Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Education after Gove

I wasn't expecting to be writing this post today. There has been a rumour going round for months that Michael Gove would be moved to an election role - though as Party Chair rather than Chief Whip. But in recent weeks all the noises were that he would be staying in post until the election.

Tim Montgomerie said earlier on twitter that: "I understand Osborne opposed Gove move but dire opinion polling presented by Lynton Crosby of MG's standing with teachers forced change." Another possibility is that he's simply got fed up with being blocked on any further policy by the Lib Dems. If holding the fort until the election is all that's left then he's happy for someone else to do it.

Whatever the reason what does his departure mean for education? Here are a few initial thoughts:

1) There are unlikely to be any major policy reversals. No. 10 have very deliberately ensured the new Secretary of State Nicky Morgan is surrounded by Govites - Nick Boles, Nick Gibb and John Nash. Moreover Gove himself will still be in No. 10 and will be in the PM's daily meeting - he is still in a position to prevent anything he thinks would significantly undermine his legacy. What's more the election is only 10 months away - it's not a time for big U-turns.

2) I don't know Nicky Morgan and she doesn't have a track record in education but I'm sure, like all ministers, she will want some specific policies that are identified as hers. Briefing around her appointment suggests her thing will be early years and the Conservatives certainly see this as a key election battleground. Labour already have some big and expensive policies in this space.

3) Some officials will see the appointment of a new Secretary as an opportunity to tweak various policies they are worried about. The slew of upcoming exam changes is an obvious area where they may try to use her appointment to lengthen the timelines of reform. There is also an on-going review of ITT which may not now go as far as might have been expected.

4) There won't be much time for the new Secretary to learn her brief. Her first crisis might come as soon as next month. Ofqual recently wrote to schools saying they expected greater than normal turbulence in exam results this summer as a result of earlier reforms (including linearity and the end of vocational equivalences). Last time there was greater than normal turbulence - in English results in 2012 - there was a firestorm of complaints from schools than ended in a judicial review. Even if results' week passes without incident, in September we have the launch of a new curriculum; new rules on assessment; the introduction of free school meals in key stage one; compulsory English and Maths post-16 for those without GCSE "C" grades; and about a dozen other things. While the Govian reform phase may be over the implementation phase is at a critical moment.

5) Gove's enemies may be celebrating prematurely. Though policy is unlikely to change much it will be significantly harder to demonise Nicky Morgan than it has been to attack Gove. He was something of a unifying factor for the teacher unions - the last NUT strike was effectively an anti-Gove demonstration. They may find their campaigns lose some momentum now.

Now is not the time for a proper retrospective of Michael Gove's time at the DfE. But - as Andrew Old says - perhaps his greatest achievement has been to normalise comprehensive education for the Conservative party; to shift the argument from "saving" a few bright poor kids through grammar schools or assisted places to creating a genuinely world class system for all. In time I suspect that will be more widely recognised than it is now.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

The London Schools Effect - what have we learned this week?

Perhaps the biggest question in education policy over the past few years is why the outcomes for London schools have been improving so much faster than in the rest of the country. I wrote about it here last year. Until now there's been little in the way of research into the question but last week two reports came out - one by the IFS and one from CFBT - that seek to provide some answers.

They both agree that the change in GCSE results has been spectacular. There's plenty of data in both reports on this but I found this graph from the IFS particularly powerful because it relates to a metric that isn't something schools are held accountable to - and so feels like authentic proof that something extraordinary has happened in London.

But what, exactly, has happened? Here the two reports seem to disagree. According to the IFS - whose analysis is purely quantitative the main reasons are:
  • Changes in pupil and school characteristics - in particular London and other inner-city areas have seen an increase in pupils from a range of ethnic backgrounds (partly) as a result of immigration. The IFS analysis suggests this accounts for about half the improvement in London between 2002-2012.
  • Changes in "prior attainment" - the authors argue that once higher levels of attainment in key stage 2 (end of primary) tests are taken into account then the "London effect" in secondaries looks less impressive. Indeed once prior attainment and changes in pupil/school characteristics have been controlled for the gap between London and the rest of the country falls from 21 percentage points in the  5 A*-C GCSE with English and Maths measure to just 5 percentage points. Moreover this gap is fairly stable between 2002-2012 - though it does increase a by about 2 percentage points over the period.
  • There was a big increase in key stage 2 schools for disadvantaged pupils between 1999-2003 and that led to big increases in GCSE scores for these pupils between 2004-08 - but the GCSE improvement was actually the result of prior attainment. The authors hypothesise this may be due to the introduction of "national strategies" in primary literacy and numeracy in the late 90s - these were piloted in inner London authorities (as well as some other urban areas e.g. Liverpool).
  • London secondaries do have a better record at getting disadvantaged pupils to stay in education post-16. After controlling for pupil/school characteristics they are around 10 percentage points more likely to stay in education.

The CFBT report does include quantitative analysis but is much more focus on qualitative research - specifically interviews with headteachers, academics, civil servants and other experts. This report argues the key reasons for London's improvement are:
  • Four key "improvement interventions" between 2002 and 2014 - the "London Challenge" (a Labour initiative that used data to focus attention on weaker schools and used better schools to support their improvement); Teach First; the introduction of sponsored academies; and improvements driven by local authorities.
  • They conclude that: "each of these interventions played a significant role in driving improvement. Evaluations of each of these interventions have overall been positive, although the absence of RCT evidence makes it impossible to identify the precise gains from each set of activities. The exact causal mix also varied from borough to borough because there were variations in the level of involvement in London Challenge, variations in the effectiveness of local authority activity, variations in the level of ‘academisation’ and variations in the level of input from Teach First."
  • The authors argue that there were cross-cutting themes covering these interventions and the wider improvement story. In particular - the better use of data; practitioner-led professional development and, particularly, leadership - both politically and at school level.

At first glance it's hard to reconcile the positions taken in the two reports. The IFS focus on primary, and to a lesser extent pupil characteristics, while CFBT focus on secondary policy changes. I think, though, they are two different bits of an extremely complicated jigsaw that hasn't been finished yet - and because of the lack of evidence/data - never will be. Like the apocryphal blind men with the elephant they're looking at different parts of the whole.

1) Both reports probably underestimate the importance of changes in pupil characteristics. CFBT completely dismiss this as a driver based on an inadequate analysis of ethnicity data. The IFS analysis is more comprehensive and so does pick up a significant effect but may still miss the true extent because of the limitations of available data on ethnicity. I think this may explain the extent of the "primary effect" in the IFS report. Essentially they're saying the big improvements in GCSE results are partially illusory because they were already built into those pupils' primary attainment. However, they are unable (because of a lack of data) to analyse whether those primary results were also partly illusory because those pupils started primary at a higher level.

There is a clue that this may be a factor in their analysis of Key Stage 1 data for more recent years. Controlling for prior attainment at KS1 reduces the "London effect" at Key Stage 2 by about half. But the authors are unable to do this analysis for the crucial 1999-2003 period when results really improved. They are also unable to look from the beginning of primary - because we don't have baseline assessments when pupils start school.

2) The IFS report probably underestimates the secondary effect. As Chris Cook has shown the London secondary effect at least doubles if you exclude equivalents.

3) The CFBT report definitely underestimates the primary effect because it doesn't look for it. Thought there are some quotes from people who worked in local authorities during the crucial period who highlight their focus on literacy and numeracy during the late 90s.

So pupil characteristics; primary schools and secondary schools all seem to have played a role in boosting attainment in London. The CFBT report is convincing on some of the factors at play in secondaries; the IFS report is convincing that primaries also played some kind of a role. The big questions for me after digesting both reports:

  • Are there "London specific" pupil characteristics that wouldn't be apparent from the available data. E.g. are immigrants who go to London different to those who don't? Are some of the ethnicity effects stronger than indentified because key groups (e.g. Polish) are hidden in larger categories?
  • Are there policy reasons why London primaries improved faster than those elsewhere in the crucial 1999-2003 period? I struggle to buy the idea that the national strategies were the key driver here as they were rolled out nationally (albeit that the pilots were focused on inner London). But the quotes in the CFBT report suggest their might be something here around a general focus on literacy/numeracy. This is a key area for further research.
  • To what extent were the policy interventions (London Challenge, academies etc...) the main reasons for secondary improvement? Or was it more to do with the number of good school leaders during that period? One of the most interesting tables in the CFBT report - pasted below - shows that inner London is the only part of the country where headteacher recruitment has got easier in the last ten year. And the importance of leadership shines through in the interviews conducted for the CFBT report. Is it possible to more closely identify the relationship between individual leaders and school improvement? What can we learn from these leaders?

And of course the really big question - is any of this replicable in other areas? We're starting to see a raft of local improvement initiatives across the country - Wales Challenge; Somerset Challenge; North East Challenge and so on. It's really important that in these areas we do a better job of evaluating all the interventions put in place from the start so that if we see big improvements we have a better understand of the causes.

Further reading:

The IFS report

The CFBT report

Chris Cook's analysis

Loic Menzies - one of the CFBT authors - on the two reports

The London Challenge evaluation by Merryn Hutchings and others

Transforming Education For All: The Tower Hamlets Story by Chris Husbands et al

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

In defence of baseline assessments

Earlier this year the DfE announced new proposals for holding primary schools accountable. These include a "baseline assessment" for pupils in reception. Primary schools that opt-in to using this assessment will then be measured on the progress pupils make over the course of their time in school rather than on the raw results of Key Stage tests.
It's fair to say the idea hasn't been universally welcomed. While the NAHT have made some positive noises the NUT have voted to investigate boycotting these assessments. And I suspect their position is held by the majority of early years teachers.
I don't think the DfE proposal as it stands is perfect - for one thing the suggestion that schools could pick from a range of assessments seems unhelpfully complex. But, given we have high-stakes accountability for primaries, and that this isn't going to change any time soon, the principle seems sensible to me.
However, opponents of the tests have raised some reasonable concerns, particularly that the assessments could be used to "label" children from a young age. I recently received an email from a correspondent (who doesn't wished to be named) which shows how labelling could be avoided while still allowing primaries to be measured on the progress they were making rather than their raw scores, regardless of intake. I've reposted the email in full as, I think, it shows how the benefits of the assessments could be secured without the negatives opponents are worried about.
"My starting point on baseline assessments is that a teacher's focus for ages 4-7 should mostly be about absolutes rather than relatives. As an absolute bottom line, every 7yo should have completed learning to decode (including the complex code, not just the simplified initial code) and thus to read with reasonable fluency, to write properly, to spell (though not full spelling code mastery by 7), and have had opportunities to practice their new skills in worthwhile activities; and similarly for maths. These aspirations should be there for all children (with the perennial exception of true heavy-duty special needs), not just the brighter ones. KS1 assessment ought to be showing us whether these aspirations are met.

But this creates a problem, in that children arrive at primary school with very different levels of development and (though many hate the idea) variable capacities to learn. School intakes are far from homogeneous, and the accountability system will persistently punish some schools if we simply compare KS1 outcomes and don't recognise this. In a high-accountability world, this creates disincentives to work in and run these schools, which over time will tend to lead to differences in teacher and curriculum quality, creating a vicious circle.

I therefore think it is important to have a measure in the system that provides a primary education baseline, so from the first term of Reception. I also favour a test over teacher assessment: teachers are too conflicted otherwise. But I would explicitly make this a measure of schools, not pupils. I might send schools information about cohort performance: average score vs national average, range from highest to lowest, probably no more than this: really just enough for schools to see that there is a fair external perspective on their intake, and to have a sense of what overall level of performance at KS1 ought to be expected. But I would definitely NOT give them individual child scores, nor would I give these to parents. (This sounds shocking to many ears, but it is in fact absolutely normal - eg schools administer all sorts of tests for internal purposes whose results don't go to students or parents.) So children would not be labelled, and schools could not set differentiated child level targets explicitly designed to meet specific Ofsted progress expectations. The child level data would sit in the NPD until needed for KS1 progress/VS calculations for all matched children.

This would allow proper assessment of progress and value-added from YR to Y2 at school (and perhaps classroom) level, but without individual labelling with all its negative consequences and without refocusing lower primary teachers away from absolute expectations. And I really do think that this early stage accountability is necessary, as we all tend to judge the lower end of our children's primary schools by how nice the people are, and only realise what they haven't been taught when it is already getting rather late to do something about it. (My older child was in Y2 before I realised that the school's reading and spelling teaching was lamentable, and I am a fairly well-informed parent who recognised quickly that the problem was with the school and not the child. I know many parents lamenting their children's dyslexia who still don't realise that it was probably avoidable.)

Administration of tests to 4/5 yos is of course a challenge. But

(a) modern computer-based tests are quite accessible to the vast majority of children who will already have seen (and often played) tablet/PC/phone games

(b) they can be adaptive, using quite complex algorithms to determine which questions they use to refine the measure, so that even a teacher watching a child take the test cannot deduce their precise score

(c) the incentive to teachers is to under-report baselines, but it would take a degree of nastiness that I hope not too many are capable of to nudge a child away from the right answer towards a wrong answer

(d) I suspect that screening algorithms will be capable of picking up anomalous patterns of answers if teachers impersonate children and try to replicate their mistakes.

 So I think it will be possible to establish a worthwhile baseline test if these technical issues can be dealt with and if the temptation to use this as an accountability test for nursery classes can be resisted, at this would infallibly lead to nursery classes starting to teach to typical test items, thus undermining the value of the baseline."

Friday, 11 April 2014

Some thoughts on grief

Until it happened it didn't occur to me that our daughter would be stillborn. I'd worried about a difficult birth; 4-day labours; emergency c-sections; brain damage and so on. It didn't cross my mind that when we arrived at the hospital there'd simply be no heartbeat.

Stillbirth turns out to be relatively common - around 1 in every 200 births in the UK. This rate hasn't fallen in the UK for over 20 years despite significant improvements in other aspects of maternity care. As 90% of stillbirths have no congenital abnormality it should be possible to reduce the rate significantly with better screening.


I suspect part of the reason for the lack of investment in stillbirth research - and lack of media attention - is because it's very hard to talk about. The absence of the paraphernalia that usually accompanies a death reduces the number of opportunities to engage with friends and relatives - leaving instead a almost complete lack of activity in a household prepared for the exhaustions of a newborn. And unlike other deaths, where you can share stories about the deceased from happier times, there's no hook for positive conversations.

Which is why so many of the messages we've received contain words along the lines of "words are futile at this time" or "there are no words" or "I know nothing I can say can make anything better". Of course this isn't true. For me at least the hundreds of messages we've received have been very helpful in processing what's happened. Without them we'd have had almost no communication at all outside of our immediate families. And the box of cards we now have are pretty much the only thing we have to remember her by.


I've found the process of grieving much as one would expect - it comes in waves and there are increasingly long periods - hours at a time now - where I feel pretty normal (and then feel guilty for feeling normal). But everyone's grief is individual and there are some odd quirks which I think are less common. After the horror of the initial few days I've held it together pretty well. The only times I've really felt myself going to pieces was after someone has done me a significant and unexpected kindness. I don't know why - perhaps because it reminds of the enormity of what's happened?

The most noticeable thing has been the difference in the way my wife and I think about her. Because I never had the chance to meet her I think of her in terms of lost possibility; the girl - and woman - she could have been. My wife, though, had a physical relationship with her over many months - making the loss much more visceral. She thinks of her by the name we chose. For some reason I can't.


At some point in the future we'll be holding a fundraising event for Sands, the UK's stillbirth charity, in honour of our daughter and to help pay for research that will hopefully stop other families going through this.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

The worst few days of my life

As many of you know my wife, Linda, and I have been expecting our third child. On Monday afternoon Linda had a 38 week check-up and was told everything was fine. Later that evening she went into a normal labour and early on Tuesday morning we arrived at the hospital. When the midwife did the initial check she was unable to find the baby's heartbeat. After some Casualty-like scenes of panic a doctor confirmed the bad news. Shortly after our daughter was delivered stillborn. As yet the doctors are unable to establish a reason why this happened and in most cases like this they never do.

Needless to say we are heartbroken. The last few days have been the hardest of our lives. But we're very lucky to have our wonderful twins as well as an incredibly supportive network of family and friends. They will see us through this.

I'm writing this public note so that I don't have to tell everyone individually and so that people understand why I'm not returning calls, texts, emails and DMs at the moment. But I am very grateful to everyone who has already offered condolences and support. I'll be back in action soon.

9 things you should know about the new PISA "creative problem-solving" test

Today sees the launch of the first international test of "creative problem-solving". It is the latest addition to the suite of PISA tests run by the OECD which have become hugely influential in global education policy-making.

This test was taken by pupils in late 2012 at the same time as PISA tests in maths, science and reading but the results were held back for a separate launch. I was invited to a pre-embargo briefing yesterday and the information here is taken from a mix of the published reports and answers given by OECD experts at the briefing.

1. The purpose of the test was to measure students ability to solve problems which do not require technical knowledge. The PISA subject tests in maths, science and reading are also based around problem-solving but they do require knowledge in these subject areas (e.g. mathematical concepts and mental arithmetic). Examples of questions include working out which ticket to buy at a vending machine, given a list of constraints, or finding the most efficient place for three people to meet. Unlike the subject PISA tests it was completed on computers which allowed for more sophisticated interactive assessment.

2. Overall the results correlated fairly closely with the PISA subject tests. Unsurprisingly students who are good at maths problems are also good at ones involving general reasoning. The correlation with maths results was 0.8 and with reading was 0.75.

3. But England was one of the countries that did significantly better in this test than in the subject ones. It came 11th overall but the individual rankings are misleading. It makes more sense to think of clusters of countries that did about as well as each other. The leading group of seven consists entirely of Far East countries and jurisdictions. England is in the second group with countries that traditionally do well in PISA like Australia, Canada, Finland and Estonia. Then comes a third group made up other larger European countries and the United States. The countries below the OECD average are primarily smaller European countries and developing nations.

4. This is unhelpful for a number of the big narratives in English education policy. It undercuts the "England is falling behind in the world" narrative so beloved of right-wing newspapers. On a test of intellectual reasoning (which is what this is) our 15 year olds do as well as any other nation bar a small group of Far East jurisdictions (only two of which - Japan and Korea - are not cities or city states).

5. But it's also perhaps unhelpful for those who argue that our education system is dominated by an obsession with tests and narrow curriculum knowledge. It turns out we're actually pretty good at "21st century skills" already. Our students performed better in this test than you would expect based on their maths, science and reading ability. Likewise all the employers arguing that our system isn't delivering the kind of problem-solving skills they need should reflect on these results.

6. The reason England outperformed it's subject PISA scores is that students at the top end did better on the problem-solving test than on the subject ones. Students at the bottom end did no better. This suggests that we're doing something with our more gifted students that we're not doing with our weaker ones. In other countries - e.g. Japan - the opposite was true weaker students did better in problem-solving than subject tests but the strongest ones didn't.

7. In England there was no statistically significant gender difference in performance on this test (in maths and science boys do better; in reading girls do). Interestingly immigrants scored below non-immigrants which is a change from the maths and reading tests where there is no significant difference.

8. The domination of Far East countries puts pay to the notion that their success in PISA subject tests is somehow down to rote-learning or fact-cramming. It also puts pay to the idea that all Far East systems are the same. While Shanghai and Hong-Kong are still in the top group they did much worse on this test than would be expected given their stellar scores in maths, science and reading. Conversely Korea, Japan and Singapore all did better than would be expected.

9. While the test results are interesting they don't tell us why some countries do better than others. Both Singapore and Korea - who come top - have both tried over the past few years to add "21st century competencies" to their curricula to make them less purely focused on academic knowledge. But it's unclear whether their high scores in this test are due to that or because their traditional strength in the academic basics transfers to "creative problem-solving" tests of this type. The OECD presenters were clear that they thought it was impossible to teach problem-solving skills in the abstract without content, but they also felt it was possible to embed them in a knowledge-based curriculum.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Weekly Update 29/3/14


DfE published the final proposals for a new primary accountability framework. Michael Tidd summarised the main changes and gave his take on them (spoiler: he's not impressed).

The NUT went on strike. Michael Tidd didn't think that was a good idea either. Nor did John Blake.

DfE also published plans for a new 16-19 accountability regime.

And plans to cut £200m from LAs and academies

Best Blogs/Articles:

Why literacy is knowledge by Robert Pondiscio

David Didau on the importance of school behaviour policies (it regularly amazes me how many schools still don't apply one consistently)

Deevybee on whether Dyslexia is an appropriate label

Cherryl KD on training teachers with a SEN specialism

Alex Quigley with some tips for new bloggers

A sample of Daisy Christodoulou's book in American Educator

Harry Webb on the future of education research

Michael Tidd (again) on seven questions you should ask about your post-levels assessment system

Shaun Allison on why some of his school's departments are so successful

Annie Murphy Paul on the importance of analogies

New Research:

Fascinating report from HEFCE on different in degree outcomes for different groups. The main focus has been on state school pupils doing better than private ones but there's a lot of interesting/worrying stuff in there.

Dan Willingham on a new study showing readability levels may well be inaccurate

Big new Gates Foundation funded report on Khan Academy - which still leaves us unsure as to whether it has any benefit.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Weekly Update 22/3/14


Another week dominated by Ofsted. On Monday Policy Exchange published their eagerly awaited report with some radical recommendations. It was blogged about by David Didau, Tom Bennett, Joe Kirby, Stuart Lock, Robert Peal and me.

On Friday we heard Ofsted's response from Sir Michael Wilshaw. He promised a shift (over the next 18 months) towards shorter inspections for good schools and a review of the framework.

Which seems to fit with the conclusion to my blog on Policy Exchange's report: "Under the current regime I suspect we will see incremental shifts in the right direction but no big bang reset."

NAHT published a really interesting draft manifesto which I hope others engage with

Tristram Hunt is backing Future Leaders campaign to stop discrimination against women in headteacher appointments

On and the Varkey-GEMS Foundation announced a $1 million prize for the world's best teacher. Good luck everyone.

Best Blogs/Articles:

Harry Webb on the many weaknesses of the "nothing can be known about education" viewpoint

Tom Sherrington argues for a symbiosis between traditional and progressive pedagogy

Daisy Christodoulou has collated a variety of alternatives to NC levels

Chris Hall on the lessons from the first batch of EEF randomised control trials

Jo Facer on a wonderful sounding assembly in which she explained the importance of reading

Fascinating piece from Rob Webster on his research showing that getting a statement for a pupil with SEN can actually lead to worse outcomes.

Classroom routines from Elissa Miller who sounds like the most organised teacher in the world

The anonymous Heather F on her really bad teaching

Gifted Phoenix with more info on FSM admissions to Oxbridge than you'll ever need

New Research:

If you're a teacher and have a innovative idea you can win £15k to pay for a year long research pilot

Sunday Times on new research showing that state school pupils get better degrees those from private schools with the same qualifications (unfortunately paywalled + the full research is not yet published)

A new Sutton Trust report on parenting and attachment

Monday, 17 March 2014

My take on Policy Exchange's Ofsted report

First thoughts

This is one of the best think-tank reports I've read in a very long time. It's timely, pragmatic, while not being too safe. It's also well written (rarer than you might think).

And importantly it's the first report I've seen that makes real use of social media expertise. The authors acknowledge that they've built on the ideas emerging from twitter and the blogosphere and the final product is much stronger as a result:

"We would like to thank all the teachers and other educationalists who have continued to debate the role of Ofsted on blogs and on Twitter and in doing so, influenced our work - even if they didn’t know they were! Social media is a democratic phenomenon which offers a tremendous opportunity for closing the gap between practitioners and policymakers. If ideas are good and arguments are compelling, then it has never been as easy as now to shape what politicians and policymakers are thinking."

How I wish that social media had been in full flow when I was running the Policy Exchange education department back in 2008 - it would have significantly improved my thinking.

The full report is: here.

The key recommendations

The report sets our a new design for inspections with a shift to regular short inspections based primarily on data and self-evaluation. Only schools where inspectors had concerns (or couldn't tell) would get a longer "tailored inspection". This seems eminently sensible and is line with Ofsted's slow shift towards risk-based assessment over the past decade. 

There would be no teacher observations in these short inspections. Again I strongly agree. And set out my reasons why this would be an important shift here.

Longer tailored inspections would include teacher observations - but inspectors engaged in these visits would have to be trained to a high standard. This feels like a bit of a fudge. Obviously if we are going to have observations then inspectors must be trained but there's no reason given for why they are necessary.

The problem is that even with the best training available observations are not hugely reliable. The report acknowledges that the gold standard models of observation can achieve 61% agreement between 1st and 2nd observers (p.19). That still an awful lot of teachers getting the wrong grade for their teaching - with potentially significant knock on effects for their career. And to achieve that 61% could require up to six separate observations by different people (p.20) which is phenomenally time consuming and expensive.

Of course inspectors, as part of a longer visit, would want to spend time in classrooms but there would need to a really clear added value to formalising these observations to justify the cost both of resources and to individuals.

I remain of the view that the purpose of even a longer inspection should be to understand whether senior and middle leaders understand their school and not to make potentially invalid judgements about individuals' teaching. As I've said previously:

"Inspections should focus on systems. Essentially Ofsted should be looking at what the school is doing to ensure consistent good teaching. They should be inspecting the school's quality assurance not trying to do the quality assurance themselves. In their classroom visits they should be checking the leadership know their teachers and understand how best to support their future development. They should be checking that they have thought about professional development and about performance management. They should be seeing if the behaviour policy is being enforced; and if the school curriculum is actually being used."

Other recommendations

The full list of recommendations can be found in this blog by Joe Kirby. I agree with nearly all of them - particularly a new requirement that inspectors take a data interpretation test and the suggestion that Ofsted end the practice of having thousands of part-time, contracted, additional inspectors.

I have an issue with the suggestion that schools should only be considered outstanding if they "engage in a serious and meaningful way in some form of school to school improvement with other schools - as chosen by the school itself". This is laudable but very hard to inspect without visiting the other schools adding cost and complexity. It could also lead to quite a lot of fake collaboration. I'd rather have an additional category of "system leader" for those schools that were indisputably playing that role.

I also remain unconvinced that we need a separate system for inspecting academy chains. Ofsted are already doing inspections of multiple schools within a chain - which led directly to the recent reduction in the number of schools run by EACT. It's not clear what another framework would add.

Will any of it happen?

There's no question Ofsted have woken up - in recent months - to the extent of the public relations challenge they have. The social media engagement of their Director of Schools Mike Cladingbowl has been welcome and extremely encouraging. The reforms he has proposed in recent months fit with the direction of travel of the Policy Exchange report - shorter more risk-based assessments, emphasising that individual teachers shouldn't be graded - but they are much less radical.

Under the current regime I suspect this will continue - with incremental shifts in the right direction but no big bang reset. Whether we see the Policy Exchange recommendations implemented in full (or even the end of lesson observations all together) will probably depend on who gets to choose the next Chief Inspector and who that is.


Saturday, 15 March 2014

Weekly update 15/3/14


DfE published their school funding consultation for 2015-16 - next step towards a national funding formula

The FT ran a lengthy and very perceptive profile/interview with Michael Gove

Labour released a policy consultation on education. And Tristram Hunt wrote about Ofsted

The Mail launched an attack on the universal free school meals policy. As did ex-SPAD Dominic Cummings (and here). Special mention to Andy Jolley who's been tirelessly plugging away at the flaws with the policy

Post-16 institutions won some respite from funding cuts to 18 year old learners

Best Blogs/Articles:

David Didau takes a shot at Assessment for Learning

Sir David Carter on supporting transition from primary to secondary

ChocoTzar on the role of schools in supporting troubled teenage lives

Laura Mcinerney argues School Direct trainees shouldn't be placed in inadequate schools

John Dunford on using the pupil premium effectively

Toby Greany has a nuanced critique of the Government's self-improvement system narrative

Chris Chivers' overview of upcoming SEN changes

Joe Kirby on the benefits of using multiple-choice questions

Susan Young summarises a conference on the future role of Teaching Schools

John Mayer on why we need more tests, not fewer

Rob Coe on how to design assessments (technically from last week but so good I had to include it)

New Research:

DfE have released a series of papers listing research priorities and questions

Dan Willingham on a new study showing young children can understand complex concepts

Reform/SSAT report on how academies are (or are not) using their autonomy

University of Southampton say centralised academy chains are the most effective (can't find the full report)

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Weekly Update 1/3/2014

Probably the most significant education story this week was the DfE "persuading" E-ACT, one of the largest academy chains, to find new sponsors for ten of their academies. Jonn Elledge's analysis is here and Robert Hill wrote an excellent blog about the wider significance of this move.

Meanwhile Liz Truss has been in Shanghai with a group of headteachers. Chris Husbands offered an excellent explanation of why they're flavour of the month at the moment.

And the long-awaited teacher workforce survey was published. David Weston picked out the most salient points. For me the most revealing chart was this one showing the difference of opinion between heads and classroom teachers in what would improve the quality of teaching and learning (respondents could choose up to three options).

Also this week two of my favourite blogs for a while. A superb post from Harry Fletcher-Wood on what it takes to make CPD effective and Rob Peal taking apart three Guardian articles (the middle one of which is a real shocker).

Other Highlights

David Didau on a surplus model of performance management

Kris Boulton asks "what is teaching?"

Kate Chhatwal on sexism in headteacher appointments

John Tomsett on the trouble with education research

Micon Metcalfe on the practicalities of getting rid of lesson grades

A nice bit of polemic from Valerie Strauss on why people who think they know what teacher do, don't

Dan Willingham on why you shouldn't hire like google and why fluid intelligence isn't trainable

Horatio Speaks on identifying and stopping the saboteur pupil

Harry Webb with a good summary of arguments for knowledge-based curricula

New Sutton Trust research on changes in admissions policy (and Conor Ryan's blog on the report)

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Weekly Update 22/2/2014

A rare, quiet, half-term, week from the politicians. But this week's adventure was Five go to Ofsted with top bloggers Tom Bennett, Tom Sherrington, David Didau, Shena Lewington and Ross McGill invited to meet with Ofsted's schools director Mike Cladingbowl. Naturally there all blogged about it. (And Bill Lord wrote a good blog about the wider significant of the lack of primary presence at the meeting).

The big news was a bold statement from Mike Cladingbowl that inspectors shouldn't be grading individual lessons - and the meeting was followed up with new guidance from Ofsted on this issue. Quality of teaching - based on evidence beyond the lesson; such as pupils' books - can be graded, though. So there remains a dangerous lack of clarity that will, I expect, prevent many schools from dropping their own lesson grades (Alex Quigley would go further - and I agree). But it's a start and it's great to see Ofsted starting to engage with these issues - and with the blogging world.

Five go to Ofsted (thanks to @JamesTheo)

Other highlights

Joe Kirby on building a rigorous, content-led, curriculum.

Deputy John on the blight of constant interventions

Tessa Matthews on the forgotten children neither bad or good enough to get attention

Tom Loveless on the poor evidence base for professional development.

Robert Hill on the over-expansion of some academy chains and how to stop this happening in the future

And David Carter on chain accountability + expansion from the perspective of someone running an excellent one.

Michael Tidd with further thoughts on assessment after levels.

Rob Peal on teaching character (or rather why it can't be taught).

And Briar Lipson on why it can be taught.

David Weston on the consensus-driven Scottish education system

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The North-East conundrum

Last year Ofsted released a report on disadvantage and education called "Unseen Children". There are all sorts of interesting charts and graphs in there but one set has been puzzling me on and off since the report was released.

They show the percentage of schools with the "most" and "least" deprived cohorts judged good or outstanding for leadership by region. The first chart (below) looks at primary schools and finds that for both the most and least deprived schools the North-East comes out on top, fractionally ahead of London and the North-West.

But then look at the equivalent graph for secondaries. Suddenly - in the "most deprived" category - schools in the North-East plummet to the bottom of the table. And it's not just a leadership issue - the same applies in the "teaching" category - where just 29% of deprived secondaries in the North-East are rated good or outstanding.

My first thought was that maybe there just aren't many secondaries included in this measure for the North-East, which is the smallest English region. Annoyingly the Ofsted report doesn't give any numbers but over 60 secondaries in the North-East are eligible for Teach First - which is a rough proxy - so it's a not insignificant number.

Then I looked at exam data, after all Ofsted inspections are pretty data driven these days. Unfortunately I can't look at the data for these particular schools as I don't know which ones Ofsted have included. However looking at results for pupils on free school meals shows a less exaggerated version of the same pattern. Primary results in the North-East last year were the second best in the country after London, alongside the North-West. This matches the Ofsted figures fairly well.

But a similar table for GCSE results shows the North-East slipping behind the West Mids/North-West and much closer to the other regions. This implies progress for these pupils during their secondary education is lower. And looking at the data for Teach First eligible schools suggests this is the case. In 2012, nationally, 65.7% of pupils in Teach First eligible schools made expected levels of progress in English and 64.3% in Maths. In the North-East the figures were just 60.9% and 59.1%. In Inner London they were 74.9% and 75.9%. Even in other poorly performing regions, like the South-East, pupils made a bit more progress than in the North-East.

So even if the Ofsted data is exaggerating the issue it is pointing to something real. Primary schools in the North-East serving deprived pupils are amongst the best in the country (outside of London) but the secondary schools serving those pupils are making less progress - on average - than elsewhere.

This is particular puzzle as most of the reasons given for regional differences - cultural or economic issues; immigration; supply of high-quality teachers - should apply to both sectors equally. And they seem to in other parts of the country (the West Midlands is an exception the other way - the secondaries seem to be doing better than the primaries).

If you're expecting an answer to the conundrum I'm afraid I don't have one. The only half-baked theory I can come up with is that the unusual labour market in the North-East (high dependency on the public sector for employment leading to higher teacher retention) might have different impacts on primary and secondary schools.

But I'd love to get better theories (or better analysis), especially from people who know the region much better than I do. It seems like an important question if we're to get to the bottom of how to help schools drive up standards outside of the capital.


Thanks to everyone who responded to this blog. No one offered any obvious suggestions that I'd missed but there were a few theories that act as a nice set of hypotheses for future research. So here's a list of the four most popular theories:

That the issue is small 1 or 2 form entry primaries feeding into large secondaries with wide catchment areas. Some people noted that rural areas in other parts of the country also seem to have this issue.

That some LAs in the NE are three-tier.

That the economic situation and lack of jobs in the NE lead to a lack of aspiration or a belief that aspirations can't be fulfilled as young people progress through secondary.

A shortage of "system leader" type heads who can/will take on responsibility for supporting other schools.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Weekly update 15/2/2014

A fairly busy week for education started with Labour nudging forward their reform agenda with an Ed Miliband speech proposing allowing parent's to "trigger" interventions in their schools.

Tristram Hunt followed up with another speech proposing that "character" be taught in schools. I liked this response from Gaby Hinsliff. (If you're interested in this area the best literature review of the evidence was recently published by the Institute of Education).

Michael Gove, meanwhile, pounced on the New Statesman's campaign to push the private/state divide further up the agenda to flaunt his progressive credentials.

In other news the School Teacher's Review Body decided to tweak teacher terms and conditions rather than take an axe to them. NASUWT used this as a convenient excuse not to join the NUT on their March strike. Michael Wilshaw made a typically lively appearance at the Education Select Committee. And the NAHT Commission on Assessment was published (here's an interesting response from David Thomas).

Other Highlights

An excellent analysis of the relationship between the 5 A*-C measure and the new Attainment 8 one by George Leckie

Peter Blatchford on the evidence of teaching assistants' effectiveness

John Tomsett argues individual lessons should never be graded again

Richard Spencer offers an alternative view that lesson judgements can be valuable

Debra Kidd on why she's leaving teaching

Alex Quigley on language, social class and curiosity

Neerav Kingsland defends school choice in New Orleans

Andy Jolley's top 10 tips for primary schools introducing universal free school meals.

Jonn Elledge wonders why we don't care the adult skills budget has been cut by 20%

Five things schools need to know about the SEN reforms by Amy Cook

Sue Cowley asks some questions about the proposed primary baseline assessments

And a special commendation has to go to Tom Bennett this week. Not only did he produce a series of beautiful blogs on his school trip to Israel and Palestine (first one here) but he also gave us a final superb review of the last episode of Tough Young Teachers. I think we all agree with Claudenia, Chloe, Oliver and Meryl....

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Why are black pupils doing so well?

Yesterday I was playing around with GCSE data and found an interesting trend. Over the past five years black pupils have almost caught up with white pupils in the main 5 A*-C measure including English and Maths.

My first thought was that this must be a function of the "London effect" as over 60% of black pupils live in the capital. But actually black improvement has been faster in other regions. (Health warning on this chart - some regions have very low numbers of black pupils, especially the North East where just 139 took GCSEs in 2013).

My next thought was that it might be a result of immigration. Unfortunately we don't know how many recent immigrants are included in the figures but we can look at differences between black Caribbean and black African as a proxy, as the latter are more likely to be recent immigrants.

It turns out that the percentage of black African pupils as a proportion of all black pupils has increased over the past 5 years from 54% to 59% and black Caribbean has decreased from 33% to 29%. This explains some of the faster rate of improvement for black pupils overall as black Africans do about 8 percentage points better than black Caribbeans.

But the rate of improvement has actually been faster for black Caribbeans (13.9 percentage points over the past five years compared to 12.8 for black Africans). So there's something else going on as well...

I then noticed that black boys have improved faster than black girls over the past five years (14.4 percentage points to 12.8). This is the opposite of what's happening with white British boys and girls (7.8 to 11.2). It seems like this gender difference is another part of the jigsaw.

Then I dug into the gender/ethnicity data a bit more and found that white British boys not black boys were the outliers.

Despite all the attention on the under-performance of white British boys this surprised me. I had thought the issue was with poor white British boys. But white British boys on Free School Meals make up a small proportion of these figures (and are improving at the same rate as their non-FSM peers - albeit from a much lower base).

So to answer my initial question I've identified two reasons why black pupils are improving faster than white ones. First there are a larger proportion of higher performing black Africans. And secondly black boys are improving faster than white British boys (as are Pakistani/Bangladeshi boys).

Of course this analysis only begins to scratch the surface of what's going on here. And it throws up a whole lot more questions. Perhaps most of all: what's going on with white British boys (poor or rich)?

All the data in the blog is taken from here.
All terminology is that used by the Department for Education

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Weekly Update 8/2/14

On Monday Michael Gove gave a speech in which he said his ambition for the school system is that when parents: "visit a school in England, standards are so high all round that they should not be able to tell whether it’s in the state sector or a fee-paying independent."

One wonders if he'd read the previous week's New Statesman in which David and George Kynaston had a fascinating history of Labour's reticence to engage with the private school dilemma. This week's edition had a follow-up with five commentators, including Andrew Adonis and Laura Mcinerney, giving their views on what to do about the private/state divide.

Gove also said he wanted to see a longer school day - and hinted at funding. Russell Hobby of NAHT wondered whether a longer day might not lead to better working patterns for teachers (Katie Ashford highlighted the problems caused by the current working patterns in this blog). And Jonn Elledge asked where the money was going to come from.

In exciting news for education geeks everywhere the Education Endowment Foundation released its first batch of Randomised Control Trials (including one showing summer schools having no effect on maths performance). And the NFER put out a paper looking at how we can get evidence like this to classrooms.

Other Highlights

A superb blog by Daisy Christodoulou on the problems of using data without a theory

David Thomas on how his school supports innovation

Tom Bennett takes apart five myths about behaviour

Martin Robinson's 51 year lesson plan

Some helpful FAQ on the new primary curriculum from Michael Tidd

Tom Sherrington on differentiation

Mary Myatt lists some features of an outstanding lesson

Lucy Crehan's five lessons on professional development from New Zealand.

Stephen Tall on the best and worst LAs for pupils on free school meals

A potentially very important bit of PISA data analysis from Cambridge Assessment which they say undermines the OECD's claim that the best education systems promote autonomy.

Friday, 31 January 2014

Weekly update 1/2/2014

Another week dominated by Ofsted controversy. Last Sunday saw an extraordinary Sir Michael Wilshaw interview in which he complained about briefing against him emanating from the DfE. This was strongly denied by Michael Gove. The blow-up was neatly summarised by Tom Bennett and an unimpressed Geoff Barton. Last weekend also saw the circulation of a letter from Sir Michael sent to all inspectors expressing his irritation that some continue to ignore instructions not to inspect on teaching style. Then on Friday night we discovered that Baroness Sally Morgan was not to have her contract renewed as Ofsted chair for reasons that are as yet unclear.

One positive to emerge from all this was a superb blog by Sir David Carter on how he would reform Ofsted.

In other news Demos produced an interesting analysis of last week's GCSE results, noting the widening attainment gap between rich and poor and querying the effectiveness of the pupil premium. The pupil premium would have more of an impact if all school leaders read David Weston's presentation on how to use it.

On Thursday the Sun decided to splash on a blog post by Paul Kirby, a former No 10 adviser and ex-colleague of mine. Paul's blog argued for schools to be open far longer than they are now both to ensure pupils get more schooling and to boost the economy. David Didau was unconvinced. But Loic Menzies thought non-mandatory extended schooling could have positive effects for disadvantaged pupils and Becky Allen made a strong case for school buildings to stay open later to support working parents.

Other Highlights:

Tim Dracup's forensic analysis of high attainers' performance in the GCSE tables.

Laura McInerney on why some kids are scared of their own potential (the Jonah Complex).

Useful advice from Michael Tidd on implementing the new primary curriculum.

The Economist contrasts the success of Tower Hamlets' schools with the struggles of those on the Isle of Wight.

Andy Day asks if feedback is all it's cracked up to be.

David Thomas wonders if homework might actually make it harder for students to memorise.

Very helpful timeline of the ongoing SEN reforms from the Special Needs Jungle.

Annie Murphy Paul on a new study showing taking notes on paper is better than on laptops.

Dan Willingham on what works in early years education.

Amy Chua (Tiger Mom) looks at the complex issue of why some ethnic/religious groups seem to succeed more than others.