Archive for August, 2013


How do I want to be performance-managed?

August 31, 2013

Pragmatic Education

Dear Senior Leadership Team*,  


I’m writing to ask you to reconsider the possibility of changing our school system of observations so that they are only formative and developmental, never numerically-graded summative judgements of teachers.


Every time I ask about this, I get asked one of these questions in response: but what do you expect us to do about Ofsted? How are we supposed to make performance management work without grades? What on earth would happen to accountability for underperforming teachers? And what about recognising outstanding teachers?


Now, these questions are reasonable, but they are not unanswerable. As a classroom teacher, I don’t pretend to be an expert on the expansive global research on performance management in organisations. But I would ask a question of my own, a question that I believe should guide us in our leadership decisions: what decision would best help our teachers improve…

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Blogs for the Week Ending 30th August 2013

August 30, 2013

A Few Comments on Last Week’s GCSE Results

August 29, 2013

I wrote so much last year about the GCSE results and the English farrago, the most controversial parts of which were vindicated by subsequent events, that people had been asking me in the weeks leading up to this year’s results whether anything interesting was going to happen. The answer, of course, was “no”. The fuss last year relied on the element of surprise. Too many schools failed to realise that, in the absence of grade inflation, their results were as likely to go down as up and that manipulating results around the borderline was unlikely to work as well as it had in the past. This year most knew this and had got their excuses in first. Ofqual had also made an effort to lower expectations thereby ensuring that what actually happened was, if anything, better than expected.

To begin with, much of the comment in the media suggested results had gone down, which is true if you look at the proportion of GCSEs passed at grade C or above. It gradually emerged that when you looked at year 11 results only, grade Cs had gone up slightly in English and maths and that more students had been entered for harder exams. When results are finally collated it seems likely that the number of students with A*-C in 5 subjects including English and maths will have gone up. Also, given the increase in entries for Ebacc subjects, it is likely (but not inevitable, as science results were down significantly) that the number of students achieving the Ebacc will have gone up. Overall, it was a lot less scary than expected.

What controversy there has been this year has been over the growth in early entry, i.e. students taking their exams early and resitting until they get their target grade. Remarkably, this has been seized upon even by those who have seemed most hostile to GCSE reform. There are two main causes:

1) Modularisation. The changes in GCSEs in the last few years have encouraged early entry. Partly, it’s that the modular exams themselves have encouraged it. Although there were limits on how many times you could retake modules before cashing in your GCSE, there were in some cases rules that meant those students who had sat their terminal exam early, could resit their GCSE with some of the modules from the first time they took it still counting. If students had good results in their earlier modules, they could resit their terminal module as many times as they liked. Other rules about meant that, instead of having a particular terminal exam, any set of exams in which students sat 40% of their GCSE could count as a terminal exam (and there would also be a chance to take a linear GCSE then). This meant that there were simply more sittings in a year where students could take a GCSE. I know of one school where students were entered for their maths GCSE 4 times in year 11 alone (although this did involve making use of the slightly different exam time table of the Welsh exam board WJEC). The link between modular exams and early entry has been utterly missed by some commentators who have condemned the efforts to end modularisation at the same time as condemning early entry. Fortunately, modules are on their way out, and while this won’t end early entry, it is going to curtail the insane levels we have seen this year but strangely enough, nobody seems to want to give the government or Ofqual any credit for this.

2) The end to grade inflation. It is, however, true that the measures to stop grade inflation will also have encouraged early entry. When exams were getting easier in each sitting it would have made sense to concentrate one’s efforts on the later sittings. When grade inflation ended that ceased to be the case.  Because of this, some have blamed the rise in early entries on Ofqual and the government. I think this is fair enough, however, anyone who uses this argument to attribute blame needs to be entirely clear that, for their argument to make sense, they must be explicitly supporting exams being made easier every time. As ever with the issue of grade inflation, those who implicitly support it, seem very reluctant to spell that out, they simply oppose every attempt to stop it and complain about the consequences of stopping it.


Blogs for the Week Ending 23rd August 2013

August 23, 2013

The Latest Iteration of the Phonics Debate

August 19, 2013

My last couple of blogposts (this one and this one) which discussed where I thought a couple of politicians had got it wrong relied on the reader being either familiar with, or sympathetic to, the opinions I’d expressed elsewhere on a number of issues. In particular, the references to phonics assumed a familiarity with the phonics debate which I have previously described here. It assumed that the reader would know that, nowadays, phonics denialists (even ones who have in the past condemned phonics teaching in the strongest terms) would claim not to be against phonics per se but to be opposed to the idea that phonics is the only method. The Americans have an expression to describe this sort of argument: “everything before the ‘but’ is bullshit”. This same type of argument can be used to justify other forms of pseudo-science too, so for instance homeopaths who treat illnesses with magic water can claim to be “supporting diversity in medical approaches”. Many readers did seem unaware that this is now what the phonics debate looks like and the discussion that followed, and particularly this blogpost, has made me reflect on this type of argument in the phonics debate. In particular it has made me realise how unhelpful it is to view the entire debate through attitudes to phonics.

When the teaching of phonics has been at its lowest ebb – when it was something primary teachers did privately behind a closed classroom door and kept that to themselves for fear of being identified as a heretic – the phonics denialists were pretty explicit about the methods they endorsed. There was real books in which children were shown books they could not actually read and encourage to be enthusiastic about them. There was whole word teaching in which children were encouraged to remember thousands of words by sight instead of dozens of letter combinations. Finally, there were methods based on using context in which children were encouraged to guess what words were from other words or – God help us all – from pictures. While phonics denialists might recommend a mix of these methods and might even throw in some basic phonics tuition as well to appease parents and politicians, these were the basic mix.

Now, you may notice that these methods, on the face of it, seem absurd. Why learn words by sight when you could pick that up after you have learnt to decode them? Why become enthusiastic about books before you can read them? Why guess instead of reading? As ever with progressive education, the methods are only plausible if you have already accepted a whole lot of ridiculous doctrines about what teaching looks like. With conventional definitions of “reading” and “teaching” and a belief that all children should learn to read fluently, the methods had little plausibility. Because these were methods that disregarded common sense a whole body of constantly changing jargon and pseudo-science were used to justify them. Every so often, when the teaching of reading and the overwhelming evidence for phonics became a big issue, the phonics denialists would seek to hide behind the excuse that they use a variety of methods. Jargon for this included phrases such as “mixed methods”, “multi-cueing” and “balanced literacy”. They would simply claim that while, of course, they accepted the evidence for phonics they would also be using other techniques. . Sometimes phonics denialists even described what they were doing as a form of phonics. This is why a lot of the phonics debate has apparently relied on distinctions between different types of phonics, although most of the “phonics” techniques which aren’t Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) are not really worthy of the name. That was how the debate worked, and while it forced phonics advocates to labour what type of phonics they supported and gave the denialists an excuse to ignore the research comparing phonics with other methods, I don’t think anybody really doubted what the other methods in “mixed methods” were or that this position was in opposition to SSP.

What I have noticed in my discussions over the last few days is that the denialists now seem to have gone one step further. They no longer seem to mention the other methods among the “mixed methods”. In a couple of days of argument I cannot recall anyone actually saying “we should do X” where X is a well-defined method of teaching reading. The debate has been framed as “Systematic Synthetic Phonics versus any other method including purely hypothetical methods”. The argument seems to be that in order to reject the usual mixed methods of the denialists, one must prove that there could never, even in theory, be a method that works better than SSP for any child. The debate has become entirely about SSP and not about the alternatives. There are a few ways this is used to obscure debate.

Firstly, the argument is put forward that, if phonics doesn’t seem to be working for a child, then it would only be fair to use “other methods” for that child. Now this argument’s plausibility is entirely dependent on the effectiveness of the other methods. This becomes obvious when we consider the analogy to medicine. If a doctor found their treatment (which we presume is based on the best medical evidence) wasn’t working, they might try a bigger dose or more intensive course of the same treatment. They might recommend a different type of treatment, perhaps one particularly tailored to patients for whom the first treatment didn’t work, but it would still be one that was evidence-based. They wouldn’t (one hopes) switch to homeopathy or voodoo. It all hinges on the evidence for the alternative treatment and the likelihood of a larger dose of the existing treatment being effective. Now it should be the same with SSP. Without trying to reference decades of research here, there is good reason to assume that where SSP doesn’t work first time a larger dose will, nevertheless, be effective. There is no good reason to assume children have different learning styles which require different methods. There is every reason to doubt the effectiveness of the alternative methods. Now this all seems fairly straightforward, as long as those arguing for different methods identify those methods explicitly and consider the evidence for them. What has been happening, however, is that there is no clear description of the alternative methods and it is simply assumed that there are alternative methods which work. Sometimes it is simply claimed that if you won’t support alternatives to SSP you must be claiming that SSP works 100% effectively with every child first time. To return to the medical analogy, it is simply assumed that there is an alternative medical treatment available and we are not giving up on medicine to use magic. Of course, the denialists will argue that the alternative methods of teaching children to read must be more credible than homeopathy but this is not a case that can easily be made if you won’t identify your preferred methods and you are aware that, thanks to the placebo effect, homeopathy and other forms of pseudo-scientific medical treatments do work to some extent. Instead they demand a reversal of the burden of proof, that it be demonstrated that all methods other than SSP, including purely theoretical ones that haven’t been invented yet, be proved to be less effective than SSP in all cases and claim that, unless that proof is forthcoming, there is something wrong with the case for SSP.

The second way that refusing to identify the alternative methods works is to create a straw man by confusing those methods which denialists use instead of phonics with all methods that any teacher might use, even those used after children have mastered phonics. To my knowledge no phonics advocate has ever demanded that even after children have mastered phonics they should do nothing but more phonics. The need for reading practice and for developing vocabulary, after phonics has been mastered, has never been denied. Some practices that come after phonics are more contentious than others – the teaching of strategies for comprehension can often be dubious even when it doesn’t get in the way of phonics – but nobody thinks mastering phonics is the end. There are also plenty of practices which are not directly related to phonics, like practising handwriting or reading stories to children, that a teacher might be happy with doing alongside phonics without becoming a supporter of “mixed methods”. By refusing to identify what techniques are being promoted, a straw man is created of phonics fanatics who believe that nothing but phonics can ever be acceptable. It is claimed that those who argue against the ineffective methods of teaching reading, who emphasise that mastering phonics is the first priority, are actually claiming that nothing but phonetic decoding should ever be seen in a classroom and that anybody who disagrees with such a position can join the phonics denialists in the “mixed methods” camp.

The final way that a refusal to identify methods is used by phonics denialists is to attack phonics for being demotivating or boring. There are plenty of expert practioners of SSP who have found many exciting ways to teach it and would argue that phonics is fun, but I do tend towards the view that I don’t care if kids are bored as long as they learn to read as quickly as possible. I am quite happy to see phonics denialists exposed as those who put the aim of entertaining children above the aim of educating them. However, even if they argue from that position then the failure to specify methods is a problem. When we look at the actual alternatives to phonics then even the dullest, drill based caricature of phonics looks appealing and motivating by comparison. Real books involves the torture of having interesting books which you can’t actually read, whereas phonics enables you to read whatever you like at the first opportunity. Whole word involves endless repetition of the same few words, resulting in some of the most tedious textbooks ever written and a massive, yet unproductive, strain on the memory. As for the guessing games that are involved in the use of context, I can think of no more tedious and slow way to engage with a text. Even if you accept the premise that learning should be fun more than it should be effective, I’d still back phonics particularly with some of the quite inventive, painless, schemes that have appeared in the last few years.

I feel that this distortion of the debate by the phonics denialists has become possible because we are, perhaps, too keen to discuss everything in terms of the historical argument of being for and against phonics. The case for phonics has been made convincingly; the case against crank methods hasn’t. So perhaps next time the issue comes up, the next time somebody objects to SSP being the only method, the question should be asked immediately if they can identify any evidence-based methods other than SSP and if they can’t, could they explain why they wouldn’t stick with evidence-based methods.


The Case against Stephen Twigg

August 17, 2013

It is far easier to argue against Twigg than Gove because there is very little evidence I can find to undermine the wide consensus that he has not come to grips with any difficult education issues at all. As with Gove I don’t have much time for some of the usual criticisms. Those who think Twigg could have proposed an all out war on choice and diversity (closing grammar schools, nationalising academies, banning private schools) are simply repeating slogans from another era, not serious policies compatible with getting elected to government. I won’t condemn Stephen Twigg for not being Roy Hattersley. Nor do I have much sympathy for the idea that because he is saying nothing about that agenda then he is saying nothing at all. There is more of a problem when he speaks than when he doesn’t. Also, as with Gove, I have little time for criticism about style, personality or the details of the policy-making process. If Twigg has made little impact, I think it has more to do with the message than the man.

My rough summary of Twigg’s position is that he opposes Gove where Gove is right, but agrees with him where he is wrong. The core problem, and this is one which will leave Labour vulnerable over education, is that he is quite happy to join with the education establishment and support dumbing-down. A couple of examples stand out on this. Firstly, he signed a letter to the Guardian denying the effectiveness of phonics co-signed with a number of prominent phonics denialists, including the Socialist Workers Party’s Michael Rosen who has famously described phonics as “barking at print”. Secondly, he wrote an article, again for the Guardian,  after the English GCSE farrago attacking Gove for not overruling the exam regulator and agreeing with the headteachers who were lobbying to raise the GCSE pass rate by 10% and let about three quarters of school leavers have a grade C in English, effectively making the qualification worthless as a means of distinguishing between the literate and illiterate.

Both of these actions show a man who is willing to ignore the evidence, and the agenda of his allies, as long as he gets to make an attack on his opposite number. Labour has always had trouble over phonics simply because they tend not to believe that figures in the educational establishment would actually leave children illiterate over a point of ideological dogma. Attempts by the last Labour government to encourage evidence-based teaching of reading were twice derailed by phonics denialists. Despite a capacity to make speeches about looking to experts and to evidence, and the importance of bipartisanship, Twigg has attacked Gove in the one area where he is simply letting evidence count for more than a belief in magic and where, in my view, he is most likely to make a real difference to children’s opportunities. As for supporting the regrading lobby, again the evidence is overwhelming and a read through the court judgement that settled the question indicates again that Twigg is not willing to let facts or details get in the way of partisan politics. In this case though, it is not simply his judgement about educational matters that looks weak, but his political judgement too. Labour’s failure in government to prevent grade inflation is something that even Twigg has admitted happened, so why support further grade inflation? Effectively Twigg has conceded that Labour got something wrong, but publicly shown that if given responsibility for education, he would continue to get it wrong in exactly the same way.

Now, these errors of judgement would be bad enough if they were isolated mistakes made despite a generally sensible approach to education. Unfortunately these snippets seem entirely consistent with Twigg’s general stance. He’s also been against the Ebacc and sniffy about academic subjects, favouring vocational options without confronting the difficult questions of who exactly should take them or why. While people obsess with the minutiae of structures, Twigg is setting out an agenda which would ensure that the worst aspect of our system, the low expectations in our comprehensives, becomes worse. Too often he sounds like he is defending the last Labour government’s education policy rather than setting out what the next one would do. Unfortunately, the last Labour government lost all direction on education policy after 2001, and so Twigg seems to be looking at a period of exceptional drift and weakness as if it was an alternative to a very assertive secretary of state who is willing to talk about standards in schools. Wasting time on the criticisms already being put forward by the education establishment, and unable to imagine a new direction has left Twigg with little to say of any interest. Gove’s greatest failure is probably that he hasn’t undone the harm of the previous nine years (such as the behaviour of OFSTED and the bureaucracy of performance management) yet Twigg can never make that attack. Too often Gove is left free to act like he speaks for the opposition, attacking the status quo and those in charge of education, while the man whose job it actually is to oppose, defends years of failure and demands that it be allowed to continue.

Update 17/8/2013 (am): Since writing this I have discovered that Michael Rosen has discontinued his involvement with the SWP and announced it on a blog 4 weeks ago.  I haven’t changed the text above as, at the time of the letter above, he would still have been directly involved.

Update 17/8/2013 (pm): Following some argument on Twitter with @educationlabour I will clarify here that when I say that Twigg’s letter “den[ied] the effectiveness of phonics” I mean exactly that. It suggested that other methods, presumably the crank methods of the co-signatories, should be used as well and that the phonics check would confuse children, something unlikely to happen if they had been taught phonics effectively. I am not claiming that Stephen Twigg has ever said he is against phonics. Indeed, it is normal for even the most ferocious phonics denialists (some of whom signed that letter) to claim that they are “not against phonics”, just as advocates of homeopathy and other magic often claim that they are providing a “complement” rather than a replacement for conventional medicine.


Blogs for the Week Ending 16th August 2013

August 16, 2013
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