Start with a plan…
Tim Oates, director of assessment R&D at Cambridge Assessment, was interviewed this week in Schools Week.
He talked of a “solid” Primary curriculum being needed for future GCSE success, that the National Curriculum, published in 2014, was “a list of desirable outcomes of schooling”, to be turned into a “compelling and engaging school curriculum”.
The piece went on to say that “Developing a school curriculum can and should be supported by a variety of processes – spontaneous innovation by teachers, digging out forgotten things that worked brilliantly in the past, sharing practice within and between schools, polishing existing learning activities through lesson study and observation, using paper and digital resources of the highest quality, and working in a context supported by inspection and targets.”
The example that he offered, of a “pen pal” letter scheme between Kidderminster Primary children and elderly residents of local care homes, was, apparently, not offered as something special.
What Tim’s piece did do, for me, was to make me reflect on those things that have been essentially thrown away on the bonfires of successive curricular changes, but more particularly, with the 2014 incarnation and the way in which it was introduced, at the same time as putting schools into a panic over assessment systems and also introducing major SEND changes and examination change.
Curriculum development needs time, quality time, lots of quality thinking time, to get above the minutiae of the written words, to begin to imagine directions of travel. Having been a classroom teacher when the 1987 NC became a reality, subsequent changes through to 2005 were relatively small adjustments to what had gone before. A little minor tinkering with a few topics, either tweaking them up or down a year group, was all that was required. Teachers could use much of what went before and spend some quality time thinking about the alterations needed.
Some schools will have been in a position to address each area of change early, some I visited in the run up to September 2014 had made great strides in development. Others, given their start points, their generic outcomes and locality issues affecting turbulence in staffing and pupil movements, may still be working on plans to fully embed these changes, seen as improvements.
In talking with parents and children from my time as headteacher, it is always made clear that the children enjoyed their learning, through a broad curricular approach, made good progress across the board, succeeded in the (level-based) SATs in each subject and went to Secondary School still hungry to learn, where they continued their progress into successful futures.
Overall strategies supported shorter term thinking, in that while staff, in the July before the academic year, had time given to create an annual plan of learning intentions, this then translated into between ten and fifteen “topics”, which became the vehicles for cross curricular fertilisation, allowing many opportunities for real-life letter writing, instructions, lists, fiction or non-fiction narrative reports, based on their developing “cultural literacy”; they learned their vocabulary in context.
Topics lasted as long as they were purposeful, so might be between one and six weeks. Sometimes they spanned half terms or longer breaks. It meant that a lot was fitted in, opportunities for revisiting earlier skills in a new knowledge context existed, so that rehearsal was also embedded.
As a Governor of a Primary School in a deprived area that has struggled for a settled staff and has now achieved that, a secure development phase can begin in earnest, with potential for clarity in curriculum articulation being maintained over a longer term, across a broader curricular offer. It takes some time.
As a teenager, my best friend was the son of a zoo superintendent, so we had the run of the zoo out of hours. This often meant that we could visit the monkey house, where the grooming behaviours were often on display. This nit-picking served a very useful purpose in monkey hygiene. The care and attention being shown by the adults towards each other and the young also supported the colony cohesion.
The first years of my teaching career saw regular visits from the lady who was nicknamed the nit-nurse. At the first sign of a possible infestation, lines of children could be seen snaking through the school waiting for their inspection. It didn’t seem to have any great impact on regular hygiene, nor did it embed any group awareness, as anyone found with nits or lice might find themselves distanced by others.
A year ago, I was invited to speak at the #LearningFirst conference in Bath.
In reflecting on that event, I have been considering what might be seen as dynamics in education over the time of my teaching career, to begin to understand why we are where we are today.
Being trained in the period just after the Plowden report, and at a time where there was a great need for new teachers, to replace the generation who were pre- or post-war trained and reaching retirement in large numbers, the freedoms to think about learning and teaching were immense. There was still a strong tradition of Direct Instruction, but mixed with less formal approaches, in part because class sizes were large (mine were 38/9 during 1974-79), but also because resources were few and often home-made. If you are making worksheets by hand, these take considerable time. The Banda machine was rationed, so 30+ copies were rare. There was a reliance on teacher voice, or perhaps something on the tape-recorder, a radio broadcast, or again, home-made activities.
In informal sessions, we were working with smaller groups, challenged a la Vygotsky, to embed some new challenge, to be approached collaboratively, with decision making and resourcefulness, so reducing, a little, the demand on immediate teacher response. As the teacher was the only adult in the class, this was an important consideration. Yes, there may be a variety of different activities going on at the same time. It did require some movement between groups to keep everything moving, but it also allowed time for individualised support and hearing readers. There was often significant personalisation of challenge, to accommodate the class range of needs, with those children with specific needs having tasks tailored to their needs. Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLD) was the general term for SEN children. Describing their needs and seeking an appropriate approach was the working methodology. We did not seek to diagnose; that was for other professionals.
This approach persisted, with minor variation, within every school I worked in up to 1997, even through earlier manifestations of the National Curriculum, where there was often a 95% correspondence with prior practice, so, with a minor tweak, it was business as usual. The original NC, introduced in 1987, was at a point in time where the National Writing Project was also being secured, so that, from the earliest days, the English opportunities were created through the lens of the NWP, a process based approach that encouraged children to think like writers. This eventually developed into the two page approach to writing, then the personal organiser, with all writing in one book to bring together many different elements, resulting in nearly 90% of our year six regularly operating at L4+ in reading and writing. Level descriptors were used as the means through which to encourage progress and challenging targets, rather than any focus on the associated numbers.
SATs, introduced from 1991, were not seen as overwhelming, so they did not alter in-school approaches, as outcomes were discussion documents for improvement, rather than sticks with which to beat schools.
Schools were able to retain a broad, balanced and relevant curriculum, challenging to all pupils, with the wider curriculum able to offer opportunities for extending activities in English and Maths, or using maths and English to support the wider curriculum. It offered many broadening experiences all of which, when embedded in developmental structures, created fertile ground for children to make progress.
The prelude to the 1997 election offered teachers a voice, should Labour be elected. This may well have been an important element in them being elected. Teachers wanted to be listened to. Within a very short time, it was clear that this was not to be, as the National Strategies began to be rolled out, English first, with daily exhortations to embed the Literacy and numeracy hours into school practice. This began, to some extent, media challenge to teacher practice, with local advisers adding to the national agenda with their own interpretations, thus creating further layers of complexity.
This point coincided with a more nit-picking approach, although the attempted imposition was more of political steamrollering.
Levels were divided into sub levels, which seemed to morph into Assessing Pupil Progress (APP) sheets, with ticklists or checklists of very detailed expectations of what should be seen in a particular sub level. Thus an intellectual step by step approach was articulated, which, if followed, meant teachers seeking to devise tasks that taught or tested a very narrow expectation. Widespread adoption, across all abilities, created an educational straitjacket for many children. Some ten years after the introduction of the original National Curriculum, sub-levels became the currency of progress and more created for data than as statements of progress.
Some advisers, consultants and inspectors added to the general fray by “sharing good practice”, which often meant short hand approaches which another school had devised, which had got them higher achievement levels. They often forgot to share the process development behind the shortcuts, which allowed them to exist within a bigger picture.
The adoption of a “best fit” approach meant that children could be moved “up” a level, while having some gaps in their understanding. In my own school, these gaps were noted as continuing personal needs, in order not to lose some significant elements. As a result, children were enabled to be partners in their progress, as they understood what was being sought on a personal level.
The National Curriculum has been reordered a number of times, the latest being in September 2014.
It was interesting recently, in my capacity as a Link Tutor for a local university, to have the County senior inspector share the County view of assessment. It was evident that some thought had been put to some top level decisions that, superficially reduce the decision workload, to a number of statements, such as emerging, secure and mastery, at three points in the year, with percentages achieving different points being a key indicator. However, this then opened up into what could only be described as APP+, with an array of statements derived from the NC, that had to be covered and achieved by every child, to be counted in their “secure + or-“ statements.
That we are at this situation was exemplified during the summer term, with reports of moderator visits, where there was significant evident that security could be compromised if evidence of a very small element was missing, or not clearly evidenced.
Is the system refining to a point where everyone loses sight of the big picture? Teachers need to be able to show children how the bits fit together, to make sense of the jigsaw. If they are not able to do that, then children, as learners, don’t have the abstract maturity at a young age to do that for themselves. The curriculum is not end to end activities. A high quality curriculum has a very clear developmental narrative that is clear to all participants. What was evident at the Learning First event was the number of schools seeking to create holistic models for the curriculum, within which assessment can become a narrative of individual achievement.
In many ways, judgements about children often centre on their articulacy, facility with concepts and an appropriate vocabulary or their ability to record their thoughts with some fluency and skill.
Holding onto the big picture of children as writers is a key element to getting through this effectively, if teachers are not to disappear in a puff of assessment fog. Setting writing tasks in the broader perspective of need can ensure progress.
I’d suggest the following, which could apply from KS1 into 3, allowing open structures that support personal challenge and development.
Writing workbooks need to be capable of supporting the whole process of writing; see 2 page approach. This can embed any of the current approaches to writing planning, (eg Talk for Writing or Big Writing) or enable other scaffolds.
Making books into personal organisers, with specific needs identified for each child, through forward thinking and targets or recording ongoing needs from marking. They are prompts for interaction between child and adult, supporting “interleaving” or “intervention” at a personal level. This approach can apply to topic areas or maths as well, to avoid individual loss of challenge.
In Primary, consider all writing in one book, especially to first draft, to enable clarity of focus on the writing process across a range of writing needs and from a range of prompts. This can create higher quality of writing, but also limit the quantity to allow this to happen. Progressive baselines of expectation can be more easily created. Spread into different books, children can write less well in other subjects.
In KS3, English teachers could support writing skills in other subjects with foci such as report writing, note taking, instructions, which could then be honed in the subject lesson. This could become a form of “interleaving”; practice basic skill, then embed within a real task.
Support spelling with children always making a least one attempt at a word before checking. This attempt enables the teacher to interrogate the child’s phonic and whole word understanding, focusing the teaching need.
To be honest though, had I been the SoS for Education in 2010, I'd have stuck with the curriculum that was in play, tweaked the levelness statements and charged schools with achieving good level 4, for 80%+ of the children, which is a pretty good starting point for Secondary education. I'd then have introduced a new National Writing Project and some kind of maths and reading project alongside to improve the capability of all teachers across these subjects. A coherent, holistic approach, rather than the nit-picking soundbites that have characterised the past seven years.