What did OFSTED teach me?

When I started teaching, back in 2000, OFSTED was rarely mentioned. As a trainee teacher, I was aware of teacher standards and observation grades as it was part of my assessment. We had essays on the SEN code of practice and were regularly assessed on our subject knowledge, but nothing specific on OFSTED.

In my first teaching job, as an NQT, I was observed a few times for the forms for my induction. Training was generally focused around new technology or, in department, on exam specifications and developing schemes of work. OFSTED was in the background (They might visit), but were barely mentioned.

About 7 or 8 years ago that started to change. There were occasional INSET sessions about preparing for OFSTED, a particular lesson structure was suggested as something that OFSTED wanted. But still, most of the time, they were barely mentioned.

The most dramatic change happened in the past 5 years or so. Suddenly OFSTED was mentioned regularly – in lesson observations, in INSET, in staff meetings. We became bombarded with information regarding OFSTED and what they wanted. There was a, not so subtle, shift from teaching to the best of your ability, challenging and stretching the pupils to being a ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ teacher. Everything shifted. Suddenly it was not about what the pupils needed, or what you as a teacher needed, it was all about what OFSTED wanted.

OFSTED became a big stick, which in many schools has stilted the focus on teaching and learning. You must all have x, y and z in your lesson, your lesson plan should look like this, hour after hour of INSET on lesson grading. Observations being about judging teachers and giving them a number, rather than being a discussion about their teaching and what each party could learn. (One teacher told me that, after being observed by SMT and given a ‘Good’, she asked which member of SMT she could observe teaching an ‘Outstanding’ lesson – the response? No one!).

The school year for many has become a round of learning walks, graded observations, book checks, mocksteds. Boxes being ticked, reams of paperwork being completed. This can lead to fear: fear of innovation in case it fails, fear of teaching the way you know works because OFSTED might not like it, fear of allowing staff to use their judgement. The end result is often all teachers being treated as though they were incompetent or lazy, rather than the occasional teacher who actually is. If Michael Wilshaw wants to know why so many teachers leave it is this (and schools with poor SMT who don’t support staff with behaviour).

After years of dodging the OFSTED bullet, I was visited a few years ago. It was brief, I got little feedback and the process had no impact on improving my future teaching. I suspect that, for most teachers and most schools, improvement is despite OFSTED rather than because of them. It makes me sad, because, alongside this bloody minded focus on OFSTED, there has been a real change in teaching – the joy is being sucked out of it. Teaching is becoming more and more about targets, data, results and paperwork rather than the joy and excitement of learning. If you want excellent teachers, let them teach, trust them as educated professionals. And if OFSTED visit they will see what they should have been looking for all along – hardworking teachers teaching well and pupils learning.

So, what did OFSTED teach me?

  • Fearing OFSTED is an unhealthy waste of time. 12 years, 195 days a year, I worked as a teacher, that is 2340 days. One OFSTED inspection in all that time which lasted 2 days – that is 0.085% of my teaching career to date. Now obviously, OFSTED did not spend those two days with me, they actually spent 30 minutes. So, 5 possible teaching hours a day for 2340 days is 11700 hours – a massive total of 0.004% of my teaching time. To get worked up over something which takes up so minimal amount of your actual teaching time is pointless, akin to worrying and attending training to deal with a wasp in your classroom.
  • SMTs interpretation of OFSTED guidance is not always accurate. OFSTED is about schools rather than individual teachers, and as such, there is a lot of pressure on SMT and particularly the Head. It is hardly surprising that this pressure can turn into an almost obsessive focus, skewing what should be the core focus of the school and teaching. Heads worry, so they often pass this down to their staff, and in their panic they interpret and misinterpret what the OFSTED documents ask for. This is never more true than when they are applying gradings to lessons. Comments on twitter like this:
    TeacherToolkit (@TeacherToolkit)
    I received an email last night from a teacher; informing me that their line-manger expected to see progress within 10 mins in a Food lesson!

    Teachers being told that a single mistake will lead to an inadequate grading and capability. The problem here is not OFSTED, but SMT’s misinterpretation and using it as a big stick.

  • Beware consultants selling fear. I have always had an issue with consultants, especially those who work for OFSTED, don’t teach and have a side line as a consultant. Realistically, it is not in their interest to say to a school ‘Just do what you’re doing, there is nothing specific OFSTED is looking for’, they would do themselves out of a lucrative job (unless they are doing this free out of the goodness of their heart). If you pay for someone to deliver INSET, you expect them to deliver something, a checklist or key messages – it doesn’t follow that, just because you pay them, they are any good. I have been told about a recent INSET with an ‘OFSTED consultant’ telling staff that they would be fools not to have a lesson plan (despite this line from the School Inspection Handbook ‘Inspectors will not expect teachers to prepare lesson plans for the inspection.’), that they must show progress in the lesson observation and differentiation for each pupil, that they need an ‘OFSTED file’ containing student data and seating plans. My particular favourite was that if a single child is late to your lesson it is a) your fault for not engaging them (how can you engage them if they are not there?) b) lateness is the teacher’s issue (not SMT, whole school or the pupil themselves?) and c) if that happens your lesson is inadequate.
  • Luck has a lot to do with it. Any observation, and OFSTED in particular, is a snapshot – one tiny moment in time (0.05% of a school year, if you are observed for about 30 minutes). That observation is subject to a range of influences: is it last thing on a windy Wednesday with 11v27 after their half day at college? Has a giant wasp invaded your class room? Is the start or end of term or the school year? Have you been up all night with a sick relative? You do your best, but sometimes in teaching things don’t go the way you want. One observation does not define you as a person or your teaching – we all know those who are excellent but crumble under the pressure of being observed. Equally, I’m sure we all know those who are half-arsed teachers the bulk of the time but can pull a ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ to of the bag when being observed. The time I was observed by OFSTED, with a Y10 English group, in the first 3 weeks of a new school year, I was lucky. My lesson was pretty much what I would have normally done, the luck was: that I had taught most of the class for the previous year, and in some cases two years (pity those teachers seeing groups for the first or second time), and that two of the boys decided to have a detailed discussion about the character of Mr Darcy in response to my prompt. I was told the lesson was ‘Outstanding’ but I know that it just happened to be one of those days when all my ducks were in a row, I could have been faced with stony silence and a swift shift to a written task.

OFSTED has become an all encompassing focus in many schools, the danger is that it, and the way that schools interpret its advice, will continue to have a negative effect on teaching. Schools and teachers need to choose whether to allow this to happen.

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What did my first job teach me?

As any teacher will tell you, your PGCE (or other training route) is only the start of you learning to be a teacher. Most trainee teachers heave a huge sigh of relief at finishing their course and securing their first job – and rightly so, but the way ahead is steep and difficult. I would be lying if I didn’t say that your first teaching job makes your PGCE seem, relatively, easy.

I attended three interviews before I secured my first job. It was in an 11-16 school in my home county of Somerset, a rural school, totally different from the inner city I trained in. I was so pleased to be offered the job I almost cried – most unlike me. Then it was back to finish the course and graduate.

September 2001 arrived and I started my first term as an English teacher and form tutor. Luckily, I had a Year 7 tutor group who were as nervous and wide eyed as I was, which meant that, for the first day I didn’t really have time to worry. My timetable was a mixture of groups including Year 10 and Year 11 GCSE groups, some ‘nice’ and some ‘challenging’. Having this mix is important. Sometimes, new teachers are kept away from exam groups and difficult classes – this isn’t helpful as they have to learn to teach these groups at some point. All it does is put more pressure on those who end up with large numbers of exam/difficult groups and creates a situation where these groups are taught by a select few due to the fear of a dip in results.

The department was small, a head of department who started at the same time as me, three part timers and two NQTs. There were filing cabinets full of ‘resources’, many of them printed on Banda machines (one to Google if you have never heard of it) and newspaper articles from the early 80s. Schemes of work were almost non-existent. This was a blessing and a curse as it forced me to produce my own resources and schemes – tough work but I believe it set me up for my teaching career. My planning and lesson delivery improved (to see the gaping chasm between these two read @tstarkey1212‘s blog post on planning).

Being part of a small department, and a small school meant that I got the opportunity to take on extra responsibility. This included being the first in the department to get an interactive whiteboard in my second year. A classroom was built from a section of corridor and part of a toilet block (I kid you not) and the board was installed. As is often the case, it didn’t occur to anyone that I might actually need a traditional board as well – especially with a relatively new, untried piece of equipment (this was eventually sorted out). I had to teach myself how to use the board and its software, as well as having back up lessons for when it broke down. I learnt to wing it, when necessary, and rely on my subject knowledge and my teaching ability.

I eventually moved to another school, for promotion, after three years and was genuinely sad to leave.

So, what did my first job teach me?

  • There is no substitute for doing it yourself. Although there was support and guidance, most of the schemes I taught were created by me. This made me a much better teacher and improved my subject knowledge. I am all for sharing resources, but I think there is a danger of going too far, with whole schemes produced on powerpoint, lesson by lesson. Teachers need to make the lesson their own and the danger with this is that they don’t. I have observed a lesson power point, which I had produced and shared, being taught by someone who thought all they had to do was show the slides to their class – they hadn’t even read the text fully – needless to say, the lesson was a disaster. Yes it takes longer to create new resources or tweak existing ones, but that is what a good teacher does.
  • ‘Bad’ groups have sometimes been short changed. My first GCSE group was one which was a terrifying prospect. Year 11, lots of SEN, challenging behaviour – you know the type. I was given them, I suspect, because if I didn’t manage to get results out of them it wasn’t the end of the world. The class had had three teachers in Year 10, one of whom had walked out mid-lesson never to return. When I looked at their ‘coursework’ I was horrified – none of it was acceptable and mostly there were just a series of posters made after watching films. The group had been failed – by their teachers and by the previous head of department. Over the course of a year we worked hard to complete the missing work and prepare for the exam. It was not plain sailing. I had to convince the group that I was going to stay and that they were capable of GCSE work. There were tantrums and upturned tables (a pupil, not me), but eventually it was done – all but one achieved a pass, and two got a C grade. Those C grades mean the world to me as I know just how hard the pupils worked for them. From that point on, I was careful not to judge a class by their data and reputation and knew the importance of high expectations.
  • Sometimes you have to go with your instincts. The more observant of you will have noticed that my first teaching position coincided with a tragic time in world history, 9/11. My new Year 8 class were doing a scheme of work on the media. We had covered the difference between a tabloid and a broadsheet, looked at the layout of a front page and the questions an article aims to answer. Homework was to bring in a tabloid or a broadsheet newspaper for analysis in the next lesson. I went home that night to see the news full of the horrible events in New York. The next day, I met my Year 8 class again – almost every child had brought in a newspaper, some had brought in two. At the start of the lesson I had had a vague plan of getting the group to write a newspaper article on a completely unrelated topic, or to pull out the textbooks. However, the group wanted to explore the front pages, naturally they were shocked and frightened by what had happened but also curious. Nervously, I decided to go ahead with the planned lesson. We looked at the front pages and the way the headlines were written, the choice of images and the difference between the tabloid and broadsheet coverage. The class were brilliant – fantastic, probing questions; thoughtful comments and a solid understanding of how newspapers cover a major international event. When I spoke to other members of the department about the lesson some were shocked and suggested that parents would complain – not a single one did. It was a tough lesson emotionally for all of us, but I’m glad I went with my instinct.
  • Life sometimes gets in the way. The danger with teaching is that it can be all encompassing. However, sometimes you need to prioritise ‘real’ life: your family and friends. During my first teaching position, this was reinforced by three events – my father having a (thankfully non-fatal) heart attack, my grandmother dying while I was on an overnight school trip and a friend being shot and killed in the local pub. What I learnt from these three incidents was that you need to let someone in school know (however private a person you are), and that ‘good enough’ teaching, whether it be use of worksheets, textbooks or whatever, is good enough until you are in a position to get back to your normal standard of teaching. No one, will criticise or blame you (and if they do then, frankly it is not a school you want to work in) if your lessons are less than brilliant and the books not marked for a while. Concentrate on what is important and let HoDs and SLT deal with the rest, after all, that is what they are paid extra for.
  • School politics can be bizarre. Schools can be a hotbed for all sorts of odd behaviour – you probably have all kinds of stories (real and exaggerated) from your own school days. My first job reinforced that: the ‘reserved’ seats in the staffroom, mugs and the all too common rivalry between the Maths, Science and English departments. However, I also experienced the minefield that can be departmental politics. My new HoD was in the unenviable position of having to work with his predecessor, a lady nearing retirement who had given up the head of department job to teach part time (not entirely voluntarily, I suspect). They did not see eye to eye. She wanted to hoard the old resources (Banda sheets and all, many of which hadn’t been touched for years) and was reluctant to make any changes to ‘the way things have always been done’, even when a change was desperately needed. Pupils had been set in Year 7 and then remained in the same class throughout their school career, she never saw the problems this caused in the lower groups as she only taught the top ones. In departmental meetings, she was vocally against any suggestions that were not her own – it was clear that she had become totally disillusioned with teaching and did not enjoy what she did. Eventually she made the decision to resign (to the relief of the rest of the department, who were sick of the tension) and left after giving a speech to the whole staff about the awful state of education and that children should not have to attend school after 14 years of age. My advice, if you find yourself caught in a similarly bizarre situation, observe, listen but keep your own counsel (in public at least).

Your first teaching job, good or bad, is something that helps shape you as a teacher. It will be hard (realistically it should be) and it may convince some that teaching is not for them, but for those who stay in the job it is unforgettable.

What did teacher training teach me?

Reflection is a key tool in any teacher’s arsenal, so with that in mind, I am going to write a series of posts reflecting on the lessons I have learnt from different parts of my teaching career. There seems no better place to start than the start of my teaching career.

I came to teaching slightly later than many do, I had left university 7 years previously and worked in a variety of jobs including finance, journalism and the military. However, in 2000 I decided to stop resisting the career that everyone I knew told me I should follow.

I applied and was accepted on a PGCE course through a SCITT in Birmingham. SCITT stands for School Centred Initial Teacher Training – this was a PGCE course validated by the Open University but based in a consortium of schools rather than a university. The course appealed to me as I would be based in schools for the bulk of my training, with one day a week of lectures and twilight sessions.

In some ways, this was a real trial by fire. We were a small group of trainees, which inevitably got smaller as the course progressed, based in some of the toughest schools in Handsworth. We would spend our time in two different schools – my two were a mixed comprehensive and a non-selective girls’ school. We were encouraged to teach before our ‘official’ placement, and expected to continue teaching afterwards, each lesson having a 2 page A4 triplicate lesson plan – to be completed several days in advance.

I had two mentors. One was bubbly, disorganised and totally supportive. She encouraged me to teach Chaucer to Year 10 and experiment with my teaching. I remember attending a parents’ evening with her. No appointments, a large proportion of non-English speakers and few of the pupils attending – it was chaos, I had no idea who anyone was and I suspect she didn’t either! My other mentor was almost the polar opposite. He was a stickler for detail, not particularly supportive and used to lock away every item of stationery – even the board pen and eraser. However, I learnt a lot from both of them.

I planned and taught lessons at all Key Stages, some went well, others were disastrous. I wrote essays, lesson plans and created schemes of work. I attended staff meetings and parents’ evenings. It was a hard slog, weekends and holidays were spent working, I barely saw my partner but eventually, finally, I passed.

So, what did my training teach me? Beyond the basics…

  • The first time a pupil swears at you is a big shock. In my first placement I had a very difficult Y9 class (why do they always seem to be Y9?). They were tough and reluctant to complete any tasks I set – I had to grit my teeth to build up the courage to come out from behind the desk. Then one of the little lovelies decided to swear at me. It was like a punch to the gut – not because the words offended me, or my feelings were hurt, but because I wasn’t sure what to do. Your normal reaction may be to swear back, leave the room, thump them – none of which you are allowed to do! I stood there like a goldfish opening and closing my mouth. However, the next time it happened the spell was broken, I knew what to do and was (relatively) calm.
  • Always check your resources. Towards the end of my third placement, with a sense of demob excitement in the air and a plan to show a video, I failed to check my resources carefully enough. For part of a scheme on satire, I planned to show an episode of The Simpsons. I had watched it before so all should be fine – but it wasn’t. I had chosen what is now etched into my mind as the ‘bastard’ episode – where Homer meets his illegitimate brother and Bart says ‘bastard’ about a million times. I had to brazen it out or it would have been all too obvious that I had cocked up. I still shudder.
  • Good behaviour needs good managers. Beyond the classroom level, pupils behaviour needs a strong and active SLT. I was based in two very different schools, both challenging but one SLT were in the corridors, they taught and the pupils knew where the line was drawn. The other school had two locked doors between SLT and the rest of the school and they were rarely seen – unsurprisingly, behaviour was much worse.
  • Take time to wind down. This is something that easily gets forgotten, but it is essential for your mental health. Every Friday we would meet up for a drink to discuss the triumphs and disasters of the week. Once a month we met up in a Chinese restaurant and ate and drank ourselves silly – it really helped.
  • Some training is rubbish. Not every ‘expert’ gives useful advice. I had to sit through ICT ‘training’ which started with how to switch on a computer. I also remember a session on behaviour where it was obvious that the teacher had not been in the classroom for years, and when he had been, it was in a selective grammar – totally unlike the schools most of us had been placed in. Take it with a pinch of salt and move on.

Teaching is a tough job and teacher training needs to be tough to prepare you. But it is worth it!

Summary of SOLO Posts

As one of the searches that seems to bring people to my site is for SOLO taxonomy, here is a post which provides links to each of the posts I have written about SOLO. I am not saying that SOLO is a magic bullet or universal panacea, however, my research suggests that it may have a positive impact.

My advice, for what it’s worth, is: read about it, try it for yourself if you want to and make up your own mind whether it is useful for you and your students.

MA Research Project

All of these posts are based on my final MA dissertation, as a result they tend to be more theoretical.

Teaching with SOLO

These posts are about my own experiences using SOLO in lessons.

If you have any questions, feel free to comment and I’ll do my best to answer.

2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,600 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Looking back, looking forward

Over the past week on Twitter #nurture1314 has featured strongly in my timeline. It has been really interesting reading all the fantastic things people have accomplished over the past year and their plans for 2014.

I thought it would be a nice way to finish the year to write my own list of highlights and hopes, although I wasn’t quite able to come up with 13 highlights.

My Highlights.

  1. Graduating with my MA (Distinction) in Education from Edge Hill University. This is undoubtably one of the things that I am most proud of. It was very hard work, especially persevering over several years part time. Distance learning certainly has its benefits but it can leave you feeling quite isolated – Twitter was great for linking me to other teachers and academics. DSCF0381
  2. Learning differential and inferential statistics. One of the challenges I faced when completing my final assignment was the analysis of my data. I had a basic knowledge of statistics but needed to get to grips with chi square and statistical significance. The internet and my tutor came to the rescue, especially the Khan Academy videos. It also helped prove once and for all that I can ‘do’ maths, it is just a matter of learning how.
  3. Gaining a detailed understanding of the SOLO taxonomy, both as a teacher and as a learner. I had been teaching and experimenting with SOLO techniques for about a year and had found them useful, not a magic bullet but certainly something worth exploring in greater detail. However, it was when I applied SOLO to my own studies that it really came into its own. One of the sections of my assignment that I found particularly tricky was the literature review – the difficulty of bringing together all my reading into a coherent story. I had lots of ideas and quotations but it was only when I looked at this stage as being the SOLO multistructural level that it clicked – I needed to make detailed links between the texts and ideas (relational) before I could fully understand the topic. Once I had grouped my ideas it was much easier to identify a unifying thread. Sections which just wouldn’t fit often needed more information – reinforcing the idea of SOLO as a series of cycles rather than a linear or hierarchical model.
  4. Settling into a new country. Although Ireland isn’t exactly a million miles away from the UK, there are a number of differences between the two countries. The tax, medical and education systems are all slightly different and it can be tricky to get your head round everything.
  5. Taking lots of photos and, hopefully, improving my skills as a photographer. This summer I focused on taking landscapes and nature pictures, they are great to look back at, especially when the weather is awful. DSCF0299
  6. Learning to sew. This was something I had wanted to do for some time, partly because I had been shockingly awful at it when I was at school. I signed up for a course of lessons in Dublin city centre with ‘When Poppy Met Daisy’ and learnt the basics, making a skirt. For Christmas i made stockings to go under the tree. I am not particularly good yet, but hopefully I will improve over the next year.
  7. Improving my fitness – this is something I need to work on, but I was certainly more active this year.
  8. Continuing my blog – I have now had nearly 10k views and have had visitors from all over the world, something which never ceases to amaze me.
  9. Deciding to apply to study for a PhD. I have thought about further study for years, but it has only been a pipe dream up to now. Taking a break from secondary teaching has given me the chance to take steps towards making this a reality. I have now identified a topic and have been preparing my proposal.
  10. Getting a reading card for the National Library of Ireland and studying in its beautiful domed reading room.
  11. Ate out at some great restaurants – a little thing, but something that I hadn’t really done for years.

My Hopes

  1. Apply for my PhD in English. I am hoping to be able to study full time which will be a huge luxury. I also hope to be able to do some teaching at university level. It has been great fun exploring the initial literature and bouncing ideas around. However, I do need to finalise my proposal and submit it.
  2. Set up a new blog for my PhD studies to explore ideas and hopefully continue to use the internet to make academic links.
  3. Continue blogging on educational topics, although I am not teaching at the moment I see myself working in education at some level in the future.
  4. To read lots of books for pleasure – I have been rather disappointed with my reading in 2013 as most of it has been study related, so this year I want to make a real effort to read more for fun.
  5. To complete a course in Corpus Linguistics. I have signed up for a MOOC in Corpus Linguistics, from University of Lancaster, to help prepare me for my PhD. The 8 week course sounds really interesting and gives me a chance to  use some of the software as well as read more about the topic.
  6. To make an item of clothing from scratch that is actually wearable. This is going to be a big challenge and will take some practice, but I would love to be able to make the occasional item of clothing.
  7. To really work on my fitness. I have an existing gym membership but my visits have been rather sporadic, so I want to make much better use of it.
  8. I want to take more photos, but especially I want to try to take some star photos.
  9. I’d like to travel a little more and visit some new places.
  10. Eat more healthy food, especially more vegetables.
  11. To learn how to use Excel more effectively, especially the statistical packages.
  12. To be more selective over what I watch on TV.
  13. To go to the cinema more often. I love watching films and don’t go to the cinema nearly enough.
  14. To spend more time with those I love.

The Problem With Education…

In January, I wrote this post looking at the language applied to education, in particular by the media and the Government. I hoped that the negative language which seemed all pervasive in 2012 would not feature so heavily in 2013 – unfortunately, as we move through the final quarter of 2013, that does not seem to have been the case.

Crisis

Education in the UK seems to be in crisis – it’s a profession which seems to be in constant conflict with the Department for Education, sections of the media and, at times, with itself. This is a toxic situation which cannot continue without causing damage to all involved, in particular the children we teach. Why has the education sector come to this? Is there anything that can be done?

It’s Not Fair

Before we look at what may be at the root of the problem, I think it is important to make a key point about fairness. All may be fair in love and war but it certainly isn’t in education. Harsh it may be, but the brutal truth is that achieving ‘fairness’ for all pupils is a fantasy. The playing field will never be level.

This hit me forcefully when I was watching ‘Harrow: A Very British School’ on Sky 1. I find the program fascinating, a real insight into how a top private school functions – far distant from my own comprehensive school and the schools I have taught at. The grounds, the traditions, the facilities – it looks wonderful, and I am sure it is. What struck me, was the vast differences between the experiences of the Harrow boys at West Acre and some of the children I have encountered in my career.

Obviously, the best facilities that money can buy are part of the disparity, however, it was the little things that really struck me. Having a clean uniform ready for you, eating good quality food three times a day, having somewhere quiet to work, having someone checking that you are doing your homework, having a computer for your personal use – all of those little things that make a big difference to a child and their performance. The Harrow boys (as well as the majority of our  school children)  also don’t have to: care for siblings or parents, work before or after school, travel long distances to get to school, live with parents who are addicts etc. So, realistically, the children for whom these are everyday occurrences are never going to have a similar school experience.

It isn’t fair. Those who are most socially and economically deprived, those who are born with learning difficulties, those who are refugees from war torn countries (and a hundred other misfortunes), will not have the same opportunities as those who do not have these disadvantages. While we can do our best to mitigate against these disadvantages, they exist and we have to accept that, unfortunately, life isn’t fair.

What is Education For?

At the heart of the problem with education lies this question – what is the purpose of education? It seems a straightforward question at first, and I’m sure that most people will come up with a list of purposes which may include: qualifications, becoming a well rounded individual, becoming a useful and productive member of society etc. However, listening to the media and the DfE, the purpose does not seem to be clear:

  • Exams are too easy
  • Children are not achieving good enough exam results
  • Qualifications should reflect the needs of employers
  • Qualifications should enable the ranking of children and schools
  • A robust national curriculum is needed to ensure standards
  • Not all schools need to comply with the national curriculum
  • Teachers are professionals
  • Teachers don’t need to be qualified

the list goes on – contradiction after contradiction.

What Can be Done?

Before making any more statements, or changing any more policies, the Government needs to decide what the purpose of education, and in particular its examination system, is.

If it is important that, where at all possible,  all children should achieve a range of solid qualifications, then the examination system has to make this a possibility. Qualifications should be criterion referenced against a specific and public set of criteria so everyone knows that x grade means a child can do y at z level. If this is the purpose of education in the UK, then there should not be grade quotas or manipulation of results to avoid perceived grade inflation. Any child who achieves the specific criteria gets the grade.

If examinations are about ranking children (obviously taking into account that this will never be entirely fair, as I have discussed above), there needs to be a number of specific changes to the way children are assessed. Firstly, we would need to do away with the multiple exam boards and variety of qualifications in each subject – there should be only one exam in each subject which all children, from all types of school within the UK, take. How can children and their results be compared when the exams they take are different – for example the continuation of coursework for iGCSE? The nationwide results are then ranked and, perhaps a grade allocated according to norm referencing or some other formula. It may even be possible to combine the two – perhaps a grade and a national rank, or a percentage.

At the moment, however, it is not clear what the purpose is, at least from the Government’s perspective. It seems farcical to say that all schools should achieve a specific level of examination results and then make it impossible for all schools to do so. If you want an education system where all schools are ‘good or better’ then it needs to be possible – which means that the way schools are measured needs to change to reflect this. It is this pressure to achieve the impossible that seems to be at the root of many teachers’ arguments.

If Mr Gove and future Education Secretaries want to make a positive impact on education in this country, they need to think long and hard about what education in the UK is for. Then they can start to change the system for the better.