Archive for May, 2014


How To Sabotage Your Own Policy Part 2

May 26, 2014

In the autumn half term I went to a meeting at the DfE about the new curriculum. I was broadly happy to endorse the emphasis on fluency that has now become a major part of the curriculum. I was surprised to learn at that meeting that NCETM were in charge of rolling out the new primary school maths curriculum, but at the time I couldn’t recall much about the organisation so didn’t criticise this. I expressed my concern to Liz Truss, the schools minister, that OFSTED might well be a problem given that they have in the past attempted to redefine “fluency” to mean something other than the fluent recall of basic number facts and methods and also expressed my view that use of mental tests had been the most effective method of encouraging schools to teach fluency.

Later, I looked into NCETM in more detail and wrote a blogpost entitled How To Sabotage Your Own Policy explaining why fluency was under threat due to how policy was being implemented.

Firstly, I pointed out what was at the heart of the debate:

Roughly speaking, the tensions are between those who emphasise the procedures (both written and mental) and those who emphasise applications in context and the ability to talk about maths. In the most recent versions of the debate that I have encountered  the former would claim that they are aiming for fluency and the latter would claim that they are aiming for conceptual understanding. Neither would claim not to be pursuing the other’s goal; those emphasising fluency would claim it leads to greater understanding and those emphasising conceptual understanding would claim it leads to greater fluency. Ultimately, both sides would say you have to teach both fluency and conceptual understanding, but the choice of which to emphasise will have a huge impact on teaching methods. The more you emphasise fluency, the more you will spend time on deliberate practice and relying on explanations, rather than “discovery” to result in understanding. The more you emphasise conceptual understanding, the more time you will spend using card sorts and cuisenare rods, having discussions, trying to learn maths from problem-solving and outsourcing calculations to calculators. It is best described as a spectrum rather than a dichotomy, with only the most extreme of the advocates of conceptual understanding saying kids don’t need times tables and only the most extreme (or possibly those who don’t understand the word “rote”) saying kids should learn procedures without understanding them.

I then repeated the details of OFSTED’s record on opposing fluency in favour of conceptual understanding. I also identified evidence that NCETM could not be trusted on this both in their past record and in what they were then doing.

These fears seem to have been correct, but perhaps what is more surprising is the extent to which the DfE don’t seem to care. I have just seen the following video from NCETM tweeted by the DfE twitter account @educationgovuk:

This is an absolute classic of the “redefining/sidelining fluency” genre.

Highlights include:

  • The claim that people “misunderstand fluency” by not realising that it is “much more about having number awareness” than just recalling facts;
  • The claim that “you can’t do maths unless you talk maths”;
  • “support for thinking skills”;
  • “problem-solving”;
  • “using representations to help children sense-make”;
  • “Fluency is not about doing endless worksheets”;
  • The claim that fluency comes from “using representations” and comes with understanding and making connections.

This is the exact same trick OFSTED pulled. The people who are meant to be encouraging fluency are actually talking about the very things, conceptual understanding and problem-solving, which were used as excuses to sideline fluency in the first place. As I said in my previous post, nobody objects to students understanding what they are doing or solving problems, but the issue here is whether you teach fluency and it leads to understanding or teach understanding (usually with problem-solving and props) and it leads to fluency. If it is the latter, then the same old ideas that have been pushed for the last decade (i.e. since the National Numeracy Strategy was abandoned) will continue to ensure that year 7s will continue to arrive in secondary education without fluency with basic number facts. The irony being that this is being done by the very group that was meant to be helping schools move to a curriculum that had a greater emphasis on fluency.


Blogs for the Week Ending 25th May 2014

May 25, 2014

The Echo Chamber

This is round up of the best education blogs from the last week. If you are an education blogger on WordPress, please reblog this post. Although I haven’t yet announced last week’s blogpost of the week, because of a podcast-related hold up, it should appear soon and I will also pick one for this week. Any suggestions gratefully received either in the comments below or on twitter, directed to @oldandrewuk

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Blogs for the Week Ending 18th May 2014

May 18, 2014

The Echo Chamber

This is round up of the best education blogs from the last week. If you are an education blogger on WordPress, please reblog this post. Although I haven’t yet announced last week’s blogpost of the week, because the  Chalk Talk Podcast  with it in isn’t available yet, it should appear soon and I will also pick one for this week. A ny suggestions gratefully received either in the comments below or on twitter, directed to  @oldandrewuk

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Are OFSTED Judgements Reliable?

May 15, 2014

One of the properties required for any assessment to be credible, is that it is reliable. Roughly speaking, this property requires that the assessment would, if repeated or carried out by somebody else, give the same result. One of the difficulties with OFSTED is that, as inspections of a school are usually separated by enough of a period of time for a significant change to have happened, and no two schools are identical, it is hard to assess whether judgements differ because of genuine differences in performance or because of inconsistencies in the inspection procedure.

In order to determine reliability it would be necessary to carry out two OFSTED inspections of the same school at (roughly) the same time, and see if they came to the same conclusion. Although this sort of experiment would help ensure reliability it is not something that, to my knowledge, is part of OFSTED’s quality assurance procedures. However, it was brought to my attention that something similar to this had happened recently in two cases, not as part of quality assurance but as a result of some unusual school structures.

In the first of these cases, two separate OFSTED teams simultaneously inspected both Bishop Challoner Catholic Collegiate Boys School and Bishop Challoner Catholic Collegiate Girls School. Although these schools are technically separate institutions; in reality they share a building, a staff, and a governing body. In effect, two different OFSTED teams were inspecting the same set of teachers. Yet, somehow they managed to conclude that the teaching in the girls school was “Outstanding” and that in the boys school was only “Good”. These grades were also repeated in the overall judgement on the schools.

In the second case, OFSTED inspected Outwood Academy Valley on the 11th of March, and Outwood Academy Portland on the 13th of March. These two schools share a sixth form. Once again discrepancies with judgements occurred; somehow the sixth form of Outwood Academy Valley is described as “Good” and the sixth form of Outwood Academy Portland is described as “Outstanding”. Clearly, there must have been some awareness of this contradiction as the following bizarre passage was included in the second report:

The Principal and Executive Principal maintain that there is a distinct difference between Outwood Academy Portland students and others that share the sixth form centre. Inspectors found a strong ethos established by the end of Key Stage 4, by which Portland had instilled learning habits that contributed to sixth form students’ exceptional progress from having overcome often difficult circumstances in their earlier career. This sense of purpose has been established through the care, guidance and support from their teachers throughout their time in the academy.

Yes, that’s right, the inspectors claim to have subdivided the students in the sixth form according to where they were in KS4, and then used this to credit one school with the quality of the education received in the sixth form by those students who had previously been in KS4 in that school. A bizarre precedent has been set for judging sixth forms by their intake, rather than what they do now.

Now I should point out that I am not claiming that the judgements in these cases are wrong. The procedures may have been followed perfectly and the judgements may have some very solid foundations. What this calls into question is not the validity of the judgements, but the reliability of the procedures that have been used to reach them. If the same set of teachers can be judged “Good” by one team and “Outstanding” by another in the same day, or in the same week; then the only conclusion is that those judgements tell us little about those teachers. The difference between a “Good” sixth form and an “Outstanding” sixth form is not the quality of the teaching, or management of that sixth form. The difference between teachers who achieve “Outstanding” teaching and learning, and those who achieve “Good” teaching and learning is apparently not down to the abilities or dedication of those teachers. These reports demonstrate that OFSTED judgements are not reliable; they do not tell us about a relevant difference in quality, only differences in either circumstances or the personal inclinations of inspection teams.




An Andrew Old Round Up

May 13, 2014

Apologies for the lack of blogposts recently. This has, in part, been down to a fair number of other activities and opportunities that have come up since I ceased to be anonymous (none of them in any way likely to make me any money). I’ll take this opportunity to advertise some of the things I have done/will be doing.

  1. I know this isn’t new, and my contribution is available online here, but I have written the foreword for Progressively Worse by Robert Peal.
  2. I wrote an article about Improving Teacher Quality for the Fabian Society website.
  3. My views on Performance Related Pay can be found in the online version of the Guardian today (but not the print edition) here.
  4. I will be speaking on “The Teacher As Expert” at a Teach Meet in Stafford on the 9th June. Details here (there’s still a small number of speaking slots available).
  5. I am on a panel at the La Salle Education maths conference (for both primary and secondary teachers) on the 14th June. Still a handful of free tickets available here.
  6. I should be speaking, on another panel, at the Wellington Festival of Education on the 20th June.
  7. I have written a contribution for Don’t Change the Light Bulbs, edited by Rachel Jones, which should be out in September and is available for pre-order now.
  8. I should be doing a talk on “How to have a rational argument about education” at ResearchED 2014 in London on the 6th September. Tickets and details available here.

As for future projects, well … if you need a maths teacher (preferably part-time) for September, for  a school in the West Midlands, please let me know.


A School Governor Writes…

May 12, 2014

The following is from a school governor and illustrates elegantly how, in education, those who are meant to be neutral experts can be the most partisan. For reasons of anonymity, the local authority involved has not been named. I have assumed the images used are in the public domain, if anybody knows differently please let me know urgently and  I will remove or edit this post. 


Well, teachers, you can’t have all the fun to yourselves. We school governors have to undergo training too, you know, especially so that we know what ‘critically friendly’ questions to ask you once a term. My latest experience was a local authority-run, two-hour evening session outlining the new national primary curriculum. There was a lot to pack in, so it was a fairly intense, PowerPoint-heavy evening.

Let me just say up-front that the trainer was a very nice chap. In fact I spent over an hour after the training very pleasantly discussing with him some of what had been said, and it was exactly the sort of intelligent, amiable, open conversation one always hopes to have, but is all too rare.  However, it would also be fair to characterise much of the training session as very negative and derisory about much of the new curriculum, and we were very much told what we should think about it; its proponent(s), and what ought to be the objectives of education in general.

I took detailed notes and while some things may be paraphrased I have been careful not to distort the meaning or intended message.


The aim of the session was stated as:

  • To enable governors to understand the background to the new national curriculum and why there are changes from the old.
  • To discuss what your school wants to put into place, and how you intend to approach your planning into the forthcoming year.
  • To understand how your school has already made a start on planning for the new curriculum.


The trainer had E.D.Hirsch and “knowledge” in his sights from the start.  We were told about Hirsch’s Core Knowledge, and that the first draft of the new national history curriculum based on a British version of Hirsch’s model had been “laughable”.

The following slide highlighted the new curriculum’s focus on knowledge:



Could we, the trainer asked, remember any lessons from our own primary education? He answered the question himself with a resounding “no” (spurred on by a particularly earnest, vehemently ‘anti-Gove’ teacher/Governor among us). No, we couldn’t remember any of the ‘knowledge’  we had learned in primary school because items of knowledge were completely transient, something that we learn temporarily and then forget.

The following slide, the trainer said, was the single most important message we were to take back to our fellow governors.



We were to explain to our colleagues that the tree could lose all its leaves in autumn but the next spring would grow new leaves, and he explained how new knowledge was needed for each new job we might have. Should we want to be a doctor, we would acquire all the knowledge we needed for that role. Should we then wish to change career to become a lawyer, or whatever new ‘21st Century’ job came along, we would shed all the old knowledge and acquire the new set we needed. The great irony he said, was that the roots are what are important but that it is the leaves that are testable.

I obtained a copy of an old version of the presentation which came with notes where it was at least superficially acknowledged that both the skills and knowledge are important, but it seems that knowledge is only valued because it provides the context for the acquisition of skills:

It is unnecessary to debate whether the curriculum should only be about subjects, or whether skills are more important than subjects. The tree needs both.  The roots cannot develop without the photosynthesis in the leaves, and the leaves cannot grow without the moisture from the roots. They need each other.  Each of the skills, competencies and attitudes at the root of learning, needs the context of leaf to develop.  Children cannot learn to solve problems unless they have some problems to solve – and these problems occur within the contexts of history, geography, science, technology or any other leaves.  Skills cannot be learnt within a vacuum.

Leaves will die if the tree / plant is pot bound

But if the roots are strong, new leaves grow

Lifelong learning is sustained by strong roots not leaves

A further slide illustrates the point:



In conversation later, I pointed out that while I might only remember a handful of my primary school ‘lessons’, I was confident that I still had much of the knowledge I had learned at that time, and that that knowledge had enabled me to build on and learn more. I also cited the Recht and Leslie, 1988 baseball reading comprehension study, where it was found that prior knowledge had a significant positive impact on reading comprehension.  The children who knew more about baseball understood the baseball-related text better than those who knew less, regardless of their actual reading ability.  “Aah!” He said “that must have been of because they were more “engaged” (i.e. because they must have been more interested in baseball, they ‘related to’ and were more engaged with the task). No, I asserted, it was about prior knowledge, in fact prior knowledge facilitated ‘engagement’ because you can’t engage with a task if you don’t have sufficient prior knowledge to understand what is going on.

I recommended that he read Dan Willingham’s “Why Don’t Students Like School?”


“Levels are going and not being replaced” and if this session was all about assessment “I’d scare the pants off you”.



The photo selected above, while certainly amusing to many,  was deliberately chosen to make a statement, and it reflected the general tone. You would have thought from the discussion that all educators everywhere had regarded the Levels system as perfect and had never had a bad word to say about it.

There was some good advice, for example not rushing into replacement systems too quickly, to wait and see whether there was any further guidance, and also to see how other schools were managing.  And there was also some potentially valuable discussion about what schools could do, but it was conducted in the light of ridiculing the decision, rather than seriously considering the pros and cons of ways forward. “I haven’t made this up” he laughed.

Curriculum Specifics


Fig. 5

(I bit my tongue and didn’t ask if he’d printed out all of the exam board specifications for each secondary subject to include in his page-count.)

We looked at specific areas of the curriculum, and the strong impression of the changes was very negative. Many things were now to be taught earlier. To an “education outsider” it might make sense, he said, but educators who knew their Piaget knew that the brain developed in stages and that one couldn’t teach certain things too young. He then highlighted all the things in the English and Maths curriculum that were being moved younger – “too young for children’s developmental stages.”


With Science came the contradiction.  Rather than moving younger, some topics were being left until later.  Amusingly, this was also a bad idea. This time because ‘young children had really enjoyed studying those particular topics at that age’.

There was also a concern that conducting “formal” experiments was being left until later in the new curriculum.  It was explained that younger children would only be required to conduct ‘explorations’ not ‘experiments’.  I couldn’t help but think that had it been the other way round i.e.  if the current curriculum had exploration, and the new curriculum was demanding more formal experimentation, we would have heard that the children were too young for ‘formal’ work.


Fig. 6

What were the problems here, asked the trainer, drawing our attention to ‘evolution’. “It’s teaching RE!” exclaimed our earnest ant-Goveite, “Yes!” he agreed heartily. He explained we can’t teach evolution in case it is against the religious beliefs of some of the children. He gave ‘Muslim children’ as an example of those who couldn’t be taught such things in Y6. And ‘inheritance’? Well that couldn’t be taught because an adopted child might realise they were adopted because of their and their parents’ eye colour.

My Thoughts

My impression from governor training sessions is that many trainers are very keen to tell us what to think. The previous course I attended was very similar, the trainer laid out her ‘philosophy’ from the beginning and provided us with unsupported, unreferenced ‘facts’ and diagrams to prove her point of view. This isn’t an approach I take to terribly well. I do think we are old enough by now to be presented with “the facts” as objectively as possible and be left to draw our own conclusions.

The trainer is absolutely entitled to think what he likes about Gove, education policy, pedagogy, the national curriculum etc.  However, as governors, we needed to have a run through of the main changes, including a heads-up of any contentious issues, but without the ideologically based opinion and derision; he didn’t once mention evidence. We needed guidance as to our role as governors ; what questions should we be asking of the Headteacher and SMT; what sort of answers should we get. Instead we were told to go back to our colleagues and tell them that knowledge was akin to the temporary leaves on a tree.


Blogs for the Week Ending 11th May 2014

May 11, 2014

The Echo Chamber

This is round up of the best education blogs from the last week. If you are an education blogger on WordPress, please reblog this post. I believe this week’s blogpost of the week will once again feature on the Chalk Talk Podcast (unless I’ve left it too late), so any suggestions gratefully received either in the comments below or on twitter, directed to @oldandrewuk

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Blogs for the Week Ending 4th May 2014

May 4, 2014

The Echo Chamber

This is round up of the best education blogs from the last week. If you are an education blogger on WordPress, please reblog this post. I believe this week’s blogpost of the week will once again feature on the  Chalk Talk Podcast  (unless I’ve left it too late), so  any suggestions gratefully received either in the comments below or on twitter, directed to  @oldandrewuk

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