The Point of It all

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When I was a younger teacher I believed that my work would have a direct, immediately clear link to positive future outcomes. For example, I thought that if I worked hard at my job and was good at it, poorer pupils in my classes would get better exam grades. This would lead to them studying at better universities, which meant they would get better jobs, earn more money and become more economically, socially and politically influential than they would otherwise have been. This would, of course, make them happier people. Eventually, the world would become a better, fairer and happier place because of my work. While perhaps naïve, I was no fool for believing this; the narrative is familiar and to many of us, a reason we chose teaching as a profession.

I now accept that life just isn’t as simple as this. It’s very difficult, probably impossible, to separate out any contribution a teacher makes to a pupil from the sound and fury of the rest of their life. Even, for whatever reason, poor pupils do achieve better exam grades, financial and cultural barriers may well prevent them taking up any offer from any university. For those that do, a degree is no guarantee of success, and even those who make it this far down the road might, as has been really well written about by Michael Merrick, find themselves no happier for having walked it than their friends who did not. Or they might. We just don’t know enough about how happiness works to be able to say.

My error, as revealed to me by my unpaid philosophy tutor Bernard Andrews, was that I was deriving my professional (and self) worth from a belief in consequentialism. I could only be successful and fulfilled if my work had definite and certain outcomes that were caused by the things I did. If these outcomes did not happen then I was a failure. As convenient as this is for recruitment campaigns and to unimaginative and ill-informed decision makers with views of success and failure based around numbers, it is a fallacy.

When this brutal message finally sank in I found myself somewhat disillusioned. If we cannot be certain the education we provide our pupils will benefit them then why bother at all?

The realisation of my error cast me, for a short period, into a sort of existentialist funk, which I got through by recognising the inherent worth in learning and education regardless of any concrete, measurable outcome. This was actually hugely freeing, because it allowed me to guiltlessly appreciate the learning of all my pupils regardless of the exam grade they might or might not eventually achieve.

But I’ve found it hard to shake consequentialism completely. It’s difficult not to have hopes and dreams for our pupils even when we recognise that we may have a very limited role in helping our pupils achieve them, or indeed even whether it is our place for us to have them at all.

I’ve thought about this hard and I’ve decided having hopes and dreams for my pupils is OK, and that it’s also OK for these to play into the decisions I make at work.

We all have hopes and dreams, for ourselves and those we love. Most of us are wise enough to know that there is no guarantee we’ll ever achieve them and that circumstances outside our control are probably more significant than anything we can do, but this does not mean that we are foolish or misguided to take steps to maximise our chances. Of course, having dreams for others is more morally problematic, but it is also inevitable; we cannot educate a child while wilfully failing to think about what will happen to them when they step blinkingly out of their final exam and walk away from us for the last time.  As adults in charge of children I think the bedrock of our role is to decide what we want for them and then to create a conducive context, and that avoiding thinking about this is actually a failure to meet one of our key responsibilities.

So if it’s OK and perhaps even desirable to have hopes and dreams for our pupils, what should these be?

While we all want our pupils to go as far as they can, it would be illogical to look out on a whole school assembly and hope for all pupils to get top grades in every subject, go to top class universities and then go on to have influential and high paid jobs. As Martin Robinson has explained well, our system is set up deliberately to preclude this; there are a limited number of top grades just as there are a finite amount of high-flying careers. To wish for this would be to wish for the impossible. Still worse, to hope for this would inevitably mean being disappointed by some pupils, and probably most in some schools. Given that pupils do, regardless of how unwilling some are to accept it, have varying levels of aptitude, this seems to me a cruel hope to have, because it condemns the most vulnerable to failure and means we inevitably end up devaluing the contributions of those who don’t soar to such obvious heights.

Instead of this sort of thing, I hope that the children for which I am responsible become open, curious people able to take satisfaction from many different places in their lives. What I want for my pupils is perhaps, to me at least, best articulated in the poem Ithaka by CP Cavafy, which I heard read on Radio 4 many years ago now. It’s a beautiful poem, and you should read it, but for those who haven’t the time the gist is that while we may have an ultimate destination in mind we should aim to appreciate the journey, because we might never get to where we want to go and even if we do, we may find it less satisfying than we’d thought it would be.

This is why a knowledge rich curriculum, based on the best that has been thought and said (and painted, composed, sculpted, danced and so on), is so important. It’s the canon, rightfully contested, debated and argued over, that has the best chance of giving pupils the keys that unlock life’s richest treasures, the things most likely to give them satisfaction and pleasure on whatever walk of life they find themselves. Some of life’s greatest rewards are counterintuitive and hard to begin with which is why, just as most of us have to work at appreciating olives or coffee, we must sometimes teach children things they initially find boring or irrelevant. Of course, and as I have already acknowledged, nothing is certain; pupils may choose not to engage with school for a myriad of reasons outside our control, or their lives may take really tragic turns that mean they never get the chance to properly open the gifts we give them. But all that said, a good curriculum offers all children their best shot at fulfilment because it gives them at least a fighting chance of joining the Great Conversation.

This is why we should teach Frankenstein and not Holes. It is why Shakespeare belongs to everyone just as the Beatles and Maya Angelou do.

By teaching all our children their cultural entitlement we also give them the best chance of seeing themselves as being entitled in the most proper, fair sense. Entitled to respect. Entitled to attention. Entitled to proper healthcare. Entitled to a place at an opera house, concert, museum or exhibition should they choose to go. Entitled to laws that protect them at work and entitled to pensions for a dignified old age regardless of their station in life.

I hope that by teaching pupils the things that matter most they will come to see they matter too.

Although I can’t be certain of any of this I will allow myself my hopes and and dreams, and make the decisions I think most likely to make my dreams come true.

This is why I am proud to be part of a Trust that sees things this way too, and proud that this Trust is part of the newly formed Midland Knowledge Hub, which aims to help those who dream our dreams too. Get in touch.

Have a good summer everyone.

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Wearing the colours

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I have felt like an outsider for too long. Up until quite recently I have been, inwardly at least, cynical and pessimistic about education and elements of my roles in it.

I don’t blame myself or any one individual. I think if we’re honest, many of us would admit some complicity in creating or upholding the depressing reductive audit and accountability culture which made us all victims of league tables and forced us to focus on numbers we couldn’t control at the expense of education in its richest, most meaningful sense. Even those of us with serious misgivings felt powerless and many of us learned, out of self-preservation, to keep quiet, to never question the numbers, to never object publicly when given nonsensical or even ludicrous suggestions and to break our backs and sometimes hearts doing work that was of no benefit to our pupils.

Still worse, negative cultures turned us, all us teachers, against each other. In the all-consuming blind drive to push meaningless numbers up we were made to believe that we could only be defined as being good at our jobs if others were worse. We were made to be political in the most ugly sense. We became defensive, surrounding ourselves in a pathetic armour made of badly formatted spreadsheets and rambling analysis documents, all designed to prove that however bad things were it was not our fault, and that if we had more we must be doing a better job than a teacher with less. We hid mistakes, coming to believe these to be damning indictments of our competence, often rightfully certain that should these come to light we’d be stamped with the mark of Cain and railroaded out of our roles. We stopped learning. We stopped smiling.

Twitter saved my professional life but also, initially at least, made things worse in some respects. Twitter showed me the world did not have to be this way, that there were great schools where pupils were taught to behave well and where management did care more about pupils than it did about external validation. But it seemed there were few of these and the idea I would ever work at one felt like a hazy, sepia tinged dream.

But now I do and, so far, it’s even better than I could ever have imagined.

Today I finished my first full week working at The Nuneaton Academy, part of the Midland Academies Trust run by Ros McMullen. It’s felt longer than a week because there’s been so much to take in and digest. So many people to meet, so much to learn, so much to absorb. At times I’ve found it difficult to comprehend how right the school has already got things. Pupil behaviour is better than I’ve ever seen and the few that struggle are supported by a no nonsense, centralised discipline system that tolerates no disruption and cares for all pupils on an acutely personal level.

To me, it’s a demonstration of the old truism that love is a verb not a noun.

The children I’ve spoken to, almost unfailingly polite, and I’ve gone out of my way to speak to as many as I can, seem almost as awestruck as me. When you ask one how the school feels compared to even a year ago they look at you as if you’ve gone slightly mad, and then stumble over their words, trying to articulate just how pleased and proud they are.

The focus on knowledge and the teacher as an expert is relentless and unashamed. And for those prone to criticising this approach as a right wing one might be interested to know that it’s the words of Maya Angelou and Robert Tressell that dictate the culture and direction of travel.

I’ve been genuinely humbled by the staff I’m going to have the privilege to work closely with. Some have been at the school years and years, having never left even when they might have been understandably tempted to do so because of their deep, deep commitment to their pupils and community. I find this quite daunting and am already thinking really deeply about how I can raise my performance to be the calibre of leader, it that’s even possible, that they deserve.

The sense of freedom and openness, clearly deliberately and expertly cultivated by TNA’s driven head Simon Lomax is palpable. Nobody cares who’s fault a mistake is. Nobody is trying to catch anyone else out. If something goes wrong, however minor or major, all staff seem to want to know is how they can help to fix it. I’ve felt completely comfortable admitting what I don’t know and asking for help. Every single adult I’ve had the pleasure of meeting has been unbendingly focused on how to ensure pupils know and understand they are equal heirs to the inheritance of all history and have the right to access it.

If it isn’t already clear enough, I’ve never been more inspired, happy, hopeful or committed.

Today, the final INSET day of the year for the whole MAT trust, I realised that this success story isn’t limited to TNA. I watched a presentation in which the success of all four schools (The Nuneaton Academy, George Eliot, Hartshill and Heath Lane) were highlighted and saw wild applause from everyone in the room. I saw meaningful, purposeful and powerful collaboration in subject specialist sessions and found myself almost exhausted by the number of people who went out of their way to shake my hand and welcome me to the family.

Then, after a proper (hog-roast) lunch we were all directed to one of what seemed dozens of well-being activities. This, ordinarily for me, would have been a prime opportunity for inward sneering, but today it just didn’t feel like that. This wasn’t an employer providing mindfulness sessions while piling on more and more work. These were genuine opportunities to do something fun and nice at the end of an academic year, curated with skill, care and consideration.

And it was I sat playing a board game with colleagues from all four schools, on a bench under a tree that I realised something in me had shifted. In previous jobs, I always gave everything for my pupils, but rarely felt really part of the team. I felt vaguely uncomfortable if I even accidentally found myself wearing a shirt and tie in school colours because somehow, it always seemed a bit fraudulent, as if I was pretending to be someone I wasn’t really.

This weekend I’m buying a shirt and tie in TNA purple and blue. Nobody has asked me to. I want to.

If you’re interested in being part of this, let me know. And if not, have a quick read of this before you decide for sure.

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Stop PEEing!

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A side-effect and hangover of generic skills based curricula has been the rise of transferrable sentence starters. In history examples are ‘one the one hand’, ‘furthermore’ and ‘moreover’.

Teachers  who use these, of which I have been one, typically deliver substantive content and then provide these generic phrases and words to help pupils structure their writing.

This is worrying. At best such an approach results in functional, workmanlike answers and at worst it results in a tick box approach in which pupils are led to believe they should always follow the same formula regardless of what they are writing about. I think this is also true of formulas such as PEE, PEA and PEEL, on which many pupils have become completely dependent, with a really depressing question I’ve been asked far too many times being “how many PEE paragraphs should we write?”

Perhaps this wouldn’t be as much of a problem if such genericisms were disciplinarily authentic but , of course, they are not. Marc Morris does not begin arguments with ‘on the one hand I believe’ and I’m sure Mary Beard’s editor does not send back her manuscripts annotated with comments like ‘this does not follow PEE, please rewrite.’ While Daisy Christodoulou has convinced me that stages of learning should not resemble the desired end result, I remain worried because for many pupils such generic frames have actually become the ends rather than the means.

This sort of practice is not solely the fault of teachers. In a context in which exam results have come to be seen as the absolute aim and purpose of all education, it is quite logical to look for the most efficient methods of maximising marks. Generic sentence starters and connective phrases are often drawn from exam board mark schemes, which then cascade down through the years until every pupil in every class, at whatever stage they are at, is aiming to write to meet the requirements of the schools chosen exam board.

Generic formulas are also, I think, reassuring to non-specialist SLT who are able to grasp them more easily than they can do substantive or disciplinary material outside their own area of expertise. An SLT member with a Mathematics background is much more easily able to absorb and understand the formula PEEL than they can historical disagreement around the severity of the Treaty of Versailles or literary controversy around the meaning of Lord of the Flies. This can lead to a disproportionate emphasis on generic writing tools, frames or phrases in lesson observation, book scrutiny or other accountability measures, which can cause specialist teachers to adopt such approaches even when they don’t really want to.

To free ourselves and our pupils from the chains of genercism we must first accept that good writing is contingent on what is being written about. They are not separable. The shape and structure of our argument should be influenced by the content we are concerned with to avoid creating unhelpful and misleading distortions. An argument about the extent of change and continuity after the Norman Invasion should be structured differently to an analysis of King John’s failings as a king.

If we are to accept this, and we should, then we must also accept that sentence starters and other phrases should vary according to the material pupils are writing about. This open up rather exciting avenues to explore. In history, Rachel Foster and Jim Carroll have, for a long time, been advocating the use of more historical scholarship in schools. We should all be doing this because by doing so we show pupils that the substantive content they have been studying has been interpreted differently by very clever people and expose them to the specific phrasing they use to form their arguments. This is in keeping with the vision that all pupils have an entitlement to learn ‘the best that has been thought and said’, because for this to be more than an empty catchphrase pupils must learn and understand the disciplinary as well as the substantive.

Perhaps even more importantly, crafting sentence starters and other phrases that are informed by the content pupils are writing about creates greater opportunity for really beautiful writing. This became clear to me yesterday at a Doug Lemov workshop on writing, in which the examples of sentence starters he and his colleague Colleen Driggs shared were tailored specifically to the material. In the videos used to support the examples I as struck by how often the teachers used directions such as “write a beautiful, artful sentence” and how disingenuous such an inspiring instruction would be if a teacher followed it with “remember to write in a PEA paragraph!”

Instead of asking pupils to begin an argument on the Treaty of Versailles with “On one hand..”, how much more inspiring would it be to begin with “The severity of the Treaty has been the subject of ongoing, profound historical disagreement because..”?

This is something I will continue to think more about and trying to incorporate more into my own planning and teaching.

Other people’s thoughts are, as always, very welcome.

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Hospital Days

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Sorry to all those who follow me for teaching stuff, this is one of those ‘other’ blogs.

It’s been a difficult few days. Last Wednesday our paediatrician called with some bad news. My daughter’s calcium levels had gone up and, while this is a known symptom of Williams’ Syndrome, the health threats were significant enough to mean a trip to the hospital.

Our first for a non-routine check since she was born.

I don’t think I was really prepared. We’ve been so lucky with Bessie’s health that I at first assumed she’d be treated as an out-patient. Some more tests. Perhaps a supplement. Back home by the end of the day. Everything normal.

While Bessie has never been in danger, things haven’t worked out that way.

It turned out that Bessie needed to be on a drip to raise her fluid levels to flush out the calcium. This meant staying in for at least twenty four hours. After her levels didn’t drop enough twenty four turned in forty eight and forty eight into, well. We think we’ll be out tomorrow.

Four hospital days. For me it means anxious, sleepless nights at home. A few hours sleep. Then back to hospital, through security doors, past beeping machines and flashing monitors. Strip lights and echoes and hours that fly by in seconds. Blood tests and tears. Moments of calmness, clarity and optimism when it’s even possible to get some work done and then sudden unexpected explosions of tear-jerking physical shock, like the first time I saw her in her battered, familiar push-chair with the drip machine looming over her. Then back home late at night in the early hours, to recharge as much as possible ready to begin it all again the next day.

For my wife it’s much worse. Bessie’s condition means she’s still exclusively breast fed, which makes Amber a virtual prisoner of the ward. She’s not getting enough sleep as it is and in hospital it is much harder. For her life at the best of times is a constant struggle to stay on the tightrope and the slightest knock brings the drop into terrifyingly acute focus. I, and I type this clear eyed and rational, do not know anybody else in the world who could manage what she does every day. And while she’s been doing this she’s done a close to full time job, taken Bessie on a six week European road-trip and won the league with her hockey team.

Bessie has coped with hospital the best. In fact, asymptomatic, I suspect she thinks the whole trip has been arranged as a sort of play-holiday for her; loads of new sights, loads of new friends, loads to touch and stroke and do. The blood tests distress her far less than they upset us and even the IV in her hand has only irritated her because it stops her crawling.

The thought of doing this if she was really, dangerously sick is ever present in my mind, lurking there, a demon pulling on the wires, and whispering “just imagine if.., just imagine..”

Everywhere in hospital are the reminders that some parents don’t have to imagine. It’s their reality. The threat of how bad things are for some lurks grotesquely everywhere. It’s the sign on the wall that says ‘Bereavement Office’. It’s the bleep of the heart monitor and it’s the flyer with the Tree and the Owls  and the words “Baby Hospice” printed in Comic Sans below it.

I think we only get through life by pretending that we are immune to such awfulness. We draw a veil over the spikes and the teeth and then pretend they aren’t there We avoid thinking about them. We other those for whom each moment of every day must be a slow stagger towards the inevitable realisation of all their fears by ascribing them heroic characteristics we know we all lack.

We avoid thinking about such horrors and when we have to, we tell ourselves ‘it’ll never happen to us.’

I find that harder to do that now. We never expected Bess to be the type of girl she is, just as the parents of those with more severe conditions never expected to find themselves walking the roads they do.

None of us are immune to the mysterious cruelties of the universe.

But some run towards these worlds. Some people choose to spend their working lives facing the horror and walking hand-in-hand with those who had no choice, picking them up when they fall and just being there when there is no way to get up. They choose to do this. They have families, and friends and money troubles and watch Love Island, and still they choose. They choose extra shifts when they’re exhausted because there is nobody else.

They choose.

Thank you. Thank you NHS. Thank you Wallsgrave Hospital. Thank you to all the doctors, nurses, porters, cleaners and cooks who care for our baby, and look past the veil into the void at the spikes and the teeth and don’t flinch at anything at all.

You are the very best of us. For that cliché I offer no apology.

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Why are teachers so scared of Ofsted?

High noon at Gasworks High and someone on the administration team gets The Call. The message goes straight to the Head, who tells their Deputy and then the rest of the Senior Leadership Team. Everything, clubs, revision sessions, staff training and all meetings are cancelled and, after school, the whole staff is called together. The party line is read out and the school’s non-negotiables reiterated.

Finally the assembled teachers are told to get some rest.

Assuming this is a joke, everyone laughs which, after a moment of confusion, the Head finds secretly very reassuring.

By then The Call will have rippled out of the building. Childcare will be rearranged. All evening plans, from a midweek trip to the pub to a meal booked a year ago to celebrate a wedding anniversary, will be cancelled. On the way home, after leaving school late in the evening, teachers will stop to stock up on energy drinks, instant noodles and sugary snacks.

Former smokers will relapse. At home, lamp-lit ashen-faced, teachers will sit at their desks and plan, make resources, mark, populate data sheets, and then re-plan.

In the early hours they will sneak into bed beside worried partners who don’t know what to do or say to help.

There, they’ll lie awake, hoping their classes will behave and praying an inspector will not come in Period 4 to see 9Y5.

And that if they do, please God make sure Josh isn’t in.

And then, in many schools, the same thing will happen the following day too. At the end of the second day they will wait until the Head, crying tears of either joy or despair, emerges from that final meeting.

What they say will, for better or worse, mark out the beat to which the school will dance for the coming years.

Can we drop any false bravado and begin with some honesty?

I think most teachers are scared of Ofsted and some are terrified. We have been for such a long time that the fear has become sort of accepted as inevitable. A sort of fairy tale troll, Ofsted and its inspectors are talked about in the same hushed tones as Harry and his friends talk about “He Who Shall Not be Named”. It has a degree of wide cultural penetration achieved by the inspectorate of no other industry. Stand-up-comedians make jokes about it they don’t need to explain for everyone to get.

Fear of Ofsted has become so accepted it is easy to feel as if it has been designed intentionally to be scary.

But nobody will admit to wanting things this way. Teachers most certainly do not. Nor do school leaders. Inspectors, despite what it might feel like in the midst of the process, are not monsters and do not take pleasure in inflicting fear and misery for its own sake. Ofsted, sensibly, say they want to see normal operation and a school staffed by sleep deprived, crazed zombies doing things they don’t usually do serves nobody’s interests. Recently, Ofsted has said as much, with Amanda Spielman saying “Ofsted inspections should not be a performance that schools spend hours rehearsing.”[1] While any assurance that schools should just operate in exactly the way they always do is probably a bit fanciful there is no reason to believe these assurances are not genuinely meant.

So if nobody wants us so scared, why are we?

First, it is important to be clear that not all of us are and the degree of fear varies.

In schools where results are good Ofsted is less frightening than it is for those working in places where outcomes are poor, because those who work in such schools can be more confident of a favourable judgement. Since 2010, when the Contextual Value Added (CVA) measurement was removed accountability frameworks have effectively assumed that exam outcomes are the product of a school’s work alone, which has meant any school where progress is below the national average, regardless of any contextual difficulties if faces, will feel more threatened than one with above average results.[2]

Varying levels of anxiety based on results is a useful way to focus our thinking; teachers are scared of Ofsted, not so much because of the process of inspection itself, but because they are afraid of a negative outcome; it is the judgements of ‘Requires Improvement’ and ‘Inadequate’ that are actually the real sources of fear.

To understand why let’s begin by considering what happens to a school’s management after an ‘Inadequate’ judgement.

First, even if the school choose to appeal against aspects of the report, a process that very rarely results in any significant change and relies on an in depth knowledge of the Ofsted handbook, the Head Teacher is quite likely to lose their job. Those in post for five years or more have only around a 20% chance of keeping their job three years after an Inadequate judgement. For those in position between two and four years, only around 40% will be still the Head three years after the bad report. Those appointed less than two years before the inspection, probably because they can better make the case that the school’s failings aren’t their fault, generally fare much better, with 80% still in place three years after inspection, which somewhat skews the overall figure of around a quarter moving on within three years.[3]

While most of those who leave will probably resign to avoid the indignity of the sack, the professional effect often amounts to the same thing. The report will be reported in local media in hyperbolic and often hysterical terms. One teacher remembers the local paper running the headline “the worst school in Kent”[4]. Even when the  immediate hoo-ha dies down, the report will be available on the Ofsted website in perpetuity. Colleagues, family and friends will all get to know about what amounts to a distinctly public disgrace.

Many Heads in this position are facing the end of their leadership career and some will never step into a school again.

However professionally deserved a bad judgement, it is heartless not to have personal sympathy. We should apply the Charity Principle and assume that most Heads, like most of us, entered teaching because they wanted to do something morally purposeful with their lives and do their best. The shame of an inadequate judgement, whether professionally deserved or not, can be devastating to self-esteem and is a particularly brutal, unkind end to a typically long career spent in public service. An Assistant Head Teacher working in a school judged as ‘Inadequate’ in 2012, who wishes to remain anonymous (it is revealing just how many I spoke to insisted on this, by the way), told me that immediately after the feedback the Head ‘cleared her desk and that was the last we saw of her,’ and, while he agreed with the judgement, he went on to say the process “ended the careers of some talented teachers and caused all staff (hardworking and dedicated staff) a great deal of stress and worry. A lot of personal and professional friends of mine either left the school or the profession and I will always regret this was, and is still, allowed to happen to good and dedicated people.”[5]

Ofsted, of course, will claim this is not their fault. Recently, Sean Harford, on Twitter, said  I think it’s the current knee jerk reaction and lack of intelligent use of inspection information that’s the problem: more support needed, less ‘moving on’ of leaders and others by those who make decisions based on inspection outcomes.”[6] He may well be right, but this will be cold comfort to those who’s professional, and sometimes personal, lives have been destroyed by a culture Ofsted says is nothing to do with them. Some won’t accept this at all and will say that this is just another example of the buck being pushed around. Those with this perspective might draw on the stark brutality of the term “Inadequate” and may suggest that this in itself leaves governing bodies and other decision makers feeling they have no other option but to remove those identified as such. This, of course, is even more understandable in a context in which such decision making has become normalised; it’s always more comforting to be in the herd than it is to stand alone. It is actually probably fair to go beyond this. Given the devastating effects on a school’s reputation and the performative effects of this a bad Ofsted report has, it is quite logical for governors to want to make it clear that they are acting decisively in order to limit the damage. Removing leadership sends out a strong signal, given that their own competence is also likely to be questioned in the report too.

Deputies and members of the leadership team, unless recently appointed or lucky enough to be individually named positively in the report, may not last much longer. Any school deemed to be Inadequate overall is very likely to get the same rating for leadership and management and almost certainly will not to get a rating about RI in this category. This judgement percolates down from the Head to leaders at all levels. One Assistant Head Teacher at a school judged as Inadequate who chose to stay in position described the year after the report as ‘undoubtedly the worst year of my teaching career, constantly worried about the future.’[7]

Even department heads, particularly those leading areas identified as underperforming in the report, may feel vulnerable. Those that do choose to stay will know they are likely to face great pressure and change when new senior leadership takes over and that short-term survival in no way guarantees long term security. If leadership is judged to lack the capacity to make the improvements demanded by the report, the school will go into Special Measures, which has even more serious consequences and will typically result in very robust intervention certain to dramatically change day-to-day life in the school. Any Category 4 judgement means almost inevitable academisation for schools still under LEA jurisdiction which, again, is likely to mean significant and far-reaching change, exhausting whether positive or negative, for those who remain.

The consequences of a ‘Requires Improvement’ judgement, while not as immediately dramatic, can still be extremely unpleasant. Such schools face a monitoring visit the following year and another full inspection the year after that. In the meantime the leadership of schools in this position, working under a perpetual sword of Damocles, will be forced to take support, whether wanted or not, from outside the school, which removes autonomy and can be acutely professionally embarrassing. This support may actually do more harm than good because it is often provided by leaders working in very different contexts who don’t have an adequate understanding of the issues faced by schools they are supposed to be helping. Indeed, those who may actually be most able to help may be precluded from doing so because they are more likely to be working in schools given one of the two lowest grades by Ofsted. This issue was raised by the Education Policy Institute in 2016, when they concluded their Accountability, Assessment and Inspection report by writing:

“ if Ofsted judgements are too harsh for many high performing schools with high disadvantage/low prior attainment, then this may be deterring good teachers and leaders from taking on such schools, and will mean that the DFE is less able to use the leaders in these schools for “system leadership”, since this is often linked to the Ofsted grade.”[8]

This, I hope, explains why Heads and senior leadership teams are right to fear negative Ofsted judgements.

Less immediately clear is why this fear is also felt by rank-and-file staff, who are not specifically identified on the report and far less likely to be shamed and then removed from their positions.

The most obvious reason is similar to the fears of SLT. Working in a Category 4 school can feel humiliating, especially for those who care most about doing a good job and being well regarded professionally. Such a damning label, referred to as ‘a mark of Cain’ by one teacher I spoke with, can be a paralysing body-blow. This is not at all irrational. Schools can indeed be wary about recruiting or even interviewing teachers who have come from an ‘Inadequate’ school.[9] Even the most confident and able practitioners may doubt themselves and begin second guessing what they do. Another teacher told me they stopped taking part in Teach-Meets and conferences because they felt their contributions had been devalued by their ‘Inadequate’ Ofsted label, which as well as being really sad suggests that such a judgement may have a negative impact on staff development, making it harder for the school to improve.

However it is spun, telling anyone you work at an Inadequate school can easily make you feel inadequate and a feelings of inadequacy are paralysing.

Even teachers who do not tie their identity up in their school’s Ofsted rating may find it very difficult to escape the shadow cast by the anxiety of their colleagues. Heads and SLT, being human and whether consciously or unconsciously, often pass their own fear down and schools in rated badly, or feeling threatened by the perceived likelihood of a bad rating, can become permeated by a sense of dread. This may be explicitly articulated, but even when it is not the effects for ordinary teachers can be significant; fear causes stress, which frays tempers, which contributes to irrational decision making, bullying and hard-heartedness. While it is comforting to believe that adversity invariably binds people together this is often not true; frequently, great pressure is just as likely, perhaps actually more likely, to incentivise ‘every man for themselves’ self-preservation at the expense of what is best for the community as a whole.

Anxieties are worsened by the way in which Ofsted inspections are organised and run. Because Ofsted is only in schools for a comparatively short period of time what they observe becomes enormously high-stakes because it is taken to be representative of the way in which the school typically functions.

This isn’t quite logical. Teachers are more effective with some classes than they are with others and although of course it shouldn’t, behaviour can also vary wildly within a school. If a teacher is lucky and an inspector happens to see a lesson in which children behave and work well, this may be used as evidence that children in the school work well generally. If, instead, an inspector comes to a lesson in which children behave badly and learn nothing, this might form part of an evidence base that this is typical. It is this uncertainty which probably keeps teachers awake at night before inspections more than anything else. It is also important to note that the unreliability of lesson observation as a method of assessing teaching quality is now fairly well accepted. While Ofsted claims that it understands this and doesn’t grade lessons, it remains unclear, at least among teachers, how Ofsted can come to an overall teaching rating for a school if it doesn’t somehow aggregate ratings of the lessons its inspectors see. Even if Ofsted is right and their methodology is sound, and I’d appreciate a proper, clear explanation of this, the message is not getting through and the lack of clarity around this contributes to the very high pressure teachers feel when an inspector enters their classroom.

So it is little wonder that inspection feels so utterly terrifying; teachers who know their school has poor results and is in danger of failing into Requires Improvement or, worse, Inadequate, regard themselves as being under enormous pressure to perform well on inspection days. Whether they are right or wrong to feel this pressure, the anxiety is the same.

Whether management remains in place or not, a school placed in the bottom two Ofsted categories will face significant change. An Inadequate rating, and a Requires Improvement to a lesser extent, are clear judgements that what the school is doing is not working and that urgent change is required. Senior Leaders, whether they are justified in doing so or just want to appear decisive to protect their leadership rating, feel pressure to make wholescale alteration to structures, staffing, curriculum and policy. In order to ensure that these changes are being properly implemented there is also likely to be a proportionate increase in monitoring, which increases workload and can feel oppressive.

These changes, necessary or not, make a school a more stressful place in which to work. One of the ways humans cope with complexity, and schools are enormously complex, is by learning processes and then automating them, freeing up brain-space to think about other things. Sudden, dramatic changes make automated processes redundant and mean that tasks have to be relearnt. This is exhausting and this, on top of inevitably increased workloads and the emotional impact of the poor judgement, can quickly make a school feel like an unbearable place in which to work. Schools can be very quickly utterly transformed and teachers who are able to may well feel this is a good time to move on, especially those who know they are effective and resent having to constantly evidence this, which reinforces this sense of unfamiliarity for remaining staff and may create a vicious cycle. Those that do stay may only do so because they cannot secure new roles, either because they genuinely aren’t competent or because of the stigma of coming from a school publicly announced to be failing.

Of course, a failing school needs to be identified so it can be turned round, and if all, or even most, schools getting Inadequate or Special Measures quickly improved and obtained good or better judgements, teachers might be less afraid of working in one. Unfortunately, the picture is much patchier than this. Loic Menzies, writing for in 2013, found that less than half of schools rated in the bottom two Ofsted categories sustained an improved rating.[10]

For some schools a bad Ofsted judgement kicks them down so hard it takes them years to get up again, and a few never do. These are closed down, merged with other schools or acadamised which, in a process some might see as a rather clever but dishonest sleight of hand, leads to their old Ofsted ratings being effectively expunged[11]. Some schools that do survive may bounce between Academy chains and suffer near annual wholescale changes to leadership, which may result in new policy and restructuring every year.

One teacher working at such a school in the Midlands tells of a newly appointed Head beginning their first assembly by saying, earnestly “my commitment to you is I will stay the whole of this year” as if this was something worth shouting about. In actual fact, they did not. Schools finding themselves in this position enter a vicious a cycle from which it may require herculean effort to break free.

Such schools, very often in areas where it is already difficult to find and keep good teachers, may find themselves haemorrhaging staff. Often forbidden from hiring trainees or NQTs by the conditions of the report[12], schools in this position may feel compelled to appoint applicants they would not normally consider, and experienced, effective teachers are far less likely to look beyond the latest report. Research by Sam Sims, for the Institute for Education found further worrying implications of this on the English education system as a whole, writing in the conclusion of his paper “High-Stakes accountability and Teacher Turnover,” that ‘one third of the teachers that leave schools regraded Inadequate move on to teach in other schools and a third of these ‘movers’ find jobs in relatively ineffective schools, where they are less likely to improve their teaching. A group of ineffective teachers may therefore be churning round the English school system.”[13]

Ofsted’s recent public statements seem to have it even more firmly emphasising that it exists more for parents than  does for teachers and schools, which is the reason reports are published and not confidential. I do think it is proper that information about schools is made publicly available. Parents have a right to know if their children are experiencing a substandard education. However, we need to be clear and honest about the performative nature of the inspection process and that publishing results can cause further issues for already floundering schools. No parent is happy with their child attending a bad school and this means those with the wherewithal to be aware and act upon the publicly available information are likely to fight to keep their child out of a school with a bad rating. Honestly, who wouldn’t? Parents who can afford to do so will even take the Ofsted ratings of local schools into account when choosing where to live, with the Ofsted ratings of nearby schools, if they are good, published by estate agents as a matter of course, pushing house prices up. This means that those children who do attend Inadequate schools are more likely to be those with parents who lack, for whatever reason, the ability to secure their child a place elsewhere. Such children are, to be blunt, as a demographic harder to teach than the national average. Such schools are also far more likely to be undersubscribed and these free spaces are typically filled by children with comparatively atypical educational experiences. A teacher working in a school given an Inadequate judgement told me that the Year 7 student intake went from 210 the year before the inspection to only 130 the year after it, which led to a reduction in funding and redundancies, which lowered morale and made it even harder for the school to improve.[14]

The high-stakes, high-profile nature of inspection makes schools competitive and pits schools against each other. Ofsted ratings are not a zero sum game. Outstanding only has value as a judgement if other schools are judged to be less effective. Schools who achieve the highest ratings plaster them all over signage and stationary, which can cause house prices to rise and attracts more children from traditionally academic aspirational backgrounds. Schools with poor Ofsted ratings suffer the reverse and the longer a school retains a poor judgement, the harder it may get for it make the changes required to improve its rating; sadly, in some cases, the first judgement intended to spark necessary improvement may actually be a contributory cause of further decline. Ofsted will, of course, say that this isn’t their problem; they are just highlighting issues and it is up to the school to improve. They will point to the fact that some schools do improve as evidence that what they do works. My contention is that this is at least somewhat disingenuous because in some circumstances Ofsted makes improvement harder, and that it is irresponsible to undermine an already struggling school if this is likely to make it harder for it to get better.

I will go even further and say that I think Ofsted is most helpful to those who need it the least, and least helpful to those who need help the most.

So, in summary, the reason Ofsted is scary is because it has the capacity to inflict real damage for reasons often outside of the control of individual teachers and because of unpredictability inherent to the way inspection is run. Ofsted is frightening because a negative judgement may actually make it more difficult for a school to make the improvements it needs to.

Teachers and leaders in many schools are quite right to be afraid.

Ofsted, for many schools and in spite of laudable recent attempts to reform itself, which I promise to come to later, remains a monster with sharp teeth.

What to do about Ofsted

Nobody with any sense would argue that we should not have an inspectorate. Schools take taxpayer money and the public has the right to know how well this is being spent. Parents have the right to know how effective their child’s school is. Nobody credible disputes these things. But we need an inspectorate that is kind and humane as much as it rigorous and, as tough as it is to strike this balance, we must. At a time in which we are finding it harder than ever to hire and keep teachers it is neither desirable nor even necessary for teachers to live in fear. Those who work in schools are not ruthless, high-rolling, risk-taking piratical business executives and nor are they candidates on The Apprentice. Education is, or at least should be, a moral profession and there should be no place for blood on the carpet, childish machismo or professional humiliation.

I am not alone in thinking this. Lucy Creghan’s Cleverlands shows England’s school accountability system to be unusually myopic, and that most of the world’s highest performing systems take a more nuanced and sophisticated approach to school underperformance. At the heart of this is an understanding that when things go wrong it is usually because of lots of different contextual factors and not just the incompetence of teachers and leaders. This allows for multi-faceted, multi-agency support which deals with all the problems and avoids wasting time in confrontational finger-pointing. We need an inspectorate that sees things in the round because not doing so means ignoring important causes of underachievement. Lucy thinks the most effective system at dealing with underperformance is Shanghai’s, which recognises the role played by context in that it uses effective leaders from schools working with similar challenges to lead change in underperforming schools, which is of course entirely logical once we accept, as we should, that a school’s circumstances effect its operation.

We have allowed Ofsted to evolve into a blunt instrument because we continue to labour under the fallacy that there is a perfect correlation between school input and student results . This has led us to ignore everything else that has an impact, and the shouting down of those who raise concerns with a cry of “low expectations”. Bizarrely, Ofsted reports may even acknowledge the school’s unique challenges, for example noting that it has a very high percentage of children who start and leave at non-standard times, but then completely ignore this information when making their final judgement, which shows just what a mess we’ve got ourselves in.

Regrettably, there is nothing individual teachers working in schools can do to change the nature of inspection frameworks, but even working within the flawed system there are strategies that can help.

The surest, and most depressingly reductive, is only to work in schools likely to get good Ofsted ratings, which will most often mean working and living in London, or comparatively affluent areas. The figures are pretty clear. While there are exceptions, by and large the more disadvantaged the demographic a school serves, the more likely it is to be rated either Inadequate or Requires Improvement. Schools in more advantaged areas are far more likely to be rated Good or Outstanding. The Education Policy Institute’s “Accountability, Assessment and Inspection” report, published in 2016 concludes that:

“Secondary schools with up to 5 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) are over three times as likely to be rated ‘outstanding’ as schools with at least 23 per cent FSM (48 per cent compared with 14 per cent ‘outstanding’). Those secondary schools with the most FSM pupils are much more likely to be rated ‘inadequate’ than those with the fewest (15 per cent compared with 1 per cent).[15]

These findings can be interpreted one of two ways; either teachers and leaders tend to be weaker in poorer areas, or leading and teaching in richer areas tends to be easier. Whatever you believe, and I’ll leave you to make up your own mind, it doesn’t change the fact that, most simply, if you want to reduce fear of Ofsted in the most certain way, your best bet is to find work in an all-girls, selective school in a posher area.

But how depressingly. Choosing schools on the basis of their likely Ofsted rating, while perhaps practical for some individual teachers, is not a satisfactory solution, because good teachers avoiding schools and areas in which need is most acute perpetuates inequality. As irritating and damaging as the ‘hero’ teacher cliché is, and without for a moment suggesting that teachers should martyr themselves in quixotic tilts against structural inequality, it is my hope and belief that most state school teachers did not choose their career because they wanted as easy life as possible educating only society’s most privileged children.

So. The final part my talk today is for those teachers who, for whatever reason, know they work in schools more at risk of negative Ofsted judgements and want practical suggestions on how to manage the anxiety of inspection.

Firstly, just knowing the truth helps. Two years ago, my last GCSE history group got approximately the same exam grades as my first as an NQT. If we do not take into account context, it would appear that my teaching was no better than it was almost fifteen years ago. But of course it is, and knowing that the outcome of my work will vary depending, at least to some extent, on the context in which I teach means I need not become disillusioned when the results of my pupils do not go up each year I teach. The same is true of knowing that it is harder for some schools to get good Ofsted ratings than it is for others; if we know this we should be able to take judgements less personally and can immunise ourselves against the kind of self-flagellation and despondency that pushes teachers out of our profession. Understanding that inspection is limited means that we understand judgements often are too, which can help us look apparent disaster in the eye without breaking down. It is unfair to say that acknowledging  context has an impact on pupil outcomes means ‘low expectations’ and we should stop.

We are all quite capable of understanding some circumstances make it harder for some pupils to achieve than others without arriving at the position they are doomed to failure whatever we do. It is also frustrating, and actually insulting, to be told the fact some schools achieve incredible results in challenging circumstances means that any concerns we have about the contexts in which ours operate are invalid. We get it is possible for all schools to get better. We also get it is harder for some of us than others. Many of us care very deeply and are constantly trying to improve, not because we are scared of Ofsted but because we care about doing our jobs well and want our pupils to have rich, joyful lives after they leave us.

Even when we understand this, some apprehension before an Ofsted is probably inevitable and may actually be healthy, with a complete indifference to Ofsted perhaps suggesting a certain arrogance. That said there is no need for this to develop into all-consuming institutional panic, or for individual teachers to be swept up in it if this happens at their school.

Before appointment, it is possible to get some sense of whether the school is likely to be a stressful Ofsted experience by doing some research. Good, strong Heads and SLT are effective at managing a school’s pre-inspection emotional charge. Clive Wright, the quietly inspirational Head of St Martin’s School in Stoke Golding, has banned the use of the word “Ofsted” by SLT aside from in closed meetings because he feels this causes teachers to focus on the trying to please them and not what is actually best for pupils. While, of course, Clive cannot and I am sure does, not seriously police what his teachers talk about, I think he is right to try and create a culture that minimises unhelpful stress. Ensuring the focus remains on what’s best for pupils and not wasting time trying to second guess what inspectors want to see, means anxiety needn’t become overbearing. This, obviously, is also the reason that schools preparing for inspection by running ‘mocksteds’ or ‘reviews’ are misguided; such activities increase anxiety, whip up fear and cause leaders and teachers to focus more on Ofsted ratings for their own sake rather than what is best for its pupils.

Plenty of schools do not indulge such in such nonsense and considerate, wise schools can be found in all areas. It is possible to identify them by looking at a range of indicators.

A good place to start is with the curriculum; if the school is running dubious qualifications (for example, in the past, the European Computer Driving License), it is likely the school is gameplaying, and that the school is more concerned with external appearance and the Ofsted rating than what is best for its pupils. It is also worth getting hold of the school’s policies on planning, marking, teaching and assessment. Labour intensive, over-prescriptive policies accompanied by a lot of monitoring might suggest the school’s management is focused on visible compliance, which is another sign leadership might be poorly managing its own anxiety about Ofsted, which may well spread to staff lower down the hierarchy.

While ideally it is best to work at a school with strong leadership and a positive attitude towards inspection, this is not always possible for everyone. Some teachers with personal responsibilities and commitments are tied to specific locations. Some will have commendable loyalty to the children and wider community at their schools and may not want to move, even when leadership is weak and the threat of inspection ever present. Even in these situations, however, there are things teachers can do to ensure they do not let the gloomy mood affect their own well-being.

When Franklin D Roosevelt said, during the Great Depression, ‘all we have to fear is fear itself’, he meant that the constant, soul-sapping dread caused by worrying about the worst possible outcome can actually itself become the worst possible outcome. If fear is not rationalised and managed, it can become all-consuming. This can be true of the schools which most fear Ofsted. In these places Ofsted can assume a false villainy, as inaccurate rumours spread like knotweed. The most unscrupulous of Heads, of which there are mercifully few, may even take advantage of this by spreading such misinformation in order to ensure compliance with their policies by, for example, claiming that Ofsted insists on seeing all work in children’s books marked in depth.

Fortunately, I really do think things are changing and  it has never been easier to find out if a directive comes from Ofsted or not. Ofsted genuinely appears to be trying to getting its house in order and has, commendably, made itself freely accessible to all teachers with a Twitter account. Sean Harford, Ofsted’s National Director, answers all queries quickly. There is even a hashtag (#ofstedmyths), which means previously asked questions are easy to find. It is also helpful to remember that Ofsted has changed a great deal recently, and is continuing to change. Many of the aspects of inspection that most worried schools have been addressed and some of the fear schools experience is, understandably, based on years of accumulated anxiety more than it is the current state of play. If, as is to be hoped, Ofsted is in the process of refining itself into a more effective and sophisticated organisation there will lag time before schools trust that any changes are meaningful. The best thing teachers can do in the meantime is take Ofsted at its word and check their concerns are real.

Ofsted is scary enough, and we should not believe or spread inaccurate rumours that make people even more afraid.

It is also important, however a school responds to Ofsted, that the teachers who work in it keep the process and results of inspections in proportion. Within sensible, sustainable limits, teachers have a professional and moral duty to do their best for pupils and what Ofsted says, whether positive or negative, really should not have any bearing on this. If we find ourselves doing things for Ofsted and not for the children we teach we are behaving unethically and if a choice ever has to be made between what someone tells you Ofsted wants and the interests of your pupils, your pupils should win every time.

And even if the worst does happen the outcome may not be anywhere as near as bad as you think it will be. As a wise older colleague once said to me, ‘yeah, it’s horrible at the time but they can’t kill you. Or make your wife leave you. Or put you in prison. Or even sack you.’

A lesson in which you are observed may go really badly, but even if it does remember this represents a minute slice of your practice as a whole and it would be entirely illogical to extrapolate any critique to your teaching in its entirety when you know what happened was out of the ordinary. This is, of course, hard. Very often teachers wrap their sense of self-worth and identity up in their teaching and to hear someone in a position of authority criticising this can hurt deeply, especially as it can feel like you’ve let the school down. No one individual can be held solely responsible for all the reasons a lesson goes badly. If the students behaved appallingly, for example, even if we leave aside the choices the children made, this is probably also a result of school culture for which the teacher cannot be held solely responsible. Teachers should remember this when receiving feedback and, while they should not automatically dismiss any advice, which might be helpful, they should avoid taking it personally and remember that there is always a context of which the inspector is unaware.

Teachers unlucky enough to suffer a rough inspection should also be aware that, by and large, they are almost certainly harder on themselves then their colleagues will be. In the raw moments after a bad experience it is easy to fall victim to paranoia and believe everyone knows you messed up and are whispering in corridors and messaging over WhatsApp about your failure. This is probably not true. Firstly, Ofsted inspectors are not supposed to pass notes on individual lessons to anyone except the teacher they observed and, secondly, even if word does get out by far the most common reaction is likely to be professional sympathy. If a colleague tells you their observation went badly, help them by downplaying it. Resist the temptation to go through a blow-by-bow post-mortem and, instead, shrug and ask them what they’re doing at the weekend; don’t allow fear and paranoia the space to breathe.

Unfortunately it would be misleading to say that the absolute worst never happens. Sometimes Ofsted can trigger a witch-hunt, and some teachers may come under awful and unfair pressure afterwards. However, even if this does happen, it is still possible to retain a sense of proportion and dignity. Bullying happens in all sectors and we can help retain perspective by remembering that the working world beyond the school gates is no moral utopia. That said, we should also not forget that, most of the time, we have more options than we think we do while trapped in the maelstrom. If, whether the result of Ofsted or not, you find yourself bullied you should speak to your union. If you don’t trust the union representative in your school then ring the central office and get advice there. Or, your unique circumstances may make it sensible to avoid a scene and seek work elsewhere. Doing this is no failure and one advantage of the recruitment and retention crisis is that in many subjects those looking for a new job will probably not be without one for long.

So, while of course Ofsted can be scary, it is important to keep this fear in perspective. Inspections are comparatively rare and should not shadow day-to-day life, especially when their results are often so far out of the control of teachers in classrooms. This is true even for schools operating in the most pressurised contexts. The sun will rise again in the morning after even the most awful of experiences. Your pupils and your duty to them hasn’t changed. Your colleagues understand. The weekend rolls around again. The people who love you still love you regardless and if your situation become truly untenable remember that your chances of finding a job elsewhere might well be better than you think.

The last Ofsted I underwent as a teacher and leader was horrible. But, in the last lesson of the second day of the inspection, while the inspectors and school SLT huddled together, a Polish girl who’d never heard of Ofsted read aloud to the class for the first time and, unprompted, her classmates applauded her. It was a big moment for all of us, just as it was when my whole class got 100% on a fifty question knowledge quiz for the first time, in a lesson I knew would never be observed by anyone.

As unpleasant as any inspection process is, whoever’s fault it is, the memories, moments and learning that last the longest will always be those forged in experiences completely unconnected to it.

We would all do well to remember that.

N.b: Blanks footnotes represent people I spoke to who insisted on anonymity. I think that so many did is revealing in itself.

[1] https://inews.co.uk/news/education/schools-must-stop-mock-ofsted-inspections/

[2] https://educationdatalab.org.uk/2017/10/how-do-ofsted-ratings-relate-to-progress-8-scores/

[3] https://www.nfer.ac.uk/publications/LFSC01/LFSC01.pdf

[4]

[5]

[6] https://twitter.com/HarfordSean/status/992125267710799872

[7].

[8] https://epi.org.uk/publications-and-research/school-inspection-england-room-improve/

[9].

[10] https://www.lkmco.org/do-struggling-schools-improve/

[11] https://schoolsweek.co.uk/ofsted-wipes-academy-convertor-reports-after-5-years/amp/

[12]https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/696428/Statutory_Induction_Guidance_2018.pdf

[13] http://repec.ioe.ac.uk/REPEc/pdf/qsswp1614.pdf

[14]

[15] https://epi.org.uk/publications-and-research/school-inspection-england-room-improve/

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Don’t cheat! What Zelda has taught me about getting too much help.

Zelda3-Logo

For Christmas I got a Nintendo SNES mini. This was pretty exciting, given that I was never allowed a games console as a child because they were (quoting dad here) “not educational.”

The game I was most excited about was a role playing fantasy called “The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.” For those who haven’t heard of it, it’s generally regarded as being one the best games of all time and part of the genre’s canon.

I was hooked as soon as I loaded it up. Imaginatively designed, beautifully drawn and carefully pitched to allow gradual progression while steadily increasing the level of challenge, each moment was enjoyable. I got through the first half of the game in a few days but then, once back at school after the holiday break, I didn’t have as much time and stopped playing altogether.

So it was actually only a few weeks ago that I tried again. It was frustrating. I couldn’t remember the story very well, or where I’d got to or what I was supposed to be doing next. So, after an hour or so, I turned to the internet to find the answers to the puzzles I was stuck on, just to get me restarted. And then, when I couldn’t solve the next set of puzzles I went even faster to the solutions. And before long I wasn’t trying at all, just mechanically following the instructions to walk me through the game. For a while I kept at it but it was no fun at all anymore. All the joy had gone. It was now a chore, my only aim to finish the bloody thing so I could move on with my life.

I think this is also what can happen when we give children too much help. When a pupil is stuck on something and we swoop in too quickly, we stop them practising and eventually automating thought processes they need to master the subjects we teach. Just as I became reliant on the internet walkthrough, we also teach children to become overly reliant on us, which means that even if they do get an answer right, the thinking behind it isn’t there, making the response meaningless. Finally, by stepping in too quickly, we imply that children do not need to pay close attention at all times because we will always be available. The desire to get help quickly is, of course, a naturally human one. As DT Willingham points out in “Why Don’t Students Like School”, the romantic view that we like to learn isn’t actually true; it is far more efficient to just to be given the ‘right’ answer when the aim becomes purely to fill in a worksheet or write a page in an exercise book.

But we must avoid this short-termism because when we don’t we erode self-belief; if children are constantly helped whenever they want to be they will come to believe this is because they can’t get by without constant handholding and one-to-one assistance, which is a devastating attitude to pick up and a recipe for learned helplessness and anxiety. When we don’t believe we can do a task, it becomes unpleasant; something to push through as quickly as possible so we can move onto things we do enjoy, whether this is chatting with our friends, making paper aeroplanes or daydreaming about unicorns.

As will surprise no regular readers of this blog, in no way is this supposed to be an argument for just throwing material at children and then expecting them to work things out for themselves. Zelda works like a good curriculum; knowledge is introduced incrementally and them built on, which allows puzzles to become more involved and complicated as the game progresses. If teaching before independent work has been done properly then extensive help should not be necessary and if a teacher finds themselves having to give it, then something has gone wrong.

This is why I remain uncomfortable with the “Brain, Book, Buddy, Boss” posters that are common in our schools; too often, children are encouraged to move to a stage of help that shouldn’t be required, either because the first teaching wasn’t effective or because they’ve picked up the impression that their brain isn’t good enough and need help before they’ve really tried.

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Hands down! Why we shouldn’t allow pupils to ask questions whenever they want to.

hands

It is really hard to ignore a pupil’s waving hand, especially if its accompanied by that endearing thing when they point at themselves with the other at the same time. Ignoring a child’s request for attention, especially if they want to ask a question, can feel like a betrayal of our core purpose.

Many of the children we teach seem to feel this way too, working themselves through annoyance to indignation and sometimes to outright fury if they feel they aren’t given the attention they believe they are entitled to whenever they want it. Whether it’s an absurd request to go the toilet five minutes after break or a sensible one about the meaning of a tricky word, many children I have taught have picked up the belief they have the right to be heard whenever they want to be.

But allowing questions at any time is a mistake and by indulging a culture in which this is permitted we do our children a disservice.

Here’s why.

  1. When hands go up brains go down.

When a child puts their hand up the rest of their world often stops existing. As life goes on hold, everything that happens after that point passes them by. Sometimes they’re so fixated that they even miss the answer to the actual question they’ve raised their hand to ask and are blinkingly surprised when told this. This, of course, isn’t limited to children; exactly the same thing happens to me when I raise my hand (far too often I know) at conferences.

Children waiting to ask a question don’t just risk missing the answer to their question. They miss everything else too, which means when the teacher sets work they can find themselves lost.

Their only solution is to ask another question, which often goes something like “I don’t understand what to do.” The only option for the teacher is to re-explain, which can very easily lead pupils to believe listening hard the first time isn’t necessary as any time they choose to put their hand up they can get a personal catch-up. Even if this worked for an individual pupil it is unfair for the rest of the group, who have to listen to an explanation they’ve already heard when they should be being taught new material.

  1. Classroom discussion becomes dominated by a few confident children.

We all know that unless we take steps to stop it, usually it’s the same children who ask questions. It’s worth considering whether this is because by allowing confident children to ask questions too freely, we allow them to disproportionally affect the content of the lesson and dominate the time of their teacher. Sometimes, in the midst of what seems a really productive back-and-forth it can be easy to miss that only three or four children are involved while the rest sit as silently as a crowd at a tennis match, increasingly mystified as the discussion moves further and further away from the aims of the lesson.

By reducing the amount of time children are allowed to freely question, we may actually end up teaching clearer, more purposeful lessons that benefit more pupils.

  1. Children stop listening to each other.

Allowing free-for-all open questioning sessions can result in children believing the best way to learn is a one-on-one dialogue with their teacher and that it is in their interests to get as much one-on-one attention as possible. This means they don’t listen to whole class instruction or each other because they are focused on waiting for their ‘turn’. Those that have to wait the longest may get frustrated and begin shouting out, causing disorder. Those that through either shyness or a developed understanding of what is polite and what isn’t, don’t want to shout out find their own learning gets shoved to the side. Furthermore, it means that when a child asks a really good question and gets an answer, the explanation is often missed by the other pupils.

  1. Questions are often inappropriate

Whatever children have been told in the past, it is not true that there are no bad questions. There are loads of them. Often they begin with “what if..” as in “what if Senlac Hill was a volcano and it erupted when William’s knights charged up it?” Most teachers, especially of able children, are used to this sort of silliness and quash it quickly, by saying something along the lines of ‘that isn’t a relevant question.’ The problem here is in the unfairness of expecting novices to be able to work out what is and what is not an appropriate question to ask. By definition, novices lack the knowledge they need to understand whether their burning question is worth asking or not. The problem here is by condoning or worse, encouraging questions at any time we imply that it’s up to our pupils, without any real guidance, to form good, relevant questions independently; without the prerequisite knowledge, which they are in the process of being taught, the only way for them to do this is by a convoluted process of trial and error, which is at best inefficient and at worst, destructive to the careful path of learning that we, as subject experts, have mapped out for our novices.

For any teacher it is difficult to keep to well structured, planned explanation when it’s delivered to a forest of waving hands and impossible for anyone to do if children think they are allowed, or even expected, to interrupt it with whatever happens to pop into their head.

So what do we do?

I am not for a moment suggesting that we should not allow questions during our lessons, but I do think many of us, myself included, need to be more intentional and careful about how we plan to include them. Here, as just a start, are a few suggestions as to how to turn student questions from irritating bugbear to productive learning mechanisms.

  1. Plan periods for questioning into the lesson.

Planning discrete periods into the lesson for questions is a good start. These, using strategies Doug Lemov (and Lee Donaghy) would call ‘bright lines’, can be flagged well in advance so pupils know that there will be opportunities to ask questions at a planned point, which means they don’t have a reason to interrupt at other times. For example, it might be worth saying “I’m going to explain this for five minutes. Then I’m going to take three questions about it. While I’m explaining, keep your hand down and listen.”

  1. Don’t allow pupils to raise hands while someone else is talking.

When a pupil is asking a question, insist that all others put their hands down and listen to it and the answer, whoever is giving it, even in the periods of the lesson explicitly designated as being for questions. Start by telling pupils you are going to do this and the reason for this rule, then remind them and show you are serious by stopping the questioner or your own explanation if other hands go up.

  1. Model good questions and allow pupils time to develop and practise their own.

After an explanation, before allowing pupils to ask questions show examples of good and bad ones, and explain the difference between the two. For example, after explaining reasons for William’s victory at the Battle of Hastings it might be helpful to show a class the question “Why did Harold’s army fall repeatedly for William’s feigned flight tactic?”, and then explain this is a really good question because although it is based on your explanation, the answer wasn’t included in it and it is genuinely difficult to understand. A modelled bad question, might be the silly volcano one, because there was nothing in the explanation that referenced a volcano and that historians aren’t generally in the business of making guesses based on very unlikely premises.

  1. Make yourself available .

Contrary to how I may sometimes come across on this blog I am not actually particularly grumpy and I’m never mean. Sometimes really enthusiastic children come to my classes with books they’ve got out of the library or have been given by their parents full of extra material not included in my lessons and they’re so full of pride and questions they look as if they’re on the verge of popping. When this happens I’ll make time at break, lunch or after school to sit and talk to them about it properly. I make a big fuss about how happy I am (I actually am, which helps) and allow them all the time they want to ramble away.

Perhaps some might feel that this is an intrusion that adds to workload. I’d say that if talking to a child about something they’ve found particularly fascinating about your subject feels like work, then either your school’s working you too hard or you’ve got your priorities wrong.

For me these moments are some of the best there are.

Any questions? I’ve finished now so it’s the right time. Hands up. I’ve only got time for three, so make sure it’s good!

 

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