Education Policy Ideas

I could happily write pages of text sarcastically criticising various educational policies of all main political parties, but this would require more time than I currently have to research them all.  (I will however do this with today’s latest stupid idea from Mr Corbyn about free lunches in a moment.)  Suffice to say a great many of these policies are pretty pointless, and divert schools attention away from the purpose that they were created for – providing a good education for future generations.

Today (at the time of writing) saw Corbyn confirm that he wants to spend £950million on free school lunches for all primary school children.  Well – I’d really love to know how this will be done when not all primary schools have functioning kitchens, let alone dinner ladies (sorry for the 1980s stereotype, I grew up with some amazing ones!), and therefore is this going to require considerable capital build projects, or more outsourcing of the Education budget to private lunch providers from a party that is campaigning for re-nationalisation of the railways, banks, and goodness only knows what other industries.  Seems like it hasn’t really been thought through properly.

Reality check – there is neither sufficient demand for, or money to cover the cost of this policy in the DfE budget (or is this another promise being paid for by the Corporation Tax changes being proposed?).  Instead, what ALL political parties should be doing is promising to fund schools properly so that the ever increasing cost pressures on school budgets that are causing countless ‘deficit reduction plans’ to be drafted, that includes in some schools compulsory redundancies.  The funding crisis is becoming increasingly well documented by people far better informed of budgetary pressures than me, so let me suggest a some practical ways that schools could be supported to do in order to focus on our primary purpose:

  1. The DfE should set up a free advertising space for ALL schools to recruit new staff.  In one move this could put some organisations out of business, for example the TES, and the numerous other organisations that take money from the DfE budget as profit for shareholders and out of the hands of Headteachers.  It has become increasingly difficult to find new jobs because of the explosion of organisations offering advertising, so putting it all under one roof not only saves schools thousands of pounds a year and diverts this money into the classroom, but it also takes a considerable amount of work out of the system for administration staff/business managers etc.
  2. Cap the costs that schools pay out for agency staff, or better still, return to a system where local authorities maintain a list of local supply teachers and the money stays in the system rather than going to companies that charge extortionate fees for supply that often isn’t very good.  In some schools where recruitment is a problem, supply costs can run into 6 figures.  This is scandalous, and should be spent employing full time teachers so that students get a decent education.
  3. Cut back on the ever increasing expectation on schools to provide non-core services out of hours.  Why have schools increasingly become child-minding providers both before and after school?  It is mainly to provide cheap (or free) childcare so that more parents can work full time.  All this does is divert both staff time and money away from the core budget.
  4. Stop paying for free meals for whole cohorts of students and focus this just on children from economically disadvantaged families.  A large proportion of children don’t need to be fed by the state.
  5. Investigate and sort out the ongoing scandal of PFI within the education system.  This hasn’t been publicised in recent years, but there must be significant sums (hundreds of millions at least) still being paid off by schools for scandalous PFI agreements signed by Blair’s and Brown’s Labour Governments that are now just lining the pockets of big business.
  6. Stop the constant change to the curriculum.  Thankfully Justine Greening said there would be no new initiatives when she took over as Secretary of State.  I hope that the election doesn’t change this.  We need time and space to integrate the new curriculum and learn how best to maximise the chances of students in the new exams.  At primary level, schools need to continue to embed the new Primary curriculum and assessment processes too.
  7. Reduce the excessive burden from the league tables.  Game playing by schools to improve their position in the tables costs money, and often is of no benefit to the students.  By changing the way schools are held accountable, (whilst still having some sort of measure of accountability) this can only help to divert money back to where it is needed.
  8. Fully fund the increasing cost burdens that are being placed on schools.  Increased National Insurance payments, pensions, Apprenticeship Levy, and the various other bills that are being presented to schools need to be funded properly otherwise this money comes directly out of the staffing budget and straight back into central government coffers.
  9. Finally, after saving all this money, find just a little bit more to boost teachers pay.  We have endured 7 years of 1% pay rises.  We continue to work more hours than is healthy to embed ever increasingly demanding curricula, and provide all the additional services that are being asked of schools.  It is time that this public sector pay freeze ended.  We have taken about as much as we can take on our pay.  It is time we shared in some of the increasing prosperity that we are seeing after recent years of a growing economy.
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Elections – a new form of censorship?

We have entered a time that normally only happens every 5 years – General Election time.  This should be a time that all people who are entitled to vote get excited and look forward to exercising their democratic right to shape the next 5 years.  It is also a time that I dread because it brings out the worst in some people.

I consider myself a pretty centre-ground person.  I believe in small government and lower taxes, but I also believe in social justice where the most vulnerable in our society are helped by those who can afford to.  I believe in hard work, and people taking responsibility for their own lives. I believe in charity where it is needed, but I don’t believe that money is the solution to all the worlds’ problems.  I believe that we need strong businesses that are socially responsible, and entrepreneurs to help grow our economy and create employment.  I believe in capitalism rather than socialism, but see it with all its flaws.  I believe that people who struggle to improve their lives but try their best to do so should be given a helping hand.   I believe the State doesn’t have all the answers and shouldn’t pretend that it does.

The most difficult part of this period is admitting (why even chose that word ‘admitting’! You will see why when I finish writing) that I am a Conservative voting teacher.  I have voted in every General Election since 1997.  In each one I have voted for the Conservatives.  There was a period of time in the 2000’s when I seriously flirted with voting Labour.  I saw a lot of what Blair was doing and struggled to disagree with it, even though I didn’t like him as a politician.  In the end I just couldn’t bring myself to do it, and I stuck with the Conservatives, even though I knew they would lose in 2001 and 2005.

The reason I chose the word ‘admitting’ is because of the way that often reasonable people become so completely vile and detestable the minute politics gets mentioned.  I enjoy political debate.  I passionately believe in the importance of facilitating debate amongst students to help them form their own opinions.  I also believe passionately that the Education Act that sets out the importance of impartial teachers is vital.  We hold the minds of young people in our hands, we should encourage them to form their own opinions and debate in a reasonable and mature way. We need to present balanced arguments that inform them of the pros and cons of each political party, so that they are able to reach their own conclusion.  The problem is that particularly on twitter and facebook (the only two social media platforms I use) I don’t see this happening enough.

The thread attached to this tweet from Katharine shows a perfect example of my point.

Teachers need to model for the next generation(s) how to have reasonable and mature debates about politics.  We need to engage them with rational, balanced discussions that encourage them to question, debate, and form their own opinions.  We should model this not only in our classrooms, but also through social media.  The words we use will be picked up by our students, and therefore describing Conservatives as ‘Evil’, when about 40% of the voting population are Conservative voters is as vile as all the abusive nonsense that was posted about the Brexit voters and remainers in the Referendum.

What will probably happen now is that I will be dismissed as a Tory voting looney, a toff loving Tory Scumbag, or other similar abuse from people who have never met me.  This abuse is what makes me so reluctant to discuss my political opinions.  I was even told the other day by a student that because I was a teacher I must be a Labour supporter.  Those who turn to abuse are in my opinion, censoring social media and stopping reasonable debate.  Those who shout the loudest and abuse the most are not the ones we should be listening to.  We need to stand up and challenge this form of debate (it isn’t even really a debate) and work harder to model balanced discussions about policy and ideology, and stop turning it into a mud-slinging, abusive argument.

I appeal to ALL teachers to remember that we have a social, moral, and legal responsibility to model balanced debate.  Please remember this before you write your next post dismissing Tories as Scum, or Labour as Looney.

Finally decided – and here’s why

Over the last few months my team have been testing our year 11’s on sample papers from the 3 main exam boards – AQA, Edexcel and OCR.  The plan was to see which papers they performed better on, and also what their feel was for each of the 3 boards overall.

We tested Edexcel and OCR papers in November in 2 formal mock exams (PPEs – pre-public exams for those uninitiated in PiXL speak).  They were official specimen papers and not the PiXL versions.  These PPEs gave us some useful data, but there was no obvious difference in the two boards.  I had hoped we could rule one out at this point but we were unable to.  In January, we tested sample papers from OCR and AQA.  Having just evaluated the results this is what we found for our cohort.

AQA – comparing the specimen papers we used with OCR, it was immediately clear from their raw scores, and also from the feedback we got from our classes that they really did not like these papers.  The multiple choice questions were difficult to do, and the longer questions hard to access.  The feedback on layout was also pretty negative with less than half liking the lines for giving answers.  Most preferred papers that had large empty spaces.  We asked our students to find topics assessed on both boards and compare the questions.  They felt that overall OCR questions were easier to access than OCR.  We therefore made a very quick decision that AQA was not for us.

OCR – generally, with higher raw scores, these looked like being better for our students.  Public opinion from our student voice feedback was that virtually all preferred the OCR papers.

It then became a straight fight between OCR and Edexcel.  The discussions we had as a team focussed on two groups of students – those aiming for 5-6 grades, and the 7-9 group.  Our 7-9 students preferred the OCR papers, particularly the longer questions and the ‘show that’ and ‘prove that’ questions.  They found them challenging but accessible.  The 5-6 students overall preferred the Edexcel papers, because more of the questions were easier to access, and even the later questions had small extra hints that they liked, for example, on a proof question, it hinted at the right method to use by saying “prove algebraically”, rather than just “prove”.  Having marked higher GCSE papers for the last 4 years, these questions are answered particularly poorly, but the addition of single words like this helped the weaker students to still access the paper and gain the first mark, even if they were unable to complete it.

At this point, further considerations were brought in – our previous years using Edexcel – for me I’d never used another board, but this was not a good enough reason to stick with Edexcel on its own.  Also, my role as a Higher Edexcel Examiner.  This year for the first time since I’ve been marking we all have to attend a formal training session sometime around Easter on the new GCSE marking criteria.  This was also going to give us some useful pointers in those final key weeks.  All this, combined with the feedback from students and our pulling apart of all the papers we had seen so far led to us sticking with Edexcel for this year.

I have to say, once we’d made this decision, it felt like an anti-climax.  However, having gone through a pretty long and detailed process of elimination with our students experiences and opinions at the centre of it all, I am confident that for our students and my team, this is the correct decision.

Marking and Feedback Policy

After the outstanding 2 page document from the @NCETM about what good marking and feedback should look like (click here) each subject was asked to write their own faculty marking and feedback policy.

Brilliant – I thought – use the @NCETM guidance and basically copy as much as I could while adapting it to fit some of our own processes.  I didn’t realise that my Deputy Head had used the same document as our whole school guidelines!  That was even more brilliant and really made my day.  Our SLT are really working hard to ensure that what we do is not about ticking boxes for @ofsted, rather it is about impacting on learning and moving students on.

Anyway, here’s my draft document for you all to read.  Feel free to download and adapt for your own settings.

faculty-feedback-and-marking-policy-draft

I never thought I’d be a brickie!

After numerous really interesting and thought provoking discussions both online and face to face I’ve come to the conclusion that teaching Maths really is very similar to being a bricklayer.  Allow me to explain –

For non-specialists, Maths is a series of interlinked topics that support each other in fundamental ways.  There are key building blocks of knowledge, like times tables, that are like a foundation stone.  Without a strong knowledge of times tables so much other knowledge in maths cannot be acquired and secured.  When building something, if you do not have a good foundation stone the whole structure is at risk of collapse.

All maths teachers will appreciate that maths is a hierarchical subject.  You cannot teach topics as complete standalone principles/ideas, because there is always some prior learning that is needed before you can move understanding forward.  This is why testing of prior knowledge before embarking on a new topic is vital to establishing a solid understanding of new concepts.  If the prior knowledge is not secure, then it is like having a cracked/broken brick in the wall.  There is an in-built weakness that needs fixing to ensure a strong wall that will last.  Our remedy for this is to establish prior learning tests as a first lesson in all topics so that students are aware of what the need to learn, and teachers what they need to teach.  We can then use either ‘therapy’ lessons that consolidate these pre-requisites, or we set catch up tasks on http://www.hegartymaths.com for them to do the work independently.

The next step is what to do if you find a broken or missing brick.  The key is timely and focussed intervention.  We are establishing an intervention programme built around this model.  At the moment we are testing year 7 and 8 on the key knowledge of times tables, and then putting in place focussed intervention using year 10 mentors that develops this key skill.  We will then move on to testing other fundamentals and intervene for those that need it once times tables are sorted.  This rolling programme will develop over the year, and then we are fixing the broken bricks at the bottom of the wall before we build the wall too high and it falls down.

Our use of post-testing of knowledge in lessons with a simple RAG activity, allows us to test the new bricks for stability, and by planning for one or two ‘therapy’ lessons at the end of a topic, we immediately intervene with students on their new knowledge and secure it before moving on.  Again, this is supported with videos and quizzes on http://www.hegartymaths.com that can be individually set depending on the weaknesses of the individual.

On reflection, this model of rapid intervention felt like a pretty good attempt at working the Shanghai Maths model into UK classrooms (you may not agree, and I am certainly no expert on the Shanghai model).  We don’t have the luxury of afternoon lessons that catch up those who didn’t get it earlier in the day, but at least we get to them pretty quickly, and while we are still covering the same topic before moving them on.

An epiphany – mixed ability v streamed

This morning was the usual routine of getting my boys out of bed and ready for rugby training at our local club. My eldest is in his second year and is now in the U8s, and my youngest just started in the U6s.  I spent the morning wondering between their different training zones and when watching my eldest it suddenly hit me like a freight train.

My son trains with boys of all abilities.  I was pleased that he was working with boys better than him (although he’s no slouch at rugby) because he was learning how to improve from watching and training with them.  It was then that it hit me like a slap in the face – why do I want mixed ability teaching for my son in rugby, but not with my classes at school?

I know the answer – fear! I’m afraid of trying to teach classes with some very able mathematicians mixed with some who really struggle.  I’m afraid of change because in 14 years of teaching I’ve always taught streamed classes and I don’t know how I’d approach true mixed ability teaching.  I’m afraid of the potential onslaught of complaints from parents to a radical change that for a lot of them will be completely alien to them from their own experience at secondary school.  I’m afraid of the fight it was cause within my team if I tried to spring on them all the idea that we would no longer have ‘top sets’ and ‘bottom sets’, although I’ve been fighting these labels ever since I read Dweck’s work on #growthmindset.

So what is the answer?  The power of social media of course.  Since asking for help on this to broaden my understanding of how to get it to work in a secondary school environment, the twittersphere has gone mad with places to get advice on this very tricky and quite scary subject.

So far I’ve got:
The hashtag #mixedattainmentmaths
@HelenHindle1’s website on this – http://www.growthmindsetmaths.com/mixed-attainment-lessons.html
A recommendation to read books by and follow @michaelollerton
An @NCETM article on the subject – https://www.ncetm.org.uk/resources/49130
A link to a thesis on this subject by @TFrancome – http://etheses.bham.ac.uk/5601/

That was all within a couple of hours.  Now for some bedtime reading.  I need to see if and how this could be done in my setting; how to take the fear out of it before selling it to my team/SLT/Governors; and some practical strategies and resources that I like.

I can feel a project coming on!

 

What next for September?

The below blog was also published by the NCETM in their June edition of NCETM Secondary Magazine. (www.NCETM.org.uk/resources/49085).  This magazine is well worth subscribing to the NCETM for as it is packed full of useful teaching ideas and commentary on the latest developments in secondary education and maths teaching.

As ever, one exam cycle comes to a close and my immediate thoughts turn to preparing for the next one, only this time it is slightly different.  With the increased demands of the new GCSE across all abilities, the fact that ALL grades contribute to progress 8 and best 8, and the fact we can’t really be sure what the papers will look like, my team and I have been grappling with how we can prepare year 10 for what they are going to face.  Here’s what we have come up with so far.

  • Prioritise numeracy skills – we have introduced Numeracy Ninjas (numeracyninjas.org) across almost all year 10 classes. It has been quite scary how low their mathematical fluency was, but already after only 8 weeks of using it we (and more importantly they) can see significant improvements.  We will continue with this at least twice a week throughout year 11.
  • Homework – we have switched from mymaths.co.uk to the excellent www.hegartymaths.com. This site gives us so much more in terms of the quality of information about individual strengths and weaknesses for all students.  We are using the website for both weekly homework, and also to gather information that informs both planning for first teaching, but also intervention support.
  • A good scheme of work – we have found kangaroomaths.com to be a really good starting point for our SOW. We are currently adding to it to include our own resources and to fully integrate our tracking of their understanding into each topic, along with homework tasks linked to hegartymaths.
  • Use of exam questions – these will become integral to the teaching of each topic for practice. Previously we have set half an exam paper each week for most of the academic year. Given the increased demand we will change this for September. Hegartymaths will form the basis of homework until Christmas in order to track progress through the remaining content.  We will start using exam papers, both legacy papers and new spec samples, from January alongside hegartymaths.
  • Continue to embed PiXL principles of Diagnosis, Therapy, Testing. hegartymaths.com has a huge part to play in this process as tasks will be set as prior learning tasks to check their understanding before first teaching. We will then reuse those tasks where students did less well to measure progress within that topic. This programme is being planned for all year groups moving forwards. This approach also makes homework a vital part of the learning process, rather than an ‘add on’.
  • Being honest with the students – I am already investing a lot of time telling year 10 and their parents that the exams are getting harder. I want them prepared for it.  To help with this we are focussing even more in teaching that really tests their understanding. Constantly asking them to explain/prove why, changing the question to see if they can still answer it, getting them to work backwards through problems, writing their own questions, focussing on correct language at all times to familiarise them with the subject-specific vocabulary they need to know, the list goes on.

The new specification has made us focus even more on the quality of our teaching and learning.  We have an unrelenting focus on this, and we are doing everything we can to put a downward pressure on workload so that this becomes the absolute priority.  Thankfully we are in a school where reducing workload and encouraging teacher wellbeing is towards the top of the agenda.