Round and Round the Table

Posted on November 4, 2012

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Here’s my contribution to the @headsroundtable Six Point Plan. I know others have had their say, and cogently so, but I’ve never been one to keep my nose out of things like this as shown by my previous posts on Mobilising our Professionalism and What the Twitter Head Should Do Next.

I would, though, highly recommend the posts by Tom Sherrington aka @headguruteacher here and David Didau aka @learningspy here.

1) Schools should be assessed in a range of ways, not just judged by the numbers achieving specific grades and levels in examinations and tests respectively.

I think the word I’d use is ‘evaluated’ and I suspect that we already are evaluated in a range of ways both formally through Ofsted (although the achievement judgment does dominate all others) and informally through our self-evaluation mechanisms, parental feedback, media representations and so on. We need to be careful of introducing too many formal evaluation mechanisms for non-attainment aspects of our work. In that direction lies the urge for reliability and, resultingly, the desire to turn qualitative evaluation into quantitative data. In that direction lies the now-dead (soon-to-be-resurrected?) School Report Card or even the online School Profile that was hated by, boycotted by and eventually killed by Headteachers and their unions. There needs, I feel, to be a more sophisticated phrasing to this key point which recognises that parents like schools to be accountable for their exam results, but that encourages the DfE and Ofsted to think again about ‘floor targets’ and other blunt data instruments. But it also needs to engage in proper discussion with parents about what non-examination indicators they want to have access to alongside the examination indicators. If not then this project risks being seen as being for the profession not for education; a key distinction that we must never lose sight of in this struggle for hearts and minds.

2) Ofsted should be replaced by local partnerships that would hold schools to account and help them to improve.

I almost wholeheartedly agree with this, but perhaps rather than urging a replacement of Ofsted it needs to be seen as a reorganisation of Ofsted along local (or more likely regional) lines with links to the more positive elements of Ofsted as it is (often the core HMI body itself with its research functions) and a move away from the less positive elements (the cadre of consultancy firms who make money from the inspection process). SMW has already strongly suggested that he wants to involve the Heads of outstanding schools in the inspection process. This, allied with the emergence of National, Local and now Specialist Leaders of Education networks offer the opportunity to engage school-based peer to peer work. The qualifier is that accountability and improvement frameworks under a reformed Ofsted need to go hand in hand. I am sure that this is the natural logic of the Teaching School programme (and the concurrent emergence of the Challenge Partners and re-emergence of the SSAT) and it is one which we need to give our wholehearted backing to. In doing so we will show how obsolescent Ofsted has become and further force the hand of SMW into seeking a significant realignment of the inspection regime.

3) The curriculum and assessment should be taken out of political control and given to an independent agency (under licence for 20 years).

I agree with the first part of this very strongly indeed and disagree with the latter just as strongly. We don’t need an unhealthy system of commissioning, whether it be for five years or twenty. Instead we need a healthy, happy and harmonious system of curriculum and assessment that is founded on the best principles of academic and vocational education. Actually I think my position is more complex than that. Let me explain what is still very tentative thinking.

Curriculum – as in an overarching National Curriculum – does, to my mind, belong within the realms of political control. It is central government’s assurance to the population that this is what we all learn and value as a coherent society and I see little wrong in that. I would very much like to see a cross-party commission established with the brief to consult widely and openly (as opposed to the rubber-stamping, already-decided, narrowly-focused questions that currently pass themselves off as consultation) in order to establish a once-in-a-generation National Curriculum of national unity that has a specified end date: perhaps 20 years time???

I would look to split assessment into two, separating out the process of assessment from the marking of it. One of the strengths of the coalition government’s education policy is to place the future process of A-Level assessment in the hands of the country’s best universities, and I think the strengthening of links between schools, universities and professional organisations (including the CBI) in the design of the assessment process would be eminently sensible. After all the purpose of education is broad, but the purpose of assessment needs to be focused on the needs of the post-compulsory-education world. There is a place for exam boards in this, but only if they cease to operate as businesses an instead revert back to their original constitutions as professional university-based organisations.

The marking of assessments needs, however, to be stripped away from the exam boards as they are currently – as government has recognised – in danger of racing to the bottom in terms of standards maintenance (although I do think the grade-inflationers overstate their case). We also have the rather ridiculous situation of teachers who are not trusted by Ofqual to mark their students’ work being employed (during term time) and badly trained to mark the work of others. Instead of the completely discredited marking system that currently prevails we need to recognise that marking is the job of a well-trained teaching profession and to set up water-tight systems to ensure the marking of all work, internally or externally set, is trustworthy. The best proposals I have heard on this matter come from John Dunford aka @johndunford and the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors (CIEA), potentially one of the most important professional bodies of the future. They should definitely be a part of the brave new world we are trying to forge.

4) The government should encourage small families of local schools in preference to large national chains.

I don’t disagree with the intention behind this but I would worry that this could be seen as an attempt to revert back to the local authority approach to school systems, and therein make the profession seem backward-looking and halcyonic (apologies if I’ve just slipped into neologism). The future doesn’t necessarily lie with localism but nor does it necessarily lie with large national chains; their appetite for massive expansion seems limited, and rightly so. Schools are already finding new tribes and the work of David Hargreaves on self-improving school systems contributes greatly to this.

5) “Norm referencing” in exam grading is not fair, ie capping the number of students who can achieve a certain grade. There shouldn’t be a cap on what individual pupils can achieve

I have nothing to say about that point other than I agree completely with it.

6) School accountability measures should encourage collaboration betweens schools and explicitly develop systems leadership.

I agree almost entirely with this and the current government policy on this is both exciting and right-headed. The Teaching School programme, within the system leadership strategy, has the potential to guide the system to a new era where collaboration is seen as the most effective form of competition between schools (if I help your school leaders and teachers to raise achievement for students I will improve the performance of the leaders, teachers and students in my school). But beyond the Teaching Schools we are seeing collaborative groups such as the Challenge Partners and the Co-operative Schools movement emerge into the educational landscape. The only thing I would add to this point are the words “and improvement” after the word “accountability”.

There is only one other point I would make here and that is regarding the representativeness and legitimacy of the group. I understand that it has had to start with a small group and that these people have logically come from a certain, influential part of the profession. At the same time, however, a part of me already feels at a remove from the group because I am merely a Deputy Head and so I can only imagine how excluded classroom teachers, parents and non-teachers feel. This is something that needs to be put right soon. I am aware that the group have met with politicians of all stripes already, but I strongly feel that rapid steps need to be made towards an inclusive constitution (and name) that enables the drawing in of all the best ideas about future education policy form all sources of interest. Only then will the group be genuinely able to make the politicians sit up and listen.

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