Marking your own work – why high stakes accountability depends on school autonomy

The UK education system is just about the most accountable in the world – The combination of a high-stakes inspection system, a series of public exams and tests which are analysed and compared to other schools, a governance structure that allows for high levels of challenge and intervention, and a media that often displays a lack of trust in schools and school leaders, all add up to the sensation that many schools and school leaders feel of constantly being under the microscope.

Now, there are many views about the desirability of this model – critics say that such high-stakes accountability leads to a range of negative consequences, including an over focus on a narrow range of performance measures, high levels of stress and burnout and a disincentive to collaborate and support the wider system. Others argue that accountability provides incentives, ensures focus on the important things and leads to rapid improvement through competition. It also supports safeguarding and avoids consistent underperformance over time.

Much of the machinery of accountability has slowed down or been silenced over the last 18 months – Ofsted inspections halted and only restarting very gradually, performance tables suspended as a result of the absence of SATs and exam data, and other data such as attendance and exclusion data losing its usefulness. However, it is abundantly clear that this is intended to be a temporary hiatus. In fact, it’s possible to argue that the usual measures have simply been replaced by other forms of public judgement such as comparing the frequency of live lessons or conformity to government safety measures.

Whatever your view, there’s a key principle underpinning all this – accountability depends upon agency. In other words, if you’re going to hold someone accountable for the decisions they make, you need to allow them to make some decisions in the first place. You have to give them autonomy over the way they do things. This is key to the whole concept. It’s also the stated aim of government over the last ten years or more. The point of academisation, government’s flagship policy, is to grant freedoms – over curriculum, pedagogy, staffing and so on – which will allow for innovation and experimentation, and drive improvement. Academies and MATs can decide how they’re going to do things, and they are then fully accountable for the consequences of their decisions.

It seems, however, that in recent months, that the people driving current policy have chosen a different path. Autonomy is being eroded at an astonishing rate. Fealty to a certain approach is not just tacitly encouraged, but is actually being built into the system.

For example, we’re told that the government is considering extending the school day. Currently, the government doesn’t set the lengths or timings of the school day. As long as the day is divided into two sessions with a break and there are 380 sessions in a year, the rest is up to the school. Mandating the timings of the day wouldn’t be a tweak to the system, it would be a significant centralisation of control. And what if it doesn’t work, and produces no positive impact on pupil progress? Who is responsible – the school who has implemented it or the government who have come up with the plan?

Likewise, imagine a scenario where a school embraces DfE policy and uses every opportunity to introduce tuition programmes provided by government approved companies, dedicating all of their Covid-funding as well as core funds to provide the top up. Two years later, exam results come in and they show very disappointing progress in English and Maths. Who is accountable? The school, the tuition company, or the Department for Education who devised the scheme?

Another scenario – a behaviour adviser is allocated to a school from one of the new Behaviour Hubs being established. They give advice that has worked well in the context they have come from. The school tries to follow the advice, but it doesn’t lead to improvements, in fact there is further deterioration. Now this could be for many reasons – the skill level of staff, the relationship the school has with parents and carers, the quality of the adviser – but come the next inspection, it will be the school leaders alone that carry the can.

We’re seeing an increasingly clear government-favoured approach across a whole range of educational policy areas, including pedagogy. The Early Careers Framework is an ambitious and comprehensive piece of work, providing a highly detailed structure for teachers in the formative years of their career but with only six nationally approved providers, who are producing materials showing a high level of consistency – some differences in approach, but few in content or philosophy. Not since the days of the National Strategies during the last Labour government has it been so clear what the favoured pedagogical approach is.

We’re told that Gavin Williamson is looking into ways that he can ban phones in school. Now, I’m sure Mr Williamson is aware that schools obviously already have the ability to do this – indeed many do. My impression is that the majority of schools follow a similar policy to the one we favour – during the school day, phones should remain switched off and out of sight and if this is not adhered to, the phone is confiscated. National policy on mobile phones in school would be an absurd level of micro management, significantly eroding school autonomy.

I’ve spent my career leading schools in a high-stakes accountability system. I wouldn’t say I’m comfortable with it, but I understand the rules of the game. I have seen the quality of provision improve hugely in that time. Throughout that time, I have felt that leaders in schools had the right to make decisions over the curriculum, pedagogy, timetable, behaviour policy, style of intervention – at least as long as the school was operating successfully. I have accepted that by making decisions, I am accountable for the outcome. It just feels as though the rules are shifting.

I am concerned that in the end it comes down to mistrust of ‘The Blob’ – Michael Gove’s memorable, if slightly offensive, description of the educational establishment. That’s not what the rhetoric says – ministers will point to improvements in schools over the years, and declare their trust in school leaders. If that’s the case, then give advice and support, by all means, but allow school leaders to make the right decisions in their own context.

Then, and only then, the buck stops here.

The Goldilocks rule of Multi Academy Trusts

As we are beginning to emerge from the pandemic, many people are asking big questions about our education system – is the curriculum fit for purpose, what is the purpose of exams and assessment, how should we manage accountability, and, perhaps most fundamentally, how should our system be organized to cope with the challenges of the future?

It’s clear that MATs will now play a major part in this system –Gavin Williamson recently stated that by the end of this parliament, he expected to see ‘many more’ schools clustered together in MATs and even the Labour party, who have always been among the most critical, have quietly dropped proposals to dismantle the system. Given that over 50% of pupils are already educated in academies, and the majority are part of MATs, this has the feel of an unstoppable force.

In recent days, I have read opinion pieces from Emma Knights, CEO of the National Governance Association calling for a stronger lead from government on the direction of travel and from Jon Coles, of the United Learning Trust, arguing for trusts to become significantly larger across the board, rivalling the size of Local Authorities or NHS Trusts. Leora Cruddas, from the Confederation of Schools Trusts has put forward imaginative proposals for a system dominated by trusts filling a role as new ‘civic structures’. The debate is taking place and the consequences are very significant.

The difficulty with the debate is that the term MAT covers so many different models of governance and organisation, from the very largest Trusts with centralized curricula and policy, to small local groups of schools who retain their own distinctive character and a large element of local governance. We are in danger of stumbling towards an ill-thought out and ineffective structure that is incredibly difficult to unpick. Before we continue too much further along the journey, surely it makes sense to decide on the destination, and if MATs are a part of that picture, to decide what the ideal model and size of MAT should be.

To this end, there are some fundamental principles that must underpin our system, and which the system should be able to meet if it is fit for purpose.

  1. The purpose of our school system is to give the best possible start in life to all pupils and groups of pupils, without exception
  2. School leaders must have autonomy to respond to their local context
  3. Schools must have access to support and high-quality professional development
  4. The success of a school or trust must not come about at the expense of other schools
  5. Schools and those who lead and govern them must be transparent and accountable, not only for pupil outcomes, but for the way they use public money

The optimum structure to enable maximum school effectiveness depends upon finding the right balance between a number of competing elements. On the one hand, there is a balance between individual school autonomy and shared capacity, and on the other there is a balance between holding schools to account (and therefore those responsible for leading and governing them) and providing the support and development they need. I believe that the key to a successful school system is finding a way to accommodate all of these pressures, to find the sweet spot which gives schools the agency to respond to their local need, whilst at the same time operating collaboratively within a wider system.

School autonomy allows local school leaders to make decisions in their own context, to respond to the needs of their students and the priorities of their local community. It’s been the guiding principle of school organisation in this country for three decades, since the advent of Local Management of Schools and the handing of budget responsibility to Head Teachers and Governing Bodies. Head Teachers, along with their senior leadership teams and governing bodies, have become exceptionally skilled at making decisions about a whole range of areas, from curriculum, to budget-setting, from staffing to behaviour policy. There’s an irony in the fact that the benefits of academisation are often expressed in terms of school freedoms, when the experience of individual schools in large MATs is very often the complete opposite. The fear of losing hard-earned and highly-prized autonomy is one of the principal reasons why so many school leaders are fearful of academisation. Put simply, autonomy allows for creativity, diversity and the ability to respond to the context of the school.

However, for many schools, the downside of autonomy is that it is often accompanied by isolation. Autonomy, therefore, is not enough without Shared Capacity. This is where I have seen at first hand the benefits of schools coming together. Sharing administrative and back office functions such as Finance and HR, negotiating improved contracts, pooling resources to support long-term investment – all enable school leaders to operate more efficiently and concentrate their energies on the important task of ensuring that provision in the classroom is as good as it can be.

Much deeper than the practical and organisational gains, are the benefits of schools working in a true partnership, sharing ethos and goals, and co-operating for the benefit of all. This may be seen in the way schools share expertise by forming networks and peer support groups, the reduction in isolation for school leaders who can seek advice and bounce ideas off trusted colleagues, the way that curriculum can be enhanced through shared planning and moderation, the opportunities for enrichment across schools – I could go on, but the benefits of meaningful collaboration are well documented. This is the key argument for the deep partnership that comes about from schools working in the best MATs, united by a common purpose and shared values.

So this is how we arrive at the Goldilocks rule – if MATs grow too big, school autonomy inevitably reduces as power is concentrated in the centre, if they’re too small, capacity is spread too thinly and schools are isolated. The precise number of schools that we arrive at following the application of this principle is, of course, a matter of opinion and varies depending on context, but my rule of thumb would be that if the Head Teachers cannot meet together with everyone having a voice, the MAT is too large and power will inevitably be drawn to the centre, but if it’s too small to offer the full range of central and shared services, support and expertise is unlikely to be available when it’s needed. In our small but growing trust, we estimate this number to be between 10 and 15 schools.

So far, so idealistic. The problem is that in practice the system of Multi-Academy Trusts hasn’t always covered itself in glory. I can’t tell you how much my heart sinks when I read of the latest MAT CEO who has managed secure a pay rate higher than the Prime Minister, or a Trust with eye-watering exclusion or off-rolling rates. MATs have often not responded well to genuine concerns That’s why the system will not work unless there is effective Accountability, which is both transparent and locally responsive.

It’s a topic for another piece, but my belief is that Local Authorities have a key role in holding MATs to account on behalf of the whole school community for the way they use public funds and discharge their statutory responsibilities in areas such as admissions, SEND and employment practices, and therefore the best way to provide effective accountability is through a combination of Local Authorities and a refocused Ofsted, both carrying out very distinct roles. Without a significant change in the way that MATs are held to account, the system will never command full public trust and support.

The final, and absolutely essential part of the structure, and one where the DfE can play a truly significant role, is Professional Support and Staff Development. We often hear about evidence-based strategies – in reality, the strategy for improving pupil outcomes with the strongest evidence base is to improve the quality of teaching through the professional development of teachers. There are encouraging signs that the DfE is beginning to recognise this – the Early Careers Framework and restructuring of the NPQ programmes, for example. This does not need to be a centrally-driven, command and control strategy, but we should use the expertise of Universities, Teaching School Hubs, grassroots CPD organisations, subject associations and so on, to make our teaching force among the best-informed and highly-skilled in the world.

Whether or not we recognise it, we’re in the process of reorganising our education system in a way that will have profound consequences. Waiting to see what happens in the hope we will emerge with a fit-for-purpose system is a high-risk strategy, especially considering the consequences of failure for our young people. In my view, a system of medium-size school clusters or partnerships provided through our developing system of Multi-Academy Trusts is the ideal way to deliver the education system for the 21st century , as long as, in the words of Goldilocks, we get it ‘just right’.

This is the moment…

After a year of relentless bad news, there’s now a real sense of a corner being turned and a promise of better times ahead. The desire to return to the familiar rhythms of life before the pandemic is palpable, whether that’s sitting in a pub, going to a concert, or packing for a holiday abroad. You only have to look at a newspaper or watch a government press conference to see that a return to full school opening is a potent symbol of this desire, and will be a key marker that society is on its way back to full health.

After the year we’ve all just lived through, the hope of a return to normal is understandable and comforting.  I know that the moment when I see a school hall full of pupils listening dutifully to an Assembly, or hear singing coming from a distant music room, or see a classroom with students crowded round tables engrossed in a group discussion will be a heartwarming signal that the worst is definitely over.

However, despite this natural desire, it doesn’t seem likely that we’ll ever be returning to school as ‘normal’. The impact of an event that was completely unimaginable a couple of years ago, and has left over a hundred thousand fellow citizens dead and many more struggling with the health, economic and emotional consequences, has been profound and will be around for some time to come. Given that a return to business as usual is unlikely to be possible, the bigger question is why we would want to.

History tells us that times of turmoil and disaster are very often followed by times of regeneration and creativity. In medieval Italy, the Black Death was followed by the Renaissance, and in our country the second world war was followed by the creation of the welfare state. Humankind has shown a remarkable ability to demonstrate resilience and rebuild no matter what we have been faced with.

We are (hopefully) emerging from a time of turmoil, but still have a system that was feeling outdated even before the pandemic. It was designed for a very different world, based on an employment market that has not existed for some time, arbitrary age breaks that have no basis in the pattern of children’s learning, a calendar designed around an agrarian society and a curriculum that has emerged through the influence of tradition and special interests.

There’s no reason why this should continue to be the case. We now have huge amounts of research evidence and opportunities to learn from education systems around the world. We have a far greater understanding of the science and craft of teaching and learning, and how that can be developed within the workforce and implemented in classrooms. We are going through a technological revolution that opens up huge possibilities in knowledge accessibility and curriculum design.

And, uniquely, we have a moment of opportunity, a moment when the foundations of our established system – public examinations, school attendance, the home-school divide – have been shaken. Whatever we decide, we will have to rebuild. Are we really saying that we will rebuild to the exact same plan we had before? That there is no way we can do this better?

I believe that there are a number of key questions that should guide our thinking as we survey the landscape:

  • The vision and purpose of education – Are we simply educating our children to get a decent job, or to become good and productive citizens? Is it the job of schools to develop creativity, a love of the arts, environmental awareness, social conscience, community engagement? If so, how do we design an education system to achieve these goals?
  • Governance and structures – How do we ensure agile and improvement-focussed systems of governance? Is that through collaborative groups of schools, as in the MAT model? How do we build in true democratic accountability and understanding of the local context?
  • Teaching and learning – Is there an evidence-based consensus about the most effective methods? What are the implications of the possibilities offered by technology?
  • Assessment and Accountability – How do we give reassurance that schools are providing the best possible standard of education for all children? How do we use information to aid improvement, by looking forward, not back?
  • Workforce – How do we ensure that our workforce is trained to the highest standard possible, and that high-quality professional development is an expectation throughout a teaching career? Is the balance between teachers, leaders and support staff the right one?
  • Curriculum – What is the curriculum that all pupils are entitled to? How much flexibility do we give to individual schools or pupils? How do we make sure our curriculum design is nimble enough to adapt to the changes in society that will inevitably come?

I have heard many voices, representing a wide range of views, calling for a new beginning, a desire to do things better. We need a structured national conversation including government, political parties, students, parents, teachers (independently, through membership bodies like the Chartered College and through their professional associations), Governance organisations (NGA, CST), Local Authorities, HE and research bodies, employers – anyone with an interest in ensuring that our children are schooled in the best way possible, which is everyone, as far as I can see.

It should be commissioned by government, but led by people with independence, credibility and expertise, and charged with providing a blueprint for the future of our education system, and it should start now, and become a permanent depoliticised fixture on our national scene.

This is the moment – if not now, when?

How to recover from Covid learning loss – Guaranteed!

Whenever the long term cost of the pandemic is considered, we soon come to the impact on children, blighted by the disruption to their schooling which has lasted for almost a year, and looks set to cast a shadow long into the future. There have been countless suggestions about how we should help children ‘catch up’ for lost learning – repeating a year, summer schools, 1:1 tuition, reducing the curriculum – all starting from the premise that something must be done.

Everyone claims, of course, that their preferred solution is the one based on evidence. I can imagine that the diligent and well-meaning compilers of the EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit, which evaluated the evidence of impact of a range of interventions, shake their heads in despair when they see their work weaponised to suit a particular agenda. Robert Halfon, the Chair of the Education Select Committee was the latest exponent, explaining on the nation’s morning radio shows that extending the school day would lead to a catch-up benefit of two months. The fact that this evidence was described by EEF as ‘moderately secure’ and dependent on a number of other conditions being in place was not mentioned, nor was the fact that this strategy was actually judged to be far less effective than the majority of other strategies identified, including Metacognition (7 months benefit), Reading Comprehension Strategies (6 months), Collaborative Learning (5 months) and use of Feedback (a whopping 8 months).

Everyone’s entitled to their view, of course. However, before that becomes policy, and attracts huge amounts of public funding, surely we should consider a few other perspectives. Here’s my suggestions, based on a combination of evidence, my experience in schools, and my observation of the events of the last year, and collected neatly into a 5-point plan:

  1. Don’t Panic
  2. Invest in teachers’ professional development
  3. Reform the accountability system….
  4. …and then pass decision-making to schools
  5. Abolish SATs and completely reform (and massively downsize) the KS4 exam system
  • Don’t Panic

Of all the nonsense written and spoken about the impact of Covid school closures, the confident assertions that children are ’10 months behind’ (or whatever figure has been plucked out of thin air) are probably the ones with the least evidential justification. Learning doesn’t follow a neat incremental journey of equidistant steps and children’s development doesn’t just stop when they’re not in school. What is important is not where they are now compared to an estimate of where they would have been if none of this had happened, but where they need to go next in order to reach their destination.

I accept that students who are coming to the end of their time in education need particular attention to make sure that they are prepared for the next steps in their journey, but the vast majority of children and young people will benefit from schools operating as well as they possibly can over the coming years, not from some mad dash to ‘catch up’ in as short a time as possible. The evidence of resilience in children’s learning (see Hattie’s ‘Visible Learning Effect Sizes’) indicates that given time, children’s learning is unlikely to be adversely affected. Our energy is far better used to make sure that improvements are sustained and long-term.

  • Invest in teachers’ professional development

You want an evidence-based approach? Well, this is it. The secret to high-performing education systems is not really that much of a secret – they train their teachers to a high standard, not just at the start of their career, but all the way through. There are so many ways that we can do this – offer guaranteed time and funding for individual professional development at all career stages, increase access to research and offer opportunities to take part, restructure appraisal processes to focus on growth and development, structure opportunities for genuine collaboration (please not just top-down ‘hubs’) – but almost all of them require a cultural shift that puts professional learning at the heart of school development. Oh, and if we really want this to have an impact, extend the concept to all staff engaged in pupil progress.

  • Reform the accountability system….

School performance tables make things worse, not better. They lead schools to focus on a narrow range of outcomes and to prioritise particular groups of students, and they distort the curriculum. What’s more, they waste time and energy. The evidence is strong, (Leckie and Goldstein, 2009; Burgess et al, 2005) and has never been successfully refuted, but league tables have become a sacred cow of our performativity structure.

Let’s be honest, even if there was a sound reason to do it, comparing school performance in the coming years is going to be a lottery – apart from the fact that we’ve lost two years’ worth of national data, trying to understand the differential impact of Covid on each school will be an impossible task.

That doesn’t mean schools should operate without public accountability – this is the role of the Inspectorate. However, in this current effort, Ofsted needs to do more than objectively report – it needs to be a force for improvement. As someone involved in inspection, it always seems a waste of an opportunity that inspectors can’t work alongside schools to support improvement.

I would propose that all schools are inspected annually, a collaborative process in which inspectors are able to make suggestions and offer advice, and which produces one of two outcomes – yes, the school is providing an acceptable standard of education, or no, it isn’t. In the case of the former (on current proportions we’re talking 90% of schools), the report celebrates successes, identifies weaknesses and suggests areas for development. If it’s the latter, inspectors will either give notice of the improvements they expect to see by the next inspection, or recommend external action.

  • …and then pass decision-making to schools

The corollary to the fact that our schools operate in such a high accountability environment has to be that they have the freedom to make decisions. Centrally mandated solutions will never be responsive enough to meet the needs of every local context.

I can’t express how frustrating it has been to see hundreds of millions of pounds allocated to support catch-up learning, and then find out that we can only access it if we follow the National Tutoring Programme, a programme delivered by third parties who don’t know our students, who aren’t able to plan alongside our teachers and who don’t allow us to utilise our current staff.

  • Abolish SATs and completely reform (and massively downsize) the KS4 exam system

The simplest and most obvious proposal of all. If anyone is arguing that we need to lengthen the school day or reduce holidays because of the urgent need to give children more time, whilst at the same time believing that we should keep Year 6 SATs, then I can only assume they have no idea of the amount of time that SATs preparation and administration drains out of the system. The only reason for favouring SATs over the assessment of skilled teachers who know the children well, is if they are intended to judge schools, not assess children – is this really the current priority?

I believe the same argument applies to GCSEs. I’ve argued before (Putting the Horse before the Cart) that in a system where students stay in formal education or training until at least the age of 18, GCSEs are becoming redundant, but the time and energy spent on preparing for them has a colossal impact on the curriculum through the whole of a student’s secondary school life. Drastically reducing the exam burden for our 16-year-olds would put huge capacity back into the curriculum, with no cost to their long-term prospects.

A less-recognised aspect of our current exam system is the frankly scandalous amount of resource that it drains out of the system – the cost of invigilation, exam fees, ensuring practical arrangements etc runs into the tens or hundreds of thousands for every secondary school in the country. Just think how this could be used if it was diverted to activities that were actually designed to improve student progress, rather than just measure it. It would provide a financial bonus way beyond anything we’ve seen so far from this or any other government in recent times.

So, that’s my plan – nothing that others haven’t said before, but I guarantee that it will allow our children to not just catch up, but go further than they would have done before. The cynic in me says I can confidently offer this guarantee because it’s so unlikely to come to fruition, but that doesn’t make it any less true. What would you do?

Performance Management to Professional Growth

Given how much is written and debated about improving school performance, you could be forgiven for thinking that it depended on a form of alchemy – a mystical collection of ingredients that only a few people truly understood. Governments and systems leaders have tried to find the elusive formula that will unlock school improvement, and many ideas have come and gone (and come round again, and gone again).

The surprising truth is that it’s not actually that difficult to identify what actually leads to sustained, deep, systemic school improvement. Those who work in schools know it instinctively, but it’s conveniently backed up by a huge amount of research evidence, international comparisons and cross-disciplinary study. As Thomas Guskey wrote over 20 years ago: ‘one constant finding in the research literature is that notable improvements in education almost never take place in the absence of professional development.’ (Guskey, 2000)

Put simply, the secret to effective, long-term and sustained school improvement is ensuring high-quality effective professional development for staff – in particular (but not exclusively) for teachers.

The problem of course is that knowing it and doing it are very different things. Firstly, there is no short cut – effective professional learning takes time. Secondly, it’s not cheap, and the cost is particularly seen in staff time. Thirdly, it won’t bring about improvement in predictable ways that neatly match the School Improvement Plan. And fourthly, and probably where this most often falls down, it crucially depends on the right ethos being in place – one where teachers are trusted to make professional decisions about their work.

It’s because of these barriers that we often go for strategies that seem quicker, cheaper or easier to control. There are plenty of off-the-peg solutions out there – detailed pre-written curriculum planning documents, teaching ticklists, online AI courses, the list is endless – that promise rapid and guaranteed school improvement, and when we have the spectre of Ofsted and performance tables hanging over us, this can seem very beguiling.

In our Trust, we had faced this dilemma over a period of time, and had worked away at it as best we could. However, there was one major hurdle that stood in the way of an ethos of professional growth and development – the Performance Management and Appraisal system. Over the years, it had become ingrained – we adopted the LA policies because unions had already been consulted and it met statutory obligations. You know the sort of thing: Teachers met with their line manager and set 3 objectives, with SMART targets and quantifiable success criteria. These are placed in a file, reviewed mid-year (or usually not), and a special performance management lesson observation takes place. One year later, the targets were reviewed and pay progression was either recommended, or not. It went fairly smoothly, but we had managed to develop a system that rewarded those teachers who managed to negotiate the least challenging objectives possible, and very often focused on things that had lost much of the relevance by the time a full year had passed.

Is there anyone out there who would seriously claim that the system of nationally-mandated Teacher Performance Management and Appraisal made any positive impact on the lives of children, let alone that it justified the hours that it swallowed up? There had to be a better way.

This, then, was the starting point for our journey, a journey that is still in its very early stages. Over the last year, we have begun to develop a different approach to supporting staff improvement, an approach that relies on the belief that given the right support and resource, our staff will embrace the opportunity to develop and improve. It is rooted in our Trust Values and ethos, and has been a collective endeavour.

I was also indebted to Chris Moyse of TLC Education Services and The Bridgwater College Trust who generously talked me through the Growing Great Teachers methodology he has developed, and I have drawn on the principles set out in Paul Garvey’s ‘Talk for Teaching’ and Kulvarn Atwal’s ‘The Thinking School’. I was also inspired by the many teachers who have taken responsibility for their own professional development through their own engagement with training and research. It has been inspiring for me to attend events where teachers share their ideas and understanding in a spirit of complete generosity, not because they have to or because it’s on their Performance Management plan, but because they want to and enjoy the stimulation and camaraderie of learning. The fact that events often take place at the weekend and are led by teachers relatively early in their career (special mention to Clive Hill and Steve Cox in the East Midlands) is particularly inspiring for a grizzled veteran like me.

So what does our new system look like. First of all, we have separated pay-related appraisal from the professional growth process completely. If a teacher is performing in line with the expectations of the Teacher Standards, taking into account their job description and level of seniority, then pay progression happens. On the rare occasions where that is in question, they don’t find out in a meeting at the end of the year, but effective QA and line management means that problems are picked up early and addressed, principally through support and positive coaching. Professional growth is not about justifying your salary.

That does not of course mean that it is a soft option, quite the opposite. Our policy is based fairly and squarely on asking ourselves the question: Whatever my career stage, whatever my current performance level, how can I do better in a way that improves things for the children and young people in my care?

So our teachers still set objectives, but they are based on what we call Career Goals. The goal is to improve and the role of the line manager is to help each teacher to identify the areas on which to focus. These might be areas of relative strength in which the teacher wants to become even more expert, or areas of relative weakness in which the teacher wants to develop and improve. It could be developing new skills or expertise, or learning more about a particular issue – anything that fits the definition of professional growth.

Improvement doesn’t happen spontaneously of course, there are a number of things that have to be present, but the key element is learning – as teachers we know this instinctively. Professional growth is accompanied by professional learning – that may be through reading and reflection, it may be via others, perhaps a mentor or someone providing an inspiring CPD course, or it may come from our own research and evaluation.

Another crucial part of our policy is what we are calling the ‘Three-part conversation’ which takes place each term between a teacher and their line manager, with outcomes recorded and shared by both parties. This is a supportive meeting, with no judgement or grading. The first part deals with the breadth of the teachers’ role, and is set in the context of the teacher standards – what is going well? Are there any concerns about particular classes or subjects? Which groups may need some additional support? etc

The second part is focused on Professional Growth, specifically the progress towards the career goals identified at the initial meeting. The plans will be revisited – not to tick off success criteria, but to reflect on the learning so far and refine the next stages of the journey. The key principle is that the career goals are owned by the teacher, not the institution.

The final part is explicitly focused on teacher wellbeing – not simply a ‘how are you’ conversation, but an opportunity for a teacher to talk about the things that may be causing difficulty or anxiety, and for their line manager to discuss support and resources (as a Trust we have invested in ensuring that help and support is available). This is an explicit acknowledgement that our commitment to staff wellbeing is authentic, and doesn’t wait for things to go wrong before the support is put in place.

It’s early days, and we will need to work hard to ensure that this does not becomes as formulaic as the system it is meant to replace, but the early signs are positive. Like any significant change, it needs careful nurturing and support as it becomes embedded. We are also extending the policy to encompass the professional growth of all support staff, for whom the principles are just as relevant and important.

Would I be proposing this if our schools still Required Improvement and our league table position was well below average? Maybe not, but that would probably be due to a failure of nerve rather than a belief that schools and their staff need to somehow earn the right to promote deep professional learning. What I do know is that trusting our schools and the staff who work in them is not just the right thing to do, but the best thing to do – let’s see where it can take us!

Putting the Horse before the Cart

There are many parts of our lives that have been disrupted at best or completely destroyed by this pandemic – a drink in the pub with friends, going to a concert, having your nails done (less of a problem for me personally) – but one of the least lamented has been the scrapping of exams for the second year in succession. Indeed, the reaction from many quarters of the educational world ranged from relief to jubilation. The unmitigated disaster of 2020’s ‘mutant algorithm’ and the continuing disruption to normal school life had left many teachers and students skeptical about the possibility of a fair and robust system, and despite the lack of clarity about the replacement, it still felt like this was the only sensible decision.

However, the enforced abandonment of exams has led to a growing clamour for a full examination of the exam system from a surprising range of voices. Everyone from teacher unions to David Davis MP have said that this is the moment to reconsider our system. Scrap GCSEs, move to an International Baccalaureate, reinstate a strong vocational offer – there have been lots of ideas, some imaginative, most well-meaning, all based on dissatisfaction with the current system.

Seizing this moment makes sense. Even if we reinstate exams next year, the impact of two years of Centre Assessed Grades will continue for some time. Will we return to the attainment levels that we had before the pandemic? This would seem very unfair to the class of ‘22 who could well be competing for the same university places and jobs as their peers from this year’s cohort. Progress data will be hugely destabilised, given the fact that we have two year groups travelling through school without Year 11 data, followed by two further year groups without Year 6 data. If we’re going to shake up the system, now is the time to do it.

However, I have found much of the debate dispiriting in its scope, treating as it does, the issue as a problem to be solved rather than an opportunity to be grasped. The question that we’re answering seems to be little more than how we find a fairer and more efficient way of managing the exam system, rather than trying to understand the purpose of our education system and the role of effective summative assessment. It’s almost as if the sport of football was designed so that the offside rule worked successfully – we might solve a particular problem, but if that happened at the expense of the whole game, would we call it a success?

The way that our secondary education system has been established is that we have two points at which students make a significant choice about their next steps – Year 11 and Year 13. Since the days when these points were established, the landscape has changed significantly. The era when the vast majority of young people would leave the education system at one of these points and directly enter the world of work have gone. Nowadays, for almost all students, age 18 is the threshold point at which a potential employer or academic institution needs an accurate picture of how their specific skills compare to their peers who might also be competing for the same spot.

By contrast, the decision taken at age 16 is to choose the model of learning that they will engage with during the next stage of their journey. This could be an academic sixth form, a vocational education route at an FE College, or an apprenticeship. There are almost no young people who take their GCSE exams and then leave all forms of education, and the few who do so tend to be the ones who have failed in the current system with almost no exam passes next to their name.

So the key information that we need for students at age 16 is which is the best route for them to follow. And yet the information we gather is how they compare to all students nationally in a suite of 8-10 subjects. I can think of almost no situations where that is needed to decide next steps.

Let’s take the example of a highly academic student, with an interest and aptitude in STEM subjects, unsure of their ultimate destination but certainly heading for university and perhaps intending to go on to become a doctor. What do we need to know about them at 16? We need to know that they have the ability to cope with a challenging academic curriculum, specialising in Maths and Sciences. We need to know that they are diligent and focused on study. We probably want to know that they are literate, well-read and developing good emotional and interpersonal skills. We would also like to know that they have had access to a broad and stimulating curriculum that has given them the opportunity to understand other areas of the curriculum – however, knowing how they have performed in these subjects compared to a national average is unlikely to be important or relevant.

Another example: a student who has had a successful school career without being an academic high-flyer, performing reasonably well across most subjects. They don’t have a clear idea about the job they will end up doing, but they have good people skills, and are interested in a service industry career, possibly retail or hospitality. This student is faced with a dilemma when they approach the end of Year 11. Do they continue with the gold standard academic route and focus on A levels, cut their losses and go down a vocational route, or hedge their bets with some combination of the two? The biggest problem we have in the promotion of vocational courses is that it is always seen as what you do if you are not capable of coping with an academic route – and given the way our exam structure works, why wouldn’t you think that?

Finally, let me offer another example, one that has some personal resonance: that of a 16 year old with a moderate learning disability attending a mainstream school. At the end of Key Stage 4, they are likely to attend the local FE college, where they will take part in a course with a strong emphasis on employability and life skills. They will be supported into work placements, with the hope of finding one which is well-suited to their interests and talents and could then lead to permanent employment, perhaps in a supported capacity. What do we need to know about this student at 16? We don’t need to know how their academic performance compares with the picture across the nation, a set of exam results which is basically a catalogue of failure. As the father of a child who has been in this position, I can report from first experience that it tells you nothing at all about that young person, other than that they have been badly served by the exam system. We need an assessment profile that tells you what they can do, where their strengths and interests lie, and hasn’t wasted half a year getting them to prepare for exams that serve no purpose.

If, like me, you’ve been around for a while, you may remember the Tomlinson report, published in 2004, probably the last serious attempt to wrestle with this problem by fundamentally re-imagining the structure of 14-19 education. It was well-received within education, but the scale of change proposed proved too controversial for the then Labour government and the Secretary of State for Education at the time, Ruth Kelly, not known as one of education’s great reformers. Widespread change at that time was seen as unnecessarily disruptive, whereas at the moment, the disruption has happened – it’s not a question of whether we’re going to rebuild our education system, but how we’re going to rebuild it – by trying to erect an exact copy of a system that is not fit for purpose, or by placing the needs and aspirations at the centre of our vision for education. The DfE, Professional Associations, curriculum bodies, Chartered College, stakeholder groups, employers – everyone who has an interest should be involved in the discussion. If not now, then when?

I haven’t written this piece with answers, not least because there are no easy answers, and because there are people out there who are more qualified than I am to make suggestion. However, acknowledging the problem and beginning a serious attempt to solve it is always a good start. We’ve evolved an education system that is set up to respond to the demands of its final exams – how about doing it the other way round?

The year the Blob grew teeth

On the 1st January 2020, I posted a blog entitled ‘Reasons to be Cheerful – Why I’m feeling optimistic about teaching in the 2020s’. It’s fair to say that it didn’t age well, so this year I’m avoiding the temptation to make predictions. Instead, I’m taking the opportunity to look back at the previous year in search of positive changes that have happened in the world of education.

Keeping perspective has been difficult when we have had to manage multiple crises and make urgent decisions – there have been precious few opportunities to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. However, whether in schools or in wider society, within all the chaos, tragedy and hopelessness of the Covid pandemic, there have been beacons of hope and positivity, individuals and groups who have shown the power of our common humanity and the example of selflessness.

As school leaders, we have often had a feeling of powerlessness, particularly when we have had to respond to government decisions or government indecision. We have been subject to criticism based on ignorance of the work we have been doing (schools never closed!) and have all been accustomed to making multiple plans while waiting for the all-important DfE announcement or email guidance.

However, this feeling sometimes makes it hard to see a wider truth, which is that the world of education has become more united and more powerful in decision making than for many years. Look at some of the battles we have fought this year. Free school meals support, the scale of the reopening of schools in the summer term, exam algorithms that arbitrarily penalised some students, re-introduction of Ofsted inspections, school performance tables – the pattern has been the same. Government announce the policy in haste with minimal consultation, the world of education categorically declares that it is undeliverable and damaging in its current form, government insist that it will definitely go ahead as planned, right up until the moment when they announce that they’ve changed their minds and propose a more sensible option, which we then deliver.

The planned rollout of testing in secondary schools followed a now familiar trajectory. Government made their announcement – we will test every pupil in the first week back, some year groups stay at home for the first week, everyone back by the beginning of week 2. It’s an ill thought out plan, put together without any dialogue with school leaders. The educational world unites – Unions, Headteacher groups, Chartered College, Local Authorities, even the large MATs who will often try and support the government – and say it can’t be delivered in the timescale set out, there is then clearly a panicked conversation behind closed doors in government, and the policy is changed. A pyrrhic victory, perhaps, but another example of the way that government know that if we’re united, we’re difficult to face down.

Michael Gove famously described those of us work in education collectively as ‘The Blob’. Despite the insulting tone of the description, there is a truth lurking in there somewhere. Many attempts to bring about rapid change have foundered on the power of the education world to resist. If you want us to move, you have to convince us of the necessity of the change. Teaching is a true profession, and the nature of the professions means that its members have a level of autonomy in the classroom. Moreover, school leaders in the vast majority of schools have the trust and support of their local community, to an extent that politicians can only dream of – when it comes to a choice, parents will side with their local Head Teacher against the Secretary of State for Education almost every time.

This power only diminishes when the education world is divided, and one of the consequences of structural changes in recent years has been an increasingly divided system. The emergence of strong organisations such as the Chartered College of Teaching, the leadership of professional associations who have made an effort to speak for the wider educational world, and the opportunity for teachers to share perspectives through social media have all made a difference this year, and allowed us to speak with one voice when our backs are against the wall. Long may it continue.

As I said at the start, I’m avoiding predictions for education in 2021, other than to expect some difficult times ahead before we return to anything that looks like normality. It’s perfectly possible that the cycle will continue of government diktats, followed by resolute resistance from educators, and a climbdown and change of policy. Wouldn’t it be nice if the DfE saved a huge amount of time and conflict, simply by asking us what we thought first, listening to our replies and trusting that we want the best for children?

Don’t Panic – Why trying to catch-up will leave us further behind

I’m writing this as the national conversation about education seems to be focusing on life after Covid-19 for the first time since the crisis started. We have quite rightly been so focused on the immediate issues of safety and protecting the most vulnerable that beyond a vague sense that everything will be different, it has been too difficult to understand how, and when, we will return to normality.

But now that debate is shifting. Government has made it clear that schools will be fully open for all children full time from the start of the new school year in September. Not only that, but we will be seeing a substantial investment in programmes to help students recover.

Clearly, the last few months will have had an effect – in many ways it would be more worrying in the long term if there wasn’t a significant impact of such a period of school closure (for most pupils). No matter how diligent teachers have been in setting up online curricula, we know they cannot replace the benefits of fully operational schools.

The effort to support a generation of young people who have been badly affected is welcome. They certainly do not deserve to have their future blighted by factors way beyond their control. That’s why people on every side of the argument have bought into the idea that children have fallen behind, and now what is needed is for these students to ‘catch up’.

Catch up with what? With who? With where everyone else is? With where we imagine they would have been if they hadn’t had any time out of school? ‘Catching up’ implies a sudden and temporary spurt, an extra effort to get back on track, following which they slow back down and jog along with everyone else. It’s a persuasive idea, because it isolates the problem and provides a neat solution.

However, the pervasive narrative of ‘catch up’ will mean that we make some poor decisions about curriculum and provision.

Firstly, as teachers will know, it doesn’t reflect what we know about student learning. Learning is not a racetrack with a finishing line. It’s not a neat, linear process where every person takes the same cognitive route to an imagined finish line and if you fall behind, you just need a turbocharged boost to get back in touch. I’m tempted to observe that if accelerating learning was as straightforward as this, we should be doing this already. What’s more, children’s development is not simply confined to the classroom, so the assumption that nothing will have been learnt, or that they will have gone ‘backwards’ may not be accurate, and certainly won’t be consistent.

Secondly, we have no idea what the impact of learning loss will be, and how long lasting. The research by John Hattie (based on an analysis of student progress after schooling had been interrupted by the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake) has been widely quoted recently, but in summary it says that children’s recovery from interrupted schooling is swifter and learning is more resilient than we might expect. We also have to bear in mind the fact that young people will not come back into school in an equal state of readiness to learn – some will have been hugely affected by the crisis, others may be able to pick up exactly where they left off. Designing programmes to meet these needs will inevitably miss far more targets than it hits.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the concept of ‘catching up’ as quickly as possible could easily lead to short-term curriculum decisions that do not benefit the broad development of our pupils. If we’re trying to move as quickly as possible, it makes sense to jettison all unnecessary baggage that might slow us down. The evidence says that catch-up and intervention time is often taken from PE, PSHE, tutor time or at the expense of enrichment activity. These are precisely the sort of things that many young people will have been missing out on in recent times.

So, how should we respond? Most importantly, we need to make sure that our students make as much progress as possible when they come back, by using the wealth of knowledge we have about securing excellent pupil outcomes. Quality First Teaching, broad and balanced curricula, well-planned schemes of work, teachers using their well-practised skills of instruction and excellent subject knowledge to bring about secure long-term student learning – these are the things that we know make a lasting difference.

We can then supplement this by employing the promised additional support and resources (subject to the small print) in a targeted and informed way, so that individual tutoring programmes build on and support work in class, and are informed by accurate formative assessment – avoiding one-size-fits-all remote packages.

We use the newly-formed knowledge and resources we have about online and remote learning to supplement what we are doing, not just as a panicked attempt to catch up, but from now on as an integral part of the learning package.

We make sensible curriculum choices to recognise that some content has been missed, but that does not have to lead to the long term lack of skills development. If not all History topics can be covered in a meaningful way, change the exam so that fewer topics are needed, don’t sacrifice depth of knowledge for superficial coverage.

It would also be helpful if school-level decisions in the interests of their students could be supported by central policy – for example another year’s suspension of comparative league-table data, or amendments to the Ofsted framework to acknowledge school’s current challenges.

This has been an unlucky generation of students – they’ve gone through a period of austerity in education and have now been hit by a once in a lifetime pandemic (we hope). However, all is not lost, and anyone who works with children and young people knows how resilient they can be. This is a time for the adults to display determination and cool heads. Catch Up? All in good time.

Could we live without GCSEs?

The first thing to say about the cancellation of GCSE exams is that I understand the dismay and disappointment of the young people and their teachers who have worked hard to prepare for this summer’s exams. There is a sense that the compact between students and the education system has been broken. The principle that your destiny is not predetermined, but that you can achieve great things if you work hard and do your best is one that we have spent countless hours embedding. If it turns out that the most important factors in your Geography grade are a) how well you did in Maths and English SATs when you were 11 years old b) how well a completely different set of students did last year (possibly with a different teacher) and c) how clever your friends are – then an element of disillusionment is understandable.

However, the die is cast – the solution has been settled upon, the hastily-cobbled system will run its course, and grades will be awarded. The students who feel a sense of unfairness have my sympathy. However, the fundamental question is, ‘So what?’ Will the cancellation of GCSEs make any substantial difference to where the nation’s 16-year-olds find themselves in 6 months’ time? How many students will find that they are denied access to a 6th form course, or a college place, or an apprenticeship based on teacher assessment, that they would otherwise have been able to access?

In reality, all but a tiny handful will be exactly where they would have been. Speaking from our own organisation, we have a fairly clear picture of which students are intending to come to our 6th Form; we know, broadly speaking, which courses they will select and we have a clear picture whether that is an appropriate choice; we have given advice to that effect and offered a place on that basis. In a normal year, if a student came to us on results day with a disastrous result, and we knew that did not reflect their performance over time, we wouldn’t just turn them away – we would consider a retake, maybe a shift in the pattern of courses, not a simple rejection. We would keep our eyes on the bigger picture.

We see the same attitude reflected from employers offering apprenticeships, and FE colleges offering vocational routes – we all want students to succeed and to follow the route that gives them the best chance of long-term success. This year, students are still able to access appropriate destinations, based on teacher assessment. There is no incentive for teachers to support students on to courses where they would be out of their depth and likely to fail. It may be an imperfect system, but the one its replacing is not perfect either.

GCSEs made sense in a time when age 16 signalled the end of formal education for a huge proportion of the school population. In the modern world, it’s just another point at which young people pick a particular route, in the same way they do when they choose options at the end of Year 9.

So, what would we lose if GCSEs just didn’t happen? What purpose do they actually serve? Let’s just imagine if this situation became permanent and we decided to abandon KS4 exams on a permanent basis. What would be the consequences of a system that relied on a model of teacher assessment?

Well, it can be argued that exams are a good motivational tool – we’ve all seen Year 11 students suddenly buckle down with a term to go after a few years’ coasting. But is that final year acceleration inevitable only when all the eggs are put into the exams basket? If we can change the culture so that it’s clear that your performance over the whole course is considered, then we would be encouraging greater depth of learning as opposed to superficial cramming of knowledge that can be immediately discarded after the exam.

We wouldn’t have external published data with which to compare and judge schools – league tables would disappear. I have written before about the distorting effect of league table culture, but the excesses that it has led to – spurious courses and entry patterns, off-rolling, gaming in all its forms – are clear to see even for its greatest advocates. The inherent socio-economic unfairness written deep into the fabric of our current system is magnified and highlighted through our league table obsession

Of course, the idea that schools can’t be judged by results is one that fills some people with horror. In reality, there are plenty of other ways that parents or other interested parties can judge schools – Ofsted reports (and let’s face it, Ofsted’s new framework is ahead of the curve here) look at the full range of school provision, no longer just the summary of exam data. Perhaps parents could be given greater opportunity to visit school, or to talk to current parents, or look at the impact of the school in the community.

For those who want data, destination data is possibly the best indicator of the way that a school is having an impact on the life chances of student, but there are also exclusion and attendance figures, financial data (including how much is allocated to executive pay), and a whole range of data that schools can choose to share.

A system not geared around exam preparation would obviously depend upon skilled and robust internal assessment practices, which wouldn’t appear in every school overnight. However, a much greater focus on formative assessment to secure improvement and development would lead to the development of assessment practice and a greater incentive for schools to collaborate for the moderation of student performance.

The possibility afforded by changes to curriculum design are exciting and full of potential to improve learning and progress – the structure of the course dictated by the content of the discipline, not the exam spec, the potential use of the many hours that are currently lost for revision, mocks, exam practice. We open up the possibilities of linking curriculum to enrichment, of making deep cross-disciplinary links, of making genuine curriculum connections with the wider world of work and the local community.

Think of the huge savings that we could free up if we didn’t have to pay tens of thousands every school every year on exam fees, exam-related CPD and invigilation (and think of the use that we could make of our army of invigilators). Think of the use we could make of the period from June to late August – planning ahead, focusing on transition or work experience, instead of sweating on that fateful results day.

I suspect that this is a pipe dream, as a result of the insurmountable barriers of the lack of trust in the educational professionals and the importance of external measures in our performativity culture. Assuming that this is a one-year hiatus, by this time next year, I’ll be supporting and cajoling our students and staff to get the best results they can, and celebrating and commiserating with them as usual in the summer. If that’s the case, I will find it hard not to have the feeling of an opportunity squandered.

Splendid isolation? Why I’m struggling to pick a side

I have to be honest, I am a little nervous about entering the behaviour discussion that seems to dominate education at the moment. A few weeks ago, I tweeted that the following:

#edutwitter behaviour debate is so dispiriting. On a subject so complex, multi-layered and context-driven, how have we ended up with such a simplistic division? Allowing a pupil to disrupt others’ learning is clearly wrong, as is ignoring individual needs – it’s not either/or.’

I thought it was an unremarkable observation. However, responses ranged from enthusiastic agreement to someone who ended their response with ‘Who are you? Shut up.’ I’m not too precious about these things but thought it an interesting illustration of the way opinion has become entrenched.

Since then, I have watched the debate continue to be ramped up, making the front page of the Guardian, heated debates on the Today programme, and all out war between the Children’s Commissioner and the Government Behaviour Tsar. As we head towards the ‘Lose the Booths’ event, I’m expecting the sound of the debate to grow, probably at the expense of the light it provides. Will anyone’s opinion shift as a result? I’m not holding my breath.

So, in a small attempt to promote consensus, because that’s the kind of woolly liberal I am, I have three opinions about the current debate.

  • It’s not acceptable for students to behave in a way that prevents other children from learning, makes the classroom unsafe or puts intolerable burdens on the teacher.

As pragmatic professionals, sometimes we have to take a step backwards to move forward. A behaviour policy that does not allow for a student ever to be removed from class as part of a stepped approach is asking for trouble. As long as the long-term aim is for students to address and improve their behaviour, and return to class to learn, then there is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with removal from class.

Consequences have to be part of any effective behaviour policy. There needs to be enough flexibility to account for individual needs, but the bottom line is that student learning is damaged when behaviour is poor. It’s our responsibility as professionals to address that situation decisively when it occurs.

  • It’s not acceptable for students to be isolated in a way that is cruel and excessively punitive.

Removal from class to work elsewhere for short periods whilst work takes place to correct long-term behaviour is a good way of addressing a problem, and it’s also fine to make it clear that this is a negative consequence of negative behaviour choices – it’s not fine to isolate pupils in a situation for extended periods where there is almost no interaction with others, or support for learning. It’s also not ok to remove students from learning for extended periods for minor infractions of equipment or uniform policy. There are better ways of dealing with this. Colleagues tell me that this is rare, but there is no doubt that it happens, and it appears to be increasing.

  • Everyone has a right to opinion

Among the most self-defeating aspects of the whole debate are comments along the lines of ‘people who argue this have clearly never worked in a school with challenging behaviour’ or ‘I assume people who advocate this don’t have a child with special needs’, the assumption being that you therefore should not express an opinion. School leaders need to be able to make decisions and parents and others in the wider community have the right to advocate for children, but it doesn’t mean that views can’t be respectfully challenged. It’s not a straight choice between isolation booths and disruptive classrooms, nor between keeping everyone in class and inflicting cruel and psychologically damaging punishment.

By the way, I’m a school leader, I teach, I’m the father of a child with SEND and I have worked in a variety of contexts, including schools in high levels of deprivation. The schools I work in currently are successful, inclusive schools, with very high standards of behaviour, low exclusion rates and no isolation booths, but do have SLT on-call systems and arrangements for students to be removed from class if necessary.