Testing Times Tables (and Teachers.)

Long Time No Blog

I haven’t blogged since October of last year. This is because any spare time I’ve had, has been spent writing my book. No one has the time you need to research and write a book spare in their day-to-day lives – it has to be carved out by sacrificing other things and using any spare moment that crops up. Staying late for the Christmas concert? Time to write. Got a seat on the tube on the way home? Write. Early to meet friends for drinks? Glass of wine and write. It’s meant seeing less of my friends and family than I’d like and it’s meant my blog has had to take a backseat for the last few months.

But now, it’s done. Well, I say done – it’s currently with my lovely editor who will spend the next few weeks reading through it before sending it back to me for further editing. But, for now, there is nothing more I can do; for the first time since 19th January 2017 I don’t have a deadline looming over me. This means two things: firstly – time to get out of the country for a bit (which is why I’m writing this in Amsterdam) and secondly, I can finally get back to blogging.

This falls at a good time as the DfE have treated us to three pieces of “news” this half term holiday: the first is that they are dropping the two-year time cap in which trainee teachers have to pass the QTS skills tests. The second, was confirmation that the Year 4 Timetables Check is going to be trialed later this year – not really news but, as Michael Tidd points out, it’s a good way to draw people’s attention away from the third announcement. The third, and most disheartening, piece of news is that the writing assessment framework, the one that most teachers widely acknowledge is not fit for purpose, is here to stay.

When the new assessments were launched in 2016 there was a substantial level of criticism. Some said the assessments were too hard, others said that we didn’t have enough time to prepare the children for them. My main criticism at the time was of the writing assessment. It was unclear, included made-up definitions (exclamation sentences anyone?) and the advice schools received on how to administer and moderate them seemed to vary widely.

Since then, some progress has been made to address these flaws. Exclamation sentences have been dropped for example, and, whereas in the former framework teachers needed to have evidence that a pupil demonstrated attainment in all of the statements to reach one of the standards, pupils can now be awarded a standard without meeting all the criteria if they have a “particular weakness.” However the whole framework still lacks clarity. The “particular weakness” exemption can only be used “on occasion” and “with good reason” – although the examples they have provided don’t really tell us “what occasion” or “why.” The assessments have been described by the STA as neither “best fit” nor “secure fit” which I guess means they are unfit for purpose. The assessed work must be independent (a word that we as a profession still don’t have a shared definition for – does this mean no modelling? No discussion or sharing of ideas? What about having  displays up with key vocab etc…) and the spellings can be from a spelling test, the handwriting from a handwriting book etc… Moderation is going to be an absolute nightmare and ultimately the results will be meaningless. Whilst the DfE have tried to make the assessments more flexible they appear to have just further muddied the already muddied water.

Now, about the times table check: on the whole I think this isn’t a terrible idea (which I understand is a very easy thing to say whilst working at a school that won’t have to do the check.) It’s a 25 minute test and the results won’t be published at school level or used by Ofsted – although I do understand why many teachers don’t trust this to be case. However, if it makes learning times tables a priority in lower KS2 then, as an upper KS2 teacher, I believe that to be no bad thing. A secure knowledge of times tables is invaluable for understanding fractions, percentages, division, averages, area, perimeter, algebra etc… Teachers know this and are already teaching them. Every school I know has had it’s own system of testing times tables so I doubt this Year 4 Check will require any huge curriculum adjustments. If anything, I would like to see these sorts of low-stakes, short assessments happening more often in place of one, high-stakes test at the end of Primary school.

My main criticism of the times table check is the sheer hypocrisy. The same week the DfE confirmed the Year 4 Times Table check they also announce that they are scrapping the two year lock-out period that currently prevents trainee teachers from retaking the QTS skills test for two years if they fail it three times. Now, trainee teachers can take the tests as many times as they need to and teachers who have been previously banned from re-sitting will be allowed to from this week. It seems bizarre to me that children don’t get unlimited attempts in tests but their teachers do. Surely we have to be ahead of our pupils and our knowledge and skills should far outstretch theirs? I had a look at the practice papers and there’s nothing on there that my Year 5 couldn’t answer. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that the adults teaching them should be to answer them as well.

These tests, we were told, were introduced to ensure we were getting that teachers had the high level of maths and English skills necessary to deliver the curriculum. Given their decision to scrap them when faced with a recruitment crisis, can we assume that the DfE have decided the highest standards aren’t important to them anymore? And rather than address the reason teachers are leaving the profession, or why graduates don’t want to become teachers, we will just make it even easier for people to become teachers? This isn’t happening in medicine or law – they have high expectations of the people entering the profession.

So in my opinion, this is a mistake. If anything I think we should follow Finland’s lead where all teachers have a Master’s degree and teaching is a well-paid, highly prized profession. As a result of these measure competition for teacher training places has risen and, last year, only 7% of applicants to the master’s course in Helsinki were accepted. Raise the bar and make sure you keep hold of those who get over it by addressing the reason teachers are leaving the profession in the first place.

Sorry, Nicky, I’m out.

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Dear Nicky Morgan,

Please accept this as written notice of my resignation from my role as Assistant Head and class teacher. It is with a heavy heart that I write you this letter. I know you’ve struggled to listen to and understand teachers in the past so I’m going to try and make this as clear as possible. In the six short years I have been teaching your party has destroyed the Education system. Obliterated it. Ruined it. It is broken.

The first thing I learnt when I started teaching in 2010 is that teaching is bloody hard work. It’s a 60 hour week only half of which is spent doing the actual teaching. It eats into the rest of your life both mentally and physically. If it’s not exercise books and resources taking over your lounge and kitchen table it’s worrying about results or about little Ahmed’s home life keeping you awake at 2am. I’ve never minded this. I’ve always been happy to give my life over to teaching as I believed it to be such a noble cause. Besides we’re not the only profession who work long hours. What I didn’t realise back in 2010 is that the job would get harder each year.

First you introduced the phonics check. I was in Year 1 that year and continued teaching phonics to the best of my ability. I didn’t spend much time teaching children to differentiate between real words and “non-words” because I was focused on, you know, teaching them to read. I sat and watched child after child fail that ridiculous “screening” because they read the word “strom” as “storm”. The following year I taught to the test. We spent weeks practising “words” and “non words” and sure enough our results soared.

My second year brought with it the changes to the Ofsted framework and the obsession with data began. Oh the sodding data game! The game that refuses to acknowledge how long a child has spoken English or whether or not they have books or even food at home. The data game changed things. Attainment in Maths and English was no longer just important, it would almost entirely decide the judgement made about your school. Oh and whilst we’re on the judgements “Satisfactory” was no longer satisfactory – it was the far more sinister sounding: “Requires Improvement.”

From then on things began to unravel at an alarming rate. The threat of forced academisation hung over each set of SATs results and the floor targets continued to rise. Gove cut the calculator paper (because calculators are cheating) and introduced SPaG. Grammar was no longer for writing – it was for grammar. Around the same time he also froze teachers’ pay and doubled the contributions we would have to make to our pensions. Teachers were suddenly worse off than they had been the previous year and under more pressure than ever before.

So teaching became harder still and life in schools started to change. There were new hoops to jump through and somehow we just about managed to get through them. It meant sacrificing everything that wasn’t SPaG, English or Maths but we did it – we learnt how to play the game. Outside of the safety of our schools though there was a bigger game being played – one that we had no chance of winning: the status of the teaching profession was being eroded away. There was the incessant name calling and smears in the media from “the blob” to “the enemies of promise” and, of course, “soft bigots” with “low expectations”. You drip fed the message: teachers were not to be trusted and it worked: the public stopped trusting us.

As bleak as it sounds, those years look like a golden age compared to what we have to deal with now.

I was delighted when Gove went. I knew there was every chance he’d be replaced by someone equally awful but I couldn’t imagine things getting worse. I figured the Tories were done playing with Education and they’d move on to something else. I was so wrong .


This year brought with it our greatest challenge to date – the new assessments. For most of the year we were completely in the dark. We had no idea what form the tests would take and how they would be scored (we’re still not entirely sure on the latter.) There was also the introduction of the SPaG test for 7-year-olds (which was sadly scrapped because of your own department’s incompetence.) The criteria for assessing writing has changed dramatically.  Gone is the best fit approach and what has replaced it is an arbitrary list of criteria of the things children should be able to do – some of which are grammatical rules that your department have made up . Year 6 were tested on their ability to read long words and remember the names of different tenses. Whatever foundation subjects were still being taught have had to be shelved in favour of lesson after lesson on the past progressive tense.

In some ways I don’t feel like a teacher at all any more. I prepare children for tests and, if I’m honest, I do it quite well. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of as it’s not as if I’ve provided my class with any transferable, real life skills during the process. They’ve not enjoyed it, I’ve not enjoyed it but we’ve done it: and one thing my children know how to do is answer test questions. They’ve written raps about how to answer test questions, they’ve practised test questions at home and test questions in school, they’ve had extra tuition to help them understand the test questions. They can do test questions – they just haven’t had time to do anything else.

At the same time you’ve cut school budgets to pieces. This one hasn’t been widely reported yet but it will be over the next 18 months. I know of 3 head teachers who are considering having their own class next year as they can’t afford to replace the teachers that are leaving. Most schools I know have already cut back on support staff (read: made valuable, hard-working teaching assistants redundant.) And this is just the start of it. I suppose the only thing schools should be grateful for is that you introduced performance related pay and, with the leap in National Expectations, there will be fewer teachers getting their pay rise this September.

In many ways I’m one of the lucky ones – I work for two smart Head Teachers in a school with an SLT who genuinely care about teacher workload. Meaningless box ticking exercises are kept to a minimum and meetings are kept brief. We only have INSET on average every other week and book scrutiny/monitoring is only carried out once a term. Demands on teachers’ time are kept to a minimum but there is very little we can do to protect teachers from the unreasonable expectations being put on them by your Government, the threat of no-notice Ofsted inspections and, of course, the ever increasing risk of academisation.

I know I’m not alone in feeling like this. A recent survey found that nearly 50% of teachers are considering leaving in the next 5 years. Just within my own family my fiance, my sister and my sister-in-law have all quit the profession in the last 12 weeks. Rather than address this issue you’ve decided to allow schools to recruit unqualified teachers to fill the gaps. The final nail in the profession’s coffin. I don’t want to stop teaching. I love teaching but I have no interest in being part of this game any more.

Worse than being a teacher in this system is being a child at the mercy of it and to them I say this: we tried our best to fight these changes: we rallied, we went on strike, we campaigned and made as much noise as we could. I’m sorry it didn’t work and I’m sorry that I’m not strong enough to keep working in this system but as I’ve told many of you many times: when someone is being mean to you – you ask them to stop. If they continue to be mean you walk away. It is now time for me to walk away. I’ll keep up the fight though.

Maybe in time things will change and, when that time comes, I can come back to the job I loved but until then sorry Nicky – I’m out.

Yours Sincerely,

Zoe

P.S: One last thing – if you do end up losing your job over your shambolic running of the Education System – make sure they don’t replace you with Boris.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Perfect Chief Inspector

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This week applications opened for the new Chief Inspector of HMCI. If you’re interested you, and you’re not like Michael Wilshaw, you can apply here. I can’t help but think if we were more creative in our recruitment methods we might have greater success. So I’ve taken a leaf out of Jane and Michael Banks’ book (yes, the children from Mary Poppins) and I’ve written a short song…

Wanted: A chief inspector

If you want this choice position
Have a cheery disposition
Good ideas, a good sport
Work well, with all sorts.

You must be kind, you must be clever
And in time you should endeavour
To take on the government, give us hope
Help the teachers cope.

Never be mad or cruel,
Never forget the pressure put on schools.
Respect the teaching profession,
And end this data obsession.

If you will judge and intimidate us
Continue to undermine our status
We won’t teach your curriculum
Or play your games,
We’ll leave our jobs
For sunnier plains
Good luck, new chief!
All the best,
One more thing,
(Scrap these ridiculous tests.)

Grammatically Incorrect

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I don’t often agree with Michael Wilshaw in fact I often make a point of it. However even a stopped clock yada yada, Michael Wilshaw said something so spot on last week that I felt the need to mark this rare occasion with a blog post.

I took the 11+ the year after my youngest brother Blaine was born. In Kent it is still expected that all children will take the exam, along with SATs, in their last year of Primary school. My school was fantastic and didn’t pile on the pressure but I still remember a certain amount of anxiety surrounding the test that would decide my Secondary school. I have memory of saying to Blaine on a walk (he wasn’t walking) back from school, “It’ll be your turn one day.” My Mum laughed and said “Oh, I imagine the 11+ will be long gone before then.” That was over 18 years ago and in Kent, Buckinghamshire and Reading the 11+ is still going strong. In London there are a handful of selective schools that use the 11+ as a form of entrance exam but the Primary schools do not administer the test. There shouldn’t be much more to say about this test. The 11+ has ticked along relatively unchanged for decades now – so why the post? In 1998, the year I started at the local Grammar school, Labour passed a law that made it illegal to open up new Grammar schools. So that was the end of that.

Yet last year my home town of Sevenoaks hit the National Press with the news that a new Grammar school was going to be opened. The loophole they had used was that the new school was to be an annexe of an already existing school in the next town. Now this was big news for a town whose local paper had once published, “Town not ready for sushi” as their front page headline.

The Grammar school system as we know it was established in the 1940s with the noble idea of offering public school education to children from working class backgrounds. The schools would promote social mobility: rescuing children from disadvantaged backgrounds and offering them a route out of poverty. This all sounds wonderful – but has it worked? No is perhaps the short answer. Yes pupils that attend Grammar schools achieve very high results. However, very few of these children are from disadvantaged backgrounds.  In 2013 The Sutton Trust research into Grammar schools found that:

  • “Less than 3% of pupils in Grammar schools qualify for Free School Meals (FSM) compared to the average of 18% for non-selective schools in the same area.” For those not familiar with educational shorthand, Free school meals is a rather clumsy measure of poverty but it is the best we have at the moment. To put this figure into perspective in Haringey on average 29% of pupils are eligible for FSM.
  • “Children in selective areas do worse than children who go to comprehensive schools in areas where there are no grammar school.” This one is fairly obvious. If the most able pupils are skimmed off the top and sent to Grammar schools this leaves a whole school of less able pupils without role models or peers to learn from.
  • In local authorities that operate the grammar system, children who are not eligible for free FSM have a much greater chance of attending a grammar school than similarly high achieving children (as measured by their Key Stage 2 test scores) who are eligible for FSM.

These findings should not be a surprise. In 1959 the Conservatives commissioned the Crowther Report – interesting reading if you’ve got a free afternoon; there’s at least one future blog post in my drafts based on its findings. The report found that “the children of non-manual workers are much under-represented, and the children of semi-skilled workers over-represented” in Grammar schools. So we’ve known for nearly 60 years that the system doesn’t work.

The reasons why children from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to pass these tests are numerous and wide ranging. An article published earlier this week summed up it up quite nicely and it’s certainly been a discussion point in staff meetings for many years. When it comes to the 11+ access to private tutors is the perfect example of the advantages children from more affluent backgrounds have. A quick Google search will throw up the numerous options wealthier parents have for helping their child prepare for the paper.
In 2013 Buckinghamshire County tried to address this imbalance by producing new papers that were more closely linked to the curriculum taught in school with less emphasis on verbal reasoning. This way pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds would be covering the content in school. Sadly, analysis of the results showed that these new test made the gap in achievement between FSM and non-FSM even wider.
Social mobility (or lack of) aside, surely the strongest argument against the Grammar school system is that it labels children as failures at the age of 10/11? They see their friends pass and immediately draw the conclusion that they’re stupid, an attitude they take with them to Secondary school. A system that labels children as failures at 11 is not just unfair: it’s cruel.

What did you learn at Primary school?

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Those of you that follow me on social media, or work with me, or are taught by me, or have passed me on the street this week will know: I WENT TO QUESTION TIME! I was in the same room as Dimbleby!

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As if that wasn’t exciting enough the Man on the Piccadilly Line got picked to ask his question. The chances of this are so slim as the audience of 100 each submit 2 questions. Out of these 200 questions they choose just 6 and normally only have enough time to get through 4 or 5. His question was:

“Is the Government turning our schools into joyless exam factories?”

If you’re interested in what the Question Time panel had to say about this you can watch it here (54:58) He wrote the question following the announcement that the government wants to introduce tests at the end of KS1. This has confused a lot of people because children are already assessed at the end of KS1. They take tests and the teacher looks at all of their work from the year and then, using the information from the test and the class work, the teacher decides on a level. The new tests will be marked externally and the mark the child gets on the test will be the level they are given for the year – which is how it works with the end of KS2 assessments.

Much to our excitement, the question sparked debate on Twitter. Toby Young and Michael Rosen debated until the small hours and the conversation continued in our staff rooms the next day. Most teachers seemed to agree tests are a very useful way of assessing children’s understanding. The problem is when test scores become a stick to beat teachers and schools with. When schools are judged entirely on their test scores they HAVE to spend a disproportionate amount of time preparing for those tests. In some schools an average Year 6 day looks like this: Maths, English, Guided Reading and SPaG. It isn’t the fault of the teachers. It is the ever increasing pressure on schools to get higher and higher results year after year. As a result, most Primary schools are  sending pupils to Secondary school with good maths and English results but sadly they are becoming increasingly “switched off” from learning.

I sometimes look at my own class. They have such small worlds – some of them have never ventured out of Ilford. Last week I postponed a Guided Reading lesson to spend some time convincing a boy in my class that Turkey was a real country. Even when I showed him the map, photographs of Turkey and got two children to tell him what life in Turkey is like he didn’t seem convinced. Another day in the middle of an English lesson a girl said to me: “You’re a Christian because you’re English isn’t it Miss?” So we spent some time unpacking why she thought that. My class desperately need life experiences. Most of them don’t really understand why they’re at school at all. For so many of them school is a place they are dropped off at in the morning and collected from 6 hours later.  Every day needs to be fun and centred around learning through play and I do as much of that as I can.  At the end of this year they will take the new KS1 tests which will include a SPaG test. The results will be published, Ofsted will look at them and if they aren’t high enough there is every chance my school could become academised. It isn’t the testing I’m against it’s the fact that schools have to spend so much time teaching for the test they don’t have time to teach other, equally important, skills.

I started thinking back to my own Primary school education. I loved my Primary school. It’s the reason I became a teacher myself. Yes we did tests and maths and English but the experiences that have stayed with me were rarely those lessons. Here are my stand out memories:

  • In Year 5 we made a huge model of Smaug out of chicken wire. It was so big we had to move it in the playground to work on it. We spent days slapping on inches of paper mache and waiting impatiently for it to dry. After that there was days of painting and adding detail. It was amazing!
  • In Year 6 we made a Victorian street out of cereal boxes – I remember spending days adding detail to my Victorian house and the pride I felt when it was put on the wall.
  • I remember making toys out of junk model materials in Year 3. My friend Holly made a pair of shoes for our teacher using string and yoghurt pots. I remember our teacher doing a catwalk style walk for us. Interestingly, Holly is now a fashion designer.
  • I was in Year 5 when that song “I Believe I can Fly” by R Kelly was released and there was a teacher in my school who HATED it. So my class teacher taught us the song and we practised it every day for a week. Then one afternoon to perform it for this teacher just to wind her up.
  • I met my best friend Lizzie when made jelly together in Year 2. We’d also been in the same class in Year 1 but we hadn’t decided to be friends then.
  • In Reception we had a dentists’ chair in our classroom. Just because. We also had a Ghostbusters Art Gallery for all of our work that we opened to the public. I think I was a guide.
  • In Year 6 on hot days we’d go outside and read in the field under the trees. A couple of times our teacher bought us ice lollies.
  • In Year 4 Thursdays was our TV room day. We’d go to the TV room and watch Look and Read. It felt like it went on for a whole afternoon but I think it was probably 10 minutes. Geordie Racer anyone?
  • My Year 6 teacher gave me my love of poetry. We read the Lady of Shallot and drew pictures of her stuck in her tower.
  • The plays and assemblies. We had a big musical performance every year and a Christmas play as well as concerts and full class assemblies. In Reception the highlight of our class assembly was kicking down a large lego Berlin wall.
  • I was in the netball team. We never won anything if I remember correctly. I remember one day when, after losing 5 games in a row and our teachers took pity bought us Freddos.
  • Quiet reading – every day. 20 minutes of just reading for pleasure. Not writing about reading, answering questions about reading just reading. It was my favourite part of the day.
The more testing, the more pressure on schools, the more other subjects and experiences get “squeezed out”.
Finally, I think the biggest problem with these tests just aren’t equipping children with the skills they need for working in the 21st Century. Employers moan that young people are leaving school without “workplace” skills. Yes, you need a good grasp of maths, reading and writing but you also need to be able to find creative solutions to problems, to read people, to communicate well, to manage your time, to meet deadlines, to work well with others, show empathy etc… These are just some of the skills you need to succeed at work. At the moment schools have to spend their time jumping through hoops and working towards these tests that the “whole child” is being forgotten. Some school’s are better at fighting it than others and are insisting that their pupils become inquisitive, thoughtful, happy individuals as well as get Level 4s.
I was discussing this with a teacher friend on Friday night. She’s the sort of teacher you never forget. Her classroom is a magical, fun place full of fairy doors and bourbon biscuits. We were talking about how we manage the pressure for Maths and English results whilst at the same time teaching our pupils to be happy, well adjusted members of society. She tells her class, “if you learn nothing else in my class this year you will learn how to listen and how to get along with others.”
I’m not saying Maths and English shouldn’t be a priority in schools, nor am I suggesting that we should all build large chicken wire models of dragons every day but do I worry that we will end up with a generation of children who can perform very well in tests but will be switched off from learning in adult life.