Get rid of tests? Which ones?

Primary schools reacted with caution to news that Labour wants to scrap SATs and abolish the new Reception baseline test.  Whilst many agreed with their description of a “regime of extreme pressure testing”, we also wondered if this blanket statement really demonstrated Labour’s understanding of what is wrong with primary testing.

Labour wants a “more flexible and practical” primary assessment system to replace the existing tests, but hasn’t provided any detail on what that system might look like.  So here’s a manifesto for changes to the test that really will make a difference to primary schools:

  1. Get rid of the tests that don’t add value to teaching and learning

Wyse explains how an over-emphasis on grammar hinders a pupil’s ability to take control of their learning style and leaves them unable to explore the process of writing.  A huge body of research shows that teaching grammar as a discrete skill separate to the writing process not only makes no positive difference to writing, but can also demotivate struggling writers.  Teaching grammar through reading and applying it in writing is valuable, but teaching it as a set of discrete and separate testable skills is pointless.  So first, drop the SPAG test.

Phonics is an important skill to support learning to read, and primary teachers recognise its value.  However, primary practitioners know that reading is a more complex process than simply decoding.  We have all seen confident readers fail the phonics screening as they try to ‘make sense’ of the nonsense words.  This is an important reading skill: we want children coming across a word that makes no sense to find a way to give it meaning, that’s what real readers do when phonics doesn’t work.  And in the context of the English language, phonics frequently doesn’t work.  If the nonsense words were removed and it became a low stakes internal test, primary teachers would probably want to continue using it, but as a high stakes predictor of future reading skills, the phonics screening is pointless.

It’s a similar story for the new times tables test.  Primary teachers have been administering their own low stakes times tables tests for years, and have always valued the rote learning of multiplication facts.  But is it important enough to be a statutory test?  Just like phonics, pupils’ ability to memorise times tables facts isn’t a predictor of mathematical achievement. It isn’t even a predictor of pupils’ ability to successfully understand multiplication and use it to solve problems.  Another pointless test.

2. Reduce test-induced pressure on teachers and avoid ‘labelling’ pupils

We know from the vast body of research evidence on feedback, mindsets and motivation that grading or scoring can be damaging to confidence and future learning, both for low and high achievers.  And yet, our testing regime persists in attempting to ‘label’ pupils according to their test outcomes, and in holding teachers to account for these scores.  When a teacher’s job is on the line, and there is a challenging cohort of pupils, it’s difficult not to transfer the pressure you feel onto the pupils in your care. 

There is a marked difference in pupils’ responses to KS1 and KS2 testing.  Teachers know that the KS1 tests only provide a snapshot of pupils’ learning.  Teacher assessments, moderated by test data, provide a much more realistic picture of pupils’ achievement.  I would imagine that if KS2 tests operated in the same way, both pupils and teachers would feel less stress.  And if this synergy between tests and teacher assessments were truly embraced, the number of tests could be significantly reduced and their administration made much less stressful.  Why not just one Reading paper and one Mathematics paper at each Key Stage?   Why not remove the time limit for the papers, allowing teachers to judge when pupils have done as much as is reasonable for their learning level?

Unfortunately, the new Reception baseline test looks set to replicate the problems tests currently create at KS1 and KS2.  Rather than looking to assess children across the broad range of areas of learning and development which we know act as predictors of future academic success, they take a narrow focus on easy-to-measure skills such as numeracy and literacy. This narrowing of focus is something Ofsted have now recognised as historically damaging to the KS1 and KS2 curricula in many schools.  High stakes tests like these don’t function as formative tests, but as ways to label very young pupils and constraints to teaching a broad and balanced curriculum, hence placing stress on teachers, pupils and parents.

If we really trusted teachers as highly trained professionals – and why wouldn’t we? – we would significantly reduce the number of high stakes tests in primary schools, selecting the bare minimum (those that matter) and combining them with teacher judgement to produce a rounded picture of pupil attainment.  Let’s hope Labour understand that.

The widening gap between special and mainstream

It is with interest that we read that Damien Hinds has decided to seek the views of schools on whether special needs funding should be reformed to make it “more effective”.  The DFE want to know whether the funding system “could better reflect the changing nature of need”, and whether cash can be “distributed more effectively”.

For those of us working in schools, it’s not really about needs changing, nor about effective distribution of funds.  Needs are not changing, they are growing.  Autism is a good example of this challenge.  We are better than ever before at diagnosing autism and understanding that pupils with autism need special provision.  Numbers of pupils with autism requiring extra support and/or an EHCP are therefore increasing quickly.  Put simply, the more we train teachers and SENDCos, the better they are at diagnosis, and the more pupils with SEND we have in our schools.  And it’s not just teachers: parents are also increasingly savvy about recognising their children’s needs and asking for the help their children deserve.

At the same time, funds for SEND in schools are decreasing.  Last month think tank IPPR North reported that funding for pupils with SEND has been slashed by 17 per cent in just three years.  We in London see the same trend.  When budgets are tight (and they are!), staffing is reduced.  When staffing is reduced, support for our most vulnerable learners is affected most of all.  SEND pupils bear the brunt of the budget crisis schools are facing.

What does this look like on the ground?  Here at the alliance, we are noting a surge of interest in programmes to support teachers managing the needs of SEND pupils, like our UCL Institute of Education autism programme, and our Leading a Mentally Healthy School programme.  Teachers want to know how best to support the much wider range of needs they are having to manage within the classroom.  Teachers wanting to learn how best to meet the needs of SEND pupils has to be a good thing, right?  Well, yes… but we know that these pupils need specialist help and more manpower than a single classteacher can provide, despite their best intentions. 

So what we see is an ever-widening gap between the offer of mainstream and special schools.  What should be a fine distinction, offering real choice to parents, is becoming a huge chasm, reducing parental choice and making special schools seem like the only choice for an increasing number of SEND pupils. 

Rob Webster notes that the projected increase in the secondary school population of 376,000 young people by 2023 will equate to at least 45,300 extra pupils with SEND, or around 15 pupils per secondary school nationally. At the same time, he notes an 11% reduction in the number of secondary schools with a SEND unit between January 2017 and January 2018.  This is a problem that is going to grow unless we can tackle it very soon.

So by all means, let’s look at SEND funding.  Let’s look at its impact on parental choice, teacher workload and stress, and most of all on the lives of young people with SEND who are caught in a perfect storm.

Curriculum complications

There have been some interesting developments in the curriculum debate recently. There is general agreement that it is time for the accountability framework to end its heavy focus on attainment, given that a significant body of evidence now shows that it is much more challenging to enable pupils from deprived backgrounds to attain in line with their more affluent peers. This has meant a growing divide between schools teaching in challenging circumstances and those in more advantaged areas, and led quite rightly to the idea of the ‘coasting’ school which relies on its privileged intake to guarantee attainment above the national average.

It has been reassuring to read in Ofsted’s excellent curriculum research report that a judgement of curriculum quality is not correlated with deprivation, and that, although linked with attainment, a quality curriculum is not a guarantee of strong attainment, and vice versa. Finally, a judgement that seems to be able to be fairly applied regardless of a school’s intake!

So all seems rosy – so far. And yet, many challenges remain if we are to move towards a robust understanding of curriculum excellence as part of the accountability framework for schools. Arthur Chapman rightly raises the artificial separation of curriculum and pedagogy in recent debates as problematic. He says that subject disciplines ‘have form as well as body’: each discipline has a form of enquiry or process of reasoning through which it can be handled and understood. He warns of the dangers of separating the debate about pedagogy from the debate about curriculum: ‘form without body is spectral; equally, however, body without form will, inevitably, fall apart’

And it would seem that in primary schools at least, the DfE are in agreement. For some years now, primary headteachers have experienced quite stringent guidance not only on what to teach but also how to teach it, through synthetic phonics, to mastery mathematics, to the teaching of grammar.

Chapman reminds us that teaching and learning is a much more messy process than the artificial separation of curriculum in this public debate might suggest. In fact, the messiness Chapman describes is unpicked in Ofsted’s research project, which begins with 25 indicators of curriculum quality, uses a number of different statistical analyses to identify those which are the most important and ends up with a shorter list but no definitive answer.

Similarly, John White questions whether schools really do have the power to create their own powerful curricula when the English education system allows ministers to dictate a detailed National Curriculum with a definite political slant. The National Curriculum he refers to is Gove’s 2013 ‘essential knowledge’ which must underpin the curriculum design of the majority of English state schools. Like Chapman, White sees such strict control of curriculum content as affecting pedagogy: a curriculum of ‘essential knowledge’ requires a pedagogy of ‘knowledge acquisition’. This explains the current popularity of strategies like direct instruction and scripted lessons, to the detriment of constructivist approaches to learning which have considerable research evidence behind them.

Ofsted’s curriculum research reveals that the narrowing of the curriculum is a particular problem in primary schools. It is here that accountability measures and an accompanying prescriptive approach to the teaching of reading, writing and maths have led schools who may well have preferred to take a ‘broad and balanced’ approach to curriculum design, to focus much of their time and attention on English and maths.

Headteachers must be wary of following the pull of the debate to the detriment of what they see and know to be powerful learning: it is important to consider pedagogy when planning the curriculum. And it is equally important for headteachers to hold on to what they truly believe an ambitious and powerful curriculum should look like, regardless of the dictats of the National Curriculum and the straitjacket of accountability. Not an easy task but an important one!

If you are interested in hearing more about the curriculum debate, join us for our speaker event in March and/or come along to our practical curriculum workshops.

Accountability: evolution or revolution?

At our recent event, Sean Harford, National Director for Education at Ofsted set out the proposed changes to future inspections, with an increased focus on curriculum as part of a single judgement on Quality of Education, encompassing previous judgements on Teaching, Learning and Assessment and Outcomes. He described this as ‘evolution, not revolution’, a journey towards a fuller and more balanced judgement of schools and their success.

Why does changing our accountability system matter? The key concerns here are teacher workload and teaching quality.

The Varkey Foundation survey found that British teachers are working the longest hours per week after New Zealand, Singapore and Chile. When the public were asked to estimate teachers’ weekly workload, they guessed 45.9 hours per week: the actual figure is 50.9, one whole school day more per week. There is however, a growing understanding of the challenges of being a teacher. In 2013, 26% of the general public said they would encourage their children to become teachers, and this is now down to 23%. We are losing teachers at the top, through early retirement or burnout, and at the bottom, since the number of those applying to become teachers is dropping. In London, we are also losing them in the middle, since they cannot afford to live in the city. Many of our schools lose teachers permanently because they move out of London altogether, or temporarily because they go to teach in an international school in order to save up for a deposit on a home in London.

Teacher vacancies since 2010: Teacher recruitment and retention in England, House of Commons Briefing, December 2018

The DfE have recognised the need to reduce teacher workload, and have so far focused on planning, marking, assessment and data collection. Their original promise to ‘move to a simpler system of accountability, where schools feel supported not restrained’ has to be one of the causal factors behind the changes to the Ofsted framework. Do these changes go far enough to rescue our broken system and are they really going to support the development of a quality teaching workforce?

Clearly the renewed focus on curriculum, instead of teaching to the test through a narrowed focus on English and maths in primary and early starts to GCSEs in secondary, should enable a better learning experience for pupils. And Ofsted’s own evidence has revealed that this may advantage schools teaching more deprived intakes: in their own pilot, more schools in the most deprived communities (69%) scored in the top three bands for their curriculum (3, 4 and 5) than those in the least deprived communities (62%).

But let’s also look at what Ofsted are NOT changing. The grading of schools will not change despite the educations system’s call for its removal since, in Sean’s own words, ‘neither parents nor politicians want it to’. One of our panellists Jan Shadick, Regional Director for United Learning raised this as a problematic issue: we know from research that, when you mark children’s work and grade it, they do not read the associated feedback. Those with lower grades give up and those with higher grades become complacent. We know that Ofsted believes it is inappropriate to grade individual lessons based on observations, and we know from our own experiences that this process can be as demotivating and problematic as giving pupils grades. Why then is it deemed appropriate to continue to grade schools?

Nick Brook, Deputy General Secretary of NAHT is among the many who have called for the Outstanding grade to be replaced. Our experience in Southwark confirms the NAHT’s findings: exemption from inspection is confusing and unhelpful to parents; new headteachers who have taken over ‘Outstanding’ schools report that the historical badge can create resistance to change among staff.

Sean also claimed that ‘Requires Improvement’ simply means that there are some improvements to be made and that there is capacity within the school to make these improvements. I asked headteachers from schools currently judged to be RI in Southwark what they thought about this comment after the event. They thought this comment was naïve and complacent: they have experienced the negative backlash from parents and the intense pressure on staff that an RI judgement can bring.

We all understand the need for schools to be held accountable, the need for schools who are not providing an education of sufficient quality to raise their game. But for those schools who are judged to be Good and Outstanding, the most effective form of accountability is horizontal not vertical – ‘schools explaining and justifying their idea of ‘quality’ and the means to achieve it to those directly involved’ (Visser, 2015: 21). This is the most powerful form of accountability – collective accountability – and Matt Davis from the Education Development Trust advocated achieving this through accredited systems of peer review. We run a highly successful programme of Peer Review here in Southwark, and that’s exactly what it does: it holds schools to account, whilst driving school improvement without the need for judgements and labels. The focus is on exploring evidence, raising questions and driving action which will make a difference.

The punitive nature of our current accountability system is the key trigger for teacher workload and problems with recruitment and retention. Top down accountability causes:

‘Increased emotional pressures and stress…; increased pace and intensification of work; and changed social relationships… increased, sometimes intentional competition between teachers and departments… concomitant decline in the sociability of school life… an increase in paperwork, systems maintenance and report production and the use of these to generate performative and comparative information systems; an increase in surveillance of teachers’ work and outputs; a developing gap in values, purpose and perspective, between senior staff, with their primary concern for balancing the budget, recruitment, public relations and impression management, and reaching staff, whose primary concern is with curriculum coverage, classroom control, students’ needs and record keeping’ (Kneyber, 2015: 41)

So, as Nick Hunt said, ‘what we really want from Ofsted is revolution, not evolution’. Get rid of unhelpful grade labels and help us to hold each other to account: this is what will really motivate teachers and make the profession both appealing and enduring.

You can read more about newer and better forms of accountability in Flip the System by Jelmer Evers and Rene Kneyber.

Talk matters

This week, I was working with a teacher on a thinking activity for Reception children. We were carrying out a classification activity involving cards with pictures of six different mother and baby animals in six different colours and we were trying to encourage the children to verbalise their thinking by asking them to explain what they were doing. A child with autism and very limited language was in the group and the teacher was pleasantly surprised to hear him using animal names for the cards. When asked to pick three cards that were the same, he picked a random collection and the other children helped him put some back and make a collection of green animals.

Then we moved on to the tricky part of the activity – how to organise the cards so that all the colours were together and all the animals were together, essentially creating a two-way classification. This was tricky! Some of the more verbal children began the grid and slowly but surely, each child added a row, sometimes needing to move the odd card, so that colours were in rows AND animals in columns. Throughout, we asked them to explain what they were doing and why they were doing it.

Finally, there was one row left and the little boy with autism, who seemed to have been away with the fairies for most of the session, and certainly didn’t seem to have been listening, was given the blue cards one at a time. At first, repeating the word ‘rabbit’, he put his blue rabbit next to the cats. Another child explained to him why he was wrong and helped him move it next to the rabbits. Mouthing ‘dog’ he put his dog next to the ducks. Another child explained why this was wrong and this time, he moved the card himself to the correct location. And he then proceeded to place each of the additional four animal cards in the correct location, naming each one correctly. At which point his teacher wept with joy – she’d never seen him engage so successfully with learning.

We reflected after the lesson on what had helped this child engage with this very challenging activity.  We both believed that our careful interactions with the children which focused on getting them to verbalise their thinking, had helped him access the activity. He hadn’t seemed to be listening, but he obviously was.

Later on my way home, I read a new research report which analysed the impact of the implementation over three years of a child centred curriculum in Wales. The report showed that, whilst the new approach had raised attainment and improved wellbeing over all, there were some underlying issues with the quality of its implementation that seemed to link to lower attainment gains for certain groups of children, and specifically those from deprived backgrounds.

Whilst all schools studied claimed to believe in a child centred approach, there was variation in terms of the degree of child centred-ness – and the less child centred a class was, the less improvement there was to attainment. Believing in it was different to actually operationalising it. In schools with a more deprived intake, children were more likely to experience ‘didactic’ teaching, with closed instead of open questioning. There was less peer collaboration.  Interactions between teacher and children, and between children, were less likely to be characterised as ‘warm’, with more giving of instructions than praise and encouragement. The report notes that this kind of interaction would be more likely to form the backbone of a ‘traditional’, rather than ‘child-centred’ teaching approach.

There is an argument raging in the Twitter-sphere about the merits of ‘traditional’ versus ‘progressive’ approaches to teaching. Is it really the approach that makes the difference to children’s learning?  Or is it about the way we manage interactions within that approach?  How do we make sure our interactions with children are ‘warm’, that they encourage listening, talk and collaboration and that they extend thinking and vocabulary. This is what really enables high quality learning, and we saw it live in the classroom!

Find out how to extend children’s vocabulary at our next Journal Club, where we will be unpicking the excellent Closing The Vocabulary Gap by Alex Quigley  – join the session for free!

Explore what quality talk looks like in the Early Years classroom on our new programme for Early Years Teaching Assistants.

Watch the video of the lesson described in this blog here.

Direct instruction or discovery learning – is there a middle way?

I recently attended Paul Kirschner’s presentation at ResearchEd London where he laid out the evidence for the power of direct instruction, which Kirschner describes as a process whereby teachers 1) emphasise academic goals, 2) ensure that learners are involved in learning, 3) select the learning objectives and monitor learner progress 4) structure the learning activities and give immediate academically focused feedback, 5) create a task-oriented yet ‘relaxed’ learning environment.. And the evidence for direct instruction is very strong.

Alongside this strong argument for teachers understanding and using direct instruction, we were all very clearly told that discovery learning does not work. And here is where the presentation fell down for me. Because it’s not the case that discovery learning has no value. There’s a reason why early years curriculums around the world are designed around the principles of discovery learning. And as a result of this, early years practitioners say the children in their care are curious, have a growth mindset, take control of their own learning and ask a lot of questions, all surely characteristics we would want for all learners in our care. Much care is taken to ensure that university learners experience opportunities for discovery learning: following their own lines of enquiry and drawing their own conclusions.

Can we say the same about learners in the primary years, or the secondary years? Many teachers would say that this curiosity, propensity to ask questions, and growth mindset reduces as learners go through the school system and many university lecturers bemoan the absence of these skills in their students. Reasons for this may include naturally increasing maturity and the social pressures that come with the solidification of peer groups throughout the primary and secondary years, but could we also see this as attributable to the move away from discovery learning as pupils progress through their school career?

When working with teachers to develop mathematics teaching, a subject in which the vast majority of lessons are taught through direct instruction, we begin by asking them to consider the advantages and disadvantages of teaching mathematics through discovery, and teaching through direct instruction, and the below table is broadly representative of the answers they give:

 

And when this discussion is over, we ask them whether they think it is possible to teach mathematics solely through one of the two methods – clearly it isn’t. Children will be very unlikely to discover decimal notation or the written numerals or the protocols for drawing a graph. This can only come through a lesson which tells or instructs the learners. And yet, if we shift towards teaching entirely through direct instruction, where are the opportunities for learners to apply learning to complex unseen problems, which are the kinds of problems for which adults routinely and often unconsciously use mathematics in their daily personal and professional lives? And how are we promoting self-regulation and the value of mistake making?

In fact, Kirschner himself admits there is value in discovery learning in which the teacher is not a passive agent of pupils’ interests, but an active shaper of pupils’ thinking, within the parameters of the discovery activity – much like we see in the best early years good practice.

And in fact, there is a third possibility beyond the polarised concepts of discovery and direct intruction: the concept of ‘guided discovery’. This is one where the teacher has carefully constructed a ‘low threshold, high ceiling’ problem with which all the learners can engage, and in which, crucially, there is a ‘cognitive conflict’ they need to resolve. This problem is designed to align with a very specific mathematical schema, within which the teacher intends to challenge learners’ thinking and enable progression in reasoning. Learners work together in mixed achieving groups to find a way through the cognitive conflict, and the teacher enables a metacognitive discussion amongst learners in which they review the different approaches to the problem and decide which is the most elegant, the most efficient and the one they would use if they tackled a problem like this in the future.

This ‘guided discovery’ approach is Cognitive Acceleration, now known as Let’s Think, a rigorously evaluated approach to teaching and learning from King’s College London which, since the 1980s, has demonstrated it can make a significant difference to all learners, and not just in the subject in which it was taught. Recent studies also demonstrate high impact in new subject areas like English, and the EEF describe it as ‘particularly promising’Programmes for teachers new to Let’s Think run every year, especially in London.

If this is the case, why is Let’s Think not being routinely used in classrooms across the UK?  For two very good reasons:

  1. It’s difficult for teachers. As the table above shows, direct instruction involves less workload, is more predictable, and means the teacher feels more in control of the learning. Contingent talk, which is integral to discovery learning, is difficult: it requires very secure subject knowledge and a familiarity with the thought patterns of young learners, which usually only accrues to teachers with several years of teaching experience, something the UK is struggling to achieve.
  2. It only works in mixed achieving classes. The last 30 years have seen setting and streaming introduced to almost all secondary schools and the majority of primary schools. This is despite a huge body of evidence showing the damage it can do to learning.

So, in summary, what can senior leaders and teachers do to get the right balance between discovery and direct instruction?

  1. Support teachers to develop the confidence and capacity to teach contingently.  Scripted lessons won’t do this, as they suggest that learners are predictable – and they aren’t!
  2. Ensure your schemes of work and teaching and learning policies enable the correct balance to be struck between discovery and direct instruction – for learners of all ages. Don’t be fooled by people who promote one approach and denigrate the other.
  3. Find out about ‘guided discovery’ approaches like Let’s Think that do work and give teachers opportunities to spend time with experts in the approaches, through properly structured professional development programmes – and this means giving time over an extended period of time!

And finally, don’t be fooled by the ‘what works’ agenda and its proponents on Twitter and in the blogging world. The body of evidence is more complicated than they would have you believe! To get a more balanced view of the research evidence join our research-focused programmes, including our first Journal Club in October.

Little things matter for wellbeing

On leadership programmes, there is always a section of learning devoted to being strategic, to not getting bogged down in the minutiae of day-to-day school life, but saving time to think, plan, review and make big changes to teaching and learning. These things do matter – if senior leaders don’t devote enough time to the big problems of practice, then schools don’t move forward, teaching stagnates, and pupils lose out on their potential learning power.

But what we never hear on leadership programmes is that senior leaders should also spend time on little things. These are the things that matter to teachers and these are the things that affect wellbeing in the workplace. Replying to somebody’s quick email about a problem with the break duty schedule matters. Sending someone that article you read about their current school improvement project matters. Asking someone how their child’s exams went matters.

We have a crisis in retention in schools. Yes, it’s related to workload, yes it’s about the accountability pressures beyond senior leaders’ control. But it’s possible to work within these system restraints and still ensure teacher wellbeing. And research now shows clear links between teacher wellbeing and teacher retention, but also pupil learning outcomes.

Little things matter to pupils too. Of course, the curriculum content must be covered and the classroom must have a consistent behaviour policy. But pupils also appreciate their teacher noticing their new hair style or remembering their birthday. If the teacher promised they could help hand out the books the next day, it’s important that the teacher doesn’t forget. These are the little things that forge relationships of trust and warmth and, without these, learning is reduced.

Our new programmes look at exactly this issue – how senior leaders and teachers can support teacher and pupil wellbeing and mental health so that schools both keep good staff and offer their pupils the best possible learning experience.

Co-designed and co-led by Dr John Ivens, a trained psychologist and headteacher of The Bethlem and Maudsley Hospital School, Leading a Mentally Healthy School supports senior leaders to investigate their own schools in terms of wellbeing and to make changes, both big and small, to policy, practice and their daily interactions with staff.

Designed and subsidised by national children’s mental health charity Place2Be, our Mental Health Champions: Classteachers programme is led by trained and experienced psychologists. The programme helps teachers identify and understand the mental health and wellbeing issues their pupils are facing, and take practical actions to support them. A combination of face to face sessions and small group consultations enable teachers to understand and cope with challenging behaviours, supporting their own wellbeing as well as that of their pupils.

People care about both the big picture and small details – as school leaders, we need to make time for both.  Only by doing so will we keep the best teachers in our classrooms and make sure pupils make the most of the learning opportunities those teachers provide.

What have we learnt about getting women into leadership roles?

“When you walk through the open door of opportunity, you don’t slam it shut behind you. You hold it open.”  Michelle Obama

For the last two years the alliance has run two highly successful women’s leadership programmes and these culminated in a final celebration event on the ninth floor of city hall this week.

For us, this was not a celebration of the end of the programme, but of the beginning of some highly successful careers. The programmes were targeted at women aspiring to or already in senior leadership positions, and those aspiring to, or already in executive leadership positions. We have seen many of the women on these programmes move into new roles and they have all blossomed in terms of the confidence and skills they have developed. And what has helped them to grow and to believe in their own potential has been the power of the group, and of the role models they have met throughout the programme.

They have become a group who rely on, support and encourage each other. The skill set and potential is there – what they needed was someone to say ‘if I can do it, so can you?’  Their colleagues on the programme have done this. The highly skilled programme facilitators have done this, as well as creating the conditions that have enabled deeply supportive relationships to grow and develop within the groups. A number of inspirational female speakers have shared their experiences and given practical tips on managing the challenges and barriers to progressing their careers, which some of the women have faced and continue to face.

Personal skills analyses and one-to-one coaching have helped participants to identify their own strengths and qualities and strategically focus on developing skills that will help them move forward. Am organic programme structure meant the facilitators could be responsive to participants’ needs analyses and to their growing capabilities.

We are proud of the progress these women leaders have made, both in confidence, motivation, skills and understanding. We are sure they have a bright future in our schools and will make a huge difference to the lives of pupils in their care. And we are sure they will open doors for other women with leadership potential who follow in their wake.

This highly successful project was funded by The Equalities and Diversities Fund, which is now open and seeking bids to run future programmes of this nature. We want to help others seeking to run women’s leadership programmes through this funding source. To this end, we are running an information event here at Charles Dickens Primary School, Toulmin Street, London SE1 1AF on Monday 16th July 2018, 16:00-19:00.  At this event you can find out about:

  • The principles behind the programme and its aims
  • How the programme was designed and structured
  • What facilitators and participants have told us about the programme
  • What we have learnt about writing successful bids

If you are interested in coming along, please email us at info@southwarktsa.co.uk

Research and teaching: it’s complicated…

Unlike in medicine, education and research have always had an uneasy relationship. In 2013, Goldacre described how education lags behind other professions in its systematic use of evidence.  You wouldn’t want to be treated by a doctor who wasn’t using the latest medical research, so why would you let your children be taught by a teacher who wasn’t using the latest education research? He also called for more scientific studies of education interventions and the wider argument this article engendered led eventually to the establishment of the Education Endowment Foundation’s Teacher Toolkit, which aims to make accessible a range of evidence in easily digestible formats to teachers, and is now used by the majority of schools in the UK. As well as making existing evidence available and accessible, the EEF have begun to accumulate a body of new knowledge about ‘what works’, by funding a series of Randomised Control Trials (RCTs) which seek to measure the impact of interventions and to share these findings with teachers, in a format that is easy to understand and use.

I’m all for research evidence getting into the hands of teachers, and all of this seemed like a good idea. Teachers can’t access published research journals without paying, and it’s very time-consuming to have to read across several research studies in order to make sense of them as a body of evidence.  Making research summaries publicly available and writing them in plain English is one of the most powerful and useful pieces of work the EEF have undertaken. If this was the main output of the EEF, I would have no concerns about its impact on the teaching profession.

However, I do worry about the EEF’s obsession with RCTs and with the unproblematised representation of the findings of these RCTs on the EEF website. The RCTs the EEF funds are often short-term, for example one or two years in length, and we know that some educational interventions take time to have a significant impact on pupil learning, especially when they are professional development programme that disrupt teachers’ habitual classroom habits: we know that a dip in performance often precedes a subsequent lift when a change is implemented. We also know that early changes to pupil learning behaviours are often predictors of later academic gains, and often the only impact we see of a teaching and learning intervention delivered over a short time frame.

The RCTs focus almost exclusively on impact in terms of achievement in (usually core) subject areas.  This is a very limited way of measuring learning: most of us working in schools would say that learning is so much greater than test results, and so much more important. All the EEF’s research projects have a process evaluation, and for me, these are often way more telling than the headline effect size. These tell us what teachers had noticed about learning, and the impact they felt the intervention would have on their practice in the long term. Why is this data less valuable than pupil test data?  Like Biesta (2010), I question whether the EEF’s ‘what works’ model of evidence-engagement serves to undermine the value of teachers’ professional judgment or what might be called ‘practice expertise’, since it is based on narrow conceptions of teaching and school improvement. If I am teaching in a small rural PRU, with a particular cohort of pupils, the intervention that the EEF says has a zero or a negative impact might be the best intervention for me to put in place with my pupils.

So as school leaders, what should we do when reading EEF research evidence?

  1. Give equal weight to both effect sizes and process evaluation outcomes when reading the EEF website
  2. Rely more on the literature reviews that EEF publishes than the single studies
  3. Educate your staff so that they understand how to read the evidence, and how to be critical about its relevance to their practice.

And finally, get teachers to use evidence to carry out their own classroom research. Godfrey (2017) distinguishes between three approaches to engagement with research evidence for teachers:

  • ‘evidence-based practice’, a passive process in which teaching approaches are based on evidence about ‘what works’ that has been produced by academics;
  • ‘evidence-informed practice’, whereby teachers actively combine evidence from academic research, practitioner enquiry, such as lesson study or action research, and other school-level data;
  • and, ‘research-informed practice’, whereby teachers engage in and with academic and practitioner forms of research, using evidence from both to make changes to their practices.

It is ‘research-informed practice’ that really makes the difference to teaching and learning. Schools who engage in research-informed practice have been shown to benefit in several different ways: increased professionalism (Furlong, 2014), improved attitudes to learning and renewed practice (Cain, 2015; Greany and Maxwell, 2017), improved pupil outcomes (Cordingley, 2015), and school and system performance (Mincu 2013; Supowitz, 2015).

Let’s not allow ourselves to be led by the evidence, let’s shape it ourselves and make it our own.