We need to strengthen the organisational thinking as a whole, as well as focus on the smaller parts, to develop holistic methodologies.
The essence of what he said was interesting, in that it was possible to see that he valued the earlier incarnations of the National Curriculum over the 2005 version, but saw the 2014 version as an improvement. The reasoning, however, for these statements were interesting, in that Tim seemed to suggest that the 1987 original and 1995 revision were easier to test, as they embedded a broader and, to his view, more detailed specification.
In reflecting on the impact on schools and ways forward (without levels) was interesting, in that he drew some “evidence” from his experience as a parent, dealing with a nine year old child. He repeated the claim that parents did not understand the previous levels and that the scale scores being suggested would be more understandable. There was a noticeable murmur in the room at this point. He used the example of The Wroxham School as embedding assessment without levels. He did develop this by sharing that the school did provide different challenges from which children could choose.
I was the second speaker and have blogged the essence of my talk here.
The third speaker was Senior HMI Mike Sheridan. I had heard his name via Twitter as one of the “good guys” and was not disappointed. He came from a Primary headship background, so could empathise with the needs of the audience. He gave a relatively simple message, which I paraphrase; think big for your children and their learning, have a clear rationale for all your decisions and be able to share the narrative coherently. He was clear that there was a need to validate internal decisions against other benchmarks. When sharing the platform for a Q&A session, I suggested that local area moderation would provide aspects of this, which Mike agreed.
There should be high quality outcomes demonstrable for each child. What’s in the books matters, as they are part of inspection scrutiny. They need to be part of the narrative.
I was given to reflect on the journey of education post 1987, having been a classteacher for the thirteen years previously. In the best schools at that time, a very rich curriculum existed. In the case of the school where I was DH in 1987, an audit of the provision in the school showed a 95% correlation between what we had been doing and what we were being asked to do. The difference was in seeking to embed the detail of the level descriptors into our collective expectation. As a result, our expectation became greater and children achieved even more.
So why are we where we are?
My simple answer would be estate-wide small thinking, more from the point of view of ever closer attention on the minutiae of teaching and learning, especially by some individuals who have made national and international names, and a lot of money from publishing, by a focus on small bits. The words that we use, such as differentiation, assessment, planning, writing, reading, phonics along with others, have been packaged and repackaged into formulae, then interpreted into book form, to be sold into the education spending market, which itself has grown significantly over the past 25 years.
The latest high profile areas are “growth mindset” and research. Each has the potential to become formulaic, distracting and ultimately to be devalued. The former, to me is what teaching and learning are all about, otherwise what’s the point and the latter, as an investigative mind-set, is what I’d want from all teachers, seeking to refine their practice.
The issue with buying a scheme for doing the thinking for you is that you can stop thinking about the whole and how things fit together, and that’s what I’d say some have done. These schemes can also dictate timetables, as children are packaged up into appropriate sized groups to undertake the specified activities, often led by the less well informed members of staff, so that, although “coverage” might be assured, the depth of understanding might be suspect for many. These groups are, by default, mini sets or streams, so can be self-limiting systems. Time is lost, as children move between areas of the school to be part of their small groups.
There has been successive reorganisation of priorities, with literacy and numeracy taking over from English and Maths, with a subsequent potential downgrade of other subjects, all of which provide the background information against which English and Maths operate in the real world. There is talk of the knowledge curriculum, but the knowledge areas of the curriculum, in some places and for some children are under some threat.
The small thinking arises out of a sound-bite need for politicians, to show that they are doing something to improve the situation. The Literacy Hour was not the be-all and end-all of the Literacy Strategy, yet it became the simplistic message given on the radio and TV every morning. For the past four years, we have heard phonics equals reading as the mantra. The problem with both messages is that it can distort practice to the point where other aspects of each subject, which are equally or more vital, are diminished, so teachers and children lose sight of the bigger messages. As a result, reading for pleasure is instated as a statement in the 2014 curriculum.
Levels became the bête noire of the system because they became distorted into data points, rather than remaining as the progress descriptors that they were in the beginning. From misuse, they lost their purpose and became distorting, as they became high stakes in showing progress. The number and the data point lost the accompanying words.
Like all things, I’d argue that a focus on the small aspects is essential, but that at every stage any change in one aspect needs to be reflected upon across the whole learning system, otherwise it can be distorting.
It’s a little bit like an exercise regime where concentration on one part of the body can create a distorting effect.
Tim Oates joined Cambridge Assessment in May 2006 to spearhead the rapidly growing Assessment Research and Development division. He was previously at the Qualifications and Curriculum Agency, where he had been Head of Research and Statistics for most of the last decade.
Work included advising on a pan-European 8-level qualifications framework. He has advised the UK Government for many years on both practical matters and assessment policy.
He started his career as a research officer at the University of Surrey. He moved to the FE Staff College in 1987 where he helped run the Work-Based Learning project. London University's Institute of Education then appointed him as NCVQ Research Fellow. In 1993 he joined one of the QCA's predecessor bodies, the National Council for Vocational Qualifications, as Head of GNVQ Research and Development. Promotion to Director of Research followed two years later.
Mike Sheridan bio; Mike Sheridan is a senior HMI.
He first joined Ofsted as a seconded headteacher in 2007 and then went on to be appointed as one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors in 2009. Mike is a qualified teacher and, prior to being employed by Ofsted, held several leadership roles. Most recently he was the headteacher of a federation of schools. Alongside headship, Mike has worked as a consultant and a trainer for heads and teachers. He has particular expertise in teaching and the impact leadership structures have on raising standards.