Why do school behaviour strategies fail?

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“Taylor, that’s a warning, I’m putting your name on the board. Jamal I know you talked while I was writing Taylor’s warning on the board so your name is going on the board too. Yes, Jamal, I know Stacey talked too so I’ll write her name on the board beneath yours. Stacey, that’s a C2 for swearing at Jamal for telling me you talked. Phillipa, I know that swearing is a C3 but I’m the teacher so I decide. Yes, Taylor, I agree everyone is talking now. Class, you are all on a warning now and Taylor, Jamal and Stacey you are now all on a C2. Martha, stop arguing with me or you’ll get a detention. Right, Martha you have a detention and I’m writing up a C4 on the board for you now. Shut up everyone I know she didn’t get a warning but she shouldn’t have argued. Anyone who talks from now on gets a detention. Right, that’s it, whole class detention after school tomorrow. Anyone who doesn’t come will get two hours.”

Of course, this is not supposed to happen. The whole point of school behaviour strategies is to avoid fiascos like this one. One of the first documents given to new staff, they usually seem sensible and clear, and are reassuring to less experienced teachers understandably anxious about bad behaviour. Typically they offer a graduated hierarchy of rewards and sanctions which, if followed consistently, should create a smooth, stress-free classroom in which learning flourishes.

Unfortunately they very often deliver far less than they promise and inexperienced teacher can often find using their school’s system causes more problems than it solves. On asking for help they are typically told the system is sound and any issue is in their implementation. Common criticisms are that not enough positive points are being handed out, or that they are issuing too many sanctions. New and nearly new teachers, who lack the experience to question what they are taught by more senior colleagues believe this and spend time and energy trying to become fully compliant with their school’s policy. If the policy is indeed robust this can work well but, as is often the case, it is in itself actually defective then such changes to practice just lead to further inconsistency and disruption.

In part one of this post I would like to discuss why so many apparently sensible and well thought out positive behaviour policies are actually inherently flawed before, tomorrow, going on to what teachers can do when they find themselves working in places with ineffective strategies. This post, when fully developed and revised, will be one of the chapters of a book I’m writing on how rank-and-file teachers can be most effective when working in flawed contexts.

Before working out why any strategy might not be working it is first fair to make sure the problem is with the system and not you. Some clear indicators that the problem might lie close to home would be that everyone else in the school is using it faithfully, and that levels of reward and sanction are pretty consistent between teachers. It might also be worth checking that you are issuing the higher sanctions (e. g detentions), as often solid systems fall apart if children learn their teacher is reluctant, for whatever reason, to hand these out when behaviour clearly warrants it. In schools where behaviour systems operate effectively senior leadership probably will not be concerned about the number of sanctions you issue and will not aggressively question you over why you thought these necessary.

If you discover that, by and large, your colleagues are using the school system and have no complaints about it, then you should face the possibility you could be the weak link in the chain and even a reason others are struggling to apply it. Teachers who are not following the system because they do not know how, or are scared to, should ask for help. Those who don’t because they are ideologically opposed to its principles should bring this up openly and may wish to move jobs if differences are not professionally reconcilable. Those teachers who choose not to follow strong systems because the force of their personalities, seniority of position or the length of their tenure at the school do their colleagues a disservice. By refusing to follow a sensible system those that feel they do not need they undermine and weaken it for everyone else; if children never get detentions from a popular teacher for an infringement that deserves one, they will judge a teacher who gives them one as unjust and will argue.

That SLTs often claim any disciplinary problems in their school are the result of poor implementation of good systems is not surprising. Admitting otherwise means admitting bad policy, which calls into question the competence of general leadership and management. This is why school leadership can be reluctant to accept criticism of the school’s behaviour policy. It is far easier to blame those lower down the hierarchy for not doing it right than it is to accept that problems are with what teachers are being asked to do in the first place.  This issue is compounded by the fact children are far more likely to comply with a policy if it is being implemented by a senior member of staff with the clout to make their life immediately unpleasant. This makes it easy for SLT to believe the system is effective and that any problems must be down to failure of those lower in the pecking order to apply it properly. Less senior staff are also unlikely to, at least publicly, admit that they think the strategy is flawed because this can be taken as open criticism of their managers, which might cause them professional problems. More common is to pay lip-service to the strategy while quietly muddling along alone and using individual approaches to varying degrees of success. If levels of reward and sanction vary wildly between different teachers, or the least well-behaved children seem to be accumulating very high proportions of rewards, it is likely that the school’s strategy is not really working and may well be conceptually flawed for one or more of the following reasons.

  1. The strategy is not as clear as it seems.

While a strategy may seem clear on paper, practice often reveals it to be far more ambiguous than it first appears. For example, a school’s strategy may say that a student receives a first warning for ‘Not listening to class instructions.” On the face of it this is logical. A teacher is explaining a task and if a child is not listening properly they issue a warning. The child then listens to the instructions. All is well.

Those with any familiarity with the inside of a classroom will probably already have spotted the issues here. How do we know if the child was listening or not? Being quiet does not mean they were listening. Nor does facing the teacher and nor does writing the date and title in an exercise book. Doodling on a piece of paper or pencil case does not mean the child is completely inattentive. So how do we prove the child was not listening if, as they may do, they argue back? Already, at the very lowest level, the apparently clear system is beginning to come undone.

An example of a higher level infraction demanding a proportionally more severe response might be ‘speaking in a disrespectful way to another child’. Here, problems with interpretation are likely to make this apparently sensible rule a nightmare to enforce. Is the good-natured ribbing of a friend by calling him an idiot for dropping his pen a ‘disrespectful act’ worthy of a sanction? What about if a one girl calls her neighbour a ‘retard’ and her neighbour says she doesn’t mind? What about shouting ‘retard’ out of the window at a boy with Cerebral Palsy as he leaves another classroom early for his lunch? Does that warrant just a second level sanction for a ‘disrespectful act’? We may well have a very clear view on all of these, but this view might not be shared with our pupils and even when it is, children can be extremely skilled at manipulating this apparent ambiguity to their own advantage, by arguing their teacher has made a mistake interpreting the rule. Furthermore, no strategy can ever possibly include all misdeeds (although attempting to write one could be lots of fun), which further adds to a sense of uncertainty and confusion when infringements not explicitly identified on the policy occur.

Teachers who find themselves agonising over their school’s behaviour strategy poster or document trying to decide whether or not something deserved a C2 or a C3 are almost certainly wasting their time. The problem is most likely with the system.

  1. Strategies are written under the assumption that students will accept the sanctions they are given.

When a school behaviour strategy is working properly children do not argue back. If children are disputing sanctions in a lesson it means there is a chance it will be overturned, or that a further sanction for arguing is not enough of a disincentive. School behaviour strategies seem to always assume that incidents of bad behaviour are relatively isolated, happen in the context of order and that children will accept their teacher’s decision. If this isn’t actually the case then trying to apply the strategy can cause complete chaos as constant arguing causes so many further infringements dealing with them becomes impossible and any semblance of order collapses under the sheer volume of disruption. In such environments, where teachers feel they have to justify their decisions, this to-and-fro undermines credibility and encourages children to see elements of the policy as negotiable. School behaviour strategies can only ever keep order. They cannot create it in the first place. If a school tolerates a culture of generally bad conduct, no classroom strategy will make behaviour better and to suggest otherwise is disingenuous and unfair.

  1. Nobody monitors the consistency of rewards and sanctions.

In some schools, while raw numbers of rewards and sanctions may be recorded and perhaps even analysed for patterns, little attention is paid to what they are given for. One teacher may issue a merit for completing all the work they set, while another may not because they regard this as a basic expectation undeserving of special reward. Similarly, one teacher may prefer to deal with shouting out by giving reminders or warnings, while another may immediately issue a demerit and associated detention for the same offence. While the inconsistency may be partly the result of vague language that allows multiple interpretations of the same act, even when policy is sufficiently explicit this can still happen if leadership takes a laissez faire attitude towards how their teachers apply it. If schools place importance on only the numbers of rewards and sanctions and not what these are being given for, the inconsistency will cause any whole-school behaviour system to fragment with each teacher effectively working alone. In such instances it would actually be better if schools didn’t bother with a pretence at a holistic approach at all, because the visible failure to enforce any uniformity undermines the perceived competence of the school as a whole.

  1. Behaviour is viewed as a symptom of teaching quality.

Some of the schools which don’t monitor why teachers issue rewards and sanctions place emphasis on the numbers of each handed out instead. It is quite common for the number of reward points to be read out publicly in briefings with departments and the individual teachers who give out the most being praised and those who hand out fewer shamed by association. This sort of foolishness, in addition to being infantile and unprofessional, is enormously damaging because it creates the impression that good teachers give lots of reward points and bad ones do not, which can make issuing them an end in itself. This impression is reinforced by schools in which teachers issuing comparatively high numbers of sanctions are asked to explain this regardless of what these sanctions are issued for, which leads to teachers becoming reluctant to punish students who deserve it because of the effect this will have on the way in which they are regarded by their colleagues and leadership. In such environments, teachers feel encouraged to hand out lots of rewards, deserved or not, because they feel this is a good way of proving their competence. This creates an arms race in which teachers have to award more and more to outperform each other. The effect of this hyperinflation, well explained by Doug Lemov in “throwing scholar dollars” in Teach Like A Champion, is the devaluation of the rewards altogether. This may well also help explain why it is common for a school’s most disruptive students to receive comparatively high proportions of rewards; if a good teacher gives lots of rewards, what could be stronger evidence of competence than giving them to typically badly behaved children?

Another sign that behaviour is viewed as an output of the quality of teaching is when a school emphasises engagement or even enjoyment for its own sake. When this happens poor behaviour, rather than being blamed on problems with the policy or choices made by children, is attributed to the failure of teachers to adequately keep and retain the attention of their pupils. Schools that believe this while operating positive behaviour strategies are, at best, conflicted because if poor conduct can be even partly explained by the standard of teaching it is a very small step to excusing it for the same reason, which makes the consistent application of any system an irrelevance. Teachers working in cultures like this often become afraid to log sanctions because they know this reflects badly on them, and that they may not be supported in applying them because they are more likely to be regarded as at fault than the child is.

When this happens the result is, at best, the erosion or, at worst, the total destruction of the system’s credibility.

Leaders that allow this to happen are not taking responsibility for the behaviour of children in their schools. It would be more honest, and fairer on everyone, to just say they see managing behaviour as the job of individual teachers and drop any pretence there is a whole-school system. This would at least allow teachers more agency and eliminate some meaningless, time sapping bureaucracy.

There is no half-way house; there is either a policy that everyone follows or there isn’t one at all and it is every teacher for themselves.

  1. The administrative burden of following up on sanctions is so overwhelming and demoralising teachers don’t do it.

In some schools the logging and implementation of sanctions is so byzantine it seems intentionally off-putting. Just finding a student on the schools database and entering a description of an incident, which can very much feel like a defensive justification for punishment in hostile contexts, can take a few minutes. This doesn’t sound a lot but if, say, five students have misbehaved, the time soon adds up. If even three students misbehave in five lessons, the time spent entering the incidents is enough to be off putting, especially if there isn’t certainty this will have any effect. It is also worth noting what a demoralising and unpleasant task this is, made even less attractive if the teacher feels there is a chance they will be judged harshly for a perceived inability to control the pupils involved.

Following up on an incident often only begins with logging it. Teachers in many schools are expected to run their own detentions, which requires them to give up their time, which affects energy levels and morale. If, as is often the case, children choose not to attend a detention the cycle begins again, with the teacher expected to log the failure to attend as a whole new incident. It is very common for some pupils to build up so many sanctions, even for comparatively low level offences, that there is simply not enough time for them to ever clear their backlog. This can happen especially quickly in schools which direct teachers to a high volume of meetings, training or to teach interventions after school because there simply aren’t enough slots to run detentions in. Senior Leaders, perhaps understandably at a loss as to what to do, can end up downgrading sanctions, sometimes using the teacher’s failure to adhere prescriptive and exhaustive tick-list as an excuse. For example, if a policy says that teachers are expected to write to parents to tell them about a missed detention before setting another and they do not do this, or do but forget to log a record that they have, the sanction may be postponed or even cancelled. Finally, very big backlogs may be cancelled at the end of term in order to give whole groups of children ‘a fresh start’.

Following procedure can very quickly become an end in itself. Teachers may be told, for example, that before a certain sanction can be considered they must make a phone call home and log it, regardless of how many times that year the parents have been called already, and regardless of how ineffective this has been up to that point.

In such schools a general lethargy often emerges and new appointees can be utterly baffled by unwritten rules that may directly contradict those on the official policy. A school rule may say clearly that any swearing results in an automatic detention but those who have been at the school for any length of time may know this is never applied and that any teacher who tries is viewed as a pedantic jobsworth.

Teachers working in schools like this can be forgiven for becoming so exhausted and demoralised that they stop issuing or logging sanctions at all. It is possible in some schools this is part of the point as it allows the pleasant narrative that behaviour is improving whether or not this is really true. Intentional or not, the result is the same. It does not take children long to work out the policy displayed on the posters in their classrooms is a fiction. Some will resent this because they see their classmates getting away with murder and spoiling things for them. Others, quite predictably, have enormous fun taking full advantage.

  1. Strong teachers and those with more influence choose not to use the system.

Even when a school’s behaviour policy is sensible in principle it can still fail. If a behaviour policy is to work properly, everyone must use it. In some schools stronger teachers, or those with more influence such as members of SLT, do not use the system because they feel they do not need to. This is understandable; if a teacher can teach well without using a superfluous layer of bureaucracy why not let them? This, theoretically, saves time and allows more autonomy for those who have earned it.

The problem here is the way in which this affects the way in which teachers are seen by their students. If the strongest, most important teachers do not use the policy, teachers who do are perceived as weaker and less important by association. This can easily lead to children behaving very differently depending on who is teaching them. This is effect is emphasised when punishments vary according to the relative status of teachers in the school hierarchy. When this happens behaviour will be more the result of complex and variable power dynamics than it will be consistency within a planned system. In an unfortunate and cruel irony, this also means that those least equipped to deal with bad behaviour, for example NQTS and supply teachers, tend to be those most often subjected to it.

It is deeply unfair and unhelpful to ascribe a member of staff’s struggles with student behaviour to their failure to implement the policy if the school’s most respected teachers are not doing so.

  1. High level sanctions, even when they are explicit on the policy, are very rarely applied.

Most school behaviour policies have permanent exclusion as the ultimate, final sanction. This is typically for a very extreme incident affecting the safety and security of the school, or for many lower level incidents. In schools without an effective behaviour policy it is rare for a child to be excluded for less serious incidents regardless of how many of these there are. Some schools, unwisely if they lack the will or ability to follow through, place an actual figure on the number of behaviour points that should result in a permanent exclusion. While reaching this should result in the end of the road for the student concerned, more common is a sequence of meeting and contracts in which the child is given one of many ‘final’ warnings. The effect of this, on both the child concerned and their compatriots, is to make a mockery of the policy and the school by association. Lion taming only works if the keepers convince the lions they are more dangerous than they really are. If this illusion is shattered they find themselves in great danger. The same is true of threatening children with sanctions that cannot be enforced; once students realise the school is effectively powerless they become unaccountable to anyone but themselves. If they have high standards of personal behaviour this is unlikely to have really serious consequences but if they do not, the consequences can be very severe indeed.

  1. So many children end up with sanctions that they become normalised and stop being a disincentive.

A common strategy adopted by schools who wish to signal they are getting tough on behaviour is to introduce a strict new set of rules and then issue all students in breach of these rules with a planned sanction. For example, a school may decide on a new uniform and place all children who refuse to wear it in isolation, or even send them home. Or, a school may be decide to be more vigilant on homework and assign children who do not do it a detention for each unfinished piece. In the short term this may result in a very high number of children being sanctioned, which can place a schools administrative capacity under great strain. In itself, there is nothing wrong with this and if such deterrents work in reducing the undesirable behaviour then, unless they are in some way unethical, they may be worth the effort required to implement them. Problems only occur if the number of sanctions never declines because when this happens, in addition to the problems caused by the extra workload, they are normalised and cease to be a meaningful disincentive. This is even more likely to happen when students think sanctions are unfair or pointless. For example, if a school is issuing detentions for not completing homework, but does nothing about the many pupils who just copy work in order to avoid the sanction, the system will lack the credibility required to be accepted as necessary.

It is even possible for children to develop learned helplessness as they come to believe sanctions are handed out randomly and that they have no control over whether they are punished or not. This fatalism is incompatible with the sense of responsibility and agency students need to be inspired into making good choices and dooms policies to failure.

  1. Allowances are made for some children and the reasons for these allowances are not understood or accepted by others,

The degree to which school behaviour strategies should be no excuses policies, is one of the most controversial questions in education and this isn’t the right place to get into the debate. It’s enough to say that any exceptions to the general rule, if there are any, should indeed be exceptional. If they are not, and lots of children visibly break rules without consequence while other children are punished for the same acts, students will perceive the system as unfair and will not respect it.

This can affect teachers just as much. A school may, rightly or wrongly, ascribe specific Special Educational Needs to some students. For example, a child may be diagnosed as having behavioural or emotional difficulties which require time outside the classroom to calm down after being given a sanction. If teachers agree this is necessary then they will apply this alteration to the general policy diligently, but if they believe the diagnosis to be unsafe or just an excuse for deliberately making poor choices, their irritation in having to do so is likely to affect their implementation.

An effective behaviour policy which allows exceptions requires that children and teachers understand there are good reasons for these, and to have faith they are necessary even when confidentiality agreements mean there isn’t an explanation. This is a difficult culture to create, but those schools that do not risk resentment and subversion.

Depressing so far, I know. In my next post I hope to be more positive.

 

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A different sort of blog. A different sort of daughter.

Bessie

I have been trying to decide whether to post blogs about my daughter on this site or start a new one. For a while I thought it best to separate my writing about Bessie from my writing on teaching because the content is going to be very different but, after a fair bit of reflection, I have decided to go ahead on this existing page. This is for the same reason that I don’t have two twitter accounts, one personal and one professional; I am one person and dividing things into compartments just doesn’t feel an accurate representation of how I see my life.

If you’re only interested in reading about education fair enough. Stop reading now.

So, deep breath. As some of you reading this already know, about three months ago Bessie was diagnosed with a rare genetic condition called Williams’ Syndrome (go ahead and google it. It was the first thing we did!), caused by a random microdeletion of a tiny part of her DNA. Williams Syndrome, without getting into it all blow by blow, means that along with some gifts, she is also likely to find lots of things harder than those without her condition.

Coming to terms with the diagnosis has, after an initial truly awful period when the shock and uncertainty made life very tough, been surprisingly easy so far.

Bessie is the same girl she always was and was never anything else. She has, thank God so far, escaped some of the worst health implications of Williams Syndrome and as a family we feel ourselves blessed.

The mental shift has been interesting. I’ve assumed an identity I never expected to have; the father of a child with special needs. A whole world has opened up and what once seemed abstract and unrelatable has become personal and important because I now have a dog (sorry Bessie!) in the fight.

One of the first things I noticed is that a lot of coverage and reaction to people who are different is somewhat infantile in tone. I do understand why and don’t think this happens out of any bad intention; people who learn more slowly than others do come across as more childlike sometimes and the fact they need care can easily lead us to treat them like children even when they aren’t.

Bessie is, of course, still a child (a massively cute one. Probably the cutest in the world) and will be for a long time yet. But I don’t want everything about her to be reduced to ‘cute’, or ‘aw’, or ‘bless’. I was thinking about this a couple of weeks ago when my wife and I were watching videos of children with Williams’ Syndrome walking for the first time. On first view, these videos do indeed appear cute; the staggering first steps, the slightly awkward gait and the nervous looks around for reassurance.

But to me it isn’t cute. It is epic.

About a week ago my wonderful, determined and tough daughter crawled for the first time. The video we have of this will, I know, be one I watch forever. You see this isn’t easy for Bessie. It didn’t come as naturally as it does for most others. Her lower muscle tone means it was a fight just to sit up. A fight to roll over. A fight to reach, and grab. It has been frustrating for her. She’s screamed with anger, arched her back, her face screwed up in purple rage. She has wanted so very much to move for so long. For months she sat back on her haunches and rocked frantically, not yet physically ready to lift an arm without collapsing. She’s watched other children her age totter about with an expression which is heart-breaking to watch.

But she didn’t give up. She kept going and the first wobbly forward shuffles we have now captured on video forever are the result of months of determined effort. It is not cute. It is jaw-dropping. It is life affirming. And when she stops half way and screams it is a triumphant roar of primeval joy.

“I am Bessie! I’m on the move!”

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Planning a knowledge curriculum.

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For the first time in my career I am planning a whole five year history curriculum from scratch. This is something of an embarrassing confession to make but I don’t think my experience is that unusual. As I wrote about here a while back, there are lots of reasons this isn’t typical; a lot of the time, for better or worse, what we teach is based on the textbooks we have and what’s on the shared area on our school network. Often incoming Heads of Department inherit schemes of work and staff used to doing things in a certain way, sometimes for good reason and sometimes just because it is what’s always been done. In the face of high workloads and understandable concerns about rocking the boat too much it is very tempting not to reinvent the wheel, especially when we are so well-meaningly and earnestly told we should avoid doing so.

This causes significant issues. Gradual evolution of curriculum and schemes of work seems sensible but can very easily lead to curricular confusion and incoherence. A lesson on Thomas Becket comes to be taught every year simply because it is taught every year with the original purpose and wider meaning of the lesson, if indeed thought was ever given to this, lost years back in the swirling mists of changing strategy and fashion.

The cult of high-stakes, graded one off lesson observations made this worse, with emphasis placed on the quality of what happened in each hour without reference to how this tied into any bigger picture.

For a time I didn’t think this that much of a problem. Lazy thinking on my part, aided by poor training and CPD, had led me to believe that the purpose of history was in the transferrable ‘historical skills’ it taught. The content, be it the feudal system, or Doom paintings, or the agricultural revolution, was only a vehicle used to develop description, explanation, evaluation or inference in my pupils, which meant a patchy, haphazard curriculum wasn’t anything to worry very much about. Why spend time painstakingly curating the knowledge pupils would learn if it wasn’t the point of my subject anyway? Better to produce one off whizbangy lessons that shoved pupils through boring low order recall, past description and explanation and then rocketed them right up to evaluating all within sixty minutes.

Of course, I know now this is nonsense. It is now pretty well accepted in the history community that getting better at history means knowing more of it and that a curriculum pupils do not remember is really no curriculum at all.

So what should go in my curriculum? It is here that I, tentatively, first use the phrase “knowledge rich”. I use this phrase cautiously because I see the danger it may turn into just another jargony buzzterm teachers laugh about in the pub. Indeed, some teachers are laughing already. “Knowledge rich! We’ve always taught knowledge! What do you think we’ve been doing for X years?”

I get it, I do. Not very long ago at all I would have laughed too. Of course I was teaching knowledge! I taught children about Thomas Becket! I taught them about Doom Paintings! I taught them about enclosure!

All knowledge, right?

Well, a bit yes but mainly no. In the earlier years of my career I was teaching my pupils knowledge but to be honest, not much of it and what I did teach was mostly forgotten. How could it not be? We rarely returned to it and because any links to anything else were more accidental than intentional it wasn’t memorable. Pupils forgot most of what I taught them and so, even if it could be argued the curriculum was knowledge rich (which it wasn’t), they ended up knowledge poor. Effectively, my pupils were comets blazing through unknown galaxies with ever diminishing trails behind them.

So with the curriculum I’m planning I’ve been determined not to make this mistake. To be truly knowledge rich we must ensure what is taught sticks and is built upon. If the features of the medieval Church are taught in Year 7 then they must remember them so pupils can understand why John Wycliff criticised it. Pupils then need to remember Wycliff’s criticisms so Martin Luther’s complaints don’t seem to arrive from nowhere. Pupils then have to remember Luther to understand Henry VIII’s justifications for the Reformation. To make sense of what has happened in the past pupils must be able to make connections and cannot be comets. Planning a curriculum that makes it possible for pupils to do this means going down to very, very granular detail and knowing not just what pupils are learning but why, and how this will be built upon later. It means scrolling back and forth between years 7 and 8 deciding when exactly is the right point to introduce them to the concept of ‘revolution’ or ‘franchise’. It means moving topics around so that the sequence is just right.

At this point I find myself backtracking somewhat. In the past, and I still stand by it to a certain extent, I’ve said that we should spend more time thinking and discussing what pupils should learn rather than how. While this is true, it would be disingenuous to suggest that the knowledge curriculum in history has no overlap with delivery methods. For children to learn enough of the past to make any kind of sense then there just isn’t much space for very involved activities that take up a lot of time. Time spent on making castles, posters or organising a mock medieval fair is time that could have been spent more directly teaching pupils more knowledge. More knowledge is important because it is easier to connect the dots when there are lots of them.

For a knowledge curriculum to work properly time must also be spent going back over what has been learned before to make sure that the dots are clearly defined even if they were taught years before. It does, of course, take time but since adopting an unashamedly didactic approach and deliberately reducing my tolerance for disruption it has amazed me just how much more I and my pupils get through.

Of course, no matter how rich a curriculum in history is, decisions have to be made about what to teach. it just isn’t possible for them to learn everything. This is where the importance of topics, framed around areas of genuine historical debate, lies. These overarching questions, which can last a term or more, provide the framework in which the knowledge can sit and, more importantly, assume the meaning which makes it memorable. Failing to have these can result in lots of facts that add up to nothing, demeaning history by making it little more than a glorified pub quiz.

I have enjoyed the work, I really have, more than anything I have done in ages. It feels important. I am proud of myself for doing it.

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A building shining with hope. My visit to Nuneaton Academy

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One of the frustrations of not living in London is that it can sometimes feel as if far less in education happens anywhere else. This impression, completely untrue of course, is built by the effective and loud schools and academy chains that operate there, and the large number of education events that take place within the M25.

I don’t begrudge London this. Much. But I do think it important that when something exciting happens elsewhere it is highlighted.

A fortnight or so ago I was invited to look round the Nuneaton Academy and came away inspired. It wasn’t the first time this school appeared on my radar. About five years ago and old friend of mine got a medium term cover position there after finishing up a job abroad. It was, he told me, eye-poppingly awful. Behaviour was out of control with no centralised or even departmental system to deal with it. Teachers were left to control the crowds alone in their classrooms and any teaching and learning seemed almost incidental. A newly appointed Head Teacher told an assembly “I will stay at least a year” as if that was something worth shouting about, then didn’t. “Poor kids,” I remember my friend saying, “there’s a generation of them not learning anything.”

A quick look through the school’s Ofsted history makes for some pretty grim reading. There isn’t even one ‘good’ rating on the website.

While nothing at all can excuse this sort of systematic, long term failure it is important to acknowledge that by any measure Nuneaton is a tough place in which to teach. It is a poor, post-industrial, predominantly white British town. These children, demographically, do not do well and the Nuneaton Academy is full of them. Fruit does not fall easily from the tree in places like this.

I hate that schools like this still exist. I hate driving past them when I can’t help but imagine them as black holes, sucking the life out of all in and around them. I hate visualising the stunted lives and the squandered potential, and the wasting of so much time. I hate that it happens in towns near where I live. I hate that it seems to happen to more children outside London than it does to those in it.

And it was because of all this hatred that I drove out of the Nuneaton Academy smiling so widely that when I caught a glimpse of myself in the overhead mirror I forced myself to stop because I actually looked insane.

This school is not failing its pupils.

As soon as I arrived at reception it was clear a lot had changed since my friend had worked there. It was just after the first bell and the Deputy Head, Ann Donaghy, was dealing with two latecomers. There were clear consequences, calmly explained with humour, and accepted by pupils, who were then sent off to wherever they should be with a smile.

In a short meeting the approachable Head, Simon, and Ann, spoke clearly and convincingly about their vision and its practical application, which was visible everywhere I looked in the school on the tour I took later. Ann, by saying that the school was still at the beginning of its journey and that not all behaviour was as they wanted it to be, led me to expect something very different to what I actually saw in lessons; behaviour was largely perfect. Children were focused and the lessons, taught from the front, were meaningful and productive. In the corridors children greeted, Simon, Ann and myself with ‘good morning’ which was returned every time. As a small experiment when left to my own devices for a minute between lessons I said ‘good morning’ to the children who passed me and found that every one responded politely and confidently. This is truly impressive. I have been teaching and leading in schools long enough to know that this sort of culture does not emerge by accident.

The rules were strict and formal and the pupils happy because of them. Classes stood when Simon and Ann came into the room but did this with wide smiles and were genuinely pleased to see them, and keen to show off what they knew when asked to. There was humour and warmth in every room I went in. In one classroom one pupil did not comply with a polite request form her teacher and this was dealt with by Simon, the Head, unobtrusively, calmly and respectfully. If any other pupil noticed what was going on they didn’t show it. In the same lesson I saw an ICT failure of the sort that’s inevitable and watched the class teacher calmly ask Simon for help resolving it, which he did readily and with no fuss at all. This must be a great place in which to work.

Rules, routines and rituals help create the culture in which learning can happen and so I was not surprised to see really high quality teaching and learning.

In a history lesson I was lucky enough to observe I saw a teacher casually use the phrase ‘perpetual suffering’ when teaching a Year 7 class about heaven, hell and purgatory in the medieval period. When I asked the child closest to me what this meant she answered correctly, proudly and in a full sentence. I saw English literature lessons in which knowledge organisers were being used, which had been carefully curated and skilfully formatted to reduce distraction and get pupils focused on the most important aspects.

After the tour, I returned to Simon’s office and looked at the numbers of pupils in each year. Year 11 has less than Year 10, which has less than Year 9, which has less than Year 8. Year 7 has the highest number of pupils. GCSE outcomes are on the up and last year the a pupil at the school achieved a top (9) grade for the very first time. Those familiar with the way schools work will already have spotted the pattern. Quite rightly, the school is becoming more and more popular because it is getting better and better. It is still undersubscribed but it will not stay that way for long.

This is a proper school that knows what it’s doing, doing it in a place where children need a great education more than almost anywhere else. It was a privilege to see and I’ll be watching and cheering  its journey, and that of the Midland Academies Trust of which it is a part, with very close interest. We all, of course, know great things happen all over the country; the Dixons chain in Bradford, the Inspiration MAT in Norfolk and the Huntington School in York are just three examples of places outside London in which things are going very right. I’d encourage anyone who can to learn about and, better, visit them. But there’s something really exciting about seeing something truly wonderful happening in your own local area and that’s what I saw at the Nuneaton Academy.

I’d encourage anyone who can to visit this school to go and see for yourself what I saw; a building shining with hope.

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Pushing on

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Years ago, although sometimes it seems like yesterday, I helped turn round a school.

The school was an international one and before the arrival of a new management team had endured a torrid time. Poor leadership and management had resulted in rapid staff turnover, demoralisation of the teachers who had stayed, poor and declining exam results, and such deterioration in pupil behaviour that the building did not feel like a school at all. Older pupils chose whether or not to go to lessons and wandered on and off the site at will. Younger children ran riot through the corridors. Bullying, both in and out of school, was common. Many proactive parents had already pulled their children out and many of those who replaced these had been expelled or ‘asked to leave’ other international schools in the area.

When, in his first assembly, the newly appointed Head said his vision was for the school to become the best in the country there was a loud guffaw of laughter from the assembled pupils. Some of the teachers sniggered too.

Not knowing the extent of the problems when I had been hired I was dismayed and considered resigning before I’d even really started. In the end, after meetings with the new Head and other management I didn’t because they convinced me they were serious and had the capability to rescue the foundering ship. My instincts were right. Three years later the school achieved its best ever set of exam results, comparable to schools charging four times as much. Children were proud to go to the school. When the Head, at his last assembly, said he considered the school the best in the country he got a standing ovation.

I am still very close friends with my old Head. He was one of the ushers at my wedding. By co-incidence he lives quite close by and, as often as we can with young families and grown up commitments, we meet up for beers, swap news and revel in old war stories.

Looking back now it seems clear that the turnaround took place in two quite distinct stages. The first was just making the school feel like a school. It involved endless meetings with parents and their children and running hours and hours of centralised detentions. It meant shouting children down from the roof of the toilet block where they were playing tig. It meant contacting embassies to tell them to confiscate mopeds from children whose parents were out of the country on diplomatic business. It meant patrolling corridors and scooping children into lessons and then sitting in them to make sure everyone behaved. It was exhausting but it was actually a lot of fun. Certainty over what needed to be done and being part of a close team committed to following through made the work enormously rewarding, especially as every week the changes in the school were significant and palpable.

It is this stage, that lasted all of the first year and the first half-term of the second, my friend and I talk about most. This is the time we are most nostalgic about.

But it was, of course, only half the battle if that. Exam results at the end of our first year were not radically better than the year before we’d arrived. The children just had too much to catch up on.

My friend and I talk much less about stage two which, in some ways, is odd because this was just as important. These were, in many ways, frustrating years. They were not glamourous. They involved computers and standardised tests. Regular exam periods. Rooming. Systems. Timetabling.  Appraisal. Governor’s meetings and curriculum work late into the night.

What made all of this even more difficult was that there was no immediately obvious reason as to why we were bothering. International Schools are often not accountable for outcomes in the same way English ones are which meant there was little pressure; as far as the school community was concerned problems had been solved and our efforts should now be concentrated on prize-giving ceremonies, shows and other events in which we’d show off and by so doing boost applications.

If we had done this it could have been a cushy couple of years but, and I am proud of this, we didn’t. We realised that to truly get better we needed to change gear. So we did.

I have been thinking about this a lot recently.

As I have written about here, I have fairly recently started at a new school. The school is nothing at all like the Ethiopian International School, being well organised, robust and committed to the betterment of its pupils. My reasons for thinking back so much are more personal.

As I have written about here, I have a pretty well-established routine for how I start with all my new classes. The point of it all is to build the basics; the behaviour and routines that will create the culture in which really meaningful learning can happen. With the majority of my classes and pupils I feel I have got there now .My lessons are now, predominantly, orderly and crisp. Pupils know and respect my rules. They know the procedures and the consistent structure. They get ready quickly and they do their retrieval practise without being asked. They listen when it is someone else’s turn to speak. When it’s time to answer a question in writing they get to it silently and without fussing.

And in all this there is another danger because, of course, as visible as all this is it is only half the battle. My duty as a teacher is to constantly and relentlessly drive improvement and never to settle for where we are as long as there are uplands we have not yet reached. This is obvious but easy to forget too. If my class aren’t orderly, or children aren’t completing enough work this will be quickly picked up, but only I really know if the work I’ve set is as ambitious as it should be. Sometimes it can be tempting to fixate on smaller and smaller granular details at the expense of the bigger, more complicated areas which should actually be the highest priority; can we get transitions between tasks down to two second from three? Can we get children packed away in twenty seconds instead of thirty? Only I know if this sort of thing is really where I should be focusing, or whether we should be reading progressively harder but more rewarding historical scholarship, or indeed whether we should be doing both. Only I know if I have introduced more challenging interpretations and more obscure, more subtle sources.

This, for me, is where the true meaning of professionalism in teaching lies: the acceptance that we will never, never arrive at the end and that only we really know how hard we are striving to move our classes on. There’s always more to do. There’s always more to learn. For every summit we reach another beckons us on from the horizon and we are often the only people who can see it.

This isn’t to say I think like this every day and with every class.

But I know I should. I know I try to.

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What exactly are we tracking?

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Almost every state school in England tracks the progress of their pupils by using spreadsheets to analyse a number or grade teachers input into a software program at regular intervals.

In some this happens once a term, and every half term is even more common.

The purpose is clear; schools are responsible for the progress of their pupils and accountable for their results. In order to know whether pupils are ‘on track’ often to meet a target grade, about which my opinions are well known, then there has to be a way of knowing whether or not each child will eventually succeed. Data led inspection regimes have led to a perceived need that school leaders must know the grades their pupils will achieve at all times.

An entire industry has grown up to meet this need. While there are subtle variations between how each works whatever the system the principle remains largely the same; teachers enter data and the program works out whether each child is making expected progress or not. The program may also generate reports allowing leaders or teachers to see which individuals or groups of pupils need extra help. Such systems are also often used to hold teachers personally accountable for the outcomes of their pupils.

This is now all so ubiquitous that few would even think of questioning the orthodoxy and those that do can find themselves accused of educational heresy. This, however, is unfortunate because the process of data tracking is a house of cards in many schools and does need to be challenged.

While all tracking is tricky, the recent(ish) trend of doing so with GCSE grades even in KS3 is especially problematic. Even leaving aside the issues around the validity of the entry data (KS2 tests) on which the idea is based, there remain profound issues in using GCSE grades designed as a summative measurement to assess progress in a formative fashion, especially in the younger year groups.

Firstly, GCSE grades do not represent a half terms worth of work. They represent two, or indeed three, years of work and a number of exams that might total hours. The only way of inputting an anywhere near accurate GCSE grade would be if pupils sat the same number of exams, in the same conditions, on the same material as they will at the end of Y11 regardless of at what stage of school they are at. For example this means that in history, to obtain an accurate grade, teachers must make Year 7 sit three exams on topics they had never studied every six weeks. As pupils covered more and more of the course, the grade would slowly go up, in theory at least. If measurement was the point of it all, this would be quite a neat solution but this but is actually quite unacceptable because it would narrow the curriculum and mean teachers rarely did anything but set and mark exams with very little time left to teach anything at all.

But of course I have set up a straw man. No schools do this. Instead they assess pupils on what they have studied. In some subjects this is more authentic than others. In Maths, for example, the domain remains the same but increases in complexity, which might make GCSE grades more appropriate than in History or English Literature where students do not begin their courses until Year 9 at the earliest. Not knowing much about assessment in these subjects I think it best I leave this to others to think about, and will confine my concerns to subjects like history, RE and English Literature.

Time constraints and common sense mean that children do not sit full exams on entire domains of knowledge, or even the sample on GCSE specifications, at half-termly intervals. Usually, children will sit a handful of exam questions in a lesson which often only tests the material pupils have studied most recently. This makes tracking misleading because what is being assessed is actually performance rather than embedded learning; just because a child achieved a certain number of marks on a question a week after learning the content does not mean they will achieve the same three years later in their final exams, making any inputted grade potentially very misleading. This is the reason KS3 classes can appear to be doing far better than their eventual KS4 result.

Strong departments understand and try to deal with this issue by testing students on the entire domain, going back at least a year and sometimes longer. This is more satisfactory but still far from perfect. This is because the sample tested my not be representative of what comes up in the final exam; being able to answer a question on the Reichstag Fire really well does not mean the child will be able to answer a question on, say, Thomas Sydenham to the same standard. Conversely, a child may do really badly on a question, leading us to believe that they are in need of urgent help when this could be an area on which they are atypically weak.

Furthermore, that most schools teach different content in KS3 than is assessed at the end of KS3 results in mark-schemes and rubrics assuming an importance they really should not have. It is now fairly typical for children in the lower years to be set GCSE style questions which are then marked to a generic mark scheme drawn from the specification the department has chosen for their KS4 pupils. Departments that do this have rarely chosen to, but have no choice in order to enter as accurate a possible grade into a standardised tracking spreadsheet. This means that pupils can easily come to believe that there is a correct way to answer certain questions not just for their exam but in the discipline itself, which misrepresents these subjects. Sadly, this can make never setting a long extended essay to any pupil before sixth form seem a quite logical decision.

Even if put aside these ethical and moral considerations, and we had certainty that the grades we inputted were an accurate representation of each pupil’s sum knowledge of an entire domain, there remain profound problems in the practicalities of marking and assessment.

Marking of some subjects is, to a degree at least, inherently subjective. Just a quick look at the government’s own descriptors for 9-1 in history is enough to see this. Here, the criteria for Grade 5 is outlined as:

“demonstrate mostly accurate and appropriate historical knowledge, using first order concepts, combined with a clear understanding of key features and characteristics.”

 Who then is to be the judge of what ‘mostly accurate’ or ‘a clear understanding’ actually means when looking at a piece of work? Exam boards do try to clarify, but even these documents are largely subjective. This was shockingly exposed in March 2018 when Ofqual revealed that nearly half of English Literature students were awarded an ‘incorrect’ grade because of marking inconsistency and problems with the design of the exam. The same figures revealed that in history, 1 in 3 students may have been awarded the ‘wrong’ grade.

The implication of this on tracking in schools using GCSE grades cannot be understated; if even examiners are wrong up to half the time how can we have any certainty that what we are entering into our spreadsheet is an accurate representation of what a pupil will actually achieve? This probably also makes time-consuming, painstaking internal moderation processes a waste of time. Even if consensus is achieved, which often means just everyone falling into line behind the most influential person involved, this consensus is unlikely to be the shared with the person who eventually marks the exam scripts of the department’s students, making the whole ritual entirely pointless. Further complicating this are the unconscious biases we all hold, where what we know about a pupil, be it behaviour, their level of affluence and even handwriting can all play into the decisions we make when grading.

I get how much we really want to know exactly where our pupils are, I really do. The religion of high-stakes accountability makes it feel like educational careers live and die on the minute variances in a Progress 8 figure. Feeling like you don’t know what this will be is terrifyingly uncertain. But it just isn’t possible to get the degree of exactitude we want and all the tracking packages, clever formulas, powerful software, pretty graphs and RAGed lists in the world won’t change the fact that the data used to make them isn’t safe making any conclusions we draw from them unsafe too.

Those tempted by ever more sophisticated systems would do well to remember that no program can ever transcend the quality of the data fed into it.

The best we can do, in many subjects, is to give ballpark predictions based on the professional opinions of teachers as we were happy doing before we found ourselves buried in an avalanche of figures. It is actually very interesting to note that this is often what schools revert to near the end of Year 11 anyway, with it quite common for teachers to be asked, irrespective of all the data they’ve entered over the last five years, what their best guess for each pupil they teach is. Ultimately, when it really counts, we often do trust our own subjective judgement more than we do the robots and for good reason.

We all want children to learn more and get better grades. The best way to accomplish this is to spend time on the things that matter. The imperfections inherent to entering GCSE grades onto a spreadsheet means that agonising over the figures to the degree we often do just does not make any sense and can never be worth the opportunity cost.

Imagine how much time could be spent on developing curriculum and meaningful assessment, and improving teaching and subject knowledge if we cut the fat from tracking systems that can never do what we really want them to.

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Low level disruption?

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Those of us working in schools hear about low-level and high-level disruption a lot. We all know, or at least think we know, what is meant by each. Throwing a chair, fighting and swearing directly at a teacher would in most sensible contexts be considered high-level, while tapping a pen, whispering or passing notes is more commonly described as low level.

While this might appear very clear, I think such distinctions are profoundly unhelpful.

Firstly, labelling some disruptive behaviours low level implies they aren’t that detrimental to learning and creates a context in which they may not be taken seriously enough. For example, a child arriving late to the lesson and then making a fuss sitting down can distract an entire class for minutes at a time. This wouldn’t be regarded as high level disruption in many schools but is really damaging to the overall classroom atmosphere, even if we put aside the time lost. Labelling such behaviour low level and others too, such as pen-tapping or refusal to take off a coat at first time of asking, can make teachers following up appear fussy and pedantic and can even lead to their concerns being ignored by those who should support them. When this happens, it is very easy for schools to slide into culture in which forgetting equipment, arriving late to lessons, or talking when children should be working is actually tacitly permitted just because they aren’t perceived as being as bad as other misdemeanours. For schools in especially challenging areas this can easily become a race to the bottom with the definition of ‘low-level’ stretched to include things as basic as listening while a teacher is talking, just because this doesn’t seem as bad as what might be happening elsewhere in the building.

Secondly, and more fundamentally, the distinction between high and low level disruption is a subjective one, based on the perceptions of those involved. This ambiguity is a recipe for accidental and even deliberate confusion, which wastes time and may encourage some children to wilfully game the system. While throwing a chair at a wall may be dramatic and attention-grabbing, is this really any less disruptive than saying to a teacher who has just had a hair cut “it looks awful”, in a faux-sympathetic tone? Given the devastating emotional impact of such a comment, and the likely decline in quality of teaching as a result, a case could well be made that the second example is actually more disruptive than the first. We could, of course, have endless fun (and oh what fun!) thinking up examples of bad behaviour and deciding which is worst but while this may make for an entertaining evening in the pub, it is certainly not a productive use of time in school.

It just isn’t possible, without context, to really ever know what is supposedly ‘high’ and what is supposedly ‘low’ level, making hierarchical distinctions between misbehaviours profoundly unhelpful. It wastes everyone’s time trying to get to the bottom of what exactly was written on the note that made Sasha cry, or whether Mr Andrews gave enough warnings to Taylor for tapping his pen before sending him out of the classroom. It helps spawn Byzantine behaviour policies which try to list every example of poor behaviour that has ever happened in schools but never seem to reduce them. It allows children to waste time acting as jailhouse lawyers, undermining their teachers and schools by using a teacher’s failure, in the heat of the moment, to follow a complicated and exact procedure as justification for behaviour everyone knows was deliberately rude and disruptive.

If there is a distinction between high and low level disruption it is too complicated to waste time trying to define. Instead, we should recognise that all behaviour that affects learning, whether it is of an individual pupil or a class as a whole, is unacceptable and that classroom teachers are best placed to make these decisions. Indeed, making such calls, based on a clear and sensible whole school policy, is an important part of a teacher’s role.

So let’s stop taking about ‘high’ and ‘low’ level disruption. If it distracts from learning, it is disruptive and that’s that.

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