Proof – the final frontier for teachers

Is it time to return to the cult of the teacher?

It’s the first thing you get told when you come into teaching: what works with one class doesn’t necessarily work with another.

A trainee teacher might lament after a lesson (that did not go so well) where they had repeated the plan from another class and their sage mentor would say – it might have worked quite well with 9x, but 9y are a different class.

This is not about learning styles, which has been substantially criticised. This is about knowing the individuals in your classes. A good teacher is always thinking about ‘maximum learning’. Don’t mistake this for, ‘entertainment’, ‘engagement’ or any other glib insult. We are not ‘making our subject interesting’ – our subject is interesting. But we are fine tuning the lesson to the unique community of learners that have been assembled to experience the subject with us in the form of lessons.

If we are really honest this is one of the biggest issues with the accountability system. A school’s results and standards of teaching don’t go up and down so dramatically as measured from year to year as the data likes to report. What happens is that one cohort is very different to another in terms of collated outcomes. A senior manager prays that a specific cohort goes through the system out of sync with the ofsted inspection cycle of a school. God help any school if ofsted turns up shortly after their one dodgy cohort’s variable results. This is really an amplified version of what Becky Allen refers to as ‘noise’ – the variables that can affect outcomes and attempts to measure progress using what is actually non-comparable data. A school could be comparing one good cohort with one not so good cohort and be deemed terrible or amazing depending on which came first. I’m afraid Progress 8 has done nothing to prevent this from happening as others have already said. The off-rolling we have seen is a direct result of people trying to manage this ‘noise’ and its impact on accountability measures. Indeed, having read Becky Allen’s blogs on closing the gap you begin to think the issue with the RCTs of the EEF is that they need to make stronger their awareness of ‘noise’ and how schools cater for this when exploring ideas that emerge from the RCTs. Rather than use the RCTs as eternal proof that setting, technology or any other intervention ‘works’ or ‘doesn’t work’, one should see the output from these RCTs as a source of information and evidence that could be useful when looking at one’s own specific cohorts (and remember, every year group is different).

All too often, we end up looking for the silver bullet. We try to remove the very thing which makes us human from the school system – our variability. Once all variability is removed then we can finally say that our resource or pedagogy is proven to work with all. Yet the inherent variables and other influential attributes all mean we cannot prove that something ‘works’ for everyone and every school.  That’s why social science can never lose its subjectivity or its lack of ability to resolutely prove things in the way that medicine likes to do. It’s therefore why you can’t ‘prove’ anything in education. But you can get the next best thing: a teacher.

A teacher, through forming a deep relationship with a class, can use their knowledge, intuition and teaching to maximise the outcomes for the individuals in that class. Those outcomes will be many, varied and not always measured or be measurable. Those outcomes will be assessment outcomes, aspirations, values, passions, inspiration, personal growth and so forth. Some will be quantified and some will be qualitative. The teacher will subjectively work out which methods, from their vast list of methods and evidence, are best for this group of individuals. It’s an amazing feat of human engineering and it’s a time-honoured ability: to be a truly amazing teacher for a class. And it’s the closest thing we will get to proving something works in education. You want a silver bullet? There it is: the teacher.

Off-rolling – is this just the tip of the ethical iceberg?

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At university, if we want to initiate some kind of intervention in schools as part of a research project we would be expected to review the British Educational Research Association’s (BERA) guidelines. This guideline is full of sensible advice such as:

Researchers should immediately reconsider any actions occurring during the research process that appear to cause emotional or other harm, in order to minimise such harm. The more vulnerable the participants, the greater the responsibilities of the researcher for their protection.  (BERA, 2018, p.19)

So the first thing we have to consider is the likelihood of the intervention causing harm to the pupil. And the second thing we need to consider is that a pupil’s ‘vulnerability’ amplifies our need to protect the child from harm.

Now let’s turn to schools. If a member of staff in a school or group of schools wishes to initiate some kind of intervention as part of an evidence informed project to increase outcomes for the pupils or schools what guidelines do they have to follow? Well, the answer is, quite simply, none. Yet, if they did the same project in their school as part of undertaking a PGCE or Master’s then it would have to go through the exact same ethical approval process as described above.

It is important and worthwhile at this stage to set out that I am not talking about low level interventions of the sort that schools and teachers do all of the time. I’m talking about practice which could cause harm. And to vulnerable pupils in particular.

Let’s take off-rolling as an example. Here we see that staff in a school or group of schools have decided to create an intervention. The intervention could possibly benefit the pupils in the school cohort through redistribution of resources. It could even hypothetically benefit those who leave the school through the process of off-rolling. As part of an ethical approval process you would evaluate the likelihood of harm falling to those who are being off-rolled and look at the outcomes for them after they leave mainstream schooling.  Well, it turns out the outcomes for those who leave mainstream schooling are poor: 1-6% get their 5 good GCSEs. That’s considerable harm. Then you evaluate who is being off-rolled. Well, it turns out it is SEND pupils amongst others. I think we can safely say that they meet the term ‘more vulnerable’. This intervention would have died at the proposal stage at the table of the ethics committee. Even internal off-rolling such as a grammar school preventing Year 12s from moving to Year 13 if they did not attain specific grades would most certainly fail the ethical test.

But here is the rub. These schools that are off-rolling pupils are ‘compliant’. They meet the requirements that are set out by the accountability framework. The DfE doesn’t approve, OFSTED doesn’t approve, the children’s commissioner for England doesn’t approve, parents struggle to get provision for the SEND children or a second year of A level education for their children and yet despite this, schools are ‘compliant’.

So is that the requirement? That schools have to be ‘compliant’ and that this does not take into account ethics? Should not all major decisions of this type have to go through an internal ethical panel which in itself is reviewed and checked by an external ethical body? If schools are to be more evidence informed does it not also follow they should be ethically sound? Should governors and trustees also be part of this ethical process and receive training?

Before you say this is unworkable, consider how it is done at university. If a student proposes an intervention they have to write a section on ethics setting out how it meets the ethical requirements. It is reviewed by a qualified tutor. There is an ethics board for more contentious interventions. At each stage, if there is any doubt about the intervention, it is passed up further through more senior boards, staffed by more experienced and qualified senior professionals. The bigger the proposal, the more scrutiny for ethics it attracts.

The government could legislate against off-rolling easily and the affected schools would all change their actions and become ‘compliant’ again. Until the next ethically challenging idea thought up to affect outcomes within the accountability framework. Wouldn’t it be better to also have a headteacher’s body draw up a code of ethics similar to that from BERA and for all teachers and schools to use this when considering evidence informed interventions for their pupils?

Should you be hothousing your child for the new baseline entry test for 4-year olds?

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I know the controversial base line testing is not due to start until 2020, but believe me, parents of children aged 0-4 years old and parents whose children will be in child care before the age of 4 will be thinking about this test already. The test will come in after the education secretary has said that parents are not preparing children for school properly. And I want to talk about some of the issues around teaching after and preparing for this test.

I love teaching.  At this late stage of the academic year I may be looking at the world through a rose-tinted prosecco glass, but I love the kids in my Key Stage 1 class. I love working with them, their enthusiasm and watching their progress.

I even like some of the parents and I don’t tend to grumble about pay or workload. However, some of the testing I do have issues with.

Phonics Screening check:

What has this test achieved?  It’s shown me that a 6-year-old child, with an assessed reading age of almost 10, can get five words wrong because they are desperate to make sense of nonsense words with strange alien pictures beside them.

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It has also shown me that an education system seemingly starved of money, has enough spare cash to finance a visit from an inspector to check your phonics materials are appropriately stored just in case you or the children in your class see the test prior to the launch date and memorize all 40 words.  Oddly, we are trusted to teach the nation’s youth but not to have enough integrity to store a test.

At the end of the day, this is a test that doesn’t tell me anything about a child’s reading ability that can’t be gleaned from hearing them read a book to me as a professionally qualified teacher.

KS1 SATS:

Those teachers lucky enough to teach a combined year 1 and 2 class get hit by the double whammy of phonics testing and the joy of SATS – another thing that parents pay attention to.  Not to mention another year of a narrowed curriculum (something OFSTED acknowledges), which focuses on maths and reading comprehension.

Should a child’s performance even hint at not reaching an expected standard then, in our school, TAs, HLTAs and even the Head Teacher are taking small groups right, left and centre to work on partitioning or reading inference.  Art, music, design and technology?  What year 2 child would want to do those when they can be trapped in a small, sweaty office with someone sequencing the events in a story about foxes and fishermen from 1 – 5?

Hopefully, the new shift in OFSTED’s focus will at least result in the rejuvenation of foundation subjects even if this does mean further change for teachers and an even shorter summer break while we work on the extra planning demands.

Reception Baseline Assessments:

For those of us in Key Stage 1 prepared to stick it out, 2022 – 2023 could see some light at the end of the long dark assessment tunnel.

Key Stage 1 SATS are (probably) being made non-statutory when those four-year olds unfortunate enough to have been subjected to the Reception baseline assessment start to filter through the system.  No matter how this initiative is dressed up, I haven’t spoken to one EYFS teacher yet who agrees with such a thing or even thinks it is necessary.

Surely it will result in those at the competitive end of the parental scale hothousing their toddlers and testing them on their knowledge of number recognition, shape and letters of the alphabet.  No playing in the garden making mud pies for you until you can repeat your alphabet three times! I can see why. Parents want their children to score highly in any assessment and are prepared to do whatever it takes to make that happen. However, just as in education, you can begin to see how an assessment could narrow the curriculum at home as everyone tries to prioritise learning the knowledge of the assessment.

If you think hothousing them is a good thing and can only help us teachers, you’re probably misguided.  For, in my experience, parents do not always approach education in a joined up way with the school. For example, they often tend to teach letter names not sounds. The result: many a Reception teacher will spend a year trying to get them out of this habit and learn their Letters and Sounds phases 1 – 3 instead.

Unfortunately, while primary and lower schools are fielding criticism for narrowing the curriculum to focus on statutory tests the very real danger is home could follow suit for pre-schoolers with this new baseline assessment. We have seen the impact of national assessment on curriculum at all stages of school – what will happen to the curriculum at home with this new national assessment? And if parents are thinking about this assessment that will happen in 2020 – perhaps right now they are also thinking about how they might hothouse their child to do well in this assessment.

I’m looking forward to September already, but in the meantime, I’ll refill my rose-tinted glass of prosecco and enjoy the sunshine …

10 things they hate about your subject

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Does it worry you when a pupil says they hate your subject? It should. That’s a strong word hate. And then applied to your subject like a knife in the heart. Nobody should be hating a subject. They especially should not be hating your subject.

Well actually, they hate performing in your subject.

They hate performing in P.E.

They hate writing for the view of others.

They hate reading aloud.

They hate doing maths and showing their working out publicly.

They hate taking exams in your subject.

In all of these, they hate performing in your subject. They hate publicly displaying: their body, their misconceptions in maths, their ineptitude in speaking modern languages, their poor reading aloud in front of others and their difficulty writing out their ideas; for public ridicule as they see it.

So who are ‘they’? They are pupils and adults who have had a negative experience of performance in your subject and have developed an aversion to it. This can be especially cemented when they do the final performance – the examination or assessment. And all of this fits into the contemporary agenda of mental health, but don’t think it is a new problem. It’s just modern life involves more performance these days.

Pupils who dislike performance based aspects of a subject can be found in any room of people. I’ve met so many people who tell me a variation along the lines of: ‘I had a negative experience performing in an area of a subject and this has affected me in all walks of life.’ These people make life choices, career choices, struggle in specific relevant situations and employ avoidance of activities & circumstances: a life time of different experiences all rooted in a negative experience of performing in a subject at school, e.g. ‘I didn’t like speaking in front of the class and now I avoid all public speaking wherever possible.’ I meet TEACHERS who don’t like public speaking. It’s a real thing this is. Teachers!

This must not be confused with the stretch and challenge agenda.  This agenda is focused on removing differentiated learning outcomes. A good teacher knows exactly where a pupil’s comfort zones and barriers to learning are. They engage with the pupil using a high quality relationship to create trust. Once established, they then use that trust to take the pupil beyond their comfort zone in such a way that the pupil feels supported and stretched at the same time.

One question I find helpful to ask myself is this: do I want them to read 3 books or 1000 books? If I want to achieve the latter, then I need to find a way to ensure a pupil enjoys the performance of reading. Does a P.E. teacher want the pupil to play the sport in school and never again or do they want them to enjoy sport itself for life? We have to think about the long term outcomes even when we are thinking about assessment outcomes. It is important – we need to achieve both the outcomes (performing in assessment) and the inspiration (performing in life) together. There is no good in having one without the other.

Don’t forget there is a good side to performance – I am not saying performance is a bad thing. I read an interesting article on science experiments which said the reasons for doing experiments are a mix of learning and of generating curiosity, motivation and an interest in chemistry. It suggests that when children meet challenge, if they have enjoyed challenge before in the subject they are more likely to persevere and to have better self-efficacy. It is a bit like doing a five kilometre run and then going home and doing some quite difficult mathematics made much more interesting by the fact that your five kilometre running performance has provided the data. Successful performance is brilliant. Life changing. Inspiring. Alas, so is a negative experience of performance and not in a good way.

The next time you meet a child or adult who dislikes your subject, ask some questions. What is it they don’t like? Is it a performance aspect? Is there a single incident which has taken root and created this aversion? Install a new updated experience of performance. One in which they are taught properly this time. Don’t let them move forward still hating your subject: for the rest of their lives.

Be like #GarethSouthgatewould – teach them to own the process.

I resign! How teachers now grow their careers with disloyalty

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I am serious: teachers need to be disloyal more often if they want their careers to grow and their working terms and conditions to be healthy.

Ask yourself; if you stay with your car insurance provider, bank, phone, TV, car breakdown, electric or gas provider or any other provider – are you rewarded for your loyalty? No. Instead, you are seen as a cash cow. Every time you roll over the insurance or keep your ISA unchanged what happens? They up your premium. They lower your interest rate paid. The people getting the best deals are those shopping around. It isn’t actually necessary to switch. You simply get yourself a fresh quotation, pick up the phone and call your current provider asking to be put through to ‘cancellations’. Once there, you cite your fresh quotation and offer them the opportunity to match it. If you can’t be bothered to do this for any of your providers, then you only have yourself to blame when they raise their prices just for you and not the others.

And now the same is true for teachers. You need to be shopping around for schools. There are many schools that are very keen to recruit. They have a shortage of teachers and a shortage of teachers who will take the stress and accountability of Teaching and Learning Responsibilities. They might offer you an extra point on their payscale – just for coming to work for them. They might offer you a TLR responsibility which enhances your career. They might inflate your position: Assistant Headteacher status and you only have to be a Head of Department?  They are incentivising it for you. But are they doing this for the staff they already have? Not always, no. Ms Loyal Teacher is often looked over for that TLR. She will have to fight hard for the pay progression and then half the time not actually get a payrise – the school simply can’t afford it. However, if you are a good teacher and you get a good offer – well along you go to the SLT and see if they will match the offer.

Now I must point out that I don’t agree with this. Teachers who see a year group all the way through their time in the school are worth their weight in gold. Pupils like it, parents like it and yes, teachers like it. The best behaviour management, the most accurate differentiation and the best teaching comes from those who have taught the same children all the way through their school journey as part of a stable teaching team. The quality of relationship between the teacher, the children and the families of those children really does drive a better experience for all. Indeed, many teachers and dare I say it utility bill payers, would be much happier with a system that rewarded loyalty not disloyalty.

However, just like we have to be disloyal with our insurance, banks, utilities and other providers, so we now need to be disloyal with our school employers. Hopefully, it just takes calling the cancellation hotline to get you better working conditions, but what is the truth? I change home insurance, utility providers and the like just as regularly as I keep the provider after shopping around. The game has changed and teachers who stay in the same school are not doing their careers and working conditions any favours. It used to be that you would stay in the school and earn the right for extra money or responsibility. Now you need to leave, shop around and find new school employers who appreciate your fine teaching skills. For a year or two anyway.

Update:

Since publishing this blog we have seen the Dfes report come out which shows fewer teachers in the profession which is being driven by those leaving the profession not being offset by those entering the profession. The NFER blog shows that in particular, it is those teachers of working age leaving, not retirees that are causing the issue. The number of teachers aged 50+ has gone down from 23% to 17% in 2017. The question now is whether it is a normal part of modern culture to move around, not just within education, but from education to other industries. Certainly, maths and physics teachers are leaving teaching to earn more money elsewhere according to Sam Sims at Datalab.

Is the answer to incentivise those in the profession to stay in the profession? To stay in their schools? Currently, we are incentivising entrants to the profession to enter and only 67% of them are staying. Could some of that money be better spent elsewhere? Could those who stay in the profession for a very long time be rewarded with an earlier pension age? Could we award some kind of pecuniary bonus for those who achieve lengthy landmarks of time in a school or the profession?

Part of the problem has to be that some people think that headteachers are ‘moving staff on’ to help balance the books or because they feel staff have stagnated and need moving on. These people are the most expensive teachers at the top of the UPS band. Could the dreaded ‘capability’ rule be amended to afford more protection for those at the top of the scale when or if they stagnate? Laura McInerney says: “It’s not just about stagnation, I think you can become a less good teacher if you are given a bonkers timetable, an unsupportive department lead or zero resources.”  Whether it is true or not, the image that older experienced teachers are being pushed out of schools could mean some are jumping rather than waiting to be pushed – and jumping right out of the profession.

Keeping teachers in the profession and spending less doing so is a goal that unites the political spectrum. The drumbeat is firmly on entrants at the moment, but we have got see it is more than workload that is driving teachers out of the profession.

Understanding the effect of the Autonomous Nervous System on children’s behaviour – Guest Blog

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One model of explanation often applied in determining the learning and behaviour of any  child is the state their Autonomous Nervous System (ANS) is in. It is worth knowing a bit about this as the ANS gene expression is changed by poor early attachment experiences, excessive stress and trauma.

In any situation, a child’s brain is neuroceptively (fast and unconsciously) assessing environmental safety.  Many children find school a reasonably safe place and respond accordingly; some will find school and learning unsafe. This blog does apply to all children, but focuses by illustration on children who have experienced adverse childhood experiences. If a child’s  life  means that their experience of things is fraught with danger signals, then the child’s ANS will be sending danger signals to the rest of the brain and to the body. The child will then excessively look for danger in the EXTERNAL environment and excessively experience danger INTERNALLY – even from the most unfathomable of stimuli; when we experience an internal feeling of danger we tend to look externally for the source. This chart by Ruby Jo Walker highlights it well.

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According to Stephen Porges, who has pioneered work on the role of the vagal nerve, the ANS operates on a continuum of response from complete safety to extreme danger. It is helpful to divide this up into three zones of SAFETY, DANGER and LIFETHREAT. When the ANS judges both internal and external environment to be safe then this represents a child’s optimal arousal level. In this state, the child is most ready to learn. This is not about an element of challenge or stress but the assessed absence of danger. It is this state, that most children are in when in school, that is elusive for the child who has experienced significant adverse life experiences.

A child with the above issues exists far more with the ANS in a state of readiness for danger or even life threat – even if no such threat exists in the environmentA danger state is represented by hyperarousal and readiness for fight, flight, rage or panic. A life threat state is represented by hypoarousal, freeze, dissociation and collapse. When someone has an extreme phobic response to a relatively innocent stimulus then this is what is happening.

This understanding sheds some light on the issues surrounding these often very difficult to manage children. We tend to look at our external environmental strategies to see if they will work and often cannot see why they don’t work. However, these strategies simply will not work if the ANS is experiencing the external or internal child environment as dangerous. Where does this leave us then? Our focus needs to be on getting the ANS in the right place rather than on the poor behaviour resulting from the ANS response. Quite simply we also would behave in inappropriate ways if our ANS was misfiring in this way. When working with these children it is helpful for us to acknowledge poor behaviour and response to learning as adaptive rather than maladaptive. That leads us to the question, ‘Why might this behaviour be adaptive?’. Once we have asked ourselves that question it can lead us forward in our search for good solutions.

We can take three routes to modifying the ANS response and in ‘learning the child’, we can try to find the right combination of routes. The first route works primarily on the body and physiological response generated by the ANS. The second route works primarily on the emotional state itself to create a sense of safety. The third route works on the cognitive (executive function) ability to apply a brake to the ANS. This whole brain way of working represents a powerful model for working with these children.

 As teachers we need to ‘stand still in order to move on’. This means finding the time to stand back and ask the question ‘ Could this behaviour be signalling something more than is immediately obvious? By being prepared to view behaviour as a signal of adaptation gives us the space to become thoughtful and reflective rather than reactive. It enables us to be better teachers and children to learn better.

 The author is a former SENDCO and advisory teacher for looked after children. He currently runs a consultancy – advising schools and children’s homes on working with children with SEND backgrounds.

Bridging the gap – a voice from the boundaries

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As a group of experienced and qualified teachers who are also academics that are involved in Higher Education Institution (HEI) based teacher education, we exist on the boundaries of both groups. We both recognise the challenges of being a busy teacher and the challenges of exposing ideas to criticality. We are, in Wengerian terms: brokers. When we talk to teachers, we talk to them as fellow teachers. When we talk to non-teacher academics, we talk to them as fellow academics. We are uniquely placed to broker ideas from one community to the other as we sit on the boundaries.

Academics have to forge a career within academic publishing whilst being exposed to accountability systems from the world of HEI such as the Research Excellence Framework (REF) or the National Student Survey (NSS) survey. They work within definable parameters and have considerable scope. Teachers have their own accountability systems such as pupil outcomes in national tests and non-peer-led inspections systems. Much work has been done to bridge the two professions and the Education Endowment Foundation and the Chartered College are just two examples of this. However, these two institutions arose from the desire to bridge the gap between research undertaken in universities and schools who are responsible for delivering education at “the chalkface”.

Teachers still shy away from methodologies. More time poor than ever, teachers’ current focus is often towards meeting accountability measures. These measures are not always relatable to the aims of research. The academic treads ever so carefully with a desire not to do research to children, but with them (BERA Guidelines) and ever mindful of children’s rights as set out by United Nations. Teachers and schools impose experiments with a seeming impudence to these guidelines – insisting on hair and dress for declared gender, imposing negative sanctions on children, off-rolling or obstructing the needs of SEND children and other actions that would never be allowed as part of an educational research project. There is a need here for teachers and teacher educators to be able to write blogs about these topics which do not feature as part of research due to such ethical considerations in addition to blogs about educational research.

Standing at the boundary of both systems and having experienced both, teacher educators within a HEI setting have to look to stitch these two jagged edges together. Teachers need to understand the ethical issues that drive the way educational researchers work and educational researchers need to understand the very real and pragmatic issues that drive the way teachers work. Hosting blogs from both sides of these boundaries with editorial peer review will help us contribute our part to bridging the gap. We aim to host guest blogs as well as produce blogs so if you are interested in writing a one off blog and feel that peer reviewing would be of a help to you then please do contact us direct.

Peer Reviewed Education Blog

A welcome from the editors:

In an age when much comment about education appears to be both instant, and instantly polarising, do you ever feel the need to take a little longer to consider the issues at hand, and the views that you and your colleagues might have of them? As academics and teachers, we felt the same way; and so, the Peer Reviewed Education Blog was borne into existence.

We wanted a blog site which  enabled  people in education to write  one-off education blogs, upon which they could receive peer feedback and then publish their ideas, research and opinion.

We are an experienced group of educationalists and the purpose of these blogs is to disseminate research as well as ask pertinent questions of teaching pedagogy, teachers and teacher education with a view to stimulating debate. Whilst we will be writing blogs ourselves, in addition we will host guest blogs from our colleagues across the  educational field.

Not all bloggers will wish to reveal their identity – in the modern age, public publishing is challenging to some and it is important that there is space for this in any debate. We hope you appreciate the chance to consider some of the educational issues and debates that concern us all in what will hopefully be a more in-depth, and plural way.

Editors: Dr James Shea, Dr Gareth Bates and Dr Steve Connolly

“I am interested in language because it wounds or seduces me.”  ― Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text

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