroom. ITT should be about time to reflect, yes, but also time to study what has gone before and debate choices.

I’m enjoying this current debate – there won’t be one right answer – but let’s ensure that ITT provides our teachers with everything they need to teach. Schools systems will change and children will change – but at the heart of what we do is ensuring our children are actually learning and our teachers can teach.

 

08 Jul

Cubetto!

This half term I was very lucky to borrow three of these fab Cubettos! 

The Cubetto is unique, not only because of it’s gorgeous aethestic feel but because it is designed to introduce coding to the youngest members of your school.

The instructions are placed, in sequence, in the unit and the then bot itself ambles along wirelessly doing exactly what you’ve told it to. The unit allows children to physically manipulate their touchy-feely wooden instructions,  and to experiment. It allows for the creation of a sub-routine and it allows EYFS children to explore problem solving and storytelling using tech without screens.

Firstly, it will not look out of place in any nursery or EYFS setting – it is just gorgeous. So well made and chunky.  It follows the same principles of a Bee Bot, but the commands are entered separately and physically. It really does make Bee Bots look like plastic rejects.

I started by asking my Y5/Y6 Digital Leaders to play with it, and then they were able to share it with the younger classes. Cubetto comes with a mat and a storybook (see their site for more options about this) – these are just brilliant ideas and a real starting point that many a busy teacher will love. As it happens my pupils set about writing their own stories for Cubetto – and I had to dissuade them from designing their own mat… We then set about looking at what coding we could actually achieve and plan learning for the younger ones.

The result? The children talking about logic, ordering of instructions and reading the Cubetto story to the younger children. One of the first things they did was to see how long Cubetto’s range was (answer – very long!) – and then to see if they could create an ‘infinite’ loop… The younger children loved to try the challenges – asking themselves questions and then using this in their writing. (Did Cubetto get to the mountains? )

Nowadays in these budget-conscious times the Cubetto represents a lot of bang for your buck – the well made resource (with great grippy wheels that work on all kinds of terrain!) – the whizz-bang of wifi and robotics and the genuine opportunities for learning. For being able to feel and see your instructions before your robot tries them out. I love having these in school and will definitely attempt to purchase some once our loan has finished!!