Test to the Teach

making-good-progressWhen Daisy Christodoulou told us not to teach to the test, I assumed she was mainly concerned with teachers spending too much lesson time making sure children understood the intricacies of the mark scheme at the expense of the intricacies of the subject. Personally, I’ve never spent that much time on the intricacies of any mark scheme. I’ve been far too busy making sure children grasp the rudimentary basics of how tests work to have time spare for anything intricate.   For example, how important it is to actually read the question.  I spend whole lessons stressing ‘if the question says underline two words that mean the same as …., that means you underline TWO words. Not one word, not three words, not two phrases. TWO WORDS.    Or if the questions says ‘tick the best answer’ then,  and yes, I know this is tricky, the marker is looking to see if you can select the BEST answer from a selection which will have been deliberately chosen to include a couple that are half right. BUT NOT THE BEST. (I need to lie down in a darkened room just thinking about it).

But this is not Christodoulou’s primary concern.

Christodoulou’s primary concern is that the way we test warps how we teach. While she is well aware that the English education system’s mania for holding us accountable distorts past and present assessment systems into uselessness, her over-riding concern is one of teaching methodology.  She contrasts the direct teaching of generic skills (such as using inference for example) with a methodology that believes such skills are better taught indirectly through teaching a range of more basic constituent things first, and getting those solid.  This approach, she argues, creates the fertile soil in which  inferring (or problem solving or  communicating or critical thinking or whatever) can thrive. It is a sort of ‘look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves’ or (to vary the metaphor) a ‘rising tide raises all boats’ methodology. Let me try to explain…

I did not come easily to driving. Even steering – surely the easiest part of the business – came to me slowly, after much deliberate practice in ‘not hitting anything.’ If my instructor had been in the business of sharing learning objectives she would surely have told me that ‘today we are learning to not hit anything.’

Luckily for the other inhabitants of Hackney, she scaffolded my learning by only letting me behind the wheel once we were safely on the deserted network of roads down by the old peanut factory. The car was also dual control, so she pretty much covered the whole gears and clutch business whilst I concentrated hard on not hitting anything.  Occasionally she would lean across and yank the steering wheel too.  However, thanks to her formative feedback (screams, yanks, the occasional extempore prayer), I eventually mastered both gears and not-hitting-anything.  Only at that point did we actually go on any big roads or ‘ to play with the traffic’ as she put it.  My instructor did not believe that the best way to get me to improve my driving was by driving. Daisy Christodoulou would approve.

Actually there was this book we were meant to complete at the end of each lesson. Michelle (my instructor) mostly ignored this, but occasionally she would write something – maybe the British School of Motoring does book looks –  such as ‘improve clutch control,’ knowing full well the futility of this –  if I  actually knew how to control a clutch I bloody well would. She assessed that what I needed was lots and lots of safe practice of clutch control with nothing else to focus on. So most lessons (early on anyway) were spent well away from other traffic, trying to change gears without stalling, jumping or screeching, with in-the-moment verbal feedback guiding me. And slowly I got better. If Michelle had had to account for my progress towards passing my driving test, she would have been in trouble. Whole areas  of the curriculum such as overtaking, turning right at a junction and keeping the correct distance between vehicles were not even attempted until after many months of lessons had taken place. Since we did not do (until right near the very end) mock versions of the driving test, she was not able to show her managers a nice linear graph showing what percentage of the test I had, and had not yet mastered.  I would not have been ‘on track’. Did Michelle adapt my learning to fit in with these assessments?  Of course not!  She stuck with clutch control until I’d really got it and left ‘real driving’ to the future- even though this made it look like I was (literally) going nowhere, fast.  Instead Michelle just kept on making sure I mastered all the basics and gradually added in other elements as she thought I was ready for them.  In the end, with the exception of parallel parking, I could do everything just about well enough. I passed on my third occasion.

I hope this extended metaphor helps explain Christodoulou’s critique of teaching and assessment practices in England today. Christodoulou’s book ‘Making Good Progress?’ explores why it is that the assessment revolution failed to transform English education. After all, the approach was rooted in solid research and was embraced by both government and the profession. What could possibly go wrong?

One thing that went wrong, explains Christodoulou, is that instead of  teachers ‘using evidence of student learning to adapt…teaching…to meet student needs’[1], teachers adapted their teaching to meet the needs of their (summative) assessments. Instead of assessment for learning we got learning for assessment.

Obviously assessments don’t actually have needs themselves. But the consumers of assessment – and I use the word advisedly –  do.  There exist among us voracious and insatiable accountability monsters, who need feeding at regular intervals with copious bucketfuls of freshly churned data.  Imagine the British School of Motoring held pupil progress meetings with their instructors. Michelle might have felt vulnerable that her pupil was stuck at such an early stage and have looked at the driving curriculum and seen if there were some quick wins she could get ticked off before the next data drop.  Preferably anything that doesn’t require you to drive smoothly in a straight line…signalling for example.

But this wasn’t even the main thing that went wrong. Or rather, something was already wrong, that no amount of AfL could put right. We were trying to teach skills like inference directly, when, in fact, these, so Christodoulou argues, are best learnt more indirectly by learning other things first. Instead of learning to read books by reading books, one should start with  technical details like phonics. Instead of starting with maths problem solving, one should learn some basic number facts. Christodoulou describes how what is deliberately practised – the technical detail –  may look very different from the final skill in its full glory. Phonics practice isn’t the same as reading a book.  Learning dates off by heart is not the same as writing a history essay.  Yet the former is necessary, if not sufficient basis for the latter. To use my driving metaphor, practising an emergency stop on a deserted road at 10mph when you know it’s coming is very, very different from actually having to screech to a stop from 40mph on a rainy day in real life, when a child runs out across the road. Yet the former helped you negotiate the latter.

The driving test has two main parts; technical control of the vehicle and behaviour in traffic (a.k.a. playing with the traffic). It is abundantly clear that to play with the traffic safely, the learner must have mastered a certain amount of technical control of the vehicle first. Imagine Michelle had adopted the generic  driving skill approach and assumed  these technical matters could be picked up en route, in the course of generally driving about,  and assumed that I could negotiate left and right turns at the same time as maintaining control of the vehicle. When I repeatedly stall, because the concentration it take to both brake and steer distracts me from concentrating on changing gears to match this slower speed, Michelle tells me that I did not change down quickly enough, which I find incredibly frustrating because I know I’ve got a gears problems, and it is my gears problem I need help with. But what I don’t get with the generic skill approach is time to practice changing gears up and down as a discrete skill. That would be frowned on as being ‘decontextualised’. I might protest that I’d feel a lot safer doing a bit of decontextualized practice right now – but drill and practice  is frowned upon – isn’t real driving after all – and in the actual test I am going to have to change gears and steer and brake all at the same time (and not hit anything) so better get used to it now.

Christodoulou argues that the direct teaching of generic skills  leads to the kind of assessment practice that puts the cart, if not before the horse, then parallel with it. Under this approach, if you want the final fruit of a course of study to be an essay on the causes of the First World War, the route map to this end point will punctuated with ‘mini-me’ variations of this final goal; shorter versions of the essay perhaps. These shorter versions are then used by the teacher formatively, to give the learner feedback about the relative strengths and weaknesses of these preliminary attempts. All the learner then has to do, in theory, is marshal all this feedback together, address any shortcomings whilst retaining, and possibly augmenting, any strengths. However, this often leaves the learner none the wiser about precisely how to address their shortcomings.  Advice to ‘be more systematic’ is only useful if you understand what being systematic means in practice, and if you already know that, you probably would have done so in the first place.[2]

It is the assessment of progress through  interim assessments that strongly resemble the final exam that Christodoulou means by teaching to the test.  Not because students shouldn’t know what  format an exam is going to take and have a bit of practice on it towards the very end of  a course of study.  That’s not teaching to the test. Teaching to the test is working backwards from the final exam and then writing a curriculum punctuated by  slightly reduced versions of that exam – and then teaching each set of lessons with the next test in mind.   The teaching is shaped by the approaching test.  This is learning for assessment.  By contrast Christodoulou argues that we should just concentrate on teaching the  curriculum and that there may be a whole range of other activities to assess how this learning is going that may look nothing like the final learning outcome. These, she contends, are much better suited to helping the learner actually improve their performance. For example, the teacher might teach the students what the key events were in the build up to the first World War, and then, by way of assessment, ask students to put these in correct chronological order on a time line.  Feedback from this sort of assessment is very clear –if events are in the wrong order, the student needs to learn them in the correct order.  The teacher teaches some  small component that will form part of the final whole, and tests that discrete part. Testing to the teach, in other words, as opposed to teaching to the test.

There are obvious similarities with musicians learning scales and sports players doing specific drills – getting the fine details off pat before trying to orchestrate everything together.  David Beckham apparently used to practice free kicks form all sorts of positions outside the penalty area, until he was able to hit the top corner of the goal with his eyes shut.  This meant that in the fury and flurry of a real, love game, he was able to hit the target with satisfying frequency.  In the same way, Christodoulou advocates spending more time teaching and assessing progress in acquiring decontextualized technical skills and less time on the contextualised ‘doing everything at once’, ‘playing with the traffic’ kind of tasks that closely resemble the final exam.  Only when we do this, she argues, will assessment for learning be able to bear fruit. When the learning steps are small enough and comprehensible enough for the pupil to act on them, then and only then will afl be a lever for accelerating pupil progress.

Putting my primary practitioner hat on, applying this approach in some areas (for example reading) chimes with what we already do,  but in others (I’m thinking writing here) the approach seems verging on the heretical.  Maths deserves a whole blog to itself, so I’m going to leave that for now – whilst agreeing whole-heartedly that thorough knowledge of times tables and number bonds  not just to 10 but within ten (so 8+5 for example) and is absolutely  crucial. Indeed I’d go so far as to say number bonds are even more important than times table knowledge, but harder to learn and rarely properly tested. hit-the-button I’ve mentioned hit the button in a previous blog. We have now created a simple spreadsheet that logs each child’s score from year 2 to year 6  in the various categories for number bonds. Children start with make 10 and stay on this until they score 25 or more (which means 25 correct in 1 minute which I reckon equates to automatic recall.  Then then proceed through the categories in turn – with missing numbers and make 100 with lower target scores of 15.  Finally they skip the two decimals categories and go to the times table section – which has division facts as well as multiplication facts. Yes!  When they’ve got those off pat, then they can return to do the decimals and the other categories. We’ve shared this, and the spreadsheet –  with parents and some children are practising at home each night. With each game only taking one minute, it’s not hard to insist that your child plays say three rounds of this first, before relaxing.  In class, the teachers test a group each day in class, using their set of 6 ipads.  However since kindle fire’s were on sale for £34.99 recently, we’ve just bought 10 of them (the same as the cost of 1 i pad). We’ll use them for lots of other things too, of course – anything where all you really need is access to an internet browser.

When we talk about mastery, people often talk about it like it’s this elusive higher plan that the clever kids might just attain in a state of mathematical or linguistic nirvana when really what it means is that every single child in your class – unless they have some really serious learning difficulty – has automatic recall of these basic number facts and (then later) their times tables.  And can use full stops and capital letters correctly the first time they write something. And can spell every word on the year 3 and 4 word list (and year 1 & 2 as well of course).  And read fluently – at least 140 words a minute, by the time they leave year 6. And have books they love to read – having read at least a million words for pleasure in the last year (We use accelerated reader to measure this – about half of year 6 are word millionaires already this year and a quarter have read over 2 million words.) How about primary schools holding themselves accountable to their secondary schools for delivering cohorts of children who have mastered all of these (with allowances for children who have not been long at the school or who have special needs)  a bit like John Lewis is ‘Never Knowingly Undersold’, we  should aim (among other things) to ensure at the very least, all our children who possibly could, have got these basics securely under their belt.

(My teacher husband and I now pause to have an argument about what should make it to the final list.   Shouldn’t something about place value be included? Why just facts?  Shouldn’t there be something about being able to use number bonds to do something?  I’m talking about a minimum guarantee here – not specifying everything that should be in the primary curriculum. He obviously needs to read the book himself.)

Reading

My extended use of the metaphor of learning to drive to explain Christodoulou’s approach has one very obvious flaw. We usually teach classes of 30 children whereas driving lessons are normally conducted 1:1. It is all very well advocating spending as much time on the basics as is necessary before proceeding onto having to orchestrate several different skills all at the same time, but imagine the frustration the more able driver would have felt stuck in a class with me and my poor clutch control.  They would want to be out there on the open roads, driving, not stuck behind me and my kangaroo petrol.  Children arrive at our schools at various starting points. Some children pick up the sound-grapheme correspondences almost overnight; for others it takes years. I lent our phonics cards to a colleague to show here three-year-old over the weekend; by Monday he knew them all. Whereas another pupil, now in year 5, scored under 10 in both his ks1 phonic checks.  I tried him again on it recently and he has finally passed.  He is now just finishing turquoise books. In other words, he has just graduated from year 1 level reading, 4 years later.  This despite daily 1:1 practice with a very skilled adult, reading from a decodable series he adores (Project X Code), as well as recently starting on the most decontextualized reading programme ever (Toe by Toe – which again he loves) and playing SWAP. He is making steady progress – which fills him with pride – but even if his secondary school carries on with the programme[3], at this rate he won’t really be a fluent reader until year 10. I keep on hoping a snowball effect will occur and the rate of progress will dramatically increase.

Outliers aside, there is a range of ability (or prior attainment if you prefer) in every class and for something as technical as phonics, this is most easily catered for by having children in small groups, depending on their present level. We use ReadWriteInc in  the early years and ks1.  Children are assessed individually by the reading leader  for their technical ability to decode, segment and blend every half term and groups adjusted accordingly.  So that part of our reading instruction is pretty Christodoulou-compliant, as I would have thought it is in most infant classes.  But what about the juniors, or late year 2 – once the technical side is pretty sorted and teachers turn to teaching reading comprehension.  Surely, if ever  a test was created solely  for the purposes of being able to measure something, it was the reading comprehension test, with the whole of ks2 reading curriculum one massive, time wasting exercise in teaching to the test?

I am well aware of the research critiquing the idea that there are some generic comprehension skills that can be taught in a way that can be learnt from specific texts and then applied across many texts, as Daniel Willingham explores here.  Christodoulou quotes Willingham several times in her book and her critique of generic skills is obvioulsy influenced by his work. As Willingham explains, when we teach reading comprehension strategies we are  actually teaching vocabulary, noticing understanding, and connecting ideas. (My emphasis).  In order to connect ideas (which is what inference is), the reader needs to know enough about those ideas, to work out what hasn’t been said as well as what has been. Without specific knowledge, all the generic strategies in the world won’t help. As Willingham explains

Inferences matter because writers omit a good deal of what they mean. For example, take a simple sentence pair like this: “I can’t convince my boys that their beds aren’t trampolines. The building manager is pressuring us to move to the ground floor.” To understand this brief text the reader must infer that the jumping would be noisy for the downstairs neighbors, that the neighbors have complained about it, that the building manager is motivated to satisfy the neighbors, and that no one would hear the noise were the family living on the ground floor. So linking the first and second sentence is essential to meaning, but the writer has omitted the connective tissue on the assumption that the reader has the relevant knowledge about bed‐jumping and building managers. Absent that knowledge the reader might puzzle out the connection, but if that happens it will take time and mental effort.’

So what the non-comprehending reader needs is  very specific  knowledge (about what it’s like to live in a flat), not some generic skill.  It could be argued then that schools therefore should spend more time teaching specific knowledge and less time elusive and non existant generic reading skills. However, Willingham concedes that the research shows that even so, teaching reading comprehension strategies does work. How can this be, he wonders? He likens the teaching of these skills as similar to giving someone vague instructions for assembling Ikea flat pack furniture.

 ‘Put stuff together. Every so often, stop, look at it, and evaluate how it is going. It may also help to think back on other pieces of furniture you’ve built before.

This is exactly the process we go through during shared reading. On top of our daily phonics lessons we have two short lessons a week of shared reading where the class teacher models being a reader using the eric approach. In other words, we have daily technical lessons,  and twice a week  we also have a bit of ‘playing with the traffic’ or more accurately, listening to the teacher playing with the traffic and talking about what they are doing as they do it.  In our shared reading lessons, by thinking out loud about texts, the teacher makes it very explicit that texts are meant to be understood and enjoyed and not just for barking at and that  therefore we should check as we go along that we are understanding what we are reading (or looking at). If  we don’t understand something, we should stop and ask ourselves questions.   It is where the teacher articulates that missing ‘connective tissue’,  or ‘previous experience of building furniture’  to use Willingham’s Ikea metaphor, sharing new vocabulary and knowledge of the how the world works, knowledge that many of our inner city children do not have.  (Although actually for this specific instance many of them would know about noisy neighbours, bouncing on beds and the perils of so doing whilst living in flats.)

eric

For example, this picture (used in ‘eric’ link above) gives the the teacher the opportunity to share their knowledge that that sometimes the sea can get rough and that this means the waves get bigger and the wind blows strongly. Sometimes it might blow so hard that it could even blow your hat right off your head. As the waves rise and fall, the ship moves up and down and tilts first one way, and then the other. (Pictures are sometimes used for this  rather than texts so working memory is relieved from the burden of decoding).

When teaching children knowledge is extolled as the next panacea, it’s not that I don’t agree, it’s just that I reckon people really underestimate quite how basic some of the knowledge we need to impart for our younger children. I know of primary schools proudly adopting a ‘knowledge curriculum’ and teaching  two hours of history a week, with two years given over to learning about the Ancient Greeks.  I just don’t see how this will help children understand texts about noisy neighbours, or about what the sea is like (although you could do that in the course of learning about Ancient Greece if you realised children didn’t know), or, for that matter, what it is like to mill around in bewilderment.  The only kind of assessment that will help here is the teacher’s ‘ear to the ground’ minute by minute assessment – realising that -oh, some of them haven’t ever seen the sea, or been on a boat. They don’t know about waves or how windy it can be or how you rock up and down.   This is the kind of knowledge that primary teachers in disadvantaged areas need to talk about all the time.  And why we need to go on lots of trips too. But it is not something a test will pick up nor something you can measure progress gains in.  The only way to increase vocabulary is one specific word at a time. It is also why we should never worry about whether something is ‘relevant’ to the children or not. If it is too relevant, then they already know about it – the more irrelevant the better.

I don’t  entirely agree with the argument that since we can’t teach generic reading skills we should instead teach lots more geography and history since this will give  children the necessary knowledge they need to understand what they read.   We need to read and talk, talk talk about stories and their settings -not just what a mountain is but how it feels to climb a mountain or live on a mountain, how that affects your daily life, how you interact with your neighbours.  We need to read more non fiction aloud, starting in the early years.  We need to talk about emotions and body language and what the author is telling us by showing us.  A quick google will show up writers body language ‘cheat sheets’. We need to reverse engineer these and explain that if the author has their character fidgetting with darting eyes, that probably means they are feeling nervous. Some drama probably wouldn’t go amiss either.  Willingham’s trio of  teaching vocabulary, noticing understanding, and connecting ideas is a really helpful way of primary teachers thinking about what they are doing when they teach reading comprehension. What we need to assess and feedback to children is how willing they to admit they don’t understand something, to ask what a word means, to realise they must be missing some connection.  None of this is straightforwardly testable. That doesn’t mean it isn’t important.

Writing

Whereas most primary schools, to a greater or lesser degree, teach reading by at first teaching phonics, the teaching of writing is much more likely to be taught though students writing than it is through teaching a series of sub skills.  It is the idea that we ensure technical prowess before  we spend too much time on creative writing that most challenges the way we currently do things.

Of course we teach children to punctuate their sentences with capital letters and full stops right at the start of their writing development. However, patently, this instruction has limited effectiveness for many children.  They might remember when they are at the initial stages and when they only write one sentence anyway – so not so hard to remember the final full stop in that case. Where it all goes wrong is once they start writing more than one sentence, further complicated when they start writing sentences with more than one clause. I’ve often thought we underestimate how conceptually difficult it is to understand what a sentence actually is.  Learning to use speech punctuation is far easier than learning what is, and what is not, a sentence. Many times we send children back to put in their full stops, actually, they don’t really get where fulls tops really go.  On my third session doing 1:1 tuition with a year 5 boy, he finally plucked up the courage to tell me that he know he should but he just didn’t get how you knew where sentences ended.  So I abandoned what I’d planned and instead we  learnt about sentences. I told him that sentences had a person or a thing doing something, and then after those two crucial bits we might get some extra information about where or why or with whom or whatever that  belongs with the person/thing, so needs to be in the same sentence.   We analysed various sentences, underlining the person/thing in one colour, the doing something word in another colour and finally the extra information (which could be adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, the object of the sentence – the predicate minus the verb basically) in another. This was some time ago before the renaissance of grammar teaching, so it never occurred to me to use the terms ‘subject’ ‘noun’ ‘verb’ etc but I would do now. It was all done of the hoof, but after three lessons he had got it, and even better, could apply it in his own writing.

What Christodoulou is advocating is that instead of waiting until things have got so bad they need 1:1 tuition to put it right, we systematically teach sentence punctuation (and other  common problems such as verb subject agreement), giving greater priority to this than to creative writing. In other words, stop playing with the traffic before you’ve mastered sufficient technical skills to do so properly.  This goes against normal primary practice, but I can see the sense in this. If ‘practice makes permanent’ as cognitive psychology tells us (see chapter 7 of What Every teacher Needs to Know About Psychology by Didau and Rose for more on this), then the last thing we want is for children to practice again and again doing something incorrectly. But this is precisely what our current practice does. Because most of the writing we ask children to do is creative writing, children who can’t punctuate their sentences get daily practice in doing it wrong. The same goes for letter formation and spelling of high frequency common exception words. Maybe instead we need to spend far more time in the infants and into year 3 if necessary on doing drills where we punctuate text without the added burden of composing as we go. Maybe this way, working memories would not become so overburdened with thinking about what to say that the necessary technicalities went out the window. After that, we could rewrite this correctly punctuated text in correctly formed handwriting.  Some children have genuine handwriting or spelling problems and I wouldn’t want to condemn dyslexic and dyspraxic children to permanent technical practice. However if we did more technical practice in the infants  – which would mean less time for writing composition – we might spot who had a genuine problem earlier and then put in place specific programmes to help them and/or aids to get round the problem another way. After all,  not all drivers use manual transmission, some drive automatics.

Christodoulou mentions her experience of using the ‘Expressive Writing’ direct instruction programme, which I duly ordered. I have to say it evoked a visceral dislike in me; nasty cheap paper, crude line drawings,  totally decontextualised, it’s everything my primary soul eschews (and  it’s expensive to boot). However, the basic methodology is sound enough – and Christodoulou only mentions it because it is the ones she is familiar with. It is not like she’s giving it her imprimatur or anything.  I’m loathed to give my teachers more work, but  I don’t think it would be too hard to invent some exercises that are grounded in the context of something else children are learning; some sentences about Florence Nightingale or the Fire of London for example, or a punctuation-free excerpt from a well-loved story.  Even if we only did a bit more of this and a bit less of writing compositions where we expect children to orchestrate many skills all at once, we should soon see gains also in children’s creative writing. Certainly, we should insist of mastery in these core writing skills by year 3, and  where children still can’t punctuate a sentence, be totally ruthless in focusing on that until the problem is solved. And I don’t just mean that they can edit in their full stops after the fact, I mean they put them (or almost all of them in ) as they write. it needs to become an automatic process. Once it is automatic is it easy.   Otherwise we are not doing them any favours in the long term as we are just making their error more and more permanent and harder and harder to undo.

Certainly pupil progress meetings would be different. Instead of discussing percentages and averages,  the conversation would be very firmly about the teacher sharing the gaps in knowledge they had detected, the plans they had put in place to bridge those gaps, and progress to date in so doing, maybe courtesy of the ‘hit the button’ spreadsheet, some spelling tests, end of unit maths tests, records of increasing reading fluency. Already last July our end of year reports for parents shared with them which number facts, times tables and spellings (from the year word lists) their child did not yet know…with the strong suggestion that the child work on these over the summer!   We are introducing ‘check it’ mini assessments so that we can check that we we taught three weeks ago is still retained. It’s easy, we just test to the teach.

[1] Christodoulou quoting D. Wiliams, p 19 Making Good Progress?

[2] Christodoulou quoting D. Wiliams, p 20 Making Good Progress?

[3] I say this because our local secondary school told me they didn’t believe in withdrawing children from class for interventions. Not even reading interventions. Surely he could miss MFL and learn to read in English first? As a minimum.  Why not English lessons? I know he is ‘entitled’ to learn about Macbeth but at the expense of learning to read? Is Macbeth really that important? Maybe he will go to a different secondary school or they’ll change their policy.

Test to the Teach

Curating knowledge/organising knowledge

Jon Brunskill has started off an interesting exchange on twitter after posting two blogs about knowledge organisers in primary schools including one about the Apollo 11 Mission to the Moon. Some commentators don’t like the idea much on the grounds that it is a disembodied list of facts and therefore dull and uninteresting. To which Jon (and I) reply that of course it would be were that the only thing  that was presented in the lesson. However, bringing knowledge to life in a lively way is the job of the teacher; a job made much easier by having spent time deciding which knowledge to include and which to discard. Among the myriad of concepts, definitions, dates, events, descriptions , quotations, hypotheses, opinions and arguments that we could potentially include, what exactly is it that is  so crucial to the topic that it warrants inclusion on the KO?   What knowledge should we curate? ( Those of us of a left-wing bent could decide to call our knowledge organisers knowledge curators to make it  clear that despite having gone all ‘knowledgey’ and seemingly in the same camp as Lord Nash, Civitas and Michael Gove, our socialist credentials remain intact and we acknowledge that the selection of knowledge is a political act.  We could do, but people would laugh at us. Even more.)

The national curriculum, punctiliously specific in English and maths, relaxes into vague suggestions for the wider curriculum, particularly in history.  I’d rather that than the breathless charge through British history that was in Mr Gove’s draft national curriculum (p165 and following) which appeared to assume curriculum time was infinitely expandable.  However, the lack of explicit direction leaves non specialist primary teachers with the task of choosing what to include and what to leave out within topic headings such as ‘the Roman Empire and its impact on Britain’ followed by 5 non statutory suggestions. Does that mean we should try and pick one of the five? Do all five?  If we did something completely different, would that matter? Given that curriculum time for foundation subjects is all too finite, what should make the final cut?

Other commentators like the concept of knowledge organisers  but want to refine the idea, something that Jon welcomes; ‘the friction from the resistance is ultimately…what will polish the diamond.’  Do let’s have more constructive twitter/blog exchanges like this that help us all reflect and improve what we do. It is particularly useful to have contributions from secondary specialists explaining what areas of knowledge it is most useful for children to have acquired during their primary years.

As St Matthias, we too have been using KO’s since September, so I thought I’d post some of ours in to help discussion along.  I didn’t write these; the class teachers did.  I’m really pleased with how they’ve taken to the idea, but there’s a lot more to this KO business than it seems and they will all need polishing and refining further. I’ve included three, a history focused one from year 2 on the Fire of London, another history focused one from year 3 on Ancient Egypt and a geography focused one that uses the stories of  Ernest Shackleton and Matthew Henson as a context for learning about continents and countries. All three units cross over with literacy, but unlike Jon’s, the KO’s were not written in order that the children could  write a non fiction piece of writing at the end. Instead the children write shorter pieces of writing throughout the unit. However, I like Jon’s idea, so maybe that is something we will develop.

As a result, ours are a bit different from Jon’s.  For example, they contain pictures as well as text. This is deliberate. Partly because a diagram can  sometimes express information more succinctly and lucidly than text can; Jon’s KO would in my opinion be improved by a diagram of the lunar module and command module and a diagram showing the path the mission took, along these lines and partly because images of the major players bring the text to life.  For example, it reminds us that Matthew Henson was African American. Maybe I’m not sufficiently hardcore; the pictures do make the KO’s look more inviting, more primary. Compare for example with the excellent, but stern looking example in Robert Peal’s blog.   But each picture takes up space that could contain more text; so each picture needs to be justifiable beyond being pretty. For example in the Year 2 one below, I think the map and the picture of Pepyes have a stronger claim to space than the other two pictures. However I am happy with the text; it doesn’t seem to me that anything important has been omitted so they can stay.  The geography one on polar explorers obviously needs its maps as learning where things are on the globe forms the key knowledge pupils are meant to learn in this unit.  The year 3 one originally had an annotated a map of the Nile which I replaced with more text; partly because I  was worried about being sued for copyright by Dorling Kindersley and partly because I though thought there was not enough emphasis on historical causation or chronology.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter.  If our KO’s are not to become just lists of  highly specific fun facts – hey canopic jars or pemmican  anyone – then they must have some transferability. Hush my mouth, I’ve said a bad word!  What I mean is that in a history KO we must make sure that at least some of the facts we teach them knit the different topics they will study together by developing chronological understanding, and understanding causality and consequence.  Of course these are not free standing ‘skills’ that make sense without the facts, but especially for us primary non specialists, it would be easy to omit those all important aspects out of ignorance. Which is why on the Ancient Egypt KO below, I made sure it included as facts to be learnt, awareness that Ancient Egypt occurred contemporaneously with the late Stone Age, Bronze and Iron Ages; while we were grubbing about in the mud, a far advanced civilisation was flourishing elsewhere.

Chronology is notoriously badly understood by primary children. I’ve come across year 3 children who think the tallest teacher is the oldest, despite  having youthful tall teachers and short grey haired ones. The idea that ‘the past’ is not just one ‘place’ but many, all related to each other and some occurring simultaneously seems to be very difficult for some children to grasp. Certainly we must use number lines and teach dates and remember that chronological awareness encompasses duration and interval as well as sequence. For this reason, I think that Jon’s KO should have the fact that JFK was president and that this happened when Queen Elizabeth II was queen. Maybe all history KO’s  used in the UK; elsewhere the chronological anchor fact will need to reference whoever is significant in that locale).  For that matter, our polar explorers one should reference Edward VII for Matthew Henson and George V for Shackleton. I don’t think learning dates by themselves is sufficient. The dates need fleshing out with explicit links stressed. Who was on the throne?  What else was going on in the world?

We’ve also tweaked our KO’s so that they include explanations as to why things happened.  Ancient Egypt flourished because the land was fertile and the deserts provided protection from invaders.  The land was fertile because the Nile flooded.  London burned because wood is flammable,  dry wood even more so and the houses close together. Buckets were leather because plastic had not been invented.  Shackleton could not radio for help because long-range radio didn’t exist.  Pemmican was good to eat because in extreme cold you need high energy foods. Causality cannot be taught in a vacuum aside from knowledge; it is a concept that becomes denser the more times children encounter different scenarios needing different…or not so different…explanations.  Having studied the Fire of London (houses close together: fire spread easily), Ancient Egypt (River Nile floods yearly: soil very fertile) and Shackleton (Antarctic too cold for plants: very little lives there) the transferable concept that the physical environment influences the prosperity or otherwise of those who live there gains traction.

I’m looking again at Jon’s KO on the Apollo 11 mission. He explains the term ‘quarantine’ and ‘space race’.  ‘Space race’ will, we hope, be a small step, as it were in our student eventually grasping that explorations of  distant unknown regions are very costly and therefore funded by very rich patrons and function as, among other things, a status symbol. I’m sure there was discussion in class about why there had to be separate lunar and command modules, rather than one module that landed on the moon and then returned to earth. However, given the complexity of that explanation and the age of the pupils (6 going on 7), I can see why Jon hasn’t tried to condense that into a sentence!

As I mentioned above, Jon wrote his KO in order for his class to have some rich facts so that they could then, in literacy, write an information text. It was not written as a history topic per se, even though Neil Armstrong is included in the KS1 history National Curriculum as an example of a significant individual whom one might use to compare with Christopher Columbus. Having learnt about Armstrong in literacy, I would urge Jon to then do that comparison, thus exploiting the obvious points  – and reasons for – the similarities and the differences between the two explorers.

By saying there should be some transferability  of ideas between different topics, I’m not saying that’s the only function of the unit. Knowledge is neither the master not the slave of  transferability, but rather its bedrock. Maybe transferability is the wrong word. We teach what at first seem like isolated islands of ‘knowledge’,then bit by bit we realise these islands are joined in ways we couldn’t at first realise. The more we know, the more we are able to predict, infer, make links. When deciding which knowledge to teach, we make choices based on what specific facts educated children should know, regardless of wider, more general links and what might be more useful. For example, in an earlier blog I contrasted learning about the history of chocolate and the history of the Romans and made the point that learning about the Romans in year 3 helps you understand more about British and European history in general and about how Christianity became a global religion. As I said, knowledge may be power but not all knowledge is equally powerful.

The other ‘transferable’ element within our KO’s is vocabulary. Most of the vocabulary within our KO’s is  necessarily very context-specific. However a few words are more generalizable and are ‘high yield’ words children will encounter and need to understand again and again, across many different domains of knowledge. Looking at the KO’s above  (and Jon’s)  I find the words flammable, eyewitness, expedition, navigate, crop, fertile, trade, afterlife, archaeology, crew, quarantine, module all of which are necessary for understanding many other areas of the curriculum. Again, Jon wrote his for a different reason and maybe did a separate one when the class studied the solar system but I wonder whether ‘expedition’ ‘voyage’  ‘orbit’ , ‘atmosphere’ and  ‘launch and ‘gravity’ ( both briefly mentioned) should explicitly feature in the vocabulary column.

So within our KO’s, alongside the specific dates, names, places and other vocabulary specific to the topic in hand,  we must also  include those high dividend words that will reoccur across the curriculum, rather like Isabel Beck’s tier two words that I wrote about here. (You will see the St Matthias year 2 one also includes the tier one words oven and bakery and might wonder why such basic words are included. A large proportion of our children speak English as an additional language and it is exactly these words that are primarily used in a domestic sphere that they might not ever hear in English unless we explicitly tell them – for example I remember a very eloquent year 6 child referring to a cup and plate, because she had never heard the word saucer because the world of the kitchen was a world where she only spoke Bengali.)

The more I write, the more complicated it seems.  I started out just wanting key facts, then facts including dates and quotations, then some chronological anchor facts (if its history), possibly a diagram or two, definitely a map if it is geography, some explicit causality and now tier two type vocabulary. Am I asking it to bear too much? Have a departed from the basic concept?  I look at Robert Peal’s KS3 KO (link above) and his is just a long list of facts (including some specific vocabulary eg fealty) in question and answer form, and then a brief key dates summary at the bottom. I presume that because the pupils learn all this knowledge and have it at their finger tips, he can then spend more lesson time talking about causes, making links across time periods and describing similarities and differences. Maybe this side of things needs to be more explicit in primary KO’s because a) the children are younger and know and understand less and have less well developed vocabularies  and b) the teachers are generalists who might otherwise forget to talk about these aspects.  Quality text bools are in short supply and even if they existed we couldn’t afford them.

Here are three knowledge organisers from years 2,3 and 4. I welcome comments.

fire of London ko.PNGgeog-ko-uk-europe

 

ko-geog-shackleton-vocab

shackleton-henson-stories

yr3-ancient-egypt-facts

ancient-egypt-key-words

Curating knowledge/organising knowledge

What if lesson observations were every week? How we reduced stress by observing staff more often.

Every year I commission a staff survey and every year – although the overall findings are always really positive – I  have to lock myself away to read it as it always makes me so cross initially!  It is of course done anonymously but with results reported separately for teachers and support staff.  Because we are a relatively small school – 1 form entry – the temptation is to try and second  guess exactly which miserable ***** it was who disagreed (and strongly) that ‘the SLT provides them with the support and guidance they needed to do their job effectively.’ The fact it was a teacher rather than a TA makes it worse.  Teacher results are always more positive than TA results. But not, apparently, in this case. And there are only 11 possible people it could be.  So I run through the eligible candidates, thinking about who this Brutus could possibly be. I summon my deputy (I know it’s not her) and together we run through the remaining 10 teachers and together decide it has to be teacher X and find ways to dismiss their opinion as totally invalid. Then we move on to pinpoint which Judas TA (from the 16 who completed it) does not agree ‘they are treated with fairness and respect.’ And so on through 100 or so criteria. I’m sure we don’t make for a very edifying spectacle which is why I make sure to give myself time to through my hissy fit in private.

Considering I commissioned the survey in the first place, you’d think I’d welcome the honest feedback. I suppose I assume that everybody thinks everything is absolutely marvellous, so am always disappointed that I get any negative feedback at all. In my heart of hearts, I don’t quite understand why people only vote ‘agree’ rather than ‘strongly agree’ that everything within my kingdom, I mean our school, is 100% amazing.  The anonymous thing is necessary, I get that, but so frustrating. It hurts that there is a member of staff out there who really feels that they are not treated with fairness and respect. Hissy fit aside, I want to hear what it is that has made them feel that way and to reassure that of course I value and respect them and if something has made them feel otherwise, I want to put that right straight away. But I don’t know who it was, so maybe they still feel the same now as they did in May, when they did the survey.

The day after I first read the survey, I re-read it and now I am able to have a bit of distance, be a bit more objective and to learn from it.  The most useful learning comes from statements where quite a few people disagree. Usually these are things I can put my hands up to with relative ease or are long running problems – for example 45% of teachers do not feel they are able to strike the right balance between their work and home life. The previous year it was 62% so we’re heading in the right direction although *gnashes teeth* 3 teachers ‘do not agree that senior leaders are looking at ways of reducing teacher workload.’ (Strangled cry of ‘yes we are, it’s in the bloody development plan; I’ve banned marking for God sake…deep breaths Clare, deep breaths)

The stand out finding from last year was that 37% of support staff ‘did not feel the received regular and constructive feedback.’  This was not entirely unsurprising – we knew only too well that we had never found a workable system for appraisal for TA’s and the SENCO started each year with the best of intentions regarding coaching those TA’s who worked supporting children with statements or EHCP’s, with other matters somehow taking precedence in real life. But in some ways it was also surprising; our major school development initiative that year had been implementing the MITA project (Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants), which I have written about here. It had been, by all accounts incredibly successful and we all wanted to build on it this year.  It involved a lot of feedback – including watching video footage of your own teaching – from one’s peers with some teacher involvement from the 3 teachers running the project. We deliberately did not include the SLT (apart from myself as I was part of the team) to make the project less intimidating.  But we appeared to have uncovered a desire for better, more regular structured conversations with line managers about how well TA’s were doing their jobs. What manager could ask for more! What a gift!

At the same time, I was anxious to do all I could to reduce the stress-load on teachers.  Reducing the workload might be a Sisyphean task, but I could try and make the work less stressful. Top of the list of stressors came lesson observations and teaching and learning reviews. How could I make sure I had an accurate picture of our strengths and weaknesses in the classroom in a way that was less stressful? We already didn’t grade lesson observations, but the termly half hour visit was still perceived as being incredibly stressful however much I chucked around terms like ‘developmental’ and ‘helpful.’

By chance, I was reading Leverage Leadership by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo.  At the centre of his school improvement work, in the centre of his leadership in fact, lay a system where he (or other leaders) observed every teacher for 10 minutes every week for a low stakes observation, followed by a very brief 10 minute feedback session.  He goes through  and dismisses all the excuses about the impossibility of timetabling this and is pretty persuasive. (I’m not quite sure about how big his school is – obviously it is smaller than a typical secondary school – but I’m sure an adapted form of this could be used in even the largest school). I wondered if this might provide a model that enabled the senco to get around her TA’s, allowed us to build on the success of the MITA project, reduced stress in teachers and gave me a stronger picture than the traditional model we had been using. More than that, I hoped be a strong lever, as Leverage Leadership alleged, for further school improvement.  We were in a strong position that every one of our teachers was at least good – many were very strong indeed – and here lay a system of observation and feedback that would enable really great teachers to make incremental improvements every week, which when taking altogether would lead to a substantial school-wide improvement. In other words, we were embracing the UK Olympic Cycling team’s philosophy of going for marginal gains.

I was a bit wary about how staff would feel about it. It could come across as even more stressful. The SLT thought it a good idea so I dropped the idea into conversation with various teachers, stressing how light touch the approach was and promising no reviews by outsiders this year. these intial soundings were all positive. Then I discussed it formally in our end of year INSET day (held on June 23rd when the school was closed for the referendum) and no one objected, so in it went into our development plan.

Over an enjoyable dinner in early September with my two former deputies, both now head teachers in their own right, there was much chortling about how impossible I would find it to fit it in. This actually was a great spur to prove them wrong. We had already set up our new diner date for early December. I was determined to come back with tales of how well it had worked.

How it worked was as follows. We didn’t start until the third week back, to give people a bit of time to get to know their classes. In my experience, the first two weeks are full of realising you’ve pitched work too low or too high – so I thought a bit of grace time to sort that out would be more productive all round.  There are 8 class teachers plus the deputy who teaches groups in the morning. Of these 9 teachers, I would aim to see 7 a week while the deputy would see the remaining 2 (obviously she didn’t observe herself). The senco would dedicate Thursdays every week to seeing TA’s when they were explicitly supporting children with SEN, aiming to get through these every 3 weeks.  She saw each TA with each child – so where TA’s work with more than one child, she would do a different observation for each child (rather than per adult). The Early Years leader would use part of her nct each Friday to see at least two of her support staff (out of a team of 6) each week. I would then mop up anyone not included in the system (for example a couple of TA’s who do not work with  statemented/EHCP children at all), staying  5-10 minutes longer in the class where I was seeing the teacher so I could also take notes on their role. Notes were written up as bullet points on an excel spreadsheet and feedback was given during either assembly or the next break or after school. Sometimes if a TA was in class just before lunch/end of the day they would cover the last 10 minutes so feedback could be done then.

I immediately loved the new system. I got into classes so much more regularly and could give bite sized feedback that was acted on immediately. I also timetabled myself to sometimes go at unusual times – at the very beginning of a lesson as the children came in, or during story time – for example, to check that every minute of the teaching day was being exploited for maximum learning gain. Often feedback was all positive, with only the most minor point being picked up on (that green pen on your whiteboard is hard to read from the back of the class – try something with better colour contrast*[1]) or suggestions for how to build on what I’d seen rather than development points as such.  Often when there were points they were about getting smoother, slicker transitions, something we need to introduce as proper whole school system in due course. It did allow me to introduce things I’ve got waiting in the wings for the right time such as SLANT to teachers for whom it seemed appropriate. For example in one class children listened really well to the teacher but possibly in a less focused way when their peers were addressing the class. Getting pupils to track each other when talking has really increased pupil attention to each other. Most of my comments were generic about teaching itself – use of voice, transitions, questioning routines rather than subject specific as such, although these did feature.

Alongside these ‘drop-ins’ as we called them, the maths leader continued to coach and team teach with teachers new to our mathsmastery programme for the full hour during her nct, the early reading teacher has a coaching programme for all staff (teachers and TA’s) teaching phonics and rotates around them, sometimes coaching, sometimes modelling and our literacy lead is in different classes each week helping staff implement our new system that has replaced guided reading and to model how to give feedback on writing now that we do not remotely mark any writing. Obviously if during drop ins we had encountered concerns about teaching, we would have had to adapt the drop in programme for something more formal for the person concerned, but that is not where we are. I did see one (10 minute slot of a) lesson that did not work – it was in a guided reading lesson before we replaced them and exemplified everything about why we moved away from that model – independent groups busy doing activities that don’t actually help them learn much – so we had a discussion about what learning the teacher had assumed would occur and problem solved why reality and aspiration were so adrift and moved on.  I already knew this teacher is usually fabulous but under this system I was back the next week anyway, and the next and the next, so any sustained loss of form would have been quickly picked up. But the system allowed me to see it for the blip it was – we all make mistakes.

We also still do work surveys, although we now see pupils books in lots of different ways. Most staff meetings involve bringing books along for us to share together what’s working and what’s not and we now make sure every full governing body meeting and some committee meetings involve looking at pupils work. again, because books are looked at so often, problems are picked up early and the whole thing becomes routine rather than a make or break high stakes stress-fest.

All the staff doing the drop ins liked them and felt they knew so much more about learning in the school than previously. The senco managed, more or less to stick to her Thursdays-for-drop-ins timetable, although time for feedback can be an issue. Unfortunately due to ‘exigencies of the service’ the deputy is now teaching almost all day so has had to drop out of the rota after a few weeks – she maybe manages one a week on a good week. But how did the staff feel about them?

But by bit various teachers volunteered feedback.  One nqt said she loved the new system and found it so much less stressful (the previous year she was a TeachFirst trainee) and more helpful getting regular small steps to work on. One teacher who gets ridiculously nervous around observations said it really helped because now they happened so regularly she just couldn’t get herself all worked up about it. As a result I’ve actually seen her teach really well rather than impeded by nerves. A teacher new to the school who previously came from an outstanding school where, reading between the lines, observations had been extremely high stakes, said initially she thought it sounded a bit barmy and lacking in rigour but having had it for a term she now found it simultaneously less stressful but more rigorous – in that it actually moved her practice on more effectively. Previously she would go to extreme effort and put on an all singing all dancing show and be given very positive feedback. Whereas now we saw her bread-and-butter day in, day out teaching, warts and all, so she received feedback that helped her improve without feeling she had failed in some way. She could risk teaching normally.

In order to get a more rounded picture, I wrote a quick 7 question survey using Survey Monkey and attached it to the weekly calendar I send out every Friday, asking colleagues to let me see how it was going. Out of 19 respondents, 17 preferred in and 2 did not have a preference –so no going back, that’s for sure. The next question asked how useful was the feedback they had received.  11 (again out of 19) said it was very useful, 6 fairly useful and 2 occasionally useful. Considering some people are so strong that I failed to find anything of significance to feedback most visits and it is meant to be about mainly finding marginal gains, I’m more than happy with this.  Asked if they agreed with feedback given 10 said yes always, 7 said often and 1 said sometimes (1 person didn’t answer that question). Asked if they thought they had improved as a result, 7 said they had improved a lot, 9 said they had improved in the areas identified and the remaining 3 a bit. I can’t know for certain but I’m assuming that’s from the strongest teachers who are being tactful in the face of my not very helpful feedback.

Timetabling the drop ins was the biggest headache, so I was hoping that the staff were now so blasé about them that they wouldn’t need any prior notice and would be happy about me popping in at any time… in my dreams. 5 staff would be happy with this and 1 – the one who used to get really nervous – said she would be ok if she knew the day but not the time. The remaining 7 said a resolute NO, so I guess that is not going to change. Not yet anyway.

The other bugbear is time for feedback.  Sometimes I feel it would work just as well by email – as long as both parties reserved the right to ask to meet in person, either prior or post observation.  This really divided opinion. 5 said this was a great idea, 6 didn’t mind either way, 4 would prefer face to face but didn’t hate the idea whereas 4 hated it as far too impersonal. So next term – people will get a choice between email or in person – although the person dropping in will reserve the right to meet them in person if what they need to say is too complicated or needs the human touch. So I’m hoping that will save loads of time with 11 people opting for email.

Finally, I asked them if they would like the opportunity to drop in on colleagues themselves.  6 said they would find this very useful, 9 quite useful and 2 said yes but it would need to be for longer to be useful. The remaining 2 said no thanks, they would find this too awkward.  I also asked colleagues to email any further thoughts, although these comments would not be anonymous. Only 1 teacher did. She reminded us that when we launched the idea, sometimes the SLT were going to cover the class teacher so the class teacher could observe (and subsequently better guide) their TA.  In class they are too busy doing their own role to observe their TA as well, yet this would be really useful. We had forgotten this and it was great to get the reminder and something we must remember to do next term.

So overall it’s been a great success and one that we will continue to build on. It’s been particularly useful in enabling me to track the implementation of key development plan initiatives as week by week things move from being innovations to becoming routine.  Or not.  At my evening out with my former deputies I reported back that I had missed one week when I was ill, 1 week when everyone was either out training, on a trip, doing an art workshop or performing in a concert and the last 3 weeks of term when it was assessments and nativity plays I had done every week – 8 weeks in all. Next term I will skip the first week as we are doing pupil progress meetings and probably the last but intend to do every week. Some weeks I’ll be covering teachers so they can observe their TA’s. I’ve also started teaching year 6 science 1 lesson a week, so I will have to get myself dropped into at least occasionally.

It may not be suitable for all situations. One of my former deputies has recently taken over a school that was in a bit of a mess (though thought it was amazing). She didn’t think it was ready for this yet, particularly as she didn’t have a strong leadership team around her who she would trust in their judgements yet.  And it’s a bigger school so she would absolutely need colleagues to help out. She’s thinking about starting it with her leaders though.

If I could change one thing about how we implemented it, I’d change how we recorded it.  I copied Leverage Leadership and created a spreadsheet with a page per teacher. However, maybe they either are much more familiar with excel or used a different programme but this has been so unwieldly.  I finally now know how to use the return key and add a bullet point using excel but have to remind myself afresh every time I use it. Then there was the problem that if one person had the spreadsheet open, no one else could use it. We are only a small school so don’t think we need an expensive web based system like BluSkyEducation (although do leave a comment if you have a suggestion of a system that might work) so we will probably transfer over to a word based system next term.

Looking back, I’d never return to the old system. It seems so inflexible and uninformative.  This system tells me what I need to know about the school improvement journey, helps staff improve, reduces the stress they feel and reaches all staff – not just teachers.  I’m looking forward to our staff survey next May and hoping various key indicators show a marked improvement.  I’ll still be grumpy initially though.

[1] They’d only used the green pen for a couple of comments – not for the main text.

What if lesson observations were every week? How we reduced stress by observing staff more often.

Michaela Prime – is the atmosphere breathable?

This is part two of my thoughts about how well the kind of education outlined in ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers- the Michaela Way,’ a book published in November 2016 featuring chapters written  by a range of staff at Michaela Community School. This part looks at the ethos and discipline. In part one I discussed whether didactic teaching emboss and a knowledge- led curriculum are suitable for younger, primary age pupils.

There seems to be concern in some quarters about the atmosphere at Michaela; the no-excuses discipline, the bootcamp, the stress on adult authority. Some worry that this atmosphere is toxic for children, and therefore, we may surmise, even less suitable for younger primary children than it is for secondary pupils.  Others argue that, on the contrary, while the atmosphere can be bracing at times, it is just the tonic our children need to excel. Indeed, maybe it is the ‘progressive’ atmosphere in schools that is poisoning our education system; by contrast traditionalism represents a veritable breath of fresh air.

Michaela likes to boast about how strict it is. It’s probably sub-editors rather than the school itself that styles it as ‘the strictest school in Britain,’ but we get the picture; it’s pretty strict. Would this ethos be appropriate in a primary school? Would younger children be able to cope with the demands? Should they have to?

I think this is a bit of a red herring.  There are already plenty of very strict schools around, in both primary and secondary phases. I have friends whose children go to their local Catholic primary who are terrified of the headteacher. The parents are terrified – not just the children; waking up in a cold sweat because they had a dream about forgetting their book bag kind of scared.  What appears to be different about Michaela, and what really appeals to me, is the ethos of kindness and love that is articulated. They are strict, but it is because they really care about the children and not for its own sake or as some kind of power trip and in a way that empowers, rather than crushes the children.

My two sons went to different secondary schools. At the first, the discipline was terrible, particularly at KS3, and he was kicked down the stairs twice by pupils, his books went unlooked at and unmarked – and not in a ‘let’s look at your book in class with a visualiser’ kind of way either.  Several of his teachers just didn’t look at his work – and once he cottoned on to this he stopped trying very hard.  Of course, within this mess, some teachers were fantastic. But the structures weren’t.   At the second (chosen in reaction to the first), authority was draconian. Screaming in children’s faces for not having their shirt tucked in or eating a chip with your fingers – majoring in humiliating children – my son detested the regime (though he liked individual teachers and it’s obvious to me, if not to him, that many staff were really passionate about empowering inner city children through education). There are at least three secondary schools who operate this kind of authoritarian regime within a couple of miles to where I live – it’s nothing new. So for me, Michaela represents some calm, sensible middle ground, between brutal authoritarianism and lassier-faire  regimes where the authoritarianism is pupil-led, by the scary big kids. I wanted somewhere neither feral nor oppressive. And yes, of course I am aware that other alternatives exist – not quite so hard core as Michaela. The school most of our pupils transfer to for example, seems to mainly get the balance right.

What I love most of all when I read about Michaela is the explicit ethos of kindness. This seems very ‘primary school’ to me – although as it is described in their book, it seems like Michaela are doing this even better than how we do it – beating us at our own game. A good few years back, I attended the Leadership Programme for Serving Headteachers (LPSH). This fantastic training on leadership taught us about leadership styles using the Goleman model.  This model contrasts visionary leadership (called authoritative leadership in the LPSH) with commanding leadership (which LPSH dubbed ‘coercive’ or ‘authoritarian).  Visionary leadership is often highly successful whereas commanding leadership can have very negative effects. Visionary, authoritative leadership inspires people and explains how and why people’s effort contributes to the dream. Commanding, coercive authoritarian leadership by contrast, looks superficially similar but has a quite different emotional tone with its ‘do it because I say so’ mentality that people instinctively rebel against. What Michaela seems to have done is work hard to get pupils as well as staff to buy in to their vision of kindness, gratitude, hard work and empathy. In the chapter by Jonathan Porter, ‘No-excuses Discipline Changes Lives,’ he is clear that at Michaela they reject the old-school Miss Trunchball-style authority-for authority’s-sake approach, just as they reject more democratic or affiliative approaches as the leading paradigm for adult:child relationships. When people accuse Michaela of terrible crimes against childhood, I think what they have failed to distinguish is the difference between being cruelly authoritarian because you like controlling people and strong visionary leadership that encourages and motivates people to do amazing things they never realised they were capable of.  That’s the kind of leader I strive to be most of the time (though as Goleman makes clear, all styles have a time and a place; in a crisis you might need to be authoritarian to get people out of a hole).

Our school has a strongly articulated set of values. We believe in trust, friendship, togetherness, thankfulness, compassion, justice, peace, forgiveness, creativity, endurance, hope, responsibility and awe and wonder. (Yes it’s a long list – not exactly pithy).  We refer to these values with children all the time in terms of developing as a good, moral person; be compassionate, take responsibility, be a peacemaker. But what I realise we don’t do enough of – and should do – is link these values with learning for pupils. We do more so with staff, spelling out how these values must shape how staff  interact with children; we don’t really make those kind of links with children. We don’t make enough of how amazingly lucky children are to be receiving this excellent gift called education; about how excited and grateful they should be to be given this brilliant present. At Michaela they do this a lot.

Sometimes they do it in ways that I’m not comfortable with.  I’d spend all day sitting at Barry Smith’s feet learning about how to teach French from him, but his chapter ‘Top of the Pyramid’ – which is all about inspiring pupils to work hard so that they can be better than other people – doesn’t chime with my values.   I don’t believe in pitting school against school.  In church circles, the metaphor of a farm in the outback is sometimes used to describe two different ways that churches can see their membership.  In the outback, land can be farmed and livestock kept close either by using fences – to keep dangerous animals out and to stop livestock straying off into danger; or by having a really deep well in the centre of your ranch that naturally attracts livestock to stick around. Some churches use a ‘fence’ approach, policing their congregations to toe the line; outside of the fence lies danger, bad people.   Behave lest you will be cast out beyond the fence!  Others are more like farms that have a deep well at the centre; animals are naturally drawn to these safe sources of drinking water; why would they want to stray too far from their source of life?  Such farms don’t need to categorise people as ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ the fence. There is no fence; only people closer or further away from that which they need to thrive. In a bounded set, your position, in or out is all important.  In a centred set, it’s the direction you are moving – towards or away from the centre – that matters.

So rather than tell children they are really lucky to come to our school because our school is better than the other schools, and children from our better school go on to be better people, I want to explain to the children that school (in general) is a wonderful life-enhancing opportunity for them – and how children in some countries do not have the opportunity to go to school and how sad that is for them because they miss out on so much that is good and exciting and interesting. And how grateful we should be to all the grown-ups in this country for agreeing that education is such a wonderful thing that all children in Britain deserve. So all the grown-ups – even those who don’t have any children – agreed to give some of their money to the government, so that every single child could benefit from this wonderful opportunity. And the richer grown-ups had agreed it was only fair that they give more of their money than the poorer ones. (I never miss opportunities to tell children about the great good that is taxation; taxation being the hallmark of any civilised society. British values and all that. Besides, they need to know in the same way their parents can’t just get money from the cash machine on the wall but have to work to earn it, neither do governments have any money save that which people agree to give through taxation.)

So what I need to develop is something like this:  Without education life would be so boring and empty.  You wouldn’t be able to read any amazing stories so you would never have met Beowulf or Boudicca or Theseus or Varjak Paw or Stanley Yelnats or Hermione Granger. You wouldn’t know about all the amazing people who have done incredibly brave, difficult things like Mary Seacole or Harriet Tubman or made awesome discoveries or great inventions like Alan Turing or Charles Darwin or Ada Lovelace  – so you wouldn’t be inspired to try and do something amazing with your own life. You wouldn’t have learnt about equality from Guru Nanak or forgiveness from the Prophet Mohammed or compassion from Jesus or endurance from Moses or selflessness from the Buddha.  Because you come to school, all of these stories now live in you; they are part of you. When life is tough you can go to them to learn about resilience, courage, hope and doing what is right.  When life is good they can spur you on to doing what you can to make this world a better place, to search for the hero inside yourself, to be the very best ‘you’ that you can be.

Learning can be really hard sometimes and you will learn to develop grit and determination in the face of challenges. But do you know what – when you finally learn your 7 times table or how to add fractions or you finally understand what a really hard poem is saying you will feel so proud of yourself and feel so exhilarated. Well, the people of this country believe in you – they believe you can do it – you can rise to the challenge and you will be successful.  They will never give up on you so never give up on yourself. Work with us and we will help you do things you never believed were possible.

Education: because you are worth it. The state’s gift to you, little one. Use it wisely and be grateful.

(Obviously this is a primary school version stated in primary colours.)

Knowledge-led curricula should promote the value of knowledge on their own terms; not on some instrumentalist premise about how we can be better than other people.  We don’t want to look down on people; we want to be in a position to raise them up. (I really don’t like that chapter, do I).

But there are loads of chapters I do like.  The pyramid that Barry Smith is talking about is, I think, based on this triangle used throughout the school. (I may not have the wording 100% correct as this is the version we use where I am headteacher and I think we adapted in slightly; you get the gist.)

motivation-triange

This triangle narrates the vision behind the school to the children (and it is perfectly possible to narrate this vision in a centred, rather than bounded way.)  The staff work here, it implies, because they want to help you become the sort of person who behaves well for its own sake, because it is the right thing to do and not as a tactic to avoid trouble or build reputation, although it will start as that. The triangle exemplifies a journey in moral development. I think it would work even better if the top level was ‘so I can help everybody have a great future.’  I shared this with the staff about a year ago, in a low key way. Having read Battle Hymn and about family lunch and bootcamp and the daily sermon and how demerits are always explained in terms of the school’s vision, I am definitely going to relaunch this and make it much more centre stage.  It sets up the route map we want our children to go on. Young children all start seeing being good as primarily about not getting into trouble as I know only too well from too many sessions sorting out KS1 scuffles.

‘So why don’t we hit people when we feel cross with them Hamid?’

‘Cos you’ll get in trouble.’

Remember that visionary leadership inspires people and explains how and why people’s effort contributes to the dream.

‘Hamid we don’t hit people when we feel cross with them because that just makes them cross too. So now we’ve got two cross people. That’s not what we want. We want no cross people. I wonder if you could have done something else when you felt cross? I know, you could have told Zahid that he was making you feel cross.’

In one of my favourite chapters on no-excuses discipline Jonathan Porter reiterates the importance of explaining why rules exist and encouraging pupils to think about what the school would be like without them. He absolutely repudiates imposing sanctions on pupils without narrating to them the reason for the system’s existence.  He contrasts the US style ‘do-as-I say-because-I say-so’ regimes found in some charter schools and one animated by a vision of kindness, gratitude, hard work and empathy. The former is indeed a toxic environment that breeds resentment and disaffection; the latter an atmosphere that allows for flourishing.

It is also an atmosphere predicated on respect for teachers.  Alongside Jonathan’s chapter, I also really liked Hin-Tai Ting’s on respect.  More than that, Hin-Tai moved on my thinking.  He contrasts the respect that Chinese pupils have for their teachers with the respect more usually found in British schools. Before Michaela, he assumed this was an artefact of living within an authoritarian culture. Were that to be the case, then I’d put up with tutting and eye-rolling any day rather than live under an authoritarian regime.  But working at Michaela changed his mind. Here, because they narrated why disrespect was not acceptable in terms of learning to become a responsible citizen and not at all by means of pulling adult rank; as a result children at Michaela behave respectfully towards all staff.

This is something I really want to get us to do. It’s not like we are a million miles from it; we certainly don’t like eye rolling or tutting but this narration thing is going to take some work for some staff. In particular, some staff who do feature lower down the hierarchy and supply teachers (especially supply teachers) who, when respect is not given by pupils, bristle and pull rank, sometimes in ways that aren’t particularly respectful themselves. Then the child is really disrespectful and someone in the SLT has to sort out a big old mess.  The narration approach allows the child to keep their dignity; nobody is being humiliated into submitting. Rather they are being taught what is a civilised way to behave. Rolling one’s eyes and tutting are rude.  We need to be polite and kind to each other, not rude.  If you think something is unfair, then at the right time come and discuss it. Not now in the heat of the moment. Of course as soon as one member of staff doesn’t toe the line and pulls rank then the whole system gets put into disrepute. As Katharine Birbalsingh said over and over at the launch of Battle Hymn ‘we all row together.’

I can see why bootcamp week is so important in getting both pupils and staff onside.  Particularly the repeated explicit explaining about accepting the role of the adult in the same way that we accept (well sort of) the authority of a referee in sport. They are there to make a decision so that the game can go on. They are not there to get it right 100% of the time. We could have referees more like that and have endless interruptions while cameras are looked and the second and third referees confer – but it would make the game really boring.  Learning time in schools is too precious to waste doing endless autopsies about who ‘was also calling out.’  Of course there should be some sort of mechanism were serious miscarriages of justice are addressed; Michael Fordham writes well about this really well here.

Part of the problem is with the word ‘strict’. Some people here this and hear ‘harsh,’ ‘severe’ whereas others hear ‘precise’, ‘scrupulous.’ Without doubt the routines at Michaela are precise and scrupulously upheld by the staff.  Sanctions for non-compliance are consistently applied in every classroom.  Jonathan uses the example of a pupil ‘Tom’ who found following rules very difficult at primary school but who learnt, after a couple of wobbly weeks, to allow the rules to contain him in a way that actually set him free. Tom’s difficult family background was not taken into consideration to cut him some slack. And Tom rose to the high expectations set of him.  If we give children the message ‘you couldn’t possibly cope with this’ then I guess they won’t. Beside the sanctions at Michaela are so mild. Get two demerits in a lesson and that’s a 20 minute detention doing a bit of revision. Er, that’s it.  We are harsher at our primary school – we make a point of not allowing reading to take place because boredom is part of the punishment. But actually, reading Michaela has made me reconsider. Michaela has made me more liberal!  Presently we tell the children – you have to sit in silence and think about the choice you made and what better choices you could have chosen instead.  Of course they probably don’t think about that at all – they mainly watch the clock or try and catch the eye of a friend. What is doesn’t do is help them buy in to our vision of school as a precious gift that mustn’t be wasted.  From next term, reading your knowledge book it is.

However, it wouldn’t do to be fundamentalist about no excuses.  I get it removes grey areas and stops weak-willed liberal folk such as myself perhaps being too soft. But I’m sure what the policy really is in practice is ‘no excuses 99.9999% of the time except on very rare occasions that are so unusual it is difficult to specify in advance what exactly they might be.  But that’s not very pithy and also gives unhelpful wiggle room both to staff and to students. Once students know that there is a chink in the disciplinary armour then you get into students contesting decisions – wasting time – getting annoyed when what they see as their valid excuse is not taken into consideration. But, as Tom Bennett says in this great blog on inclusion and behaviour, ‘exceptions must be exceptional.’  Tom’s article is so good on the tensions between inclusion and setting firm boundaries for behaviour that I suggest you read that rather than me trying to witter on about it, but I will make the following points.

First of all, we should start using different language to describe what happens when a child’s behaviour becomes so extreme that it jeopardises the education and/or well-being of everybody else.  If I go to my G.P. with some condition that is too specialised for her to deal with, she doesn’t expel me from general practice; she refers me to a specialist who knows more about this particular problem.  There’s no stigma or blame attached, it is just obvious my problem needs looking at by someone who looks at that sort of problem all the time.  Why can’t children with emotional and behavioural problems that need specialist attention be perceived in the same way?

Secondly, primary school children are obviously younger than secondary children (who knew!) Particularly in the early years and KS1, they are still learning emotional self-control.  To go back to the above example of Hamid hitting a child because he feels cross, it matters a great deal whether Hamid is three, six, nine or twelve.  At three it is fairly unremarkable (though of course needs firm dealing with), at six it should be unusual – with maybe one or two children taking a bit longer to accept this is unacceptable and to be able to use alternatives instead – by nine specialist help is being brought in to help the child. And I’m assuming a twelve year old who hits people when they are cross is in danger of permanent exclusion. (See what I mean about language? How much better would it be to say ‘is being transferred to the specialist unit for the time being’ – which I suppose happens in secondary schools with behaviour support units).

The idea of a pupil at Michaela hitting another seems unlikely, but I am sure it would happen at Michaela Prime from time to time. Hamid (who is of course not actually called Hamid) is based on a real child.  Not only does he hit children when he is angry with them, he sometimes hits them if he thinks someone else might be angry with them.  He is a bit of a lone ranger who sees his role in life as punishing wrong doing.  Except his own of course – which he perceives as people receiving their just deserts. So for now, when he feels the kind of burning anger that makes him want to lash out, he is allowed to remove himself to the side of the classroom, get his ‘angry book’ and draw in it whilst he composes himself, any work missed being made up in his own time. And it is working, instead of lashing out, he draws intricate cartoons of angry monsters and then within 5 minutes is back on track.  Now he needs to grow out of this pretty quickly; he is not going to be having his angry book when he is in year 4, but for now it is working. Michaela Prime could have its strict routines and no-excuses discipline, but it would also need to be able to find ways to help those whose emotional development is not yet age appropriate.

Perhaps half you now think that’s cruel and draconian and the other half outrageously namby-pamby.

Apart from Barry’s chapter ‘From the Top of the Pyramid’ there is one more I really dislike; ‘Dani Quinn’s Competition is Crucial’.  Dani tries to convince us that being bracingly honest with pupils about how well they are doing in relationship with one another is actually, in the long run, doing them a favour because true self esteem comes from

‘being able to face the challenges and setbacks of the world outside the school gates, knowing that you have the resilience to cope with it, knowing from experience that working harder and acting on advice is an essential response to achieve success.’ (Battle Hymn p 134)

Well yes, but Dani believes that this sort of enviably copious self-esteem comes from being tested and knowing where they stand in relationship to others. She contrasts this with pupils (presumably in other schools) who are oblivious to how badly they are doing. I contest this.  Children who struggle academically know exactly how badly they are doing and feel terrible about it, even when their teachers go to great pains to disguise or minimise differences.  The problem with public ranking of children  – how ever kindly done – is that it is rubbing the faces of children who know only too well how much harder they find things in their failure. The younger one is, the more difficult this is to cope with. It’s pretty hard when you are an adult or almost adult! When I was 16, I moved for sixth form to the French Lycée in London (Le Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle de Londres). I moved schools because although I wanted to do science A levels (I wanted to be a doctor at the time), I also wanted to do French – but doing 4 A levels was unheard of at the time – particularly mixing and matching sciences with languages.  For some reason that have nothing to do with growth mindset or applying myself, I had found learning French at school really, really easy. The final O level exam was an hour and a half paper. I’d finished it in 20 minutes. I got an A (there were no A*’s in my day). Apart from the native French speaker, I was the best at French in my school by a long way, though my accent was very –er, English.  Imagine, if you will, the horror of transferring to a school where everybody else speaks French fluently, either having it as a mother tongue, or having been taught in French since the age of 5. I was in the English stream so my science A levels were fine – apart from a few hilarious moments trying to ask the very French lab techs for specific pieces of equipment – Pictionary with laboratory glassware – but French A level was taught entirely in French.  If you asked how a word was spelt, it was spelt in French. If you asked for a definition, it came back in French.

‘Qu’est-ce  que blême’ veut dire?’

‘Ça veut dire ‘blafard.’

‘Qu’est-ce  que ‘blafard’ veut dire?’

‘Ça veut dire ‘blême.’

(They both mean pale, by the way)

The worst bit of the week was La Dictée. This was marked with a starting score of zero, with +1 for every correct word and -1 for every incorrect.  Scores were read out to the class by the teacher starting at the bottom.  I was always bottom – except for once and boy did that guy get some stick ‘you scored lower than Clare man – you loser!’ I think my very first score was about -85. I did get better week on week and around January I got a round of applause from the whole class when I finally broke even and scored 0.  At 17 this was uncomfortable but I could laugh it off. At 13? I think I would have been reluctant to try if it meant being so exposed.  I’m trying to imagine what Dani would say to the adolescent me. I’m sure she would be very encouraging that my score had risen from – 48  to – 26 and big this up as the most improved score. Maybe this would have motivated me? All I can say is that with younger primary children in particular, for children who know only too well that they can’t write as well as their peers, this very knowledge becomes such a stumbling block they can become increasingly reluctant to even try to do something, especially when they fear their effort may be made public or it is some sort of official test.   And what about children with a diagnosed learning difficulty? Guess what child with  Down Syndrome*[1] – you are bottom again! Like every week, like you always will be – how ever hard you try. Of course Dani didn’t write her chapter as a mandate for primary schools. She is writing from a secondary school perspective about secondary school pupils. It’s me who is hauling it into a primary context – maybe she would exclaim ‘of course I don’t think it would work in a primary school!’

Dani seems to see a dichotomy between publically ranking children and deluding children as to how well they are doing compared to what’s ‘normal’ for their group. Our nursery children, despite us trying really hard to blur things, already know that some children are better at certain things than others.  I just don’t accept that children sail through school thinking they are doing fine when they are not. There is only one group for whom this may be true: the ones who find academic success comes easy. Especially the arrogant, cocky sort who have never had any sort of rival. For these kids, competitions with other children like them from a bigger pool might be instructive.

I also refute Danni’s statement that most pupils don’t participate in external competitions and there is little opportunities for authentic competition within schools. Where does she get this from?  In Tower Hamlets through the Tower Hamlets Sports Foundation we have inter school competitions almost weekly across a whole range of sports.  Plus accelerated reader in class competitions, mathletics, timestables rockstars, auditions for plays and performances, interviews to be a play leader. This is not unusual – it is what schools do.  I think Danni is talking about the ‘80’s.

So then, I’d be adamant we needed some kind of filtration before sending children into a Michaela- type atmosphere, removing the ranking and the looking down on other schools, bigging ourselves up by comparing ourselves favourably with other people. If something is really good, it doesn’t need to do this. Like the deep well on the ranch, people will be drawn towards it. Truth is its own propaganda, as Gandhi possibly said.

But looking at ourselves through a Michaela lens allows us also to see the toxins in our own atmosphere.  Rightly rejecting authoritarianism, we have become squeamish of anybody having any authority over children, even wise, authoritative leadership that might make things better rather than worse. This is an over-reaction.  Visionary leadership that seeks not its own end but the empowerment of others should be embraced rather than feared. Where the atmosphere is kindness, gratitude, hard work and empathy, whether at Michaela or elsewhere – there all may thrive.

[1] Yes I do know that having Down Syndrome does not necessarily mean you will be bottom of the class as children with DS are on an ability spectrum with some well able to read, write etc. and some go on to get degrees. The bell curve, however, is shifted to the left – even it is does overlap with the bell curve of children without DS – and having a mild or moderate learning difficulty is more common.

Michaela Prime – is the atmosphere breathable?

Journey to Michaela Prime-A New Hope?

How far, and how suitable would the pedagogical and behavioural approaches espoused with such passion and publicity by Michaela Community School be in the context of a primary school? Would a Michaela-style primary work? Would it be appropriate? Should we be leaving the safe, familiar orbit of contemporary primary practice, embarking instead on the journey to Michaela Prime?*[1]  I am not the only primary practitioner to wonder what such a transplant might look like.

Which is unusual, because usually the discussion is about how secondary schools could emulate the best of primary school practice, rather than the other way around. It is a commonplace to hear about secondary teachers visiting years 5 and 6 and being astounded by the high quality work the children routinely produce. I remember one visit by our local secondary where the English teachers looked at the page of typed A4 text I had given the children to read and explained that they would never think to give the children so long a piece of text to read; they would assume that it would be too difficult for a sizable minority of children. Yet here was the whole class reading and responding without difficulty.  Our local secondary school is, by the way, an outstanding institution and gets some of the highest GCSE results in the country despite its very challenging intake, with pupils making exceptional progress. I remember thinking ‘blimey, if that’s what the expectations are in a truly outstanding school – whatever are they like elsewhere?’  And then seeing my own children’s exercise books when they were at their respective secondary schools (not the one cited above) and being frankly appalled. And those endless battles over shoddy homework my primary teacher colleagues and I moan about when our own teenage children –  all of whom were writing at a level 5 standard in year 5 –  scrawl some diabolical, badly spelt, unpunctuated, ungrammatical, scruffy rubbish for their history homework that would barely scrape a level 2 – and refuse to do it again ‘because my teacher says it’s ok.’   Even the one who went to one of the top performing schools in the country – progress 8 above 1.  And then watching Educating Essex/East End/Cardiff and while admiring the compassion, passion and tenacity of the teachers thinking that the behaviour was awful.

Because [provocative statement alert – Quirky Teacher, find a chair and possibly, smelling salts] I reckon the ‘progressive problem’ is really more of a secondary problem.  By ‘progressive’ here, I am meaning the bit where ‘chalk and talk’ is frowned on and the teacher as the ‘guide on the side’ is championed; pedagogical progressivism as it were. As contrasted with behavioural progressivism or possibly curricular progressivism.  We don’t all come in neat little packages with all our ‘progressivisms’ – or ‘traditionalisms’, neatly lined up.   But if it is pedagogical progressivism we are talking about, I don’t think discovery learning has really been the dominant paradigm in primary school since the national strategies came along in 1997. (Except in the Early Years, which operates in its own strange universe).  I remember the excitement, the frisson of getting my hands on a bootleg copy of what was then the National Literacy Project and being so excited that here was all this explicit ‘stuff’ we were directed to teach the children; text types and grammatical structures and punctuation and all sorts. This, after years of children being expected to learn to read by osmosis and to rediscover the entire cannon of western culture afresh on a child-by-child basis.  When I started teaching in 1989, we were meant to do the ‘integrated day’. Now that really was ‘progressive.’  You’d have 5 different activities going on simultaneously with one table of children doing screen printing while another taught themselves some maths, another table wrote a story whilst the fourth table composed something on glockenspiel with the last group doing a history project. I kid you not.  Actually, only the really devoted put up with the glockenspiel but seriously, that was how we were meant to teach.  You didn’t so much teach as track who had finished what. The whole of Friday was given over to ‘finishing off’ with those who had finished everything doing ‘choosing’ for the rest of the day.  There was also a fair bit of designing fancy borders for written work and colouring in illustrations as all writing had to be ‘published’ for a real audience in order to be meaningful for the child. After a while, desperate to have time to actually teach some maths to the whole class, I would do something radical – behind closed doors natch – like teach the whole class art at the same time one afternoon, so leaving the morning free for some maths with the added bonus of being able to tell all the children at the same time something about the art we were doing. This was really seen as terribly bad practice, so I did it furtively. There were no such things as lesson observations or Ofsted in the olden days, so doing your own thing on the sly was a bit easier.

So take it from me, the primary sector was once deeply pedagogically progressive but ran enthusiastically en masse towards the more didactic alterative proffered by the strategies around about the late 90’s.   Instead of Michaela we had ‘the Three Wise Men’ report, the National Strategies and David Blunkett allowing primary schools to focus almost entirely on English, maths and science.  This led to the de facto abandonment of the National Curriculum. That’s not to say we embraced a ‘knowledge curriculum’. But it was the death knell of the teacher as primarily facilitator and rebirth of the teacher as one who taught something to the whole class at the same time.  Whereas secondary schools had a revised National Curriculum in 2008 with its stress on personalised learning and greater emphasis on pupils’ understanding of the concepts, ideas and processes of subjects and on cross-curricular themes, the later Rose Review of the primary curriculum –a wholesale skills based approach – was never put into practice since it was junked by the Coalition government who came into power shortly after it was published. Due to this accident of history, the ‘progressive problem’ is much more a secondary phenomenon than it is a primary one.

It is interesting to note that the Rose Review was intended to move primary teachers away from their didactic focus on the retention and recall of facts and instead to promote personal development, more speaking and listening, more ICT: skills for ‘learning and life’ i.e. to make primary schools less traditional and more progressive. Indeed the Cambridge Review of the Curriculum led by Robin Alexander criticised the Rose Review for not going far enough in attacking primary traditionalism with its privileging of retention and recall of facts, valuing of ‘shallow’ as opposed to ‘deep’ learning, and teachers who operated in ‘transmission mode’.  Both of these heavyweights were alarmed by how traditional primary teaching was and were trying to make it more progressive.

So when I first discovered through the twittersphere the progressive versus traditionalist debates, I must admit at first I was one of those who simply didn’t believe that anyone – save the odd lunatic fringe – was actually doing any of this ‘progressive’ stuff. I was, apparently, in denial.  But then I remembered a very odd course I’d been on, promoting outstanding teaching.  This course, which was cross phase (i.e. included secondary teachers) advocated telling the children absolutely nothing and instead, getting the children to research the topic you were meant to be teaching them. So in a history lesson, the teacher would set up various stations; one would have some books about the period under study, another some photos, another a website, yet another some audio tape of something or other. The children were on a carousel and would spend 10 minutes at each station ‘researching’ with the aim of discovering what the teacher could have told them in 10 minutes.  It was the integrated day all over again, but within one subject.  Then I also remembered a friend – a secondary school teacher – sadly recounting how he had been graded as Requires Improvement because during his yearly lesson observation the observers had arrived too late to see Year 9 act out the trial scene from…whatever book it was…and read aloud the speeches they had painstakingly written and instead came for the 15 minute section where they had to listen to the book being read to them by the teacher. I thought he clearly went to a school run by madmen but slowly I realised what I saw as isolated incidents of barmy tyrants running crazy schools was, in fact, as testified on twitter, rampant in secondary schools.

However, Michaela is bidding us all to up our game and however more traditional primary schools might generally be than secondary schools, clearly the example of Michaela throws down a gauntlet. Michaela-style traditionalism is explicitly knowledge-led.  Imparting knowledge is at the very centre of what it does.  Whereas primary schools, however didactic in their teaching methods, tend to be more skills-focused, with whatever knowledge the skills are currently wearing being seen as more of an accessory than the educational star of the show.   That children may acquire some scientific knowledge as a result of learning the scientific skill of analysing results is seen as a fortunate by-product, collateral grace, as it were.  Would a shift to the Michaela knowledge-led approach be suitable for younger children?

We first need to tease out what we mean by ‘the Michaela approach’ because upon the Michaela table d’hôte there are several things the school espouse that don’t necessarily have to go together.  There is the advocacy of explicit, didactic teaching, the unequivocal stress on knowledge, there is the ‘no excuses’ discipline policy, the commitment to reduce teacher workload, its disavowal of powerpoint as akin to some sort of thought-crime, its philosophy of inclusion, the way it works with parents and its professional development ethos. There are lots of schools that have a very strict ethos; the Harris Academies, or Mossbourne for example, but not in the same way that Michaela does and without the other elements of the Michaela approach. It may be that some of these strands would be effective with younger children whereas others wouldn’t. Let us now consider each element one by one and reflect on whether this approach would work on Michaela Prime. There’s a lot to talk about – too much for one blog so I’m going to split this up. In this part one I’m going to look at didactic teaching and the knowledge-led curriulum.

Didactic teaching

As I have already argued, as far as I can see, in the primary schools I have visited as well as the ones I work in, almost all of the teaching I see from year 1 onwards involves a teacher, or possibly teaching assistant, standing at the front of the class and telling, explaining and modelling stuff to children.  After all, sound-grapheme correspondences are hardly going to explain themselves are they?  Or what each numeral represents, or the maths operator signs. You can’t ‘discover’ what a fronted adverbial is all by yourself. For all of this you need experts who know what they are talking about.   As a result, in primary schools, we do bucket loads of standing up the front telling children stuff. Occasionally this might be interrupted to do a special project for a few lessons; for example where I work years 3 and 4 have just done ‘dramatic maths’ for a lesson a week for a few weeks. But that was on top of their ordinary maths lessons and was more about getting maths into drama than drama into maths and was consolidating what they had already knew by applying it in a dramatic context (find the axe to rescue Red Riding Hood by using co-ordinates) rather than teaching new content. Similarly, children might respond in a ‘groovy’ way to initial teacher input, but the input is still teacher-led and imparts facts. E.g. year 1 children are taught didactically by their teacher that in the past, certain materials like plastic had not yet been invented, so toys were made out of other materials such as wood, china and metal. The children might then be asked to respond by writing labels for our collection of old toys to make our toy museum; labels that include what materials the toy is made from. Because their writing goes on cards next to exhibits rather than in an exercise book does not make this lesson suddenly madly ‘progressive’ or an exercise in pandering to a childish demand for edutainment. If you can do something in a way that is even more interesting than recording knowledge in an exercise book and it doesn’t incur huge opportunity costs along the way – then why not do the more engaging of the two options. Unless we want to make a fetish of avoiding ‘engaging’ opportunities at all costs and are phobic about anything that might stray into being ‘fun’.  The museum idea had the added benefit of getting the children to read everybody else’s work as they acted as tour guides to their parents after school.

I reckon the problem with this sort of approach is when it is seen as suitable for year 10. With younger children, because their reading and writing skills are in their infancy, what they can read and write about is so limited, so adding a bit of extra ‘wow’ to make the game worth the candle is a great idea.   Just like year 5 who are learning the recorder and can only play about 4 notes – enough for jingle bells anyway.  Their teacher adds a backing track and suddenly it sounds amazing and they are as pleased as punch with themselves.  But when you are 14 and have the world of knowledge available for you to read about, backing tracks and making museums and such likes are unnecessary gimmicks. So with the caveat that the younger the children are, the greater the need to embed some of their reading and writing  – and occasionally maths – in a real world context, then I don’t see any problem at all in saying that the vast majority of teaching at Michaela Prime will be didactic. As it already is in most primary schools, most of the time. Especially in the mornings when we teach English and maths. More of afternoons later.

A knowledge-led curriculum

Dominating all else in primary schools, warping all that lies within its purview is the accountability field. Since primary schools are held accountable via sats for English and maths and not for all the other subjects we are meant to teach, English and maths get the lion’s share of everything.  Now I really don’t want to get too bogged down in the arid skills versus knowledge debate, which often seems to turn on semantics, but it seems to me that in learning English and maths learning how to use these tools (skills) is just as important – and takes up more time – than learning the knowledge inherent in these disciplines. Certainly, previously there has been a tendency to see English and maths as all skill. Whereas reading and writing cannot even get started without knowing what words mean, what the sound-grapheme correspondences are, what the graphemes look like. However being able to blend those phonemes together into an actual word is surely a skill – and one that can take some children a really long time to learn.  Similarly, children just have to learn that certain numerals correspond to certain quantities whereas other squiggles are instructions (or operators) to do something with the numerals.  And while I’d go to the stake for saying that children need to have automatic recall of their number bonds to and within first 10 and then then 20 and excellent times table knowledge, they also need to understand when multiplying numbers might be more useful than adding them. Is this a skill or knowledge?  There are limits on transmission teaching – especially in maths. I can explain to you again and again why multiplication is a quicker, more efficient method than using repeated addition, but at some point, each individual child has to ‘get’ why – to see it for themselves in some magical internal process that can’t be drilled into being, but has to be…dare I say…discovered? But not discovered in a vacuum – discovered by scaffolding from an expert other, as Vygotsky put it.

However, it is fair to say that in the stress primary teachers lay on children really grasping what the maths they are taught actually mean, there has, hitherto, been some throwing out of the baby with the bathwater.  Not enough time spent on learning times tables, for example –although the demands of first the SATS mental arithmetic test and now the arithmetic paper mean that every school I know has been drilling children in these for at least the last 5 years. 10 years ago we would have shied away from drilling until we were really sure the children ‘understood’ what multiplication actually means – these days we get that some children learn by rote and then understand whereas others understand and then learn by rote. My bête noire is poor knowledge of number bonds.  How many children become overwhelmed by maths around about year 4 because they are still counting 5+7 on their fingers?!  No wonder they find understanding column methods hard because all their working memory is taken up counting on from one 1-digit number to another.  I blame the numeracy strategy for over-prioritising number lines over partitioning methods (5+7=5+5+2=12) that involve calculation allied with instant recall. We need to spend far longer on ensuring no child leaves ks1 without all their number bonds in and within 10 secure.  Never mind the phonics check, bring in a number bonds check too – even more important – but harder to learn – than times tables. We teach using the mathsmastery curriculum which does devote a considerable amount of time to number bonds. Not enough for all children to have them securely, unfortunately.  So we drill the children in them frequently, often using this marvellous game (which also tests table knowledge for those further along the line).

So what with reading, writing and maths dominating the curriculum and teachers perceiving what they are doing as teaching skills (even though in fact they teach a fair bit of knowledge), and knowledge-heavy subjects such as history, geography and science having miniscule amounts of curriculum time, knowledge has taken a bit of a back seat. Or possibly has been relegated to the boot. So in the afternoons when primary schools finally get around to teaching something that isn’t English or maths, at that point, it may be that some schools – maybe most– (who really knows) come over all progressive.

I confess a good few years ago we did have a brief dalliance with the International Primary Curriculum which does operate in a progressive paradigm both in terms of what the teacher does and what is taught; students first researching whatever they are meant to be learning about and then recording it. It’s actually really hard for 9-year-olds to research stuff properly. The teacher usually ends up telling them or making resources where the knowledge they need is so explicit that they might as well have cut out the middle man and just told them in the first place. The naturally curious, self-motivated middle class girls quite liked it; everyone else found it frustrating and boring.

The IPC used to market itself by telling us about its exciting year 3 topic on chocolate.  The logic seemed to be, because chocolate is nice to eat, learning about the history of chocolate will be more interesting than learning about the history of the Romans.  Actually both are fascinating – but which is more important?   Which is more powerful in helping you understand more about British and European history, how Christianity became a global religion?  Knowledge may be power, but some knowledge is more powerful than others.  Since curriculum time is a precious, finite resource, we must spend it wisely on teaching areas with the biggest pay-offs for the children. The IPC developed in the context of International schools serving Western children of the oil industry employees in Middle Eastern states where learning about the Tudors was irrelevant to, say, Dutch, Swedish and Bengali children growing up in Qatar. So it intentionally had topics that were as generic as possible, focusing on transferable skills.  But for schools based in Britain, surely learning mainly about British history makes sense.  And just as importantly, which has more resources readily available to the hard-pressed teacher, Aztecs or Romans?  Which is more likely to further skew the teacher’s work:life balance in the direction of burnout?

I think we can all take it as read that they won’t be doing the IPC at Michaela Prime.  I think they’ll be doing something more like what we started this September – influenced a great deal by what I had read about Michaela and in particular blogs written by staff who work there. I remember being particularly shocked when I read something by the headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh saying that we should expect children to remember the knowledge we teach them so that 5 years after we taught it, they still know it.  I was shocked not because I disagreed but because up until then, I hadn’t ever thought about what we taught the children – except in English, maths and possibly science – in that way. Before reading Katharine, if the National Curriculum said to teach year 4 the Aztecs, we’d teach it. Whether they remembered anything about the Aztecs by the time they got to year 5 was not something that had ever, in my wildest dreams, occurred to me.  But now someone had said it, of course it was important. Why were we teaching history to primary pupils anyway? (Secret generally understood guilty primary teacher answer: to get them to do more writing, without calling it literacy and maybe to up the amount of art they do – I mean writing in role as a soldier stationed at Hadrian’s Wall and making a papier mâché  Egyptian mummy  is  history, isn’t it?)  So with Katharine’s words ringing in my ears, and then reading all about knowledge organisers from Joe Kirby and how they  specify, ‘in meticulous detail, the exact facts, dates, events, characters, concepts and precise definitions that all pupils are expected to master in long-term memory,’ I took another look at our curriculum and decided we could do better.

The overweening problem in the primary curriculum is time.  With the mornings colonised by English and maths, that leaves us with 10 hours a week to teach 10 subjects plus PHSE, or 7 and a half if we want to include an end of day story, which we do. In our school, PE and music take up one afternoon – being taught by specialists while teachers have PPA– and French another part afternoon. So that leaves geography, history, RE, art, DT, science and computing crammed into 3 afternoons.  171 hours a year or, if we divide time equally between these 7, 28 and a half hours each a year.  You can see why double counting making an Egyptian mummy as both art and history appeals now can’t you?  But if we want to do history properly – teaching the children some actual historical facts for example – that possibly they may remember into adulthood and certainly will help them with their GCSE’s – then we need to think really hard about exactly what facts, dates and people we want them to know about given the very limited time they will actually have to be taught this.

Our solution was to divide the year into 3 week curriculum blocks, each fitting into a 12 week ‘term’.  So in each ‘term’ a year group will study four different subjects, each for 3 weeks*[2]. When the 3 weeks are over, even if the teacher hasn’t finished, they have to start the next block on the next subject.  This focuses the mind wonderfully – unlike our old block system where topics went on and on endlessly and then we ran out of time for certain subjects altogether. Sometimes these terms are shorter than calendar terms – for example in the Autumn term we’ve just had there were two spare weeks at the end for a mini topic on Christmas which included RE (based on some element of the significance of Christmas for Christians), rehearsing and doing a nativity play, a literacy focus on poems with a Christmas theme and a Christmas party. Next term is 12 weeks and the final term is 13, giving us a spare week at the end of the year for taking your new class for a couple of days, doing some art for your new classroom, learning some more poems (we have a poetry week at the end of every half term with all classes learning a poem by heart and performing it on the Friday) some extra phse reflecting on the year and having a class party. When Easter is earlier it does mean the second ‘term’ gets split across the Easter holidays – which is annoying. Personally I am all in favour of decimalising the date of Easter but since I am unlikely to be Pope anytime soon, I doubt that’s an argument I’m going to win.

The teachers like the new system. It makes them feel less guilty. On top of everything else teachers endure, they feel guilt about not being able to teach all the subjects properly because there isn’t enough time – as if they had any control over that.  Now they don’t feel guilty. I say ‘you must teach geography for the next three weeks and then stop’ and they do. The finite number of lessons and not too distant cut off point make planning a sequence of 9 lessons really straightforward.  No timewasting fluffy activities, lots of whole class reading and then some writing – but proper geographical writing, not literacy with a vague geographical theme. Yes, Egyptian mummies and Roman shields still get made – in art lessons! We can still use a topic approach – the artwork just comes after the humanities. Often the humanities learning links to what we are learning in literacy. For example, year 4 study Beowolf in English, learn about the Saxons and Vikings in history and make a fabulous Grendel in art.  The children seem to like it too. Certainly it could be dry and boring in the hands of a teacher with poor expository skills, but any teacher worth their salt will be able to bring the subject alive and make it engaging in its own right.

At Michaela they have subject teams who produce subject booklets for each year group. This is not an approach that transfers easily to a one form entry primary school!  The main problems with introducing a knowledge-led curriculum into primary schools would seem to be logistical rather than pedagogical. We are not subject specialists. There may well not be a single person on the staff team who has an A level – let along a degree – in the subject we want help with. Text books for the topics we want to teach don’t exist. Non fiction books are expensive and not always pitched at the level we’d want.  For art and computing, we buy in expert help. For the content heavy humanities plus science, we’ve had a go this year. These CGP books for ks2 history were a start but contain far more information that it is possible to cover in the time given – but we really need to write better material for ourselves for next year. That will be our job for staff meetings in the summer term.

At Michaela they do two trips a year – the whole year group going out at the same time.  I don’t know what’s typical for a secondary school, although I don’t think my own children went much more frequently.  However, I’d want more trips than that.  Maybe if the school were situated somewhere remote the cost:benefit analysis would be different, but since we are situated just outside the City of London and have three museums in walking distance (The Museum of London, the  Museum of Childhood and the Geffreye Museum) and can get to Tate Modern and St Paul’s Cathedral in 20 minutes on a bus and the South Kensington museums in not much longer, it would be criminal not to exploit this, especially since not many of our children visit this sort of place with their families.  We tend to do a trip every half term – trying to get it to fall within the weeks when that particular block is occurring. On top of that we have visitors into school – the London Sinfonia with year 1, for example, or Spitalfields Music with years 3 and 5, or various arts organisations.  Where possible we schedule these to happen in the morning – to interrupt English and maths- subjects that get plenty of air time, rather than taking precious time away from subjects that do not get enough time anyway. Of course, trips need to be planned well to augment what is going on in class and not just as a diversion.

But how do we make sure that children remember what we have taught them? At Michaela the knowledge organisers are revised for homework. Pupils quiz themselves on one knowledge organiser from one subject every night. They cover up the concept, write out the definition and then check they have got it right, checking themselves again and again for at least 30 minutes until they are sure they are ready for their quiz in class the next day. Would that work with primary pupils?

At primary school, our first priorities are that children learn to read fluently and for pleasure and know their times tables and number bonds. Nothing is more important for their learning than this. So while we do give children their knowledge organisers for homework, it is a lot less intense than the Michaela regime, since we want them reading at home and learning their number facts at home.  And doing some Matheletics. So, the weekend prior to each block, the knowledge organiser is taken home and shared with parents. This is a good way of parents knowing what their child will be learning in the coming weeks.  They are encouraged to read their knowledge organiser every day.  Then the first weekend of the first week of the block, children do a multiple choice quiz with their parents based on the knowledge organiser, which they are encouraged to consult to find any answers they do not yet know.  The second weekend they do a second quiz, again consulting their organiser if they need to, then on the last Friday they do a final quiz  in school without their knowledge organiser. Almost all children score 9/10 or 10/10 in these final quizzes.  But here is the important part. Unlike Michaela, we do not have knowledge organisers for all subjects. We do not have them for art, DT or computing – so when the topic block is one of these subjects, children revise from a previous block and have a quiz from that subject.  As Joe Kirby reminds us in his chapter on homework as revision, the overwhelming consensus from cognitive science is that we should quiz ourselves frequently on stuff we have learnt as testing, especially testing a few weeks after material has been learnt, interrupts forgetting. We haven’t been doing this long enough for us to see whether children actually are retaining information in the longer term. But I’m certainly going to introduce end of year super quizzes to gauge how well it has worked.  One thing I haven’t done yet is gather all the knowledge organisers and quizzes into one ‘knowledge book; for each year group. This is then used not only for revision but also a source of work for if a teacher is off sick, a child is sent out of class or hasn’t got their library book or PE kit etc.   Then they read their knowledge book.

In conclusion, then, the didactic teacher-led approach of Michaela is easily transferable to a primary setting – mainly because that is pretty much what most primary schools do anyway, at least from year 1 up and with the possible exception of the afternoons. Having a knowledge-led curriculum would have practical challenges given the primary teachers are generalists, and that the primary curriculum is ludicrously over full, but there is nothing inappropriate about a knowledge-led curriculum per se for younger children.  I would wish for more trips and visitors to enrich the curriculum than happens at Michaela – particularly in schools lucky enough to be situated within easy travelling distance of great cultural centres. At Michaela they do use talk partners. However, given the younger age of primary children and the importance of them being able to communicate confidently orally as well as on paper, there would be more talk partner and paired work and in the unlikely circumstance that Katharine Birbalsingh should ask my advice prior to setting up a primary school, I’d strongly advocate some drama work prior to writing.  I’d also tell her that  I don’t think the sky would fall in if every now and then the children at Michaela Prime worked in a group to discuss something. For example, while a thorough knowledge of RE is important, part of RE is also about working out what your own commitments are and group discussion is invaluable for this.  Persuasive writing means being able to respect and indeed argue in favour of points of view you actually disagree with, so opportunities to orally debate and argue with peers are a necessary part of a primary curriculum. There’s also no chapter on maths in the Battle Hymn. I’d be adamant that primary children need a concrete-pictorial-abstract approach alongside high quality teacher exposition.  So maybe I’m advocating a Michaela-lite approach.

What Katharine and the Michaela gang have done is move the Overton window of educational debate towards the traditional. The Overton window is a term from politics which describes to range of ideas that the public (or in our case the teaching profession) will accept. Anything outside of the window is dismissed out of hand as mad extremist claptrap. So, for example, some Tories were dismayed when Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour party because it meant that the kind of Socialism they thought had been discredited for ever was now perceived as a valid option.  Only a very few of years ago, traditional teaching would have been laughed out of town. Now discussion of it flows through the blogosphere, the Battle Hymn is flying off the shelves and people flock to see Michaela with their own eyes.

In part two I will reflect on the approach to behaviour at Michaela and maybe more.  Will their ‘no excuses’ philosophy work in a primary setting, and if it does, should it?

[1] Call me childish, I just think Michaela Prime sounds cool –like a planet far beyond our galaxy that would take a long and possibly perilous journey to get to. Much more fun than referring to ‘a Michaela-style Primary School.’ Then adding ‘a new hope’ seemed irresistible.  Maybe Part 2 will be ‘the Enquire(er) strikes Back?’ Followed by Part 3:  The Return of the Vygostki. Actually Michaela should henceforth be known as Rogue One…ok I’m going to stop now…

[2] Yes, the maths doesn’t quite work with there being 7 subjects and 3×3 week blocks . So the odd numbered year groups do 2 lots of geography and one lot of history, vice versa for the even numbered year groups, you only do art or dt in a given term, not both and for one term out of the three a year group will skip either RE or computing and your art will be done…in the morning!

Journey to Michaela Prime-A New Hope?

How to deepen understanding of reading by teaching children how to enjoy it better.

 

Or possibly…

How to enjoy reading more by understanding what you read more deeply

Like many primary schools this year, reading is the focus of our development plan. Despite my frustrations with this year’s ks2 reading sats, which I’ve written about here, our children did ok. Slightly above average.  And we are an inner city, deprived, multi-cultural, multi-linguistic, multi-story carpark kind of school. But that’s 20% below how they did in maths.  Now that gap may have more to do with test design than inadequacies in our teaching, but it still infuriates me.  If we can do it in maths we should be able to do it in reading…

So I spent the summer reading about reading. Like many others, I reconsidered what I knew about reading by reading Doug Lemov’s  ‘Reading Reconsidered’. See for example, Nick Hart’s recent interesting blog on reading, and thatboycanteach’s recent post and Rhoda Wilson’s work – who did away with guided reading long before it became a thing.  It is clear that skilled shared close reading of texts is back in the ascendency whereas the carousel-style guided reading lesson is on the wane, particularly in ks2, or where readers can decode fluently. See for example, the Destination Reader approach developed in Hackney primary schools.

However, thatboycanteach’s post – which was incredibly useful – set twitter mulling over ‘reading comprehension’ as a thing, particularly with regards to fiction.  Why can’t children just read and enjoy a story – why analyse to death, why answer turgid sats style ‘inference’ questions?  While I fly no flag for the ks2 reading sats paper, I would respond that inference in general is a vital life skill. Children who cannot infer, who cannot see beyond literal surface features, are children with social and communication problems. Socially skilled children, in contrast, are excellent at spotting the subtle signs that indicate to the initiated that all is not what it seems. Whether in the playground or in the pages of a book, the ability to ‘read’ people is an incredibly useful skill.

Nor are enjoyment of reading and analytical close reading necessarily in opposition.  The whole point of shared reading is that we share with children texts that would be too hard for them to read on their own. We do the heavy lifting, thereby giving them access to richer and more substantial texts than pupils would be able to cope with on their own. It seems to me that primary teachers have three main jobs with regards to reading. First ensure that they can get the words off the page easily and with sufficient fluency to enable at least a superficial understanding of what they have read.  Secondly, to try and inculcate a love of reading. Without this we will produce a generation who can read, but don’t. Indeed, during my initial teaching training way back in 1988, the main rationale for the ‘real books’ approach that I was trained in was to avoid creating literate children who only ever read under duress.  (I saw the light re phonics some 8 years later, but that’s for another blog another time).  Hooking children on books will sometimes mean seeking out the ‘gateway drug’ book that will set our dear pupil on the path to a happily text-filled future. The Recruit, perhaps, a book so racy (by the very low bar of primary education), at our school you are not allowed to borrow it until we have cleared it with your mum first. (Seriously though, if you are considering using it, just stick to the first book in the series.  As with the Harry Potter books, the main characters’ age by one year in each book- though with a good deal more precocity than described in Hogwarts – by book 3 we are deep in year 9 territory – don’t be fooled by the relative tameness of the first book). Thirdly, and just as importantly, we are here to teach children how to ramp up the readable. In our hands lie the tools that will enable children to unlock hitherto seemingly impenetrable texts. By our efforts texts once dismissed as ‘boring’ and ‘irrelevant’ can come alive for pupils. Doug Lemov is explicit in his reason for insisting that students work with hard texts; this is what they will be faced with at college. If they are not exposed to hard texts until they go to college, we shouldn’t be surprised if many young adults drop out when faced with a long and academically demanding reading list. I’m not quite as sold on the ‘university or bust’ credo, but certainly that is one reason why we should present children with rigorous, aspirational texts.  And certainly the reading demands of the new GCSE are much higher, so in primary we need to make sure the groundwork for that is rock solid.

The trouble with this is the 3 different jobs is that each one requires a different kind of book, with the pupil exposed to each in different ways. The ‘getting the text off the page’ stage requires books with restricted vocabulary – with words that the pupils already have the knowledge how to decode phonetically. It goes without saying that at the beginning when the child has only a little knowledge of phonics, these aren’t going to be the most stimulating works of literature ever encountered – though hats off to them behind Project X Alien Adventures – the fully decodable scheme our children go nuts for. Even without these heirs to Biff and Chip, in my experience children enjoy the success that quickly comes using phonetically decodable readers, even when the early books have to try and weave words like ‘pin, ‘mat’ and ‘sad’ into a compelling story line (although sitting on a pin would make one sad, it is true). The ‘getting hooked on books’ stage requires thrilling storylines, some daring-do and/or humour, possibly suspense, characters you care about. Or possibly hate, but in an invested way. But not necessarily nuance, higher level vocabulary, ambitious sentence structure. We are in ‘BeastQuest  and Wimpy Kid territory here. Books children will eagerly read but you would never, ever in a million years read out loud to your class.  They are the literary equivalent of a Pot Noodle. The third stage requires the sort of book CLPE advocates in its literature collections within its Core Book Lists.  For example, the utterly brilliant Varjak Paw or the Lady of Shallot – poems generally in fact. Usually children do not read these independently, at least not at first. They may be the end-of-the-day class story, or used in shared or guided reading. They comprise the literary equivalent of smuggling extra vegetables into pasta sauce.

I fear there is a triple constraint going on here.  In the same way that holidays can be cheap and exotic but not relaxing, or relaxing and cheap at the expense of being exotic, or relaxing and exotic but ever so expensive, it appears we can only have 2 out of any 3 here. So a text can be decodable and exciting (Alien Adventures) but not literature. Or it can be exciting and literary (Frank Cottrell Boyce’s Unforgotten Coat) but you need to be a fluent reader to access. Or I suppose it could possibly be both literary and decodable but not immediately gripping – again many poems are perfectly readable in terms of the individual words, and no one doubts their literary pedigree, but while we may perhaps entice our children, or some of our children, to love them, they are unlikely to become avid readers on a diet of these alone. They are, perhaps, the literary equivalent of stilton.

What this all means is, organising the teaching reading to a class of children with different dietary needs is difficult. The guided reading carousel has the advantage that the guided group’s focus group book can be catered for the group’s particular needs while the other children do something else, some of which includes reading self-chosen books in the hope that this will help them develop a love of reading. But it is a model that devotes a relatively short time – if any – to the teacher making the expert reader’s thoughts visible and explicit; to explaining vocabulary, inference and meta-cognitive comprehension strategies.  If your model does do this, fantastic. But does it also give children time to read the kind of books that they want to read too? And what about the ones who still aren’t fluent? Are you going to tell one that everybody is fluent in your school? Like you don’t ever have new arrivals or children with statements?

In an ideal world, we’d spend the first 20 minutes either learning to spell or learning to decode, followed by 45 minutes of high quality shared reading for all where the teacher modelled their thinking out loud as they read an aspirational text – gradually transferring more and more work to the class as the lesson progressed and the children thought hard about the texts they were studying’ including written answers. Then we would do some longer writing linked in some way to the shared text for an hour, with more teacher modelling, explicit grammar teaching, peer feedback, 10 minutes handwriting practice and finally 30 minutes to read our own self chosen – though guided by an expert librarian or knowledgeable teacher – text, as well as going to assembly, having a break and doing an hour’s maths. And having 30 minutes of story time at the end of the day. That leaves 5 hours a week left for the rest of the curriculum – and that’s without swimming – that time sink that swallows 2 hours time per every 30 minutes actually, er, swimming. Or nativity plays. Or trips. Or having half the class out at a hockey tournament.

So that’s not going to happen.

Having sought out and studied various models this term, it seems the triple constraint comes into play and forces us to make choices about what we are not going to do.  Which one of teacher modelling of reading, giving children time to read for pleasure and teaching children to actually read (the words) are we not going to do?  We are not very good as a profession at owning our choices though and tend to downplay the thing we are not doing – like it wasn’t that important anyway. So old style guided reading carousel is strong on children reading for pleasure and the mechanics of reading, but had less capacity for quality teacher exposition.  Models that have a lot of teacher exposition either dispense with devoting any curriculum time to reading for pleasure, or can’t cope easily with the children in the class who are not yet properly fluent. With this latter group, schools either seem to say – it’s so important these struggling readers are exposed to teacher talk around challenging texts so they must be included; they can miss other lessons for decoding practice. Or they say, decoding practice has to come first, and if they miss foundation subjects then they will miss the very knowledge of the world they need to be able to make inferences, so the decoding children decode elsewhere while the rest of the class do shared reading.

I’ve come across two approaches – one via Destination Reader and one in the approach advocated by Great Bowden Academy (of which more shortly) where the reading lesson is divided into a teacher led introduction modelling a particular learning objective with the whole class looking at the same text, followed by a time where the children seek to apply the same objective (finding places where the reader needs to infer the meaning from textual clues, for example) in the text of their own choice.  This has the obvious advantage of children engaging more deeply with self-chosen texts but the drawback that the teacher – who cannot possibly have detailed knowledge of every book currently being read – has to be very skilled at questioning the children on texts s/he does not know well. If I am reading them correctly, both Nick Hart and thatboycanteach keep with the same text throughout the lesson, with children analysing the text themselves and after an initial input phase. Personally, this approach seems more fruitful because they teacher will know the text under study really well and will have chosen the text deliberately as being rich in whatever technique(s) they are teaching, and so will have more to offer the children.  It also allows for children to do more writing about texts.  The downside being – when do the children get time during the school day to read their own choice of text? Maybe they all read at home…I’d love to work in a school where they all read at home without a huge song and dance and bribes and threats and even then…

We haven’t started doing either approach yet so I’m not going to the stake for what is, at this stage, a hunch, and we are going to do a mixed approach (I think, things are still tentative at this stage) where in years 4-6, 3 days a week are teacher led using one text, and the remaining two have no teacher input and are old fashioned independent reading of self-chosen books, but with the teacher working with a group on whatever aspect of reading they deem necessary. Those who need decoding practice come to the first teacher led lesson, but then have their TA led reading intervention the rest of the week. The children will sit in mixed ability pairs.  The text the teacher will use might be a revisiting of the current class end of day story – so the text can be analysed in the kind of way that would ruin a good storytelling, or a book the class are using in literacy for their writing –  a version of Beowulf say, (with this easier version used in some lessons), or The Wedding Ghost perhaps.  Or they might use an extract from a non-fiction text based on their humanities or science topic, or a poem.  In case you haven’t come across it, Opening Doors to  Famous Poetry and Prose by Bob Cox is an amazing resource, and he has recently published two versions for younger children (the one I’ve linked to is aimed at ks3, but usable with year 6). It is more about using famous – and demanding texts as a springboard for writing, but obviously includes unpacking the texts themselves.

Which brings me, (finally, the reader gasps) to my title.

How to deepen understanding of reading by teaching children how to enjoy it better.

Or possibly

How to enjoy reading more by understanding what you read more deeply.

Is it possible to teach children how to enjoy reading? Surely they either enjoy it or they don’t. maybe we can facilitate that enjoyment but setting up the necessary pre conditions, decoding, fluency, vocabulary development etc., but whether or not a child enjoys a text is surely an intimate matter shared between the author and the reader?

Actually yes you can teach children how to enjoy reading. We ourselves were taught how to enjoy it. I know this is not true for every teacher, but I think I’m pretty safe in assuming most of us grew up in a family where young children were read to. If so, we probably don’t remember our mum or dad or whoever saying things along the way such as…’oh no, Little Red Riding Hood’s gone of the path. Her mum told her not to. I think that means something bad is about to happen!’ (hamming it all up). Or maybe that happened for you at primary school. Either way, without expert reader input, you would not have realised to feel scared for LRRH because we realised she was now in danger – a danger, what is more, that our protagonist is oblivious to.

An aside. When my husband was training to be a teacher his tutor relayed the true tale of the delights of teaching in an inner city classroom. We are in year one, and the teacher is, with great theatre, reading the story of the three little pigs to the class. There is at least one little boy who has never heard the story before, but whom is greatly taken up with the drama of the plot. The teacher reads ‘and he huffed and he puffed and he blew the house down.’  To which our apprentice reader exclaimed ‘fucking bastard!’  (Tick whatever box you now have to tick to record that you now have evidence that the child can understand character motivation). I’ve dined out on that story, and I wasn’t even there.

Anyway, we teach children to enjoy stories by fantastic hammy story telling and by the asides we make that point out the secret clues that alert us to something hidden within the text, a kind of literary Easter egg.   Well, dear reader, there exists a book that describes exactly what these clues are and tells you how to teach them to children. And that book is, Notice and Notes: Strategies for Close Reading by Kylene Beers .

I came across this book courtesy of Great Bowden Academy at the Institute of Education’s annual Research and Development conference.  At this conference members of the research and development network come together from their various schools and share with each other the small scale research they have been doing that year. We are not talking randomised controlled trials here. But thought provoking and useful nonetheless. Our school team were there to share what we had found out  about growth mindset and how it  could be used with teaching assistants – which you can read about here if you wish. I was lucky enough to be on a table with the Great Bowden team, and their project had been about improving pupils’ reading fluency, engagement, comprehension and enjoyment.  A major part of their approach had been to teach the children about the strategies for close reading outlined in Notice and Note. This involved whole class explicit teaching of close reading techniques, a lot of the teacher thinking out loud and pointing out the clues, or signposts as Beers calls them.  Later in the lesson the children read their own texts and looked out for with whatever was specifically the specific aim of the learning objective for the day or ‘spotted and jotted’ signposts.  This sounded intriguing, so I bought the book, and read it over the summer holidays.

It really is very clever.  What Beers has done is identify 6 tropes frequently found within stories that give the reader a heads-up ‘stop, take notice here, this is important’ information. It is full-fat, text level inference we are talking here.  The first, and most useful one is, ‘contrasts and contradictions’.  We teach the children that when you’re reading and a character says or does something that’s opposite (contradicts) what s/he has been saying or doing all along, you should stop and ask yourself, ‘Why is the character doing that?’  The answer could help you make a prediction or make an inference about the plot or the conflict in the text.

For example, in the book Holes, (where the setting is a kind of character), the book opens with the sentence, ‘There is no lake at Camp Greenlake’.  An obvious (to the expert reader), and intriguing contradiction that should raise an eyebrow. However, in our experience, many children have had to have this pointed out to them. Indeed the year 6 teacher tells me she often spends most of a lesson on this very sentence, making explicit how the author is contrasting the name of the place Camp Greenlake, with the reality (no lake, and no green either, we will soon discover). The name is a contradiction.  And that contradictory name – that’s presents as one thing whilst really being something else entirely, is central to the plot.  Camp Green lake purports to be a suitable environment for the rehabilitation of delinquent teens, but in reality, (spoiler alert!) serves only as a vehicle serve the avarice of the Governor. But by labelling this specific technique ‘contrast and contradiction’ we are giving children a generalisable strategy that they can use with other texts. And that is what is key here about this approach. Consider, for example, within the Harry Potter oeuvre, the contradictory character of Snape. He seems to be a baddie but every now and then he does things that make you wonder; and Dumbledore trusts him, so maybe he is a goodie after all?  But then he does something really bad – like killing Dumbledore – which is in complete contradiction with being one of the good guys, but then again… it’s in the tension of the not knowing that the enjoyment, the thrill of reading lies.  Or the character of Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. We know he really did meet the faun Mr Tumnus yet he lies and said it never happened. Why? And what might happen as a result!  More subtly, in Wonder, in the excerpt mentioned by thatboycanteach, where Summer comes up with a list of (inclusive) rules  about who is, and is not allowed to sit on the same lunch table as August and herself, this contrasts (somewhat painfully) with the exclusive and rejecting actions of everybody else; this alerts us early on that Summer is going to be a key figure in the protection and  maybe eventual acceptance of Auggie.  I’m trying to get our year 6 teacher to teach children the word ‘juxtaposition’ before they leave; – if only to impress their secondary school teachers!

The next signpost is the Aha moment. When a character suddenly realises, understands or finally figures something out, you should stop and ask yourself, ’How might this change things?’  For if a character just figured out a problem, then you have discovered the central conflict in the story. Or if the character understood a life lesson, you probably now understand the central theme of the book. For example, when Felix in Once finally loses his naivety and makes the horrified realisation that the Nazi’s actually hate Jews, that’s an Aha moment. It serves to amplify his resilience; the life lesson of this amazing book. Or this blog describes several great picture books that have great Aha moments in them. It’s American, so I didn’t know quite a few of the books, although some were familiar. But it made me think of all those great books we use to teach acceptance, whether of different others or of oneself; Giraffes can’t dance, for example. Gerald the giraffe has an Aha moment when he realised he can dance. Or Elmer learning to accept his multi coloured true self in a world where everybody else is grey. Which again reminded me of the CHIPS project (Combatting Homophobia in Primary School)  series of book based lesson plans.

The ‘Again and Again’ signpost is when you notice a word, phrase or situation mentioned over and over again. It is a signpost telling you to stop and ask yourself, ‘Why does this keep happening again and again?’ Your answer might tell you about the theme and conflict in the text or might foreshadow later events.  Pernille Ripp, our American blogger again has some picturebook examples. In Holes, the whole recurring family curse motif is central to the denouement.  Two phrases from ‘the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ spring to mind; ‘always winter, never Christmas,’ and ‘he’s not a tame lion’.

In some ways similar, we have Memory Moment, when the author interrupts the action to tell you about a memory. When you come across a Memory Moment then stop and ask yourself, ‘Why is the author telling me this now? Why might it be important?’ The answer might foreshadow later events, or might tell us about the theme and conflict in our text. The family curse in Holes in a Memory Moment used Again and Again, and indeed does foreshadow the climax.

Then we have ‘the Words of the Wiser; when a wiser, and usually older character takes our protagonist aside and offers serious advice. When we read this we should stop and ask ourselves ’What’s the life lesson and how might it affect the character?’    They tell us about the central theme of the text; about how character and plot interact. Sometimes I get Words of the Wiser muddled up with Aha moments. The key difference being Aha moments are discovered by the character themselves and often have the text saying something like ‘I suddenly realised that…’, whereas in Words of the Wiser, someone else gives advice. Someone like Yoda or Dumbledore.

Finally, we have Tough Questions, when the protagonist asks themselves something very difficult. This should cause us to stop and ask ourselves ‘What does this question make me wonder about?’ and will help us understand the central conflict of the story and help us think about what might happen later in the story. In some ways these are the mirror images of Aha moments.  The protagonist asks themselves ‘how will I ever fit in?’ whereas in the Aha moment the character might discover they don’t need to change to fit in; it’s the tight limits on what constitutes ‘fitting in’ that needs to change, not the protagonist. Or the tough question ‘how will I ever survive?’ might have a later aha moment ‘I will survive because I now realise that…’

The book is gives a model, almost scripted lesson for each signpost.  As the book is American and pitched towards middle school, while these lessons are great for teacher inset, they are not immediately usable with British primary aged children. But the general principles definitely are. The internet is also awash with useful bookmarks and posters to help you implement this approach; this one for example has further links to a whole raft of resources. It’s a much bigger thing in the US as the demands for close reading in the Common Core change how reading is taught in the US. Here in England the new curriculum is also causing us to rethink old ways.

I think the ‘Notice and Note’ approach is really useful in explicitly showing students the breadcrumb trails authors want readers to find in their work.  It is difficult for us expert readers to remember what it was like before we just knew that certain types of event or phrases were vital clues to the whole book, let alone give them names or number them in a list. But as we all know, many students find inference really hard -possibly because they didn’t have parents making a metacognitive commentary – ‘oh no, how will the pigs survive now they can’t live with their mummy?’ – as they share a book at bedtime. But better than that, it really does help some children finally ‘get’ why reading can be pleasurable.  Once you know the author is playing with you, you can play along too.

It’s not the whole answer. It doesn’t solve the triple constraint or tell us how to plan our lessons. There won’t be any questions about it on the ks2 sats paper. But it might help them to learn to love books. And children who love reading are much, much more likely to do well academically aged 16. One study from the Institute of Education found that

‘The combined effect on children’s progress of reading books often, going to the library regularly and reading newspapers at 16 was four times greater than the advantage children gained from having a parent with a degree.’

So worth a punt, I reckon.

How to deepen understanding of reading by teaching children how to enjoy it better.

Why wait until 11? The case for Primary Grammar schools

A modest proposal.

The Government’s plan to reintroduce grammar schools as a way of giving children from low or modest income families an escape route from poverty is missing a trick.  If grammar schools help bright children from ordinary working families become more socially mobile, then why wait until 11? Why not front load the advantage by creating primary school grammars?   We already know that many children of the most disadvantaged families are set up to fail by poor language skills; see for example Save the Children’s  Ready to Read report.  One third of all children growing up in poverty leave primary school unable to read well, correlating with the one in three five-year-olds that do not have the language skills expected of children of their age. A child with weak language skills at the age of five is much less likely to be a strong reader at the age of 11 than a five-year-old with strong language skills.

This relationship between early language acquisition and poverty is not confined to the UK. In 2003 Betty Hart and Todd R Risley published ‘The Early Catastrophe: the 30 million Word Gap by Age 3’. So if we are serious about enabling social mobility and extending opportunity, surely 11 is too late?

Imagine the time and energy in ordinary primary schools that must go into trying to reduce this gap. And then imagine that you are one of the two thirds of children growing up in poverty that does have age appropriate language skills. Indeed, imagine that you’re actually – somehow – ahead of the game. And yet you have to spend the next 7 years of your schooling surrounded by your language deprived peers, who are much more likely to exhibit behaviour problems. (Cohen et al, 1998). Your teacher’s attention will be disproportionally focused on your more troubled classmates.  Apart from the teacher, you will have little exposure to the rich models of language you are unlikely to hear at home.  And as the teacher is constantly having to dumb down her language so that the others can have even half a change of understanding, even that avenue is closed to you. In a classroom where many children have delayed language skills, the teacher’s sense of what is typical or average can shift – pupils appear to be developing in line with their peers when in fact compared to what is typical nationally, their progress may be well below average. This norm shifting leads to the teacher having lower expectations of everybody – you as well as those with genuine difficulties.

Imagine then, that instead, you pass the selection from a grammar primary.  For the next 7 years you are surrounded by language rich, articulate peers. Your teachers are not constantly weighed down by the effort of trying to teach both the bright sparks and those still learning to express themselves in full sentences.  Soon the whole class can read fluently, so you are exposed to a rich diet of stimulating literature that further enriches your vocabulary. This engenders your own love of reading, so you soon begin to read for pleasure.  Before long, you are an avid reader.  Your vocabulary sky rockets.  Because everybody learns easily, the school does not have to prioritise English and maths and can widen your general knowledge though a knowledge-rich humanities curriculum. Here, you and your peers debate, justify and rationalise their opinions, becoming increasingly eloquent.   There is plenty of time for the arts, for PE and sports. Everyone wants to come to your school so the roll is full.  Lots of parents are better off, so the PTA raises tens of thousands of pounds a year to supplement the budget. And if you are eligible for free school meals, they even get pupil premium too. By the age of 11, you are up there with the best of them and more than ready to pass the test for your selective secondary school with flying colours.

Meanwhile, those left behind at the ordinary non selective primary can concentrate on early language development without having to worry about stretching the more able children.  Their curriculum can be tailored more effectively to the needs of their children, without hindering the flourishing of those with academic potential.

The Government’s consultation document ‘Schools that work for Everyone’ suggests that new or expanding grammar schools could establish a primary feeder school in an area with higher density of lower incomes. It does not explicitly state that these feeder schools should themselves be selective –  grammar primaries –  but surely this makes sense. What’s the point of establishing a feeder school if half of the pupils can’t feed into your secondary grammar because they have failed the test?  Given the relatively small size of primary schools in comparison to secondary schools, what we need is for secondary grammars to either open several selective grammar primaries or open as all-through schools selecting from 5.

Indeed, is 5 young enough?  Blanden in 2006 found that vocabulary at 5 was the best predictor of whether children who experienced deprivation in childhood were able to ‘buck the trend’ and escape poverty in later adult life. Children who had normal non-verbal skills but a poor vocabulary at age 5 were, age 34, one-and-a-half times more likely to be poor readers or have mental health problems and more than twice as likely to be unemployed as children who had normally developing language skills. (Law et al, 2010).   If we are really serious nurturing talent, promoting social mobility and overcoming privilege, we have to reach these children, who, let us remind ourselves, had normal or better non verbal skills aged 5; already their intellectual capital is being squandered for wont of an enriching language environment.  At 5 years old, their educational and economic destiny is dangerously close to being set in stone – regardless of the opportunities potentially available 7 years later.   11 years old far, far too late to offer any sort of escape route.  Indeed, that is why the plans for expansion of socially inclusive grammars are bound to fail.  As Tom Sherrington, former headteacher of King Edward’s Grammar School writes, if his former school wanted to offer say even 10% of places to FSM children, it would need to offer placed to students many hundreds of places down the 11+ rank order for the school and doing that would render selection – and its benefits – meaningless.

So maybe the answer is grammar nurseries?

The obvious objection to this would be the difficulty in assessing potential this early.  However, cognitive development continues throughout childhood, and well past 11. As the table below clearly shows, success in the 11+ has no correlation with success in GCSE, so we should not worry overmuch about whether or not we get our assessments exactly right, whether at 3 or 11.

Indeed, inaccuracies in the selection process could be mitigated against by having a series of ‘crossovers’ where children would swap from one kind or provision to another, thus rectifying any mistakes.  So if specially trained health visitors made the first assessment, at a reinstated 2-year-old check-up, toddlers with strong non-verbal intelligence could be directed to grammar-crèche, even if their language development was poor.  This two-year-old check would have the added benefit that it would be insusceptible to middle class coaching; no gaming!  Surrounded by language-rich peers and with an academically orientated though age-appropriate curriculum, these two-year-olds would soon come on linguistically in leaps and bounds.  This would then be followed by competitive entrance tests into grammar nursery with the 3+, open to all comers. Some children would move from grammar-crèche to mainstream nursery while some would enter the grammar stream for the first time in a grammar nursery. A second crossover point would follow on entry to reception, and then a year later, those who achieved ‘exceeding’ in the early learning goals would be eligible to sit the 5+. A year later the phonics check could provide a fourth crossover point and the end of ks1 sats a fifth. So some children might cross back and forth between standard and grammar provision several times in their early years!  Then, as the green paper wisely suggests, further crossover points should be available at 14 and 16, as well as 11, with pupils swapping between grammar and non grammar provision depending upon their success, or otherwise in selective exams.  This would have the added bonus of keeping the key stage 3 grammar school population on their toes, knowing that in 3 years time, they would be competing against pupils in other schools to keep their grammar place.  Non selective ordinary schools would compete for the honour of having the highest proportion of children leave them at the end of year 9 for grammar school, whilst welcoming those for whom the rich grammar diet had all been a bit too much.  Perhaps having a high proportion of ‘grammar graduates’ leaving you could be made into some sort of accountability measure? Non selective schools would develop an expertise in rehabilitating children who, as their failure in the 14+ clearly indicates, learn in a more pedestrian fashion than grammar schools are able to offer, by offering a nourishing yet simplified curriculum, rich in the basics.

This would go some way to mitigate against the criticisms of the 11+ and ensure that the grammar school experience was not weakened by the presence of those wrongly identified at 11 as having solid academic potential. Those who found the experience too challenging could move to a setting more suited to their needs.

We could of course argue that even 22 months is too late. Jean Gross, at the Communication Trust points out that by the age of 22 months, a more able child from a low-income home will begin to be overtaken in their developmental levels by an initially less able child from a high-income home.  More than half the children starting nursery in socially disadvantaged areas have delayed language – while their general cognitive abilities are at least in the average range. By 22 months, the gap in language skills already gapes. Nascent academic potential is already evaporating. Why should children have to suffer a poor communication environment at all?  If poor language at 2 is highly predictive of poor language at 5, and poor language at 5 is highly predictive of poor reading at 11, and poor reading at 11 is highly predictive of poor qualifications at 16, early pregnancy, involvement in crimes and poor mental health, leading to intergenerational cycles of poverty, then maybe trying to tinker around the edges by establishing grammar schools at any age should be called out for what it is: pissing in the wind.

If you’ve just read the last few paragraphs with a rising sense of incredulity and anger; it was meant to be a parody of the Government’s position, a reductio ad absurdum.  I intended it to be hilariously funny, but didn’t find much to laugh at when I actually sat down to write it. It all sounded far too plausible.  Mad, but plausible.

Because poverty does not have to be destiny. It is not poverty per se which matters most; it is the young child’s early communication environment that makes all the difference. It is exposure to activities that enrich language such as children’s early ownership of books, trips to the library or to museums, and attendance at quality pre-school provision, that make a difference (Roulstone et al, 2011).  These things are much harder to do for families who are just about managing, let alone not managing at all. How parents use language around their child is also very significant. While living in poverty does not automatically mean that the home learning environment is also impoverished, the stresses associated with struggling financially can make it harder to offer the same level of engagement as better-off parents. Parents in poor households are more likely to have low levels of formal education and may struggle with language or literacy themselves.   But the cycle can be broken through early intervention for all children who need it.   Rather than patting ourselves on the back for saving a few clever deserving poor through grammar school provision whilst throwing everybody else to the wolves, how about doing whatever it takes to help all children thrive?

There is good evidence that initiatives that bring together a range of agencies across a community in a disadvantaged community to help families enrich the early language environment can be very successful. For example, the Stokes Speaks Out initiative reduced the percentage of three to four year olds with significant language delay in the area from 64% in 2004 to 39% in 2010.  There is substantial evidence that good quality early education can have a very positive impact on language development that can last through to secondary school –  for example the EPPE study (Sylva et al 2014).  However, today we hear that the Government are raiding the childcare fund for poor families in order to pay for extra childcare hours for the better-off.  Grammar nurseries by stealth. My parody turned into policy.

Well funded, quality primary school provision also makes a huge difference. Reading England’s Future clearly shows that schools in some areas are much more effective at enabling children from disadvantaged backgrounds to read well, in some cases all but eliminating the gap between  FSM and non FSM children. Poor children in London for example do very well – both in early language development and in reading by 11. London schools receive disproportionally higher funding than other regions facing similar challenges – although the National Funding Formula would end this; no doubt putting an end to this success too.  Rather than fund all schools adequately so that they are all able to do the sorts of early intervention work that promotes language acquisition, the same pot of money will be divided up differently.  Whist not disputing that the present situation is unfair and needs changing, robbing Peter to pay Paul isn’t going to work. Some schools will be better off and able to do more, others worse off and having to cut excellent provision: a zero sum game.

Schools that work for everyone, not just the privileged few; every child able to go as far as their talents will take them. Nice rhetoric, shame about the policies.

Blanden, J. (2006) Bucking the Trend – What enables those who are disadvantaged in childhood to succeed later in life? London: Department for Work and Pensions.

Hirsch (1996) The Effects of Weaknesses in Oral Language on Reading Comprehension Growth cited in Torgesen, J. (2004). Current issues in assessment and intervention for younger and older students. Paper presented at the NASP Workshop.

Law, J. et al (2010) Modelling developmental language difficulties from school entry into adulthood. Journal of speech, language and hearing research, 52, 1401-1416

Roulstone, S.  et al (2011) Investigating the role of language in children’s early educational outcomes DfE Research Report 134

Sylva, K., Melhuish, E., Sammons, P., Siraj-Blatchford, I., & Taggart, B. (2014) Students’ educational and developmental outcomes at age 16. London: DfES / Institute of Education, University of London

Why wait until 11? The case for Primary Grammar schools