What will be caught on the primary assessment enquiry line?

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Following a submission on Primary Assessment  I co- authored with @LeadingLearning and @SallyHamsom, Heads’ Roundtable were invited to give oral evidence to the Education Select Committee. We were welcomed by the chair, Neil Carmichael.

Alex Gingall, Juliet Nikalls and Michael Tidd were up first and gave superbly accurate assessment of Assessment by the assessors, as experienced hands on practitioners.

To their credit, the committee members didn’t even draw breath before Russell Hobby (NAHT) and National Association for Primary Education rep John Coe and I were cued. In this session, the focus on the wider system but there were many common themes and highly consistent messages from both panel sessions.

Common threads and responsessnip20161219_38

Attainment measures and Accountability– Using attainment measures in floor targets is a rusty and blunt instrument. HTRT wanted to hammer this home. It is hugely detrimental to schools in deprived areas impacting on recruitment and retention. It measures intake and not effectiveness of schools. The current system does not identify where there is some really excellent leadership and teaching practice, often in the most challenging areas.

Are tests fit for purpose at KS1 and KS2- are tests ok? In essence areas of testing of Ks2 are right but with flaws in structure and content; the reading test in particular for reasons well documented else where. There was a strong message that KS1 tests should be removed. HTRT believe that infant schools should continue to use well designed KS 1 tests as statutory assessments.

What was impact on SEN?  HTRT emphasised the very poor access for children being particularly notable for those with dyslexia. Too little consideration was given in the planning stages with a lack of overall attention to how children with SEN can show progress.

What role should Teacher Assessment have in statutory assessment? There was an understandable lack of understanding of the complexity of the roles of assessment. We urged MPs not to misunderstand the vital role day to day teacher assessment plays in successful teaching and learning; this however has a fundamentally different purpose  to TA in statutory assessment. The role and purpose of Statutory assessment must be made clear. TA must be removed from high stakes accountability. We urged MPs to use comparative judgments for areas not easily tested. They offered sampling as an idea they were further exploring.
Impact of tests on curriculum? MPs got a cross panel view that the curriculum has been very adversely affected. There was a Twitter frenzy when I challenged MPs to hold government accountable for well-being of children, not schools and not adding more freight to our cargo ships. We are already carrying huge loads for social care and health. We acknowledged we do all we can but assessments drive curriculum. We should be trying to find ways to capture what we value ,not just test what is easy to measure.
What is the role of parents in assessment? MPs came back to the parent aspect on several occasions. Again the message from HTRT was that the huge changes in assessment and curriculum was still causing confusion with professionals; how could this possibly be helpful for families. Again, leaders in schools with high deprivation where education is not always seen as high value, swim against the tide as it was exceptionally hard to communicate what individual children had achieved.

I left with a sense that HTRT had voiced and echoed the frustrations and fears of the profession, but that we had contributed constructively from a broad base of experience. We planted some seeds about the system working for children and not vice-versa. It was a privilege to have this platform and I was humbled by the Twitter response.

 

snip20161219_42   @BinksNeateEvans for and on behalf of @HeadsRoundtable

 

 

 

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Leadership for Lane 7 and 8 children ….

Justine Greening will be defined by the plan to use selective schools to improve their poorly performing socially immobile relations, often now called ‘failing schools’.  The proposal seems to be that each multi academy trust will have one selective school and grammar schools take over struggling schools. Good luck with that! 

This is a a divisive strategy that is pitting professionals with different skills sets against eachother. It will not build up trust across the profession and it will take years to prove or disprove it has made an impact on shifting social mobility. It is not a strength based model, neither is it based on specific elements of school improvement that are known to transform outcomes in different sectors and types of schools.  

I am in no way devaluing the success that independent and selective schools may have on enabling ‘Lane 1,2 and 3 children’ to increase their advantageous position on the track. This does not however, mean that those teachers and leaders know how to do the miracles that are required to support children that start education in Lane 7 and 8. It is not that their work is wrong, it is just different.

I would welcome colleagues from selective schools into our school, as I’m sure my neighbouring colleague in the secondary school would. I likewise, would like to understand what elements of Lane 1, 2 and 3 education I could use. But it is ludicrous to think that the extreme ends of the sectors are the same. 

We have established a highly skilled staff team to meet very high levels of need within our community. Over 50% of our children live in the poorest 3% of postcodes for child deprivation in the country. I wonder if Justine Greening and Theresa May really know what that looks like on a day to day basis? 

Children in deprived communities experience huge levels of challenge that remain unseen to the vast majority of the education system. Many of them will live in households with the plague of the 21st century, the toxic trio; substance abuse, mental health issues and domestic abuse. This lethal combination and the many other issues they face  have a profound effect on the way a child’s brain develops and their ability to self regulate. Their experiences, understandably, have a huge impact on their behaviour.  It’s not something you can simply manage with a carrot and stick approach. It requires kid gloves, huge amounts of leadership resilience and bravery, highly individualised approaches and building trust with families and communities so they work with you not run from you. It is about relationships and providing the nurture required to enable fight or flight behaviour to lessen. Much is about about repair and rebuilding. But it is also valuing what these children teach us and respecting their needs. 

Teachers and leaders in theses challenging schools are not looking for quick fixes. We are in it for the long game. The staff team have to use an enormous repertoire of skills and approaches before they even beginning teaching the formal statutory curriculum.  They are the true plate spinners of the profession, spinning so many individual needs to keep the children in the room and caring enough to bounce back when a strategy doesn’t work. 

So before we implement yet another structural solution for social mobility, should we be looking in a different direction? Perhaps we should be looking at those schools who are working successfully in challenging context. Do we have a full understanding of what these schools have to do to get their Lane 7 and 8 children on the track, let alone catching up those who are fortunate enough to have the lead of the inside lane ?  Never mind the solution (for solution read ‘green paper’), make sure we ask the right question. Does leadership in successful schools serving very different communities look the same? Me thinks not. Just a hunch! 

Fix assessment humanely. It’s broke!

There has been plenty written about the flawed assessment system in schools. We know what is wrong with it; plenty of bloggers have this aspect covered. However, perhaps this year has become a tipping point. Head teachers, teachers families and children, who have  made the best out of the chaotic assessment tsunami, know it is broken and needs fixing. So this blog is the ramblings of head teacher making a plea for respite and for thoughtful, humane design.

We are well versed in the need for accountability measures. Public money, children’s life chances, school performance, narrowing the gap are but a few reasons as to why we know it is necessary. Since the the implementation of SATs, test outcomes have consumed the educational and political arena. Surely in its simplest form there is a cyclical flow of accountability which goes some thing like this; 

  • every child has the right to learn well to be the best they can be;
  • quality first teaching and meaningful assessment are the most effective and efficient ways schools can support this; 
  • schools and academies are the current mechanism for delivering this; 
  • make sure they fulfill this function; 
  • every child learns well. 

Ta – dah!

If we could spend as much energy devoted to establishing and agreeing what the precise indicators for future success are, we might then reduce the ridiculous distraction that the current testing furore causes. There are too many debates based on ‘what test’ rather than ‘what is worth measuring’. 

And this is where things get uncomfortable. Any educational professional  worth their mustard knows that the problem is that the ‘indicators for future success’ are not that easy to ‘test’. By future success, I mean for a young person to ‘feel worth’ as an adult. I realise this may be perceived as woolly, particularly by those who have built careers on data crunching. The reality is, we are human beings. Our hopes, wishes and needs are hugely variable, as are the demands placed on us by society, as is the way in which we learn and demonstrate learning. We are entitled to want to achieve different outcomes in adult life, with the recognition that a contribution to our community, whatever that community may be, is expected. This diversity is a good thing!  However, statisticians  and politicians don’t like to take a more holistic view of assessment. I suggest this is because they don’t understand it and didn’t experience it, therefore it cannot be right. It’s dirty and messy. It is four dimensional and there are a multitude of variables that contribute to both good and poor performance. This applies at a school level and for individuals. 

Whilst in the midst of what can only be described as an assessment crisis, we must ensure that the first aiders (often opportunists with a business interest or self promoted edu-egomaniacs) pass on the care of this frail and fragile issue to specialists. Get it out of  the A and E unit.  Politicians are not specialists they are representatives. I don’t in any way subscribe to the ‘politicians should decide what is taught’ argument. It is abundantly clear that the current government believe we should teach what they learned and how they learned.  If we applied this retrospective model to business and technology, we would still be reliant on cheque books and the postman! 

Why are we, as the ‘specialists’ not insistent that the design of a humane accountability framework is commissioned to experts and specialists?  Note these are not staticians or publishers. They shouldn’t be allowed in the building until we have established what could be measured. This would ensure the long term care of our education system.  Let us consider the evidence and research from longitudinal studies that already exist and how this could support the ‘humane’ and meaningful approach the Headteachers Roundtable are promoting. 

I would not be so arrogant as to profess to have the answers but would offer some suggestions for reframing the accountability measures of learning institutes. 

  • What are the non negotiables we value for future success in our society – broad consultation. 
  • Identify the most accurate indicators of this success from experts in each field. Possible indicators may be listening and attention, physical development,vocabulary, engagement, motivation and critical thinking. There will be others. 
  • Spend time designing a humane framework for assessment with people that know how children think learn and behave. 
  • Then and only then design the mechanism for testing or tasking.

In the interim period, rather than muddle the system further, ensure learning institutes clearly state what they believe children should learn and the ways they are TRYING to measure this learning. What is most important is that we contribute to the design debate. After all quite a few of us know a little bit about learning.  We should seize this opportunity to gather momentum and traction and not get distracted with fury. 

 Dear Nicky …..

Nicky MorganSecretary for Getting Education out of a State

28 May 2015

Dear Nicky (Morgan),

I’m using first name terms as you seem to be very familiar with us, the seemingly inexpert educators of our young people. From the start, let me be absolutely clear, I love working with children. They are the future custodians of our planet (and more selfishly you, I and our colleagues have a vested interest in developing children, as they will be our carers when that time comes).

 I’ve always been to school, since I was about 4 years old; trained in lots and worked in even more and have connections with even more. Without wishing to sound arrogant, I feel like I know them quite well. As I’m sure you would prefer to be looked after by an experienced cardiac surgeon if you had ‘ticker problems’, it may serve our country well to listen to the always humble but often maligned experts of education when we think of improving the health of schools.

I’ll keep this relatively short because I’m busy, like you I’m sure. It’s just I’m a tad worried that I’m going to be be dragged off into ‘coasting school prison’. You see the thing is, I’m working pretty damn hard, I don’t mind that, neither am I’m unique in that. Perhaps though this is why I have yet to meet the great lazy group of shirking heads that must be spoiling our schools, coasting along like retired holiday makers. I also really want you to know I work with blisteringly good colleagues. It’d be really sad if we were judged to need invading by the supersonic shinies because the hard data hasn’t seemed to improve enough quickly enough. Will the shiny super heroes do that in record time? I hope they don’t peak too early and spoil the good work we have done building on our in depth knowledge of our context.

Do you and Mr Wilshaw really understand how long it takes to make sustainable changes and cultural shifts in a school? You see it’s not just about sticking children in a new uniform, or changing the school badge, nor is it hanging out staff and school leaders and replacing them with ‘new’ super heads.

What schools require is to feel trusted, to work meaningfully with colleagues and their community. If you think you have a magical corporate formula that can transform all schools rapidly, tell us. Believe it or not, nearly all the people I’ve worked with over the 25 years I’ve been in schools, have a huge sense of professional pride and are quite keen for children to be successful because that makes us feel successful too. Most of us don’t dust off our hands at the end of each academic year gloating that we’ve ‘managed to wreck yet more children’s chances’. I was pondering on whether there is a whole army of people wanting to jump into our shoes to share our worries and the sleepless nights? I haven’t met them or heard about their whereabouts yet. Are they in a secret bunker ready to be unleashed on us when we know what coasting means?

Can you please tell them that school communities are very complex places? I’m not sure I see any reflection of that in the proposed legislation. I’m just wondering what you’d tell them to say to the families who really require sensitive support so that their children come to school every day, or to the children who require a completely adapted curriculum to help them lift their heads, unfold and feel safe, or to the families where their child is the first person that has been able to read for generations? Do you think you’ll be able to get them to quickly build a relationship with the mother we know is suffering domestic abuse so that she trusts the shiny people to help her protect her children. I hope also you will make sure they have the knowledge, skills and understanding to work with children and families where mental health issues are a real barrier to engagement because there isn’t anywhere else for them to go now; we do that too. Oh by the way, just another plug for the corking teachers and staff we have, who use a huge bank of pedagogical approaches to ensure every child does really well in their own way; whether that be managing to speak a sentence, write a story, not punch other children and staff or just to go to the toilet independently. Oh silly me ….. I forgot to mention that they may also need to develop a specialist approach to communication for little people, because at our school, 87% of the children begin their school journey with significant language delays. I don’t think that bit is my fault because I’m not in the labour ward as they deliver. We don’t get our hands on them until they are two or three years old. So maybe the shinies will need to learn about the importance of early child development too. They could perhaps bob along to see the family groups and communication friendly meetings we run free of charge. I may have to charge you for that though because the increase in pension and NI contributions are about to hit our budget quite hard. Sorry but that’s the brave new landscape we are working in. Business is business hey?

So Nicky when you are down the bunker with your new shiny army, ask them please from me, to look carefully at each school and to listen with understanding to heads who with their staff, work their jacksies off. We’ve got quite a lot on at the moment what with curriculum design and that small matter of changes to assessment. It would be great if we could look forward to do the work that makes a difference, not over our shoulder wondering when you are coming to get us.

It may also be worth mentioning that high shoes might be worth avoiding too? Sometimes I have to move pretty quickly to intervene with unhappy families but perhaps the shinies come with their own security? Whilst we are on clothes, make sure they have a good dry cleaning allowance because I find that spit, paint and snot doesn’t always come out in the wash. Sometimes it stays indelibly marked on your soul, especially when you know what lies behind the behaviour. It takes a bit more than a 60 degree wash to get that off. Ah! But perhaps they are camouflaged?

Our school is delightfully welcoming; we are hugely proud of what we do but mostly of our little people. So if you send the shinies to polish our community please be respectful of us, our children and families. Maybe Nicky we misunderstand each other, let’s think outside the box a bit; you come and walk a week in my shoes (all be them now flat out of necessity) and I’ll happily do the same for you. Now wouldn’t that earn you the respect of the frontline staff and it might also help with your training programme for the bunkers? Please do get in touch if your interested.

Kindest resilient regards

Binks (Neate-Evans)

Headteacher

West Earlham Infant and Nursery School

Norwich

PS. Just one more thing, the educational attainment of our children this year will hopefully be the best it has ever been. Did I mention that it has taken me and my loyal colleagues 4 years to get us here? It takes time despite what anyone tells you. Trust us. Nearly all of us are good knowledgeable people and only manage to write things like this in our ‘holidays’.