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Education: It’s just semantics

Zoë Paramour, freelance writer and ex-assistant headteacher, writes…

I’ve never been a fan of edu-waffle. Phrases like, ‘reflective practitioner’ (I think about what I do; I don’t just act entirely on instinct like a mad hyena) or, ’quality first teaching’ (it just means good teaching) and, ’had a measurable impact’ (things improved.)

Once upon a time these were the sort of phrases you dropped in at an interview to reassure your future employer that you knew the stuff and once you got the job you returned to speaking like a normal person. Not anymore. These words are now part of the day-to-day conversations happening in schools. We’ve created our own educational language and, with it, our own meanings. This alone isn’t too damaging, it’s when our interpretations (and misinterpretations) of words are the basis for policies that I start to worry. Let’s have a look at the main culprits.

Consistency

I would argue that there has been no word more grossly misinterpreted in education today than ’consistency’. It has been the justification for some terrible policies that have increased workload and had no impact on children’s learning. It started when the word appeared in the Ofsted handbook in 2014. Here’s what they actually said:

“Much teaching over time in all key stages and most subjects is outstanding and never less than consistently good

So, to be judged as an outstanding school, if that is your aim, Ofsted requires all teaching to be of a consistent quality. That seems fair enough. That doesn’t mean all the teachers teaching the same thing, the same way at the same time.

“Marking and feedback is consistent with the school’s policy.”

In my last two inspections, what mattered to Ofsted was that what happened in the school every day was consistent with what the policies said would be happening. That was it. So if a school’s policy is, “Every teacher marks in green, purple and yellow and the pupils respond in pink and blue and all staff wear a silly hat on Tuesdays” then that’s what they wanted to see.

So, to be judged as an outstanding school, if that is your aim, Ofsted requires all teaching to be of a consistent quality. That seems fair enough. That doesn’t mean all the teachers teaching the same thing, the same way at the same time.

You can see why, for some heads, it’s easier to know what’s going on in your school if you’re hugely prescriptive. It’s why the marking myth has been allowed to perpetuate. Schools say, “Ofsted loved our marking.” No – they loved that your marking was consistent with your policy.

However I know of one school that has a marking policy which includes: “All teachers are expected to provide quality feedback to children on a daily basis.” So when Ofsted came in, the fact that teachers were feeding back in different ways was absolutely fine.

Here are just some of the policies I’ve seen primary schools introduce in the name of consistency:

  • All classrooms are to have the same displays positioned in the same places (maths left of the classroom door, adjacent to English).
  • Maths displays are to be backed with yellow paper with blue borders – red and green for English.
  • All teachers in the year group to teach the same maths/English lesson every day. So if your class didn’t understand yesterday’s lesson you can’t try it again tomorrow with a different approach, you have to move on to keep up with the rest of the year.
  • All staff mark in the same colour.
  • Teachers asked to give out fewer/more merits so that there is “consistency” of rewards from class to class.
  • Subject leaders issuing a template for Powerpoints that all teachers must use in their lessons.
  • Spelling tests are to be done on the same day at the same time at the back of the same book in every classroom in the school.

I once asked to start an additional lunchtime phonics booster group for some children in my class who were struggling and was told I could only do it if the other teachers in my year also did it.

Reminder: we should be aiming for consistent quality of teaching and marking – not identikit classrooms and lessons.

Evidence

We ask for evidence of effective teaching, evidence of impact, evidence that policies are being followed and evidence that children have made progress. Some of these things are easier to evidence than others. You can provide evidence that attendance has improved, for example. There’s quantitative attendance data collected every day that can be presented. You can provide evidence that children’s test results have improved – if you use the same format of test with the same thresholds and the same children. Over a year, you can show that a child’s writing has improved by doing that ever-satisfying comparison of their work in September with their work in July.

However there is still a lot of ‘evidence’ being used in schools that just isn’t evidence. For example: writing that a child can do something on a post-it doesn’t mean they can. I’m not blaming the EYFS practitioners who do this: they’ve been told they need to provide written evidence of three and four year-olds’ progress on a daily basis; what else are they meant to do? Similarly, lesson plans are used as evidence for all sorts of things: quality of teaching, curriculum coverage and differentiation to name but a few.

A lesson plan is evidence that you wrote a lesson plan. That is all. I am always baffled when an SLT decides to use the plan as evidence of teaching or worse, evidence of the quality of teaching. A plan is not evidence that the lesson was taught (and nor should it be treated as such). At best, it tells you what that teacher intended to teach, printed off and put in a folder. It doesn’t tell you what has been taught.

Finally, a child’s response to next step marking is not necessarily evidence of progress. We’re asked to show progress in every lesson and one way to do this is through, “next step marking.” We look at what the child got wrong or needs to improve and set them a short task to complete at the bottom. If they complete it correctly it can be used as evidence that your marking has had an impact on progress. Except it isn’t. It’s evidence that they got one question/task correct, once.

I am always baffled when an SLT decides to use the plan as evidence of teaching or worse, evidence of the quality of teaching. A plan is not evidence that the lesson was taught (and nor should it be treated as such).

Progress

The purpose of school is that you’ll know more by the end of your time there than you did at the beginning. The idea that a child will make measurable progress every six weeks is one of the most damaging myths in education today. Six weeks is about 30 school days. Yes, with a comfortable home life, parents who read to them and 100% attendance a child will make progress over the course of the year – but that is not the background to many children’s education. Even those who make good progress over the course of the year may not make measurable progress every 30 days. Progress is not made in measurable blocks.

I’ve recently taken up aerobics, and god forbid you were to make a graph of my progress. I am very, very bad at it. In the last lesson I left with marks on my arms from where I repeatedly hit myself with the rope while attempting to skip. So at the moment my progress would be a horizontal line – hopefully, after six months you might see a slight curve. However, once I’ve got to grips with the basics I imagine the instructor will introduce new exercises and challenges that I won’t be able to do. So I’ll be back at the beginning.

The purpose of school is that you’ll know more by the end of your time there than you did at the beginning. The idea that a child will make measurable progress every six weeks is one of the most damaging myths in education today.

If I practise every day and turn up to every session I will probably get better much faster than if I go home every night and sit on the sofa eating burritos. My instructor is great; she is incredibly skilled, pushes me to work hard and models every task clearly. The reason my progress is a flat line is not because she’s a poor teacher, nor even because I am an unwilling student. It’s because I haven’t been doing aerobics for long enough to have honed those skills yet.

Children need time to learn without being tested every 30 days. However, the DfE want measurable steps of progress, so measurable steps of progress we must find. More often than not what happens in primary schools is that, if you ask teachers for data every six weeks showing improvement – and tell them their pay is reliant on it – then they will start making it up. It becomes about making it look like there has been progress, even where there hasn’t.

Impact

In 2014 I went for an interview. My husband’s advice was, “In the current climate I reckon you could go in there and just repeatedly say the words, ’impact’ and, ’challenge’ and get the job.” I chose to ignore this advice and got the job by giving slightly more detailed answers. But he had a point.

It goes without saying that we all aim to have an impact with our teaching and our leadership. Teachers want their pupils to improve, as school leaders want their schools to. Once again, the problem isn’t showing impact – it’s that headteachers are asked to show measurable impact after just one term. The risk of this is headteachers are to come up with quick fixes to paper over the cracks and give the appearance of impact.

There are countless other examples, but these are perhaps among the most common. Maybe there are some teachers and school leaders who find using words in this way useful, but personally I’d like to see more consistent evidence of impact on progress.


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