Sunday, 23 February 2014

Why lessons will continue to be graded (whether reported or not)

Who grades individual lessons using the recently (supposedly) canned OFSTED language? I am compiling a list:

1. SLT's (mine included, still)
2. Consultants
3. Those assessing a student in ITT
4. SIPs (if you have them)
5. OFSTED inspectors

Ah you cry - number 5 doesn't happen anymore. Well sorry, but it does, as the numerous tweets last week to Tom Bennett proved. But that is not important, what is important is how we get rid of this grading, whether written down or not. I would argue that this will be impossible, at least in the short term. Its a case of embedded practice in my opinion and it will not be changing soon. The issue is this: for years bad SLT's have scrabbled to please OFSTED. They have observed and regurgitated the good bits from 'outstanding' schools' reports. This has led to a culture of poor and reactionary teaching becoming embedded across the country. Thousands (probably millions) of pounds have been spent on  hiring consultants in order to change teachers so they please OFSTED. As a result, the idea that you can have a good lesson without ticking all the 'OFSTED' boxes is beyond most teachers and most people in education.

The main problem is that SLT's are packed full of people who have no business in being managers. They are not trained to manage people and have no idea how to do it. But that is not the main point. This is the fact that these people have been promoted in and enforced this culture over the past decade. Take this away and what can these people do? If you need any evidence that SLT's are generally not up to the job, see the panic caused by the new curriculum and the binning of levels. Has your school come up with anything different for September? I suspect not. The majority of SLT members are completely out of their depth trying to come up with something new and dynamic. Why? Because they have become technocrats, enforcing the doctrine of OFSTED to the letter, with no thought as to why this was happening. How individual teachers achieve great results has become unimportant, more important is that the style of their teaching pleases inspectors (regardless of results). It is a mindset issue too. SLT's will continue to use the language of OFSTED in making judgements about teachers, both to insiders and outsiders. Judgements will continue to be made on teachers through lessons observations too, until SLT's realise that 3x1hr observations per year is not a good strategy for assessing teaching ability.

Most of them have gained their status by being 'outstanding'. There are obviously exceptions, but google education consultants and find one without the word 'outstanding' on their page. Go on. They sell outstanding teaching from the old framework. Now they should have nothing to sell. Anyone expect them to wither and disappear? Nope, I thought not.

ITT providers
Mr Beach got an outstanding grade for his first year in tough young teachers, but his results weren't good. I REST MY CASE. We had a student at our school who couldn't spell and who couldn't write comments in books in the correct tense. She left us with a 'good'. Why? Because in her observations her tutor observed her as good. In fact, as far as I can make out, all students' marks depend on performing in these one off lessons. This is obviously a problem, because you cannot possibly show progress over time in a 6/8 week placement. Perhaps the cure is to have all ITT providers give students longer placements in order to allow for another measure of their ability. It appears the whole system is based on the OFSTED individual lesson grading system and a few essays. I expect this to continue.

We have one, most don't. We are destined for a visit from ours on the 6th March. I am being observed by her from 10.45-11.10. Yep 25 minutes. Yep like a mock OFSTED. Yep, we will be graded. Yep, I am doing an activity that will have no teacher input in order to subvert this process. I guess the same applies to these people as the above categories.

We have created a culture of appraisal and teaching centred around lesson grading. I still read comments on twitter from head teachers saying they will continue to grade individual lessons, despite the guidance. These people know no different. They are convinced you can judge a teacher on an individual lesson, despite the huge evidence to the contrary. They will still do it. Teachers will still do it - the moment you get an observation in the diary, you start planning a stupid lesson for it. Consultants will still peddle "outstanding" teaching ideas for one-off lessons. ITT providers will still grade individual student using the OFSTED parameters. And I also expect inspectors to do the same. They will still judge individual teachers and it will still impact their judgement of the school, even if they can't use it anymore as a stick to beat teachers with. I also suspect that the defunct official OFSTED pedagogy will also influence judgements.

It is a sorry state of affairs and is likely here to stay for a long time. No amount of back of the fag packet, on-the-hoof policy announcements/statements by OFSTED will change this.

* I realise there are a lot of inverted commas in this post. They are used deliberately.

Monday, 17 February 2014

The Impact of the Pedagogy Police

This post is written as a direct result of an argument over the weekend, caused by this blog by Joe Kirby. In it Joe takes issue with a couple of books and pulls them up on the fact that their work is not based in 'researched reality', but in their own personal experiences. Personally I thought it was a fairly innocuous but well considered and argued blog. I did not anticipate the twitter storm over it.

The term 'pedagogy police' was used as a derogative term towards blogs like Joe's by Ian Gilbert in the ensuing argument over his post. I think the pedagogy police are absolutely vital, and I will hopefully show how they have changed debate and driven massive changes in education in this country.

Who are the pedagogy police? I don't want to miss anyone out, or label people who don't want to be but in my experience (i.e. those who have directly impacted and improved my classroom practice): Harry Webb, redorgreenpen, Kirby, Old Andrew, Tom Bennett, Prof Coe, all those teach first bloggers too numerous to name but you know who I mean, some blogs that appeared once and then disappeared, anyone really, who has challenged orthodoxy in education.

"In Marxist philosophy, the term Cultural Hegemony describes the domination of a culturally diverse society by the ruling class, who manipulate the culture of the society — the beliefs,explanationsperceptionsvalues, and mores — so that their ruling-class worldview becomes the worldview that is imposed and accepted as the cultural norm; as the universally valid dominant ideology that justifies the social, political, and economic status quo as natural, inevitable, perpetual and beneficial for everyone, rather than as artificial social constructs that benefit only the ruling class." - wikipedia entry for "Cultural Hegemony"

The pedagogy police (as far as I can make out, hereafter PP to save valuable time as I am not on half-term) are a collection of bloggers, academics and authors who have challenged the status quo in education. They have said things like: 'lesson observations do not raise standards,' 'learning styles are bollocks,' 'working in groups is NOT the best way to educate kids,' 'direct instruction from teachers is a far more effective teaching strategy than discovery learning' etc etc. The impact has been immense and is slowly challenging the hegemonic structures our education system rests on. They are partly the reason I can say to my head: "I sit them in rows because it is a far more effective position for learning" and she cannot argue with me.

What has been the impact? Obviously it cannot be said to be totally down to the PP, but lets name some changes that have come in areas of their recent interventions: 1. OFSTED issuing guidelines that there is not a preferred style of teaching and learning. 2. SLT's all around the country scrabbling to associate themselves with education research (see BELMAS SLT teach meet)  3. The huge increase in confidence given to battered, experienced teachers who have been told for years their lessons were old-fashioned, ineffective and inadequate. 4. The challenging and destruction of ideas such as VAK/learning styles/restorative justice in schools. 5. The (partial, unfortunately) reigning in of certain individuals who have made a career out of spouting (for want of a better word) nonsense. 6. The return of pedagogy to real-life teachers. 7. The possible ending of individual lesson observation gradings by OFSTED. 8. The response to this from seasoned and excellent heads/SLT-types who have read, considered and implemented changes. 

There are more, but these main ones spring to mind.

Democratic society rests on having a free press, freedom of expression and freedom of speech in parliament. Why? To effectively scrutinise policy and ensure no massive mistakes are made. If this functions properly then everyone is called to account. Prior to the PP raising their heads, educational debate was generally asinine, stagnant and pointless. To an extent it still is. How many of us today listen to our SLT's bang on about what OFSTED want and what this consultant or other tells us we need to do? In my view the PP effectively scrutinise publications and ideas in education. They generally do it from a foundation grounded in academic research. It is hard to argue with this approach and the sneering about Kirby's blog being 'unacademic' and 'badly researched' was low in the extreme. As a former academic myself I had to defend absolutely everything I produced and published. When I gained my PhD I had to defend my work during a two hour grilling by the undisputed world expert in my field. As a result I was charged with making a few corrections, but generally because my work was well researched and grounded in factual evidence (archival sources mainly for those who are not asleep by now) these corrections were minor. The reason for this was my thesis was highly trailed in a number of papers I gave to conferences and seminars at university during which it was demolished and rebuild, often on stronger foundations.

Why is this relevant? Well in my view, in education all that glitters is considered to be gold. Ideas are taken, adopted by someone, taken further and before you know it people (like me) have to mark work in either green (for growth) or pink (for tickled pink), with absolutely no real evidence this improves marking at all. We are seeing it at the moment with iPads, and the scramble to adopt 1:1 devices, despite there being zero evidence they actually raise standards and/or challenge pupils to take their learning further (see OFSTED report for the ESSA academy, Bolton). How many of us have had Ros Wilson training, only to be told two years later the approach was nonsense and didn't help writing at all? Brain gym? Wake-up shake-up activities during lessons to refresh minds? Finger stretching? (you will notice these are all primary school things, if you do not understand ask a primary teacher or google for a fuller picture, I have to use examples that I have experienced)

It is only in a climate without scrutiny that idiotic ideas get adopted and implemented. It is especially pertinent in education, which takes up a massive chunk of our public spending every year. This is our money that gets thrown away and not only that, but our children (my own included) who ultimately suffer from these follies.

Do I think things will change? No. Arguments such as those caused at the weekend are inevitable. Ultimately, many people owe their careers to the promotion of ideas in the climate I describe above. People have got to positions of power, only to find the rug has been pulled from under them. Their defence? Plenty of people agree with me and have tried it and it works. Err sorry, thats great for them, but as a general approach its not going to work for everyone. 

Academia, generally, does not help either. The mainstream academic community is populated by people who peer review articles written by their mates and/or publish them in conjunction with them or in their own journals. This promotes an inward looking, nerdish culture, where people call conferences and found journals on things such as 'network theory' (look it up, very big in sociology in 2000-2001 until it was horrifically and ruthlessly destroyed). As a panacea for the problem we need to look elsewhere.

Who do we need to look to? Teachers. And that is the main strength of the pedagogy police. We are the people who matter because we do it every day. We see these ideas come and go and have zero/detrimental impact. We have the right to use our experiences to challenge the hegemony of the educational establishment. There is further to go, but a few bruised egos and a few childish twitter spats, shouldn't stop this happening. 

Vive la revolution

Wednesday, 1 January 2014


4 years ago I had a what I can only call a mental breakdown. I was in Morrisons trying to work out what the cheapest option was for buying washing up liquid. I cannot remember what happened exactly, but I ended up in a heap sobbing on the floor. A member of staff helped me up and I ran out of the store, got in the car and drove home.

Two days later I went to the doctors and told her "I think I'm having a breakdown." When she found out my profession she told me the following: 1. If you ever need to go off, just self certify for 5 days and I will sign a note at the end of that time if you need it. 2. Don't go into work until you feel like you are ready. 3. Try to get some exercise. 4. Take these citalopram. That was it, a seemingly standard response.

At the time I had been working in a school in special measures on a (assumed) long-term supply placement. The behaviour of the kids was appalling, but that of the staff was worse. No one knew what they were doing and no one checked the behaviour of the children at all. One teacher felt the answer to all her problems was to display her enhanced breasts as often (and inappropriately) as possible. (n.b. no I didn't) SLT were a farce and morale was low. Even when I tried staying after work to catch up, I got kicked out at 5 because the cleaners wanted to lock up. Nobody stayed after that time. I left after two weeks, telling the supply agency that I couldn't work in such a farcical environment. It was the day after leaving that the breakdown incident occurred.

Coincidentally I didn't get offered work for a couple of days, which allowed for the doctors appointment, then I got the call to go into a school for an afternoon. I said I'd do it, then when I got in the car I just burst into tears and couldn't do it. I felt something had broken inside, my ability to knuckle down and fight through difficulty has been exhausted and I didn't think it was coming back.

I referred myself for CBT and did it, slowly things got back to normal. By September I was back in school working full time as an NQT in a year 6 class. Once again things started to go wrong, my headteacher was a bully, the SLT were incompetent and I wasn't getting the support I needed (or my NQT time). Eventually we filed a bullying and harassment case against the head and she ended up getting the boot, but in the meantime I didn't have my contract renewed.  I ended up on fluoxetine for 9 months which continued in my current job. I stopped them myself when I realised I didn't need them, despite having the most challenging class of my short career. My resilience had returned, all I needed was time and support.

I openly talk about my experiences with other staff members, in doing so I am shocked at the amount of them that are on anti-depressants/anti-panic attack medication. Most say they take these pills because of the pressure of observations and/or behaviour issues. This is unacceptable and avoidable. I am thankful I was able to take time out from teaching because I was only doing supply, if I was in a full time job I might have left teaching for good.

I wonder how often this happens. Others on twitter have told me they have left full-time teaching because of precisely this pressure. Someone blogged that schools were the only workplace where employees crying was commonplace and happening on a daily basis. This is wrong and needs to change. It is not normal to be taking these happy pills on a regular basis.

If anything has come from this it is that I know when I am reaching my limit. Here is some practical advice.

1. If you feel you are are working too hard, leave everything at work and just go home as soon as you can.

2. If you have had a challenging day, tell someone else about it who understands, preferably another teacher or TA, anyone who understands.

3. Cut down your planning time to an absolute minimum. It is pointless planning lessons for hours and hours. If you do this you will be too tired to deliver it properly. Your time with your class is where you need to spend your time and energy.

4. Buy a punchbag. It will help. This is a good one:

5. Don't work through your lunchtime. You need this time to rest.

6. Take one whole evening off work a week. I recommend Friday. Again, you need this time to rest.

7. Don't obsess about observations. Carefully set your performance targets (as far as you can) at the start of the year. A well-know educational blogger posted a picture of signposts with one leading to outstanding and the other leading to somewhere else (inferred another school/career). This attitude of SLT stinks and promotes pressure. Take control of your performance management. Only have one target directly related to observations and make sure it is something that cannot be quantified in OFSTED-grading terms. Think things like: verbal feedback, questioning, relationships, rather than getting 3/3 good ratings or improving your marking.

8. Do something at school that is not academically related - run a school sport team, do an ICT club, art, whatever. Everyone has a skill that they enjoy transmitting to kids, sometimes your teaching content is dry and boring, this keeps it fresh.

9. If something goes wrong - and you will know when this is - DO NOT GO INTO WORK UNTIL YOU HAVE SORTED IT OUT. If you go back too soon you risk a full-blown breakdown episode you may not recover from. Doctors understand and schools cannot sack you if you are legitimately ill.

10. If you cannot do the above because you feel you are under too much pressure then you need to move schools. Not every workplace is the same. Find one that values you.

11. In times of crisis listen to this at full volume:

Your brain is delicate. Even the most confident people are only a few steps from meltdown. Get to know your limits and protect yourself from disaster. If something seriously goes, it is a long, long road back. May people are leaving teaching because of this, make sure you are not one of them.