Schools must speak for themselves (Part 1)

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School self-evaluation is a strange beast. There’s no requirement for schools to present it in a particular format and approaches vary up and down the country. How you go about the process is a matter for you and your governors to decide. So long as you know your school, and how it needs to improve, all will be good.

Ofsted’s maligned online, grade-driven Self-Evaluation Form (SEF) was abolished several years ago and many of us still remember it with much angst and trepidation. Many hours were wasted by leadership teams agonizing over fine-grade boundaries as to whether the school was a 1 or a 2 or a 3 or a 4. The fact that it had very little to do with school improvement got lost amidst the hubris.

The grade was everything. If the lead inspector disagreed, invariably it was you that didn’t know your school rather than the other way round. You can understand therefore why so many of us agonized over it, especially when the stakes were so perilously high. They still are for that matter.

What if the grading system is as unreliable as observing a lesson? We know from research that if a lesson is given a top grade there’s a 78% chance a second observer will grade it differently. Worse still, when giving the bottom grade, the figure increases to 90%. Even if we adopt a 50% margin of error, it’s close to 50/50 if following a category 4 inspection a second lead inspector comes along and gives it a different grade.

If the purpose of grading your SEF was to try and second-guess the inspector, you may as well have tossed a coin.

Last week @HarfordSean, Ofsted’s National Director of Education made it absolutely clear on Twitter that we don’t need to grade our self-evaluation summaries. This came at just the right time for me as for the past six months or so I’ve been trying to align the process of school self-evaluation with the key themes in my recent book. Namely, that as leaders we should run our schools in a way that is meaningful and purposeful to us and not necessarily for a national inspectorate.

Wanting to find out whether the message was getting through, I turned to Twitter. I asked the question: ‘Do you grade your school self-evaluation?’ Almost three-quarters of you said that you did and that you use the 1-4 Ofsted grading. One in ten schools (11%) don’t grade at all with one in twenty (6%) choosing to grade but using their own criteria. Ten percent of you were clearly in a mischievous mood choosing instead to tick the ‘What Ofsted summary?‘ box. I shall consider these as spoilt papers.

I was mildly surprised though that a quarter of schools use their own grading criteria or none at all when self-evaluating. Scaling up, that’s equivalent to approximately 5,000 schools that write a SES that does not use Ofsted grades. In my 8 years as an Ofsted inspector I can’t recall a single inspection where the school did not produce a self-evaluation summary that was not based on the inspection framework and not graded 1-4 using Ofsted grades.  Even now as an NLE I’ve yet to find a school that has been bold enough to ditch the grades altogether.

For those schools that don’t grade, it would be interesting to see how this impacted on their overall inspection outcome. I wonder as well whether there are any heads out there leading schools in special measures and subject to regular HMI monitoring visits who are brave enough to ditch the grades.

I’m still not clear whether to grade or not. It was interesting to learn that @TeacherToolkit is trying to convince his leadership team not to grade, if nothing else to make Ofsted work harder for their stripes. Likewise @theprimaryhead doesn’t grade, instead choosing to identify strengths and weaknesses.

I think it takes a bold headteacher to drop the grades altogether, a sentiment shared by @Funkycow64 who appeals to anyone who chooses not to grade to come forward. Her #askingforafriend hashtag suggests she is grappling with the idea but needs some allies. However, with @Yorkshire_Steve’s rallying cry – ‘spread the world people!’ – hopefully she’ll soon have plenty, myself included. The day will come when one day we shall have the critical mass.

But for now, I’ll continue grading – albeit with caution – but not using the traditional Ofsted terminology. If we are though as a system going to try and move from good to great, then we will surely need some form of proxy as to where we are on the journey and so it’s inevitable that we will need a set of progress markers, as crude as they may be. As a MAT, it also allows us to compare ourselves with each other using a common language of school improvement. At least if they are crude, they’ll be consistently crude. (I’ll take this over inconsistent refinery any day.)

In my next post I’ll share the rationale and approach to the new self-evaluation framework I’ve been developing. It’s based in part around the 1999 publication ‘Schools must speak for themselves‘ that does a fine job of making the case for school-led self-evaluation. We’ll also look at some of the most recent research on system-led self-improving schools, including peer review and the work of the London Leadership Strategy.

Two Hoots

 

It can’t have escaped your notice that I have written a book. I have flaunted and foisted it shamelessly on Twitter to all and sundry who happened to stumble across my timeline. I make no apologies for that, for I am sure that you too will do the same if you were in my position. In fact, I positively encourage you to do so, for isn’t that precisely why we engage in ‘social’ media in the first place? We are a sociable bunch and I hope that you don’t mind indulging me now and again.

The book is called ‘The Art of Standing Out‘ and is due to be released next Monday (the 11th). In a nutshell, it’s about how to get the very best out of people – to make them become the best they can be. It takes place in a number of schools in Liverpool, the West Midlands and London as I reflect back on all the things that I did whilst working with great teams of people. More importantly, I think back to my own childhood and time at school and how this influenced my leadership style and the type of person I’ve become.

But if you really want to know the gist of the book, then it’s this: ‘How to transform your school in a way that is meaningful, courteous and wholesome without giving two hoots about Ofsted.’ Two Hoots, was at one point an early working title for the book and in some ways, perhaps I should have stuck with it. (Especially given the fact that when you Google ‘Standing Out’ it takes you to Katie Price’s autobiography of the same name, and I really wouldn’t want you to think that there is any association.)

So to mark the eve of publication, the following extract from the book isn’t actually written by me. Instead, it comes from the foreword, so eloquently penned by a colleague whose career I have followed from afar very closely; that of ex-headteacher turned speaker, author and broadcaster, Richard Gerver. I was naturally honoured and humbled when Richard agreed to read my book and then write the foreword.

This is how it goes:

“When I look back on my own career as a teacher and as a headteacher, I often reflect on the leaders and leadership that had an impact on me, good and bad. I often remind teachers today that they are first and foremost, leaders; leaders of people and of course learning. I also remind them that leadership is not about power, status or control – it’s about empowerment. I was fortunate in my first teaching job, to work for a wonderful headteacher; a role model and I remember him saying to me when I started applying for promotions, that leadership was about serving others; the people who work with you and for you. He meant that our job as leaders is to work hard in order to create the conditions and opportunities for others to flourish. I clearly recall him urging me to consider that whilst remembering that sanction was sadly sometimes necessary, it was as a last resort and often as a result of failed leadership. I often think that politicians and policy makers would do well to remember that.

Recently, I had the privilege to listen to Sir Richard Branson reflect on his career. It turns out that he was originally offered the Lord Sugar role on the television programme, The Apprentice. He turned it down because he hated the premise of the show that ended in a firing. He asserted that if you have to fire people, it is because you failed, not them. Now whilst I know that that is a multilayered challenge which is worthy of its own book, I think that is a clear statement of the responsibilities of leadership on a very human level.

After many years of reflection and learning, I now judge leadership and potential leaders on a number of qualities which include; authenticity, passion, courage, vision and honesty. To my mind Andrew Morrish displays all of these qualities and more in abundance. This beautiful, inspirational book made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up many times. This is a real reflection of a leader I admire greatly serving his communities in life changing ways. His book is an outstanding reflection of our times and one that I hope will act as a reassurance and catalyst for all of us, who are fortunate enough to work with kids and with colleagues, as we look to build a long lasting legacy, worthy of our children.

Lead on Andrew and help us all, to help our schools stand out, so that our children can lead us in to better times.

I hope that if you do read my book, there will be something in there that resonates with you that will become a cataylst for change. Above all, treat it as a comfort blanket. Deep-down every single one of us – no matter how experienced, young, old or long in the tooth we may be – all struggle daily with the enormity of being responsible for leading our children into better times and that we simply can’t mess up.

The Art of Standing Out: School Transformation to Greatness and Beyond is published by John Catt Educational on 11th July 2016.

The curse of my new book

Two legends at the top of their game left us last week and I can’t help feeling that I am in some very small way to blame. I’ve seldom written about them before but both of them appear in my new book and now they are no longer with us. I am beginning to wonder then if the book in question, The Art of Standing Out, is cursed.

I’m sure there’s nothing sinister behind it so I’m simply going to put it down to the unfortunate alignment of some distant celestial constellation. But the sad deaths of Jerome Bruner and Muhammed Ali have affected me deeply.

Chances are, one of them you know a great deal more about than the other. But both of them were heavyweights in their field. It’s actually very hard to write a book about Leadership without quoting Ali, and so predictably I couldn’t resist the lure. That said, without doubt my favourite quote is one that didn’t make the cut. It’s genius lies in its simplicity; the nonchalant way Ali manages to strip down what he does so well to the point of it being almost inconsequential, an afterthought:

“It’s just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up.”

Jerome Bruner’s job was just as influential and he was equally as genius. Listed at number 28 in the American top 100 of the most influential psychologists of the modern era, Bruner was a legend. He was the forerunner leading the crossover from behaviourism to cognition in the mid-twentieth century. What made him unique was that he was one of the first psychologists to move away from a stage-based theory of cognition to one that basically said that a child can learn anything at any age however complex, providing the conditions are right. It was here that the notion of ‘learning without limits’ was quite likely born and it is to Bruner that we must look to for inspiration when creating our frameworks for assessment.

There’s another reason why I like Jerome Bruner an awful lot and that’s because in some small way he crossed swords with Margaret Thatcher when she was Minister of Education. When he was working at Oxford University in the 1960s he was highly influential in the thinking behind the ground-breaking Plowden Report that reminded our politicians in 1967 that ‘at the heart of the educational process lies the child.’ I know exactly what you are thinking, and yes, I too am going to download a copy of the report and send it to Nicky Morgan as soon as I’ve finished this.

So let’s start with Ali then, arguably the most influential and iconic human being ever to enter a sporting arena. Here’s a brief extract from my new book:

“Muhammed Ali once said that “to be a great champion, you must believe you are the best. If you’re not, pretend you are.” Some would call this blagging it, myself included and I’ve done a fair bit of this in my time. Managing by the seat of your pants might be another way of describing it. You may be aware that there is actually a psychological term for this phenomenon. It’s called ‘autogenic conditioning’ aka ‘fake it till you make it’.

I first came across this idea when I read ‘The Naked Leader’ by David Taylor. I met David whilst I was a headteacher in London when I was tasked by the regional NAHT (of which I was treasurer) to organise their annual conference at the ExCel arena in the Docklands. I managed to convince David to speak and I am forever grateful that he did.

His book is so-called because it aims to strip away the hype and rhetoric that surrounds leadership. At its heart is simplicity. There are seven principles of Naked Leadership, one of which has remained with me ever since, and it’s this:

“Success is whatever you want it to be, by your own definition.”

I want us to re-read this, because it’s so important: Success is whatever you want it to be, by your own definition. Not what Ofsted want, or the local authority, or the devil sitting on your shoulder, but what you want it to be. And this is where the seeds of this book were first sown; the notion that my success and that of my students, teachers, families and community that I serve is in my hands – our hands – and not in that of others.

Regardless, I’ve come to believe that Taylor is right when he says: “What we think about, we are, and when we believe something to be true, we see the world in that way.” Our task then is clear. As authentic leaders, we must strive to convince others that there is truth in what we want to achieve. When it comes to painting pictures, in the end, it all comes down to those three little words. We can, if…”

And on Jerome Bruner and his pioneering approach to learning that dared to cut a parallel with the then untouchable Piaget:

“Please don’t tell me that a particular child is unteachable. Ever. You’d be surprised in my early days in London of the number of teachers that would use this as an excuse and blame the children or their circumstances. To them I would say: ‘You might not be able to teach them because clearly you don’t yet know how to, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be taught by someone who can. Go and improve your teaching.’

Just because a child has a special educational need, or is claiming free school meals, or can’t speak English, or has vile parents, or really finds the work difficult and never seems to get it, or doesn’t do their homework, or is naughty, or appears lazy and disinterested, or is a bully, or has emotional issues, or doesn’t seem to care, or smells, or doesn’t really like you, they can still be taught absolutely anything.

I first came across the work of Jerome Bruner in the final year of my B.Ed. course. He wrote an influential book in 1960 called The Process of Education and his words are etched all over my base camp. This is what he said: “You can teach anything to anyone in an intellectually honest manner by translating it courteously for them.” In a nutshell, this is the art of great teaching. It’s what’s known in the trade as differentiation and it’s as simple as that.

Teachers are very passionate and principled people. We all have deep-seated beliefs about what education stands for and quite rightly so. Nothing – according to Sir Tim Brighouse – quite opens the shut valves of the heart as a passionate teacher and leader. It’s what makes it the most noblest of professions.

We must always believe that we can open these valves. We must always believe that we have the power within us to shine our lights, even in the most difficult of circumstances. We must always believe we can capture hearts and minds in a way that is as empowering as it is bold. If we believe we can, we do…”

The Art of Standing Out: School Transformation to Greatness and Beyond is published by John Catt and is available to pre-order in their bookshop or on Amazon.

Praise for The Art of Standing Out:

‘A beautiful, inspirational book. I hope it flies off the shelves!’ Richard Gerver

‘A memorable, uplifting read. I loved it.’ Geoff Barton 

‘Compelling, moving and practical.’ Russell Hobby

‘An enjoyable read, peppered with accumulated wisdom and amusing anecdotes.’ Professor Rob Coe

‘I love this book. If you want to be a school leader then read it.’ Vic Goddard

‘A hugely entertaining read.’ Dame Alison Peacock

‘A thought-provoking book using deliciously bittersweet moments.’ Ross Morrison McGill

‘A compelling story, refreshingly honest and open.’ Zoe Elder

‘A must-read for all aspiring leaders.’ Sue Williamson

‘A book that will make you laugh, cry and think.’ Stephen Tierney

‘A sweeping tale…Optimistic and heartfelt.’ Ty Goddard

‘A timely powerful book that deserves to be widely read and debated.’ Professor John West-Burnham

There needs to be another way

During the past few months I’ve been writing a book. It has been the most cathartic, scary and all-consuming experience of my life. I’ve cherished and savoured every minute of it. When I finally submitted the manuscript, I did so with great reluctance, as if I was cutting loose one of my own children. I felt compelled to add a note to the editor: ‘Take good care of her…’

What follows is an extract from the introduction:

I love what I do. I’ve had the privilege of working with so many talented people, whose dedication and zest for teaching always continue to amaze me. I feel incredibly proud to be a headteacher. Even now, when people ask me what I do, I love seeing their reaction when I tell them. It always strikes a chord with people. I sometimes half expect them to give me a hug, as if to thank me for singlehandedly trying to save the world. Do you ever feel like this, or is it just me?

When I was in sixth form, I remember going to a careers event and being told that the key to a successful life was to find something you enjoy doing and then getting someone to pay you to do it. Even better, if it’s something you are good at and it’s something the world needs. This then becomes your purpose in life. I’ve since learnt that it’s what’s known as having a firm persuasion in your work, and is – according to the poet and author David Whyte – one of our greatest and missed opportunities: “To feel that what we do is right for ourselves and good for the world at the exact same time.” It is, he says, “one of the great triumphs of human existence.” It’s what allows us to move mountains.

I sometimes feel that I can move mountains. I’ve also had to climb my fair share as well, as I faced challenge after challenge after challenge. But overall, I have a very firm persuasion. We all know what’s great about being a teacher, and many other books have done a far better job at describing this than I ever could. I always remember asking an experienced teacher at interview, “What is the best thing about being a teacher?” Her reply was immediate: “August”. She got the job.

Here’s what I like best about being a headteacher:

  1. Transforming the life chances of those pupils and their families who put their trust in you;
  1. Helping people to become the best they can be;
  1. Telling everyone and anyone how proud you are of your school, whether they want to listen to you or not;
  1. Quoting Walt Disney to your Year 6 leavers on the final day of term, telling them that, ‘if you can dream it, you can do it. Now go out and change the world.’;
  1. Sleeping soundly at night because you know that they will. The world is in safe hands and in some small way you played a part in it.

But as much as I love my job, there are bits I really don’t enjoy anymore. More than anything, I’ve had enough of being judged on how well I jump to other people’s tunes. The relentless pressure, for example, to become ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’, to come top of the league tables, to be in the top 10% of this or the top 1% of that. And all based on somebodies tune. It’s about time I started to jump to my own again.

I’ve now come to the point where I’ve realised I can’t see out the rest of my career continually trying to incrementally improve test scores; to eke out a percentage point here and a percentage there. Marginal gains are all well and good, but not in the context of test scores. I find the thought of this entirely unedifying and certainly not the reason why I became a headteacher. As goals go, it’s not exactly going to rip up trees. Besides, how could I possibly motivate my staff on the basis that this be the sole purpose of our being? Would you want to come and be a part of this magical journey? Of course not.

So there needs to be another way.

If you read this book from cover to cover you will find out how I had the privilege of being a part of some great teams that transformed several schools to outstanding. The highs and the lows. The trials and tribulations. The sleepless nights and nagging self-doubts, especially when inspectors tell you that what you’re trying to do is not good enough. Even though deep-down I always knew my school was great, there was always that fear that others won’t. And unfortunately, it’s their view that counts. Not mine. So if I were to tweet what the #ArtofStandingOut is all about, this is what I’d write: ‘How to transform your school in a way that is meaningful, courteous and worthwhile, without giving two hoots about Ofsted.’

Perhaps then, this is the ‘other way’. To no longer get hung up by others, Ofsted included. It goes much deeper than this though. What if we could still continue to improve our schools, with or without an inspectorate, but do so in a manner that focuses on a holistic education that is both wholesome and worthwhile? Let us not get hung up on the notion of ‘outstanding’, whatever that may be, but instead, look at it in a different way. We need to redefine outstanding to suit our own agenda. We need to be brave enough to drape banners across our gates on our say-so and not on that of others who only step foot in our schools once every leap year.

For too long we’ve been stymied by Ofsted rhetoric and their ever-changing proxies for what they believe the best schools must look like. The Art of Standing Out is about setting us free from the shackles of an inspectorate so that we can examine our schools through a fresh new lens, one that allows us to filter out and see only the things that matter.

BookCover


The Art of Standing Out
will be published by John Catt in July 2016. You can pre-order a copy on Amazon here.

Feel free to let me know what you think on Twitter @AndrewDMorrish. Be gentle.

 

 

 

 

How social enterprise can spice up your school

It shouldn’t take you too long to read this post. A little over four minutes should do it. That’s precisely how long I had to make my pitch at a recent RSA Engage speed-networking event.  Hosted at the impressive Impact Hub in Birmingham, the eight fellows invited to pitch had four minutes each to get their product across to the audience before rounding it off with three ‘asks’. I spoke about Ballot Street Spice our primary school social enterprise that we run as a community interest company – described recently in the Independent as an ‘online curry business’. It’s not quite at that level yet, but who knows, one day we may be delivering to a house near you.

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Here, pretty much word-for-word, is what I said:

“Tackling social mobility has been a passion of mine ever since I became a headteacher 16 years ago. In fact it’s one of the reasons why I first became a teacher. I love the challenge of working in multicultural communities where I can make a real difference to transforming the life chances of the families we serve. I started out in Liverpool as a rookie teacher soon after the Toxteth riots in a city ravaged by strikes and militancy. In London as a headteacher, never a day went by without there being some headline or other referring to an ‘immigration crisis’.  And at Victoria Park Academy in Ballot Street, Smethwick – my current school – we are reminded daily of the devastating effects of the Birmingham riots as we view from the school the poignant memorial in Victoria Park that commemorates the lives of the three local young men killed in the Birmingham riots.

So it’s tough raising standards. We were once a failing school in special measures. We are now outstanding and listed by the government as being one of the Top 100 schools in England. But I’ve realised that we can’t carry on improving our school by continuing to incrementally increase our test results. This is not what marks our school out for success. Instead, we need to do more to transform the life chances of our children and families. And that’s where social enterprise comes in as a solution to the problem of how we tackle social mobility.

Traditional methods of parental engagement no longer work. A more radical approach is needed which is why we set up our own social enterprise: Ballot Street Spice.

For more than half a century, people have been arriving in Smethwick from all corners of the world. In our school alone we speak over 40 different languages. You can read more about this in tomorrow’s Independent and how we are one of only five Ashoka Changemaker schools in the UK and 130 in the world. We wanted to try to capture the rich and vibrant tapestry of cultures, languages and traditions that exist on our doorstep, many of whom go back several generations. It is through our social enterprise that we want to bring people together and share their spice stories before they are lost.

Through a successful crowdfunding campaign and Heritage Lottery bid we are about to produce an oral history of Smethwick as told through spice stories of ancient hand-me-down recipes and blends. So together as a community, we grow, harvest, roast, grind and blend the spices by hand to make original blends and recipes as chosen by the children. By buying our products you are not only helping to preserve the art of spice blending, but also helping us create employment for the local community as well as providing real and purposeful learning opportunities for our students. This is what makes our social enterprise like no other in the UK.

As a school, we cannot use taxpayers’ money to invest in our enterprise so we are entirely dependent on income from sales or in kind. We have no funding stream to promote or market our social enterprise other than through social media and word of mouth. But it is not cash that we are after. Instead, we have three simple asks where we want your help:

  1. Are you a partner organisation who would be interested in working with Ballot Street from a CSR or business partnership perspective?
  2. Are you aware of potential stockists or retailers or any other local sales opportunities in the local area?
  3. Can you help with any PR opportunities, contacts in the catering world, food bloggers who could help us tell our story?

To find out more, please find us on Instagram or Facebook or follow @TheSpiceAcademy on Twitter. Better still, come out to Ballot Street and see for yourself what we have achieved in the past twelve months . When you do, you’ll be greeted in the main entrance by a quote from Walt Disney – ‘If you can dream it, you can do it. Now go out and change the world.’ We know our children can dream it. We know our children can do it. But if we want to really and truly step up as changemakers and change the world, we need your help. Please join us and be a part of our remarkable story.”

Why we are not on-track with assessment without levels

During the past 12 months I’ve been fortunate enough to present at a number of conferences up and down the country. One of the pleasures of being part of the conference circuit is that you get to listen to the presentations of the other speakers. The conference themes have been varied: Digital technology, a whole education, creativity, closing the gap to name a few. One strand that ran throughout most of them though was ‘Assessment without Levels’ and the approach schools have taken to deconstructing what works well in their schools and replacing it with something similar but slightly different.

As interesting and inspiring as the presentations were, I couldn’t help but come away feeling short-changed. That I’ve not quite got the gist of it or massively missed the point. I had to fight back the urge to ask what exactly has changed given that the school continues to assess the child, assign them a marker or proxy against which their performance and progress is judged and then put them into a banding of some sort. Sound familiar? What was even stranger was that assessment worked really well in their school and so I couldn’t understand why they would want to change it so drastically.

Many schools have invested a considerable amount of time and money in trying to re-invent the wheel. As a multi-academy trust, we are doing just that. What we learned right from the start though was that whatever you called it and no matter how it was packaged, it always came down to the same question: ‘What is that in old money?’ So we found that although it might look and feel different, at its core it was essentially the same. As a process it was valuable, and I suppose if nothing else it will get teachers in England reviewing what’s right for their own school.

Let me be clear. I understand entirely the notion behind doing away with levels. I am aware of the reasons why schools shouldn’t assign levels and sub-levels every day, week and term because they don’t relate to the ‘totality of achievement’ rationale behind end of key stage assessment.  My concern though from talking to frustrated teachers at the conferences is that the new systems they are trying to replace are no different from the ones they currently have, levels and all. The general consensus seems to be that as long as you don’t call them ‘levels’ and that pupils are put into some sort of banding you’ll be okay. Teachers are therefore attempting to solve the conundrum through a number of creative and multi-faceted ways, in most cases trying to turn the subject on its head. But no matter how many ways you try to flip the term ‘level’, it reads exactly the same backwards as it does forward. A ‘Level’ is a ‘leveL’. (Unless of course it’s a ‘veell’ or an ‘elvel’.)

I actually quite like the term Elvel© and am tempted to embark on a year-long research project to make the Elvel© the national primary assessment model of choice. I’d be good at it as I’ve had loads of practice. I’ve spent the best part of 20 years working tirelessly with colleagues in schools in Liverpool, London and Birmingham trying to come up with an accurate and consistent approach to assessing children. I remember the heady days of ‘agreement trialling’ in the 90s when each national curriculum subject had dozens of attainment targets. We then photocopied samples of children’s work that represented the top, middle and bottom end of each band (or level). These bandings were helpful in informing us whether children were making progress and how they compared with other children. They made for useful checkpoints so that we knew whether the child was on track to meet the end of key stage level descriptor. We worked with schools down the road and in the neighbouring borough and before you knew it we had the best system in the world because every teacher throughout the country knew exactly what a Level 3a looked like (or a3 as I know like to call it).  Simple but effective. It was fallible and open to misinterpretation but then that’s the very nature of assessment and exactly why we need national consensus on what ‘expected’ looks like. Let me assure you that whatever systems schools are coming up with at the moment, they will be equally as flawed.

Irrespective of the system of assessment we use, it will always be open to inconsistencies. In the very best schools, assessment is not an issue. Levels (or whatever term you choose to use) help us to know where our children are at so that we can plan where to go next. Children know them. Parents know them. Staff know them. In the best schools, staff establish an assessment culture that is supportive and helpful to the child so that they know what they can do well, what they cannot do well, and what they need to do next to improve and how to get there. Assessment provides useful waymarkers as we prepare children for their next stage.  As is often cited, assessment must be the servant and not the master.

Regardless of where we were in the country, as teachers and inspectors we knew what the threeness of a 3a felt like. We knew if a child was making good or not so good progress. When I go to see a GP in Hartlepool and am told that my blood pressure is 140/90 (high), I don’t want to then go to Totnes and be told that on the scale they use it’s low and that there’s nothing to worry about (not that I’d do that anyway, but you get my point). We need a standardised approach to measuring our health as we do for measuring children’s progress. In the same way that blood pressure levels take into account individual circumstances (height, age, weight etc.), so too should assessment. This is why over the past two decades we’ve created one of the most comprehensive national databases on pupil performance that allows us to compare how well children are progressing.

I recall at one conference discussing the matter with a senior HMI. Like me, he had reservations about where this will end up, particularly in the weaker schools or those that weren’t working in a network or collaboration. As CEO of a MAT I am concerned at how we will integrate new schools into the trust each coming with a different take on what expected progress looks like. Whatever system we come up with, it will invariably involve assigning a score to a child, no matter what you call it – an Elvel©, grade, level, proxy, target, 3b, 28.5, orange etc. This in itself is not a bad thing. Where I have grave reservations is our ability to then compare orange with orange. This was another area of concern raised by HMI during our coffee-break discussion.

Whatever system of assessment we have in place, surely there needs to be national consensus? How can there be though if each school has its own system for measuring progress?  Imagine if the government decided to abandon the UK railroad gauge system for measuring the width of railway tracks so that a train can travel from one end of the country to the other. If we did, it would be chaos. Asking each region, cluster or group of schools to come up with their own criteria for assessing progress is akin to asking each county to agree their own gauge-width in the hope that when we connect up all the tracks they’ll fit. Believe it or not, a number of countries do not have a standardised approach to the width of their railways. I hope our approach to assessment doesn’t go the same way.

So without wishing to sound too polemic, here’s a challenge for the New Year: Convince me I’m wrong. Convince me that the current system does not work and that a new system is better. Not different, comparable or as good as, but genuinely better. Because until we do, I’m staying put and will sit this one out. Happy Christmas everyone.

The importance of being noticed

Being a headteacher of an academy only a few miles from the Trojan horse schools in Birmingham means that I have taken more than a passing interest in the recent developments. It has made me re-visit our own Articles of Association to ensure that we do not find ourselves in a similar situation, especially now that we are a multi academy trust. I know one of the Birmingham schools very well as I’ve inspected it in the past and it truly was an outstanding school. The teaching staff were exceptional and the children delightful and so it’s tragic to see the situation deteriorate in such a way. As a result we are now seeing front page inspection reports that confirm that achievement and teaching are outstanding whilst behaviour and leadership are inadequate. How can that possibly be so? When placed in the context of the Trojan horse scenario it does of course seem plausible.

The government were quick to respond and came up with a two-part solution: (1) Introduce no-notice inspections and (2) Teach British values. (Note: On first draft I mis-typed British as Brutish which the spell-checker allowed to go through. For a fleeting moment I was tempted to leave it, having noted the irony.)  I am certainly not going to be drawn into the ‘British Values’ debate as I have not a clue what these are. However, I do know a little bit about ‘no-notice’ inspections – a concept HMCI is keen to remind us he wanted to introduce several years ago. The notion of ‘no notice’ has therefore been around for a while and the merits and de-merits have been discussed and debated time and time again. Personally, I have no problem with it at all and am more than happy for any inspector to visit my schools un-announced.

But what does concern me is that when inspectors do turn up with no notice, they end up noticing the wrong things. The danger could be that ‘no notice’ means ‘not noticed’. In fact I think I’m more concerned about some Ofsted inspectors taking no notice of all the good things that go in our schools than I am of no-notice inspections. Ever since the demise of the SEF and the Pre-Inspection Briefing it’s almost impossible for headteachers to be able to tell their school’s story and set the inspection in context. Schools are simply too complicated a place to do justice to an inspection without engaging with the rich narrative that sits behind each and every school. As an inspector myself, I used to find the PIB incredibly useful in learning about the school’s context. Without it I feel as if I’m going in to the school ill-equipped. With every will in the world, I worry as an inspector that I might fail to notice a piece of crucial evidence that confirms how well a school is doing.

I know from personal experience as a headteacher on the receiving end of how frustrating this can be. I can recall more than one occasion, when despite my very best efforts, inspectors failed to notice things in my school that I felt were crucial to the inspection and subsequent evidence. On one occasion I even put in a formal complaint taking it right to the final stage. But alas, it made no difference, the complaint was not upheld. At least I tried.

I recall in particular a post-special measures monitoring visit several years ago involving a single inspector.  I remember trying to get the HMI to notice how independent our pupils were when in class. The pupils were lead learners and would decide themselves when they needed to leave their seat and go and find the solution to a problem to help them become unstuck. We didn’t want them to be reliant on simply asking the teacher. This might require the use of one of the 5Bs, perhaps by speaking to a Buddy or looking at the Board (learning wall) before ultimately going to the Boss. Or it could be the use of a TASC wheel that requires pupils to move around the classroom so that they get to Think Actively in a Social Context. We do a lot of envoying, swag-bagging, splatting and rainbowing, all of which require the pupils to move around and talk to each other. Learning is messy, active and lively.

As I was conducting a learning walk with the inspector he entered several classrooms where the pupils were out of their seats and wandering around ‘letting RIP’. In one Year 3 class in particular they were actively engaged in learning experiences that were Real, Immersive and Powerful (RIP). It was fabulous and I was buzzing, confident that we’d nailed it.

I watched as the inspector scribbled furiously on his EF each time a child got out of their seat without telling the teacher. I was urging him to go and talk to the children to hear about what they were doing. He didn’t, instead remaining at the door diligently keeping a record of the number of times a child got out of their seat without asking for the teacher’s permission. He seemed very pre-occupied and it was at this point I sensed things were taking a turn for the worse.

We left the classroom and discussed the lesson. He wasn’t impressed. I asked him why and he told me he didn’t like the fact that there was no system in place for children walking around the classroom. I asked what sort of system he would have liked to have seen (Tickets? Formal invites? A rota perhaps?) but he was having none of it. It was the teacher’s job apparently to teach the children the routine correctly, whatever this might have been. Besides, he continued, the children at this age really ought to be able to stay in their seats and learn on their own without keep leaving their desks. I asked him if he’d noticed the learning walls or learning power tools or thinking hats or CoRT 1 thinking tools the pupils kept referring to that helped them learn independently. He said he hadn’t because it was only a brief learning walk, the implication being that he wasn’t expected to notice them. The inspector was so hung-up on the children leaving their seats that he’d failed to notice the powerful learning that was going on around him. I was not in the least bit surprised therefore to read in the final report that the pace of learning in some lessons was slow because ‘classroom routines were not fully embedded…’

Although deflated, the disappointment didn’t last long as ten months later a full inspection team arrived and thankfully noticed exactly the same things and judged the school to be outstanding.

So if we are going to have no-notice inspections, it’s essential that when Ofsted do visit, we as leaders need to make sure they notice all the right things. This has always been one of the criticisms of the inspection regime right back from the days when Ofsted first started over a quarter of a century ago. No matter how complex or challenging schools were, trying to convince an inspector that what they had observed was not necessarily reflective of what goes on all the time was very difficult. So to bring this rather cathartic post to a light-hearted close I am reminded of a story that did the rounds back in the day when Ofsted first emerged. It highlights perfectly the importance of noticing the right things.

An Ofsted Inspector was walking with a friend in a park when he saw a woman throwing a stick into the lake for her dog to fetch. The dog ran up to the water’s edge but instead of diving in to the lake,  it proceeded to walk across the surface of the water, collect the stick in its  mouth and walk back to its master. As if to prove to the astonished onlookers that this was no fluke, the woman threw the stick even further out into the lake. Once again, the dog obediently walked across the surface of the water to retrieve the stick and brought it back to its master. Whilst everyone else continued to be dumbstruck by the awesome event they had just witnessed, the Inspector turned to his friend, shook his head in disbelief and said admonishingly, ‘Would you believe it, a dog that can’t swim’.