A World Without Ofsted

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Three months ago I moved to a world without Ofsted.

Not a bizarre, made-up fantasy world – like some futuristic utopia where schools and teachers and kids and parents and everyone learns stuff and lives happily ever after. No… this place is real. Its a different country. And there’s no Ofsted. Its weird and wonderful. Especially having been immersed in the English education system for my entire, not very long, career.

So here are my initial observations.

First, for a good teacher I think this is a blessing. Increasingly in England I was beginning to feel that bigger chunks of my time were spent compiling data that was simply serving Ofsted to show that my school was actually doing its job. I was spending less time actually teaching, and less time still actually thinking about teaching. In my final year in England I thought that I was a worse teacher than three years ago, which doesn’t make sense. But without the senseless monitoring and data collection, I can now teach. I teach good lessons mostly and great lessons sometimes. I’m now finding that my great lessons are becoming more abundant because I have more time to plan and resource them. Ask my students.

As a Head of Department I feel that every decision I make is about the students. I feel liberated as an educator. Of course I test my students. Of course I gather data and track the progress of everyone in my department – but its all done to improve their learning and to inform teachers (myself and my staff) what areas we need to focus on. And I don’t have to show progress through individual lessons or points within lessons. And I don’t have to get the students to document everything down so when an inspector comes knocking we can all prove to them what a great job we’re all doing. Some lessons involve discussion. Sometimes we even go out of the classroom to observe something in the real world related to what we’re learning about. And the students love it. They’re engaged and excited about my subjects. I’m happy and they’re happy.

The final analysis comes with results – a topic that has driven teaching for many years now. Like it or not, teachers and students live and die by their results. But what I’ve come to find is that if I can engage the students, grow their strengths, help them address their weaknesses and give them the time, space and support to develop, the results will come. And they are…

Is it all good? Well, I never thought I would say this but, no! There is space for something like Ofsted. Without it has been a liberating experience for me. But it has come with its frustrations. Some teachers clearly need an oppressive framework like Ofsted to motivate them to do well. Without it, I have seen some fall into a malaise of lazy practice. Dull lessons produce disengaged students, which I have witnessed during this transition. In some cases, I have been reminded of some of my own teachers back in the 1980s where the lesson plan said, “Copy pages 57-63” and that was as much input as a teacher gave. I can’t help thinking if Ofsted was around, you’d need to up your game!

So what are my final observations? I think most teachers are in the profession for their want to make a difference in peoples’ lives and this serves as the motivation to make the learning experience fantastic for their students. Furthermore, most teacher really care about teenagers which informs their day-to-day interactions with them. We don’t need an Ofsted to monitor this. Most of us do a fine job. But we cannot escape the fact that some teachers might just like the holidays, or knocking off at 4pm, or are that complacent about their practice that the care has just seeped out of them. Maybe this is where Ofsted come in. Overall I don’t think the constraints put on most teachers are necessary. I think if schools develop a good system of supportive coaching for their staff, most would be fine. A more efficient Ofted-less model might be to use a network of schools to perform checks and balances on each other – like a supporting friend – that can help teachers that are struggling but avoid putting constraints on the ones that flourish in a liberal environment.

I don’t know the right answer. What I do know is that I’m enjoying my world without Ofsted.

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Sorry Nicky, I’m out. —

Dear Nicky Morgan, Please accept this as written notice of my resignation from my role as Assistant Head and class teacher. It is with a heavy heart that I write you this letter. I know you’ve struggled to listen to and understand teachers in the past so I’m going to try and make this as clear […]

via Sorry Nicky, I’m out. —

Class War in the Classroom?

A recent, magnificent article by Sarah Moore in the Guardian got me thinking about the issue of class in the UK. As a teacher from a very lower class background, I find myself in the minority. Okay, I get all the sociological arguments about access to education and all the fluff about working class culture, but the fact remains that most teachers in the UK are from backgrounds that carry with it some level of privilege. Here is where I hold my hands up and scream out my disclaimer- I know I’m generalising (I know lots of working class teachers), I know it might appear that I am suggesting that class has any impact on the excellence of a teacher (it really doesn’t). But one worrying pattern that I cannot help to notice is the fact that the education profession is generally led by people who are quite far removed from many they are paid to teach. This permeates throughout British society from the highest level right down to the types of teachers certain schools can recruit and keep hold of. If Britain indeed is locked into some kind of class-war, as has been suggested by many social critics, maybe that war starts in the classroom; in schools which end up creating ideas about class, privilege and rights within our young people which has led to the vast ideological chasm about what it expects from people in society today.

Recent studies have suggested that despite the rhetoric of inclusion and the famous “every child matters” agenda which has been a cornerstone throughout education recently, under the current government we are moving nearer to a divided system which favours the agenda of the ruling class. A paper published only days ago by the Social Market Foundations Commission on Inequalities in Education has pinpointed several problematic issues with teacher recruitment in secondary schools. In short, schools which have a higher percentage of Free School Meals (FSM) employ more staff who are either underqualified or newly qualified. In addition, many of the NQTs in these types of schools end up leaving after only a short time. This is further exasperated by the fact that these schools pay teachers less on average, which could be one reason for their short lifespan. However, from my own experience, I would suggest that it is not just the issue of money which drives many of these NQTs away – sometimes it is social class. In many cases, these NQTs came from “nice” grammar schools, then onto a university education, followed by placements in schools which were performing well, and it may be a simple fact that many NQTs from more privileged backgrounds simply struggle to connect with lower class kids from schools in deprived areas. If we follow this paper trail further, we find that less lower class people are going to university because the funding structure and the astronomical fees just don’t support their enrollment. Furthermore, often university culture is alien to most young, lower class people, especially if their parents can offer no help or advice whatsoever. The whole system needs a shake up and more working class kids need to be going to university.

The structure of education itself is also changing. Education is supposed to be about expanding minds and building vehicles for creative and independent thinking. Instead, teachers are now trying to work within a system which is obsessed with measuring and tracking numbers in order to prove to an overbearing organisation that everything works. The outcome of this is deeply ironic because this crazy obsession with measuring progress to a detail means that less education is actually taking place. Those with power in education are increasingly trying to adopt a business model to it, which only further reinforces the capitalist system which favours those with privilege and power. Examples are abundant. Performance related pay in the UK – where teachers are now expected to meet targets like sales assistants in a department store. The academisation of schools – allowing businesses to dictate terms and conditions. There is even talk of businesses running education curricula. We are already in that dangerous zone where capitalism overrides education when we consider the cost of textbooks for underfunded departments in schools. There is a reason why Pearson Education are a multi-billion pound a year publisher. In a wonderful article published by the education blogger @Teacher Toolkit, we should consider a quote which sums this up eloquently from the book Flip the System by Evers and Kneyber, “Education is threatened on a global scale by forces of neoliberalism, through high stakes accountability, privatization and a destructive language of learning.”

Finally, there has to be some recognition of the existence of a class culture within Britain without the Thatcheresque denigration of working class people. Most working class people are not stupid but many don’t get access to the pathways that allow them to become teachers. So, for now, maybe a start would be to redress the system by teaching compassion and understanding rather than a business model of productivity. Maybe if education leaders change their attitudes towards working class students, more of these young people will want to support the system, but until that happens most working class people will see the system as exclusive and oppressive, which will simply reinforce the cycle we are in currently in. Sadly, it appears again that this model is something that favours those with privilege, which I believe is why we find ourselves in this social situation right now and those with the power have very little incentive to change things.

In the long run, getting more teachers who can tap into the cultural needs of working class students is the key. I have worked in a school where this was superb! Teacher retention at this school was fantastic and the number of young, dynamic teachers who moved onto middle leadership was also impressive. In short, few teachers left. (I emigrated!) What was the formula? Simple, teachers were employed on their ability to connect with the types of students they would be teaching. Many of these were teachers from lower class backgrounds; some were from more privileged backgrounds that were prepared to listen and learn. A special culture had been generated. The most important outcome here was the success rates of the students. The school punched above its weight in these terms.

To finish with, I cannot help but cast my mind back to an online argument I had with a student whom I won’t embarrass from a University that should be embarrassed to have him. When I challenged his political thinking he referred to me as “you people”. To me – it spoke volumes. Because I had defended a working class point of view, he made certain assumptions about me and in those two words he assumed that I was uneducated, bitter and somehow jealous of his privileged position as a university undergraduate. Maybe one day he’ll move on to become a teacher. I hope not because he would simply reinforce everything that is wrong with the social system in which we live today. The words “you people” did suggest a difference; a struggle.

For me, this struggle starts in our classrooms.

Navigating the Space Between Educational Paradigms

The following is a wonderful article I have taken from prominent educational blogger based in New Zealand. I found this article to be interesting and relevant to schools in the UK. This has been reblogged here by the kind permission of Claire Amos whose blog is worth a follow… You can read her articles on teachingandlearning.com

Navigating the space between educational paradigms
One of the toughest things about being a champion for educational change is that you need to take people with you. In fact sometimes its even tough to take yourself with you.

Many times on this blog (and basically any chance I get to speak to groups) I have spoken about the need for educational change (see a particularly ranty presentation here). I know I am not a lone voice, in fact I get the sense that there is a veritable tsunami building up behind what initially felt like ripples and then waves of educators talking about this very issue. People like Sir Ken Robinson popularised the notion that schools need to change with his TED talk How Schools are Killing Creativity and Changing Educational Paradigms. This was echoed and reinforced by the work of Sugata Mitra with his hole in the wall work and his TED talk Build a School in the Cloud and I know we all cheered for that Logan LaPlante for whom Hackschooling made happy. Locally we have a growing number of educational leaders calling for change with NZCER writing an excellent report Supporting future-oriented learning and teaching – a New Zealand perspective and just this year we saw the launch of Dr Jane Gilbert’s AUT Edge Work – Educational Futures Network. I am also proud to be part of school and team who are trialling different ways that we can better meet the needs of our learners in the 21st Century (check out Maurie or any of team’s blogs to see what we are up to at HPSS).

I don’t actually think the challenge is understanding why we need to change education or even what we need to do in order to change it. For me the central challenge is that we appear to be a bit stuck in the space between. The space between education’s past and education’s future. I suspect this period will be looked back on as that uncomfortably pimply pubescent period where we transitioned, painfully and unnecessarily slowly, from an industrial age education system to a more agile knowledge age model. But at present, we are neither there nor here. Actually who am I kidding. Plenty of people are still back there. And happily so. Some of us have hurled ourself into the unknown whilst many others have stuck with comfortable old ‘there’ and are simply dangling pedagogical toes over the precipice whilst really clinging to the industrial mainland.

All around us are examples of businesses and industries who have made the transition – think about how you used to book travel, how you used to do your banking or share written communication – there are so many examples of change, because industries have to change, if you don’t, you simply lose customers – in business you evolve or die.

However, compulsory schooling doesn’t seem to work that way. For many, there is what is perceived as an intellectual argument for change that might make them feel a little uneasy maintaining the status quo. However as long as we have a system where schools can be positively antiquated yet publicly lauded as educational successes for hothousing students focusing on little more than assessment and results results results, then we are unlikely to see any sizeable change in the near future. I mean there are days when the NZ Herald or Stuff’s education section feels like the educational equivalent of Antiques Roadshow! Add to this that for many, which school they attend is not their choice, and even if it was, there is so little choice that you are probably limited to choosing between co-ed, single sex and/or maybe religious or not. Then there is the issue that criteria for ‘a good school’ is so outdated that it seems based on little more than decile and league tables combined. In fact the more antiquated the school the more highly it seems to be regarded.

Be a pioneer and make change anyway and you run the risk of being seen as risking student success and making a generation of students guinea pigs. Irregardless of the fact that we are all failing our young people in numerous other ways with our national focus on results and little else. I actually believe we can move forward and deliver a better educational model AND have our students succeed at qualifications such as NCEA, I just think it’s a shame that there is little enticing others to risk making change when the only thing that seems to matter to many are results which quite possibly have little or any relevance as an indicator for longterm success in the 21st century. Add to this the issue that if we do change schooling we must have the confidence of our students and community and often for parents their only reference point is their own education. Even if they actually didn’t succeed in that system or even enjoy it, they are hugely nervous if we depart from a traditional school model and what the school down the road is doing. So as well as working hard to change and improve educational models we also have the additional job of translating and PR, “selling” one paradigm to those that came from another. This translation needs to occur for the educator as well. I know I have often faltered, knowing full well that we must make the change but at times terrified at the thought of heading off into such a new terrain with a map or guide book.

Add to this the issue that entering a new paradigm actually requires extra resourcing. At HPSS we are attempting all kinds of creative solutions to try and make future-focused learning happen on a budget and resourcing model that is well and truly based on an industrial age equation of one teacher to 25-30 students teaching students eight discrete learning areas. I would argue that if our government really wanted innovation they would reward those that are doing it with a different resourcing formula that allowed for greater planning and professional learning to reflect that we are no longer simply serving up tweaked iterations of what we have serving up in schools for the last 25, 50 or 100 years. Change takes time, effective change takes a whole lot of learning.

Personally if I was Jo or Joanne Blogs I would be way less concerned that schools like HPSS are “experimenting” with new approaches and be way more concerned that many schools are not experimenting at all and that in fact they are being celebrating for engaging in damaging, high stress approaches to preparing students for little more that assessment success. That scares the hell out of me.

So what is the answer? I suspect we have to “feel the fear and do it anyway”. I mean, human kind didn’t create cars, learn to fly or fly to the moon by being safe and happily living in the past. I just hope we can find a way to have more, if not all educators leave the past behind us as well and for communities to demand the change rather than fear it.

Finally, I also hope this documentary comes to NZ – it might just encourage more of us to navigate the space between educational paradigms – the space between the past and the future. Before it’s too late.

I only have one pair of hands!

How many times have I heard that phrase?  “I only have one pair of hands!” My mother used to say it to me all the time. My head would ring with it and I would wait in anticipation for the comment when I asked her to perform some menial task for me, which my sense of entitlement as a teenager governed my belief that she was on this planet for the very purpose of performing menial tasks for me – and occasionally my brother!

Well… now I find myself dealing with tens of teenagers, hundreds in a week, and more and more now I’m feeling that those words should be on a loop pedal usually reserved for musicians like KT Tunstall and Ed Sheerin – playing quietly in the background as the hours of my day pass along. The problem is: its not the kids in the room that I’d be saying those words to.

More and more now, I feel that we, as classroom practitioners, are being asked to do more “stuff” in lessons. Yep, its a busy old gig, is teaching. However, at a seemingly exponential rate, it feels like I’m being asked to just keep adding to the “must do” list when I deliver a lesson. By implication, does this mean that before this, I actually had the time to do this extra “stuff?

When I first started teaching, I thought, wow, teachers do a lot!! Bearing in mind that this was not so long ago… we had to prepare our lessons to a good standard, produce the resources needed, add in some differentiated materials and extension activities, take the register, hand out equipment, collect homework, do some AfL stuff such as some peer marking or self-assessment… ok, I get it… this is what we did, and I think I did it pretty well. We also had time in lessons to get the kids reflecting on their learning… sometimes, just thinking about what something meant to them. I’d even go as far as saying, at times, I found the time to inspire and motivate the kids to engage with and enjoy the topics we covered.

So what about now. It seems that we have become so obsessed with the idea of changing things that now the very bread and butter of what we do is transforming into something unrecognisable to me – and often unmanageable. So what are the expectations of today? Well, now we create “marking dialogues” with the kids. Fine. I get it… and based on John Hattie’s research, it seems a pretty good way of improving standards. But it takes a long time to get right. Now there’s no money for SEND, so I find myself with no TA support in lessons where some kids simply cannot read. They need one to one support and that person is now me… as I’m teaching another 22 kids in the same room.  This means not just creating extra resources for them, but it takes time out of the lesson, In addition, we have brought in new devices like SPaG mats to improve their literacy. And we have introduced the use of extra media devices like Twin Space and Edmodo – even Twitter and YouTube are being used more regularly. Now I’m no dinosaur… I’m a real supporter of dragging schools into the 21st century and I’m lucky to have a HoD that often takes the lead in the school with new tech. My biggest issue is time – and the number of hands I have.

At times, I feel like I simply do not have the time to implement all that I’m being asked in the classroom. I feel like I just don’t have enough hands to do all the things being asked of me. I’m finding a lot of things we’re doing is more about creating evidence to say to OFSTED, “Hey, look, over here, I’m a good teacher” instead of just being a good teacher! Maybe I don’t manage my time well… maybe that’s the problem. But I do know this… today I feel like a worse teacher than I did two years ago. That doesn’t sit well with me.

Maybe I need more hands…?

Where does the time go?

I liked this blog because its presents some interesting points in a fun way. I agree that time needs to be used effectively… the only problem I have with time is that it is finite (unless I am able to speed up to almost the speed of light, which I can’t) which means out perceptions on the passage of time are secondary to how much time we have left. Eight weeks is eight weeks… help… panic… but maybe the panic is more about us than them! Great post… liked the reference to Floyd!

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They say time flies when you’re having fun. I’m not convinced. I think time just flies.

Here we all are again, limbering up for the exam season. Another year, counting down our lessons or days left until the examinations, trying to inject some sense of urgency into our pupils while walking the fine line between giving necessary support, keeping everyone motivated or positive yet applying enough pressure for pupils to take responsibility.

As teachers, during term time our lives are dominated by timetables and routines that are indifferently monitored by the school bell or stroke of the clock hand, mechanically reminding everyone to move on to the next thing. The build up to the exams always makes me think about time…..probably because there never seems to be enough hours in the day and that it seems to be moving at an incredible pace. It seems Earth increased its rotation.

I…

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