Plugged In

Anyone following my work over the last couple of years might have noticed my thinking on lots of things has shifted.  This has been, almost entirely, because of Twitter.  When I first signed up I was a secret traditionalist without really knowing I was one; for most of my career I’d believed, as I’d been taught to, that skills based student centred methodology was accepted by all and teaching any other way was both unprofessional and morally suspect.  But I knew that traditional methods (although I didn’t even know ‘traditional’ was a thing) worked better for me and my students.  So, of course and as thousands of teachers do, I paid lip service to student centred methodology and, when the door was closed and particularly with KS4, I taught didactically.  Not only was I a secret traditionalist, I was also a furtively guilty one because I felt that teaching this way showed I’d failed at ‘proper’ teaching; if I had to tell the students the right answers it was because I hadn’t been able to guide them there.  The students might know what I’d taught them, but in some vague but very important way, I’d cheated.

Twitter was a revelation.  It wasn’t long before I realised that there were successful teachers who not only taught like me but were proud to do so.  Of course not all the people I came to admire agreed with each other about everything but none seemed to share my ideological shame.  I read Hirsch (who I’d heard of but saw as some mysterious, childhood-devouring American ogre), Willingham, Didau and Christodoulou.  I was helped tremendously by people who disagreed with what I was reading but were able to articulate ideas and draw on a store of knowledge to defend their views I just didn’t have.  Put most simply, I’d been plugged in and found myself learning and thinking about pedagogy, and specifically the pedagogy of history teaching, in a way I’d never done before, because I’d realised that debate and disagreement existed and were allowed.

As I gradually lost my shame at being didactic my teaching improved; rather than trying to minimise my explanations I thought hard about how I could make them more memorable.  My board-work improved.  I read more history than I’d done before and became more knowledgeable, articulate and clearer.  I gave children lists of facts and tested them.  I answered questions directly instead of turning them back on students.  Children in my classes learned faster.  Grades went up.

While it’s clear which style of teaching I prefer and think most effective, this really isn’t a blog about whether traditional or progressive teaching is better.  It’s more about why not being aware of wider debates can really damage improving teaching.  Before I was plugged in I couldn’t improve at traditional teaching, which I know is most effective at least for me, because I was doing it secretly and shamefully.  I felt if I asked for help with explaining better, I’d be judged because it was an admission I wanted to speak to my class for longer.  I wouldn’t have dared ask about how to improve my students’ memories because this would be an admission I was focusing on knowledge and the ‘lower order’ skill of recall.  Of course, if I’d actually read Hirsch or Willingham, I’d have been more confident but because I thought there was no debate I didn’t, because I’d somehow, somewhere picked up the impression their work was discredited and that even reading it would make me some sort of outmoded, pedagogical anachronism.

Twitter is packed full of plugged in teachers, of varying philosophies and with differing motivations and I’ve definitely become better by watching and contributing to the sometimes fierce debate.  But, in the midst of the parry and riposte, I think we are sometimes at risk of missing what might be the most important point.  Most teachers aren’t on Twitter. A lot of teachers aren’t taking part in the debate, aren’t reading and aren’t aware that there is robust philosophical disagreement between different pedagogical schools of thought.  I know this because for a long time I was one of them.  If they’re anything like me this isn’t because they are lazy, or disengaged or that they don’t care about the best way to help their students.  It’s because, just as I didn’t, they don’t know that the methods they were trained, and continue to be trained in, have been challenged.  In a vacuum of ideas they’ve come to believe that there is inherent validity in the orthodoxy of their own experience.  Teachers who can’t teach in this way teach guiltily and some leave the profession, not because they lack the potential to be really good, but because they can’t teach in a style they believe is the only one that exists.

I have an issue with claims that there is ‘no best way’, not because I definitely believe that traditional styles are The Best in all circumstances, but because I feel it implies that the debates I’ve found so helpful are irrelevant and don’t need to be taken seriously.  I’m also concerned by claims that because many schools don’t engage in these debates, profound philosophical disagreements can be dismissed when I believe precisely the opposite; schools should be aware of wider pedagogical discourse and using the fact many aren’t as evidence of the debate’s irrelevance is to reach, in my view at least, the wrong conclusion.

I’d far rather a child I care about was taught by a teacher of a different pedagogical bent engaged in educational debate than by one who, for whatever reason, doesn’t know the debate exists at all.  I like the debate.  I think we’re better for it and certainly wouldn’t want to bleed teacher training of progressive influences in the way my own was bled of traditional ones.  I’d prefer to see our140 character disagreements, civilly of course, played out across our entire educational ecosystem.  My biggest worry is not whether progressive or traditional education is better but that many, if not most, teachers aren’t aware they have a choice at all.



Edna. The student of whom I’m proudest

Sometimes when I’m running and it gets hard, and I’m listening to heart-swelling epic classical music on my headphones, I allow myself some self-indulgence.  I think back to all the students of which I’m most proud and run them through my mind as a sort of highlights reel.  While, of course, re-living past glories is a bit silly and sentimental, it does help get me through the rain and up the hills.

Most of the children who come to mind succeeded in my subject; students who worked their arses off and were tearfully jubilant on results day.  Of course some of these children did better than others, but naturally I’m as proud of the Ds as much as I am of the A*s when they were genuine achievements.

But the child of which I’m most proud didn’t pass anything.  She didn’t sit any exams at all.  Given that I agree with John Tomsett that the best pastoral care a school can give a disadvantaged child is a great set of examination results, this runs against the grain for me.  But, Edna is the child of which I’m proudest and in this blog, I’d like to explain why.

Edna was part of the final year GCSE geography group I inherited when I began working at the British International School in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  She sat at the back.  Wrote nothing.  Never said a word.  Doodled manga in her exercise books while the rest of the class made notes on ox-bow lakes or demographic transition models.  When challenged she said nothing.  Did detentions without complaining and doodled manga in them.

It wasn’t long before we called her parents in.  Her dad, a stern and successful Ethiopian businessman with a company in the US told us Edna couldn’t read or write.  “Her sister’s the clever one,” he said, “she studies psychology in Washington.  This one, she says nothing.  She won’t even try.”  Edna, of course, didn’t say anything and just stared out of the window.

Fortunately my school had just appointed a SENCO that year and so was one of the few in Ethiopia that had any provision at all for students like Edna.  It didn’t take long to work out that she was heavily dyslexic.  Given the developing world context it wouldn’t be fair to blame the very late recognition of Edna’s problem on anyone in particular but the lack of support had been devastating.  Edna had given up and shut down and was deeply depressed.  The manga images she drew were frightening; dark clouds, shrouded figures and wide-eyed girls hanging in nooses.

Our SENCO tried to help Edna but, because she’d failed at everything in school her whole life, she wouldn’t even try.  Sat in his office.  Said nothing.  Doodled manga.

I hated having Edna in my class.  While the rest made steady progress she sat like a black hole amongst them, sucking all my enjoyment because every time I saw her I felt so sad and guilty.

Eventually I snapped.  Edna couldn’t go on like she was and neither could I.  In a meeting the Headmaster and I agreed it would be pointless and cruel to enter her in any exams at all.  After all, we knew what she’d do in them.  But we also decided something had to be done.  Perhaps it was too late for Edna to pass exams but that didn’t mean we could give up on her altogether.

We decided we would timetable two hours for Edna each week with just me.  Edna had once showed me her portfolio of manga characters, which meant I had more of a relationship with her than anyone else in the school did.  Edna would do one, big, meaningful project; on history, because that was my subject and the one I felt I had the best chance of helping her with.  The idea was, although Edna would have no grades, she would leave with something she could show others; something that would demonstrate that her entire schooling hadn’t been wasted.

The first couple of our sessions didn’t go at all well.  When I asked Edna what she’d like to do her project on she just shrugged and wouldn’t even look me in the eye.  So she sat while I talked at her.  Once I realised this approach wasn’t working I changed tack.  Instead I suggested topics she might be interested in and give her some basic information about each.  There was no flicker of interest until I told her about the red terror, which was the name for the years in which Ethiopia was under a communist dictatorship led by The Derg (Committee).  During this time, in the 1980s, all political dissent was banned and the families of some of those shot for resisting were forced to pay for the bullet that killed them before the body was released before burial.

Edna’s eyes lit up.  “That’s interesting” she said, in a voice rusty and squeaky from years of lack of use, “I’m interested in people dying.”

It wasn’t an auspicious beginning but it was a beginning.  Edna and I, over weeks and then months, explored the Red Terror together.  Neither of us really knew much about dyslexia and I’m sure we made every mistake in the book but Edna didn’t seem to mind.  I read to her while she sketched manga style drawings of what I’d said.  Soon she wanted to label her drawings to explain what was in them so, slowly and deliberately, we did.  After that Edna wanted to learn more so she brought books to me and asked me to read them with her.  We did.  Slowly and steadily, in our two hours a week and the increasing amounts of time Edna was spending on her work at home, something quite impressive began to emerge.  Edna was proud of her project.  She carried it around and worked quietly on it while other students studied for their exams.  She began showing it to other students and teachers.  It was around then, for the first time, I saw Edna smile.

Midway through the year we had a review with Edna and her father, who was visibly impressed by what his daughter had done.  “This is good,” he said, gruffly, leafing through the pages, “I remember these bad times well.”  Edna looked at her dad.  “You were there?”  He nodded, and then began talking about his own memories, explaining this was why he’d moved his family to the US, then back when the Terror was over.  A museum had just opened in the town centre and, after Edna asked him to, he agreed to take her.

By the end of the year Edna’s project, spilling out of ring-binders and folders, really had turned into something special.  It charted a narrative through the causes, events and consequences.  It had manga style illustrations (of course) and photographs she’d taken while out on trips with her parents.

To celebrate we invited Edna in with her father to eat some cake, drink some tea and try to make a plan for what she should do when she got the US.  This felt like an exciting breakthrough as it was the first time in years Edna had expressed any interest in the future at all.

Slowly and steadily Edna’s dad began leafing through her project, turning each page carefully and reading everything on it, drinking in every illustration, tracing the lines his daughter had drawn with his thick finger.  He didn’t say anything for a long time.  Then his shoulders began to shake and I realised this big man, this captain of industry, this stern gruff figure with his scarred face and powerful shoulders was crying and couldn’t stop.  Edna and I looked at him and then each other.  I passed him a tissue.

“God bless this school,” he said.  “You have given our daughter back to us.  She has come home.”

Edna leaned over and gingerly patted his still shaking shoulder.  “Don’t cry, dad.” She said, in her funny, rusty little voice.  “I’m OK now.”


The Knowledge

To be licensed as a London black cab driver, applicants must complete an in-depth study of the cities street routes and places of interest.  To pass the rigorous examinations they must not use either satellite navigation or rely on a radio controller.  Acquiring The Knowledge and being granted a license takes the average driver nearly three years.  During training candidates, known as Knowledge boys or girls, follow routes around London on a scooter learning a set number of routes each day.  The process is painstakingly incremental but those that succeed have become experts in their domain.

But, of course, London black cab drivers are only experts in London.  Should the driver swap their black cab for a yellow one, expecting them to be able to apply their knowledge of London to New York would be a nonsense.  Gaining a firm knowledge of New York would require them to get back on their scooters and start all over again.

I think this analogy is a helpful one when considering the role of knowledge in the history curriculum and also helps to explain why the subject poses significant challenges to generic planning, teaching and assessment policies.  Before going any further I would like to acknowledge that much of my thinking here has been formed by Michael Fordham’s work and, especially, the talk he gave at the recent West London Free School conference.

History is the school subject in which the domain is largest.  While the amount of maths in a curriculum might be increased or decreased it remains a largely accepted body of content.  A simultaneous equation in France is a simultaneous equation in Lithuania, Ethiopia or England.  In physical geography, the processes that form rivers don’t vary according to where it is in the world.  Erosion and deposition are universal; a student that understands these processes in the Nile River can apply this understanding to a study of the Amazon or the Thames.  History is different and more akin to The Knowledge learned by black cab drivers in that it far less replicable or applicable in different contexts.  Although both subjects are concerned with religion, a child who knows reasons for the English Reformation would not be able use this knowledge to explain the development of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.  The History Of The World is, for all practical purposes, infinite and expecting a anyone to achieve mastery of it would be absurd.

History teachers, curriculum planners and the exam boards that create GCSE courses know this.  We don’t expect children to learn The History Of The World.  We choose from it to create domains in which we think it is beneficial, for different reasons, that children achieve some degree of mastery.

This is a considerable challenge for schools trying to use generic models to assess and track learning in history.  History curriculums are typically chronological at Key Stage 3 and most of the content studied in the lower years is not included in the domain taught and examined at GCSE.  This means that data tracking of KS3 groups can be extremely misleading, especially if this information is intended to generate a grade that equates to GCSE examination performance.  The only way to do this with any degree of accuracy would be to teach only KS4 content to KS3 using the chosen exam boards heuristics.  While this may make the data from assessments a more accurate indicator of eventual KS4 results it is, of course, unethical and arguably immoral.

Some schools have tried to resolve this by identifying what are often referred to as historical skills.  The thinking behind this, if I’ve got it right, seems to be that there are certain generic competencies, often thought to be hierarchical, which drive the acquisition of substantive knowledge.  For example, it is assumed that ‘description’ is a lower-order skill which students should acquire first.  Once students know how to ‘describe’ they can then move onto ‘explaining’, which is supposed to be trickier.  In these systems a child getting better at history is one who is mastering more and more difficult skills and it is assumed that once they have these skills they can confidently apply them to new content.  This model is understandably attractive to non-subject specialists and generic inspection regimes because it allows those without substantive or disciplinary knowledge to make a judgement on progress by looking at the acquisition of skills, which is a process they feel they understand.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say there is absolutely no value in this approach.  To return to my black cab analogy I would suggest that these ‘skills’ can be likened to the actual driving of the car.  The driver must know how to operate the clutch and accelerator.  They must also know how to indicate and they know how to switch on headlamps when it gets dark.  If a driver can’t do these things they, of course, must learn.  I’d liken these mechanical functions to knowing how to read and write in increasingly sophisticated and complex sentences.  Although these skills are necessary it is instructive to remember that a person can be taught to drive in an intensive course over a week, while learning The Knowledge takes years, that it is this cabbies spend most of their time doing, and it is on this their expertise is judged.  Overplaying the importance of generic skills is dangerous in that it results in an imbalanced focus; a non-subject specialist advising a disciplinary expert on how to improve based on a generic skills based approach is the equivalent of a driving instructor sitting next to an expert London black cab driver and suggesting things like “indicate earlier” or “remember Mirror Signal Manoeuvre.”  This might lead to some minor improvements but clearly completely misses the point and can create a very unhelpful conception over what real progress is.

So if ‘skills’ outside discrete domains are not good indicators of improvement in history what is?  Michael Fordham has argued very convincingly about the importance of substantive knowledge and I agree with him.  What generally makes one person better at history than another is that they know more about the subject they’re dealing with.    As history teachers, regardless of how we were trained, I think most of us know this instinctively.  This is why even departments that spend a great deal of time on ‘skills’ in KS3 teach more didactically and give out content led revision guides and knowledge organisers when Y11 exams loom.  This is not to say that disciplinary knowledge, which isn’t generic, is of any less significance but simply an acknowledgement that it sits within substantive knowledge and doesn’t exist if separated from it.

The primacy of substantive and disciplinary knowledge in improving learning in history lessons has unavoidable implications for the accurate assessment of teaching quality.  Accepting that generic ‘skills’ are an inappropriate measure of progress in history means accepting that those without relevant knowledge will struggle to form accurate judgements of the learning they observe.  For example, if a teacher is delivering a lesson on the role of the Reichstag Fire in Hitler’s rise to power, but the observer doesn’t know themselves, it is not possible for them to make a judgement on the degree to which the lesson has been successful.  The same issues arise in book scrutiny and other forms of quality assurance. This problem is far from being a hypothetical one and it worries me a great deal that many, if not most, history teachers in England are trying to improve their teaching of history based on generic success criteria developed by those who’ve only ever studied it as novices.

The importance of knowledge to student success is certainly borne out by my own experience.  As I mentioned in a previous blog, looking over the past exam scripts of my students proves that problems in student achievement were not down to, aside from the very high end, issues with understanding how to answer questions or the second order concepts that underpin them.  Typically, students who ended up with say, ‘Cs’ instead of ‘Bs’, did so because their answers in some areas were much stronger than in others; inconsistency in knowledge was the most limiting factor in their success, not a lack of any generic skill.

This all suggests to me that secondary history departments should be aiming, primarily, to build strong substantive and disciplinary knowledge right from Year 7 with the minimum of fuss and distraction.  Assessments should test the ability of students to remember what they’ve learned over a long period of time and that, as Fordham has more eloquently explained, the progression model should be the curriculum.  Trying to track improvement by assessing improvements to generic skills is a dangerous red herring, akin to trying to assess the expertise of a London cab driver by giving him or her a driving test.  It also implies to students that there are shortcuts that can be taken and fails to address the elephant in the room; you simply cannot answer a question on something you don’t know about.

I’d like to conclude by suggesting something I can’t prove.  I’d argue that should a certified London cab driver be required to gain the same level of expertise over another city they’d do so in less time than it took them to learn London’s streets, but this would not be because of generic driving competency or because anything they know is directly applicable.  It would be because by achieving mastery in one domain they’d have improved their ability to efficiently move information from short to long term memory, and the methods used to do this would be useful even in an unfamiliar city.  This is another important reason why teaching and assessing substantive knowledge, even that outside the domain assessed at Y11, is both useful and worthwhile; if students become good at remembering a lot in KS3, they will be better able to do the same at KS4.


Gary Whitehead and why grammar schools are the wrong answer.

I have a twenty-year-old memory that makes me burn with particular shame.  After a night out, my friends and I went for a curry.  Tipsy and slightly maudlin after making a string of failed passes at women five years older than himself, Gary Whitehead made an emotional confession.  “One day,” he said, “I want a really classy bird.  I’d treat her well, I’d take her to a proper classy restaurant like Harry Ramsden’s.”
Oh, how I hooted with laughter “Haw! Haw! Harry Ramsden’s!  Fish and chips!  You think fish and chips are classy!”Gary smiled and laughed along, but went very quiet.
Once, he invited me to his house to eat lunch and it was there I began to realise how different my world was to his.At around noon his dad, in shorts, a T-shirt and a dressing gown, was already drinking cheerfully from a can of lager.  He offered us both one.  Gary didn’t have one but I did.  A joyful riot of preschool children ran unsupervised through the half-painted living room.  “Shut the fuck up!”  Gary’s mum yelled happily, “we got guests!”“You’re a bit posh you are!”  Gary’s dad commented and, seduced by the glamour of it all I exaggerated my accent and drank a second can to better fit in.
I hate that version of my sixteen year old self.  Entitled.  Smug.  Ignorant.  Judgemental.  But I wasn’t too thick to get it and after that day I didn’t make any more jokes about Harry Ramsden’s.I stayed friends with Gary in sixth form.  I sat next to him in ‘A’ Level geography and we did Bradford’s pubs and clubs together at the weekend.
Gary and I both did fairly well in our final exams.  We went to different universities and lost touch until I ran into him at a train station years later.  We talked about mutual acquaintances and caught up.  I’d been a teacher for three years by then and was just about to begin a VSO placement.   I talked too much about myself and by the time Gary had a chance to tell me what he’d done since leaving school there were only five minutes left before my train.“I work for Barclay’s,” he told me.“That’s great, Gary,” I said, checking my watch, “whereabouts?”“All over really,” he said, “I’ve just finished a master’s and I’m training to be a regional manager.”
And that was the last time I saw him.I’ve thought about him often since then, marvelling at a myopia that meant I went to a school for six years without ever realising the extent to which it was changing lives and transforming communities.  Somehow, I managed to coast through my secondary education without realising that the outstanding results being achieved by my poorer classmates weren’t normal.  When the school published a list of names of hundreds of young people who were the first from their families to go to university I didn’t get it.  “So what?  I thought.  How’s that any different to me going to university?  We sat the same exam!”
But I get it now.  My school knew what it was doing.  It neither made nor accepted excuse.  I was treated, the child of two doctors, in exactly the same way Gary was, whose dad didn’t work and drank.  I mocked Gary and his Harry Ramsden’s because I didn’t know he’d been brought up any differently.  The school had the same standards for both of us and never wavered, never let Gary off homework because he had no desk to work at, never let him swear because his mother did and punished us equally for having a sneaky lunchtime pint before our General Studies lesson.
We were both lucky enough to exist in a system where children weren’t divided by their privilege or the results of tests we took at eleven.  Grammars will change that.
The comprehensive system is why Gary, with disadvantages I didn’t have, earns more money than I do, takes holidays twice a year, has separate rooms for his children and will send them to university.  That’s why, as a teacher, my expectations are neither negotiable nor differentiated.
And, in the years before it became an awful franchise, Harry Ramsden’s was classy.  What a prig I was to not recognise that.

Just tell ’em

Earlier this academic year I was at the Micheala “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers” book launch event and saw Olivia Dyer, their charismatic Head of Science, coin the phrase ‘just tell ‘em.”

Since then #JustTellThem has developed into something of a fracture point and has been used as a convenient short-cut for the familiar traditional progressive debate; traditional teachers just tell ’em and the more progressive use what they see as more imaginative approaches.

My feeling is that Olivia’s phrase has been, either accidentally or willfully, misunderstood particularly by those suspicious of traditional educational methods.  I’m pretty sure most of those at the book launch recognised that when Olivia said ‘just tell ‘em’ she did not mean simply reading a list of facts from a list in the dry monotone made famous by THAT teacher in Ferris Bueller’s day off.  Olivia’s proudly didactic speech was well planned, logical, passionate and utterly compelling, and I’m sure her students don’t get bored.

As a pretty didactic teacher myself, I do a lot of just tell ‘em.  But, of course, it doesn’t mean ‘just’ tell ‘em.  It means the banging of imaginary swords on imaginary shields while shouting “Out! Out! Out!” so loudly that teachers come in in from other rooms to check everything’s all right.  It means the decapitation of deposed kings with metre-long rulers. It means swooping around classrooms with arms outstretched as a Spitfire dog-fighting a BF-109 and it means carefully planned and illustrated mini-lectures supported by thoughtful board-work that takes me hours to plan and draw.

Nobody who believes in ‘Just tell ‘em’ thinks it means just tell ‘em. Giving students a knowledge organiser, reading it to them and then telling them to learn it off by heart would be, of course, terrible teaching, but nobody is advocating that.  I take issue with the idea styles like mine are just “an excuse for ****  teachers who are devoid of better ideas” and am grateful to open minded practitioners such as the author of the linked article for not being dismissive of styles different to their own.


Why Target Grades Miss Their Mark

When I left the UK in 2006, there were no Target Grades.  When I returned five years later they were everywhere, screaming out from SIMS and multi-coloured Excel spreadsheets, and shouting mindlessly on the front of exercise books.

They were all over lessons too.  Outcomes, written carefully on every board, were often tagged with the different target grades of students in that particular class.  For example:

Describe the Night of the Long Knives (C)

Explain the causes of the Night of the Long Knives (B)

Evaluate the significance of these causes (A).

It seemed that the expectation was in the very best lessons, students should have individual target grades and given different tasks to do, which multiplied planning by three.  This came as something as a shock.  On a training day I heard a consultant ask “why should the higher ability start at the same point the lower ability do?” and saw people around me nod sagely.  I was baffled. “How could a student explain what caused the Night of the Long Knives if they didn’t know what happened in the first place?” I thought, “Describing the fire would only take a student with a C target a few minutes.  Should I just get them to repeat that in different ways until the end of the lesson?  Should I stop them moving onto explaining?”

Anxious to catch up on what I’d missed while away, I read lots and asked lots of questions, but didn’t find the answers I got particularly illuminating.

I learned that Target Grades were generated from tests children sat at the end of their primary education in English and Maths.  From an average of these three grades an acceptable level of progress had been decided on, and this was used to set a target for other subjects.  The success of the child and, by association, their teachers and school, was assessed on whether they failed to meet, achieved or exceeded this target.

My mind boggled a bit.  How could the average attainment of a child in two subjects be used to predict their attainment in completely different disciplines?  Most children I taught in Year 7 had never really studied history meaningfully but, as I understood it, I was supposed to assume that they were already as good at it as they were the subjects they had learned.  When I raised this I was told “just be glad you don’t teach music, art or PE.  At least in history they do read and write.”

I asked more questions and got myself even more confused.  I heard that the results of these KS2 tests were used as an assessment of the child’s intelligence and capacity to learn; if they had reached a certain standard in one subject it was assumed they could do so in others. To me this made no sense at all.  The KS2 tests tested aptitude in discrete subjects and weren’t designed to test intelligence.  The outcome could be the result of any one or combination of a huge number of variables including the ability of the teacher, the level or parental support and the degree to which a primary school taught directly to the test.  The assessments weren’t intelligence tests and I didn’t think they should be used as a general indicator of a child’s capacity to learn.

When I brought this up I got a different answer.  I was told that I’d misunderstood and these tests were actually used to assess the level of different generic skills a child had reached.  Seeing English and Maths as the trunk of a tree with the other subjects as branches initially seemed quite neat.  In this conception, children had developed different generic competencies.  If a child could describe well in English, as demonstrated on their KS2 test, they would be able to describe well in history too.  This helped explain the very Bloom’s influenced learning outcomes that had also mushroomed while I was away.

I allowed myself to be satisfied with this for a while but it didn’t fit quite right and nagged at me.  The first problem was that the various skills that students were assumed to have were very different in history to how they were in other subjects; what I regarded as a good descriptive paragraph was different to the sort of paragraph their English teacher wanted them to write.  Even more worrying was how the most important part of my subject of all, knowledge, barely got a look in.  It seemed it was assumed that a child who wrote good historical descriptions of one thing should be able to do so on something they’d never learned about before.

This approach to differentiation, based on target grades, continues to cause big problems in history teaching.  In a recently blogged about lesson, judged highly by Ofsted, students were given one of three different versions of a worksheet according to their target grade.  Each child was told they could choose a worksheet that was aimed higher than their target but not lower.  This doesn’t make sense.  If a student is capable of doing work they should do it and allowing them to choose exposes an important flaw in lessons that use this approach.  Even if this model was effective in supporting progress from different starting points, by its very nature it will never close gaps between students; higher ability students do harder work and learn more, lower ability do easier work and learn less.  In classrooms and schools that work like this the weak can’t ever hope to catch up with the strong.  Gaps between students are consolidated and never close.

This system casts a shadow half a decade long.  In her book “Making Good Progress” Daisy Christodoulou points out that teachers often unwittingly underscore disadvantaged children and it is plausible that something similar happens as a result of averaged KS2 scores.  Less is expected of a child who performs comparatively poorly in their KS2 tests, for whatever reason, than of one who performs well. They are generated a lower target grade, likely to be put in lower sets and almost certainly given easier work to do.  Teachers working with subjective mark schemes suffering cognitive overload may unconsciously look for short-cuts when grading work.  A target grade provides this short cut, and means they are more likely to give lower grades to students with lower KS2 data even if the work is of the same standard as that produced by a child with a higher KS2 test score. If the child wasn’t really low ability to begin with they can soon become so as they internalise the message that they aren’t one of the smart kids, drop further behind and become demoralised.

JL Austin’s work around the transformative effect of language gives a compelling explanation as to why this might happen.  Austin finds that there are many things that people say that don’t just describe the world but have an impact on it. For example, in a Church of England marriage ceremony when a vicar says “I now pronounce you man and wife” they aren’t simply describing something that exists but changing reality itself.  We can extend his insight beyond just what people say to things, like the KS2 tests. Those that advocate for these exams and scores might well say that they know that they are intending to change reality. They might say that this is the point. However, the issue is the mismatch between reality that is described in the test and its performativity. It is here that we need to be especially careful. While it might be argued that these grades are appropriate for the subjects in which the child actually took tests (Maths and English), clearly we are on much shakier ground when we start using this non-specific data to guide the teaching of students in other subjects. After all, a vicar announces the banns of marriage before the ceremony and so can be confident in its legitimacy.

Good schools and caring teachers always stress that targets can be beaten and some children do rise through the sets to dramatically exceed their target, but such instances are rare. Handing out high targets to some children and lower to others, in front of their peers based on the results of test data that might be four years old can be a traumatic experience for some children.  By giving a target, we imply there is a ceiling on a child’s potential and may well create the low aspirations and low confidence we are trying to tackle in using them.  Some schools try to mitigate the disheartening effect of low KS2 scores by artificially inflating the target grades of weaker students, but this can be just as unkind.  In history, a child with an old L3 at KS2 had only a 6% chance of achieving a ‘B’ grade target in 2015, which leads to odds on year on year failure, demoralisation and de-motivation.  For all students, from the most to least able, it’s better to have high expectations and to focus on meaningful step-by-step improvements from the subject specific point they’ve reached.  Generic target grades are a distraction.

Target grades can wreak havoc at KS4 where they can easily result in teachers focusing on the wrong things, when they are inappropriately combined with mark schemes.  A scheme for an old style 8 mark question may say that students can get 6 marks for a one sided argument.  It may appear logical to translate this to a ‘B,’ and by doing so assume that a good target to set for a student with a ‘B’ grade target would be to “either agree or disagree with an interpretation and support with evidence.”   But that 6/8 does not mean a ‘B’.  It means 6 out of 8 marks on a paper carrying over 80 marks in total, which in itself holds only 50% of the total.  A quick look through the past exam scripts of my students show what a dangerous misconception this is.  Of all my students who have got ‘Cs’, hardly any have achieved the percentile equivalent of a ‘C’ consistently on every question. In almost every case, they’ve got very high marks on some questions and less than half on others.  The problem was not that they hadn’t grasped a ‘B’ grade ‘skill’ as assumed by the target system, but that they had inconsistent knowledge over the breadth of the course.  The target for these students should have been more focused revision, not teaching them to meet self-limiting criteria.  A further implication of this is that if a child is capable of getting full marks on one question, then they are capable of doing the same on all of them, which makes the idea of a generic or skills based target grade even more absurd.

These serious concerns got me wondering where this all began and why it became so widespread.  I did some digging.

Widespread target setting in English schools began with the Fischer Family Trust.  The Trust compiled a wide range of data, including prior attainment (not ability) and socio-economic variables to make statistical links between them and the outcomes of individuals and groups of students.  This information could be used by schools to assess how well their pupils were doing compared to children at other schools.  This could be extremely useful and powerful information, allowing schools to see when their expectations were too low.  Some schools began to use this information to set targets for their pupils and some began sticking these targets to the front of their pupils’ exercise books to give them something to aim for.  Schools were in control as to what these should be and most, as a result of a ‘my expectations are higher than yours’ arms race, set targets at the very top end of what was statistically possible.  Many schools set targets that, should all students achieve them, would place the school in the top 5% of those in the country.

The Fischer Family Trust never advocated this.  Their original advice was that schools and students use the data as a starting point to begin discussions that would result in an agreed expected grade.  To understand how it turned into what it did we need to look at wider political factors.

School league tables and ranking played a big role.  Schools in disadvantaged areas realised that the raw attainment of their students would not compare well to those in more affluent schools so sought a measure that would demonstrate their pupils had made progress from lower starting points.  FFT data offered this opportunity; a child who’d arrived in Year 7 on lower grades and from a more socially disadvantaged background was less likely to get as high a grade as one who arrived on higher ones from a more advantaged one and it seemed fairer to judge them on the progress they’d made since joining the school and against other pupils with similar contexts.

Target Grades and data tracking became inseparably linked, enshrined in the Teacher Standards, and encoded in the very DNA of English schools.  After 2010 most schools stopped using FFT, which did try to recognise the effect of demographic on attainment, and began to form targets based purely on raw KS2 scores.  This was partially because the DFE, under Michael Gove’s well-intentioned instruction, got rid of Contextual Value Added (CVA), believing taking into account demographics meant accepting differentiated standards by advantage and the inevitable failure of the poor.  Most schools now disregard context completely and simply add three or four levels to a child’s averaged KS2 data to make this their target.  As well-meaning as this is, outside of English and Maths, it is wrongheaded because the point from which each child is supposed to be progressing has very little, if anything at all, to do with the subject they are studying.  Transition models in most subjects support this with few children at the lower end making the three levels of progress they are supposed to. In history, for example, in 2015 only 33% of children on a KS2 4c average reached or bettered the standard the DFE expected.

Ofsted inspections embedded this.  While they have never officially required schools to share targets or put them on exercise books schools that did were praised and other schools, predictably, followed suit.  Head Teachers working between 2008 and 2012 remember the practice spreading like a virus at local and national conferences as the idea that this was what Ofsted wanted took hold.   As  Alex Ford pointed out in his important post on how inspection regimes promoted extensive marking, praise or condemnation from Ofsted can very quickly become an important driver of school policy even when there is no evidence that the policy is effective.

A trawl through fifteen of the most recent Ofsted Reports for schools I’ve either worked at or know reasonably well suggests this is still fairly common.  Of the fifteen I looked at eight mentioned Target Grades explicitly.  In all these instances comments were approving, either praising their use or recommending that targets be made more challenging.  No Ofsted Reports questioned the use of Target Grades or the data on which they were based which, of course, would make it seem logical for SLTs in struggling schools to insist on their use.  Some reports included Target Grades in material on teacher appraisal and performance management.  One team reported of one school that “teachers are aware they may not get a pay rise if students do not achieve their Target Grades.”  The implications of this are worth thinking through.  As I’ve already mentioned targets in school are no longer typically based on FFT data and are more commonly based on a simple numerical value (either 3 or 4 levels depending on the school) being added to each child’s mean KS2 score.  This means that the targets of students in a class in a socially disadvantaged area may actually be those achieved by only a very small percentage of children from similar demographics nationally.  To successfully meet their appraisal targets teachers at some schools have to achieve this with every one of the children in every one of their classes.  Failure is inevitable and such performance management systems has meant that employment at the most disadvantaged of England’s schools is perceived as a real career risk, which may well be making the recruitment and retention crisis more acute in the disadvantaged schools where good teachers and leaders are most needed.

Despite all these issues, schools often continue to require teachers know the target of all the children in their classes and that children be able to parrot off these grades at the drop of a hat.  Of course, students are also expected to know what they should do to reach their target but, because of the problems surrounding subject specificity outside Maths and English, such action points are often vague, non-specific and completely unhelpful.  In history, I’ve seen ‘describe in more detail,’ ‘explain your points’ and ‘analyse the sources you use,’ which, while they may satisfy a school’s marking and reporting policy, are all pretty meaningless.  Daisy Christodoulou has interesting things to say about other reasons for this in Making Good Progress.

So to summarise, the Fischer Family Trust gathered data on the grades students were statistically likely to get and schools turned these into targets for subjects students hadn’t get studied. Schools used FFT data to take into account context but in 2010 the DFE said they couldn’t, so instead schools started adding either 3 or 4L of progress to raw KS2 data.  This has generated targets that some students are statistically highly unlikely to ever achieve.  Ofsted didn’t tell anyone to put these target grades onto books or share them but somewhere, at sometime around 2008 a school did.  Inspectors reported approvingly on this policy and soon most schools were doing it.  Some schools have tied this to Performance Related Pay, which has made meeting appraisal targets all but impossible for some teachers.  If this sounds a confused mess it’s because it is.  Target Grades are an answer to a question nobody asked.  The result was a decade long multi-vehicle wreck of which only happened because nobody was driving. It is difficult to see any positive impacts on the learning of children in English schools.

There will be those who seek to defend the policy both within their own schools and across England as a whole.  I anticipate the most common will be that they lead to faster progress and, of course, if there is convincing evidence they do result in better outcomes then the policy, for all its flaws, might be worth continuing with.

But there isn’t.

The evidence base on the impact of GCSE target grades based on KS2 data of any type is pretty much non-existent.  To be blunt, to my knowledge, nobody at all has done any work on it.  Given how widespread it is and the impact it has on the day-to-day working lives of both students and their teachers, this is quite staggering.  Of course, this also makes it impossible to say it has no positive impact in individual contexts but given such a confused birth and the many problems I hope I’ve demonstrated it causes, we must do better than that.  Clearly, it would be very helpful if someone was to do a proper study of the impact of Target Grades on outcomes and if I’ve missed a study that has been done I’d be grateful to anyone who could point me to it.  In preparation for speaking on this at ResearchED Rugby, I’m going to be looking at examples of target setting in other domains to see if there is evidence of either positive or negative impact, while being acutely aware of the irony of this given the problems I’ve identified with non-specific target grades.

If we accept that target grades have a powerful effect on children (and here some research would be useful), then we need to be really, really careful about how we get those grades. Nobody would expect your PB for a 100m sprint to form your target for a marathon. Most of us would laugh at the absurdity of this but this is all the more reason to be careful about using non-specific tests scores to generate targets in other subjects even if they seem similar. The differences between the disciplines may be more subtle than those between race distances but they are no less important.

Until there is evidence that Target Grades based on KS2 data do have a positive impact on student progress I’d like Ofsted to tell inspectors not to ask students or teachers for them outside Maths and English.  I’d like them to insist that inspection teams refrain from making comments on students making progress, or not making progress because of either the presence or absence of Target Grades outside Maths and English.  I think schools should stop using achievement of Target Grades, outside English and Maths, as a way of directly assessing the effectiveness of their teachers and that schools should not use them to make decisions around career and pay progression.  Of course, schools actually don’t have much choice because of the nature of the accountability measures used to judge their effectiveness.  The issues I’ve discussed have huge implications on the validity of the Progress 8 measure outside English and Maths because when children arrive in Y7 there is no evidence whatsoever that they’ve reached any standard at all in any other subject.  It is simply wrong to assume they are progressing from the same standard they reached in the subjects in which they did take tests.

Given their confused origins and self-limiting nature I strongly suspect that any future research done into the effect of Target Grades will not find they have a positive impact.  The data they are based on has been misunderstood, misapplied and used inappropriately.  Using it in the way we do just isn’t safe and has negative consequences.  Of course if positive research emerges, or it turns out I’ve got the wrong end of the stick, I’ll happily change my position but my belief is that that any serious study will cause the whole house of cards to come crashing down.

Nb.  This is very much a work in progress.  I’m aware I missed a lot while I was away and may have misunderstood some important things.  I very much welcome critique and would be grateful to anyone pointing out factual mistakes, errors in my logic, relevant research or important things I’ve completely missed.  Thanks to Lee Donaghy, Alex Ford, Jude Hunton and Tom Neumark for helping me with this.

Anything I’ve got wrong is, of course, my fault,


Use fewer sources

I introduce sources to my Year 7 classes the same way every year.  I look forward to it.  It’s become a bit of a thing.

It happens when we do the death of Harold at Hastings.  We begin with reading an account of the battle that acknowledges the controversy around the way he died, explaining that he could have been hacked to death by William’s knights, killed by an arrow or struck by the arrow and then finished off by the Norman cavalry.

This always bothers at least some members of the class. “But how did he die really?” they ask, full of confidence in my infallibility as a history oracle.

I shake my head sorrowfully.  “It happened nearly a thousand years ago,” I say.  “Everyone who was there is dead.  We just don’t know for sure.  If only we had a time machine that we could use to go transport something from the time into our classroom that told us what happened.  Wouldn’t that be cool?”

There is generally a strong agreement this would indeed be very cool.

I pause, for dramatic effect, for a moment or two.  “Hang on,” I say, “we don’t need a time machine.  Some stuff from around that time, from nearly one thousand years ago, still exists.  There’s something in this classroom.  Shall we have a look?”

“Yes!  Yes!  Yes!” They chorus, bouncing up and down like adorable meerkats.

“Hold on,” I say.  “Are we just going to look at it like it was made yesterday?  Shouldn’t we show something nearly a thousand years old a bit more respect?  Don’t you think we should know who made it, and why they did, and where it is from?  That’d be better wouldn’t it?”

They always agree.

And then we look at my book of the Bayeux Tapestry. By the time we’ve finished they don’t even mind that, of course, the tapestry isn’t much help in working out how Harold did in fact meet his end.

Of course it’s all a bit cutesy and affected but it is for eleven-year-olds and it does what it’s supposed to.  Too often in history I think we thoughtlessly overuse sources and don’t treat them with enough reverence.  By throwing snippets of sources at children in every lesson we imply they are commonplace and mundane.  This divorces the bricks of history from those who carved them and makes it tough for children to see just how incredible what they are looking at is.  Sometimes I am awestruck by the material in front of me.  The beautiful drawings and notes in my treasured copy of “The Fabric of the Human Body” were assembled by Vesalius close to five hundred years ago.  Skilled, long dead artists ran quill pens over parchment while Vesalius, in my mind, feverishly whispered the findings of his shocking semi-legal dissections into their ears.  The beautiful drawings were carved into woodblocks and taken on carts all the way to Switzerland where they were pressed by the world’s leading printer.  As they spread they changed the world.  And sitting on a shelf in my classroom, somehow magically transported almost intact through half a century, is a faithful copy of that very book.

At a charity shop in the Peak District I found a treasure trove of books from the 1929 Modern Teaching series.  There is much that jars with modern values in the history volume, but the way in which it describes the teaching of sources stopped my sneering and made me think.  The guide doesn’t advise teaching sources at all until children reach the Elizabethan chapter, which includes a three page extract from a graduate of Oxford and Cambridge Universities, describing life in Elizabethan London.  Before a very long and respectful paragraph on the provenance, the book says:

 “It is very important to remember that extracts from original sources give the real historical and literary atmosphere of the time.  They present the view of the period as the men of that particular day saw it, and it must thereby gain in vividness and accuracy. 

This extract should be read straight through at first.  It will be found to make an appeal by the quaintness of its language, and if the class is informed beforehand that this is the description of an eye-witness, it will awaken enthusiasm and command closer attention.”

If we want the children in our classes to feel the same sublime wonder we do, they need to be taught how and why they should respect what they have at their fingertips.  An out of context snippet caged in a box and labelled Source A makes it hard to see the alchemy.

I’m planning to use less sources in my lessons.  I want to more carefully choose the ones I do use and I want to show these sources the respect they deserve.


Some textbooks make this easier than others do.The new Anglo-Saxon and Norman England textbook by Ian Dawson, Esther Arnott and Libby Merritt, which is published by Hodder, gives a real sense of the scarcity and value of the sources that exist and make this seem exciting rather than intimidating.