Saturday 17 October 2015

How to improve education - and how to make things worse

The decision by the Government to rush into publishing tables of schools' provisional GCSE results, even before appeals and remarks have been finalised, is no surprise. League tables have been used by successive governments to unfairly compare schools in order to drive through damaging education policies. These latest results will be used to drive through Tory plans for further school privatisation and to reduce costs through performance-pay cuts for teachers.

League tables are not the basis for genuine school improvement. Nevertheless, schools and Local Authorities will be under pressure to analyse these tables and compile plans to improve their ranking next year. That's certainly the case in my borough of Lewisham. The danger is that plans are made which only compound existing difficulties rather than ones that address the real issues.

Poverty is still the main factor driving educational outcomes

First of all, schools must not be bullied into accepting that they can somehow defy gravity and overcome the main factor driving educational outcomes - poverty. Of course, the politicians who are presiding over growing inequality will hypocritically claim that pointing out such economic realities is somehow showing 'poverty of ambition'. Teachers who strive every day to help youngsters facing challenges like poor housing and low household incomes don't need lectures from Tories who are cutting tax credits. The facts are clear.

As "Exam factories ?", the independent research conducted for the NUT by Professor Merryn Hutchings points out "despite making schools accountable for attainment gaps and the provision of funding, the attainment gap at GCSE level between pupils eligible for Free School Meals and those who are not has remained at about 27 percentage points throughout the last decade ... Gorard (2010) drew on a range of statistical evidence about attainment, and concluded that, “to a very large extent, schools simply reflect the local population of their intakes” (p.59), and schools cannot do much to change this. Research has shown that home background is a much larger influence than the school attended and thus attainment gaps are very difficult to reduce. Rasbash et al (2010) examined variation in pupils’ progress at secondary school and concluded that only 20 per cent of this is attributable to school quality ... Other estimates of the ‘school effect’ are lower: Wiliam (2010) reported that OECD analysis showed that in the USA, only eight per cent of the variability in maths scores related to the quality of education provided by the school, and analysis of data in England showed that the school effect contributes only seven per cent of the variance in attainment between pupils".

In Lewisham, and beyond, Local Authorities therefore need to remember that decisions they are making over cuts to youth services, social care and libraries all have an impact on educational outcomes too. For example, award-winning writer Alan Gibbons points out that "children who go to a library are twice as likely as those who don’t to read well. It is not just picking up a book. It is the social experience of reading, talking about the books, browsing, comparing what you have read with family and friends. Librarians are gate keepers in that process. They open doors to new worlds, new possibilities". Lewisham councillors, please take note.

'Gaming the system' - malpractice

In October 2014 Lewisham's CYP Scrutiny Commitee was shown a series of charts analysing KS2 results, including this one comparing achievements at level 5 (the columns) with the percentage of 'pupil premium pupils' (the orange line):

With some variation, the trend is as expected - most of the highest columns are on the right of the chart, in schools where poverty levels are generally lower. Yet one school (circled) stands out as having the highest results while being a school with high levels of poverty. Were council officers and councillors so unaware of the unavoidable link between poverty and outcomes not to question this anomaly? Clearly someone did question it, as the school's results for 2014 were annulled following an investigation by the Standards and Testing Agency. 

'Gaming the system' - so what is acceptable? 

Nobody would accept that outright 'cheating' is an acceptable way to improve exam results. Yet the temptation to maladminister tests and coursework will always be there when the pressures on schools to improve results are so high, and particularly when we are told that 'poverty is no excuse'. However, there are many other ways of 'gaming the system' analysed in the 'Exam Factories ?' research that many schools consider acceptable, if not essential, practice.

Narrowing curriculum choice, 'teaching to the test', 'booster classes' and focusing efforts on borderline students are just some of the ways that schools aim to improve their scores. Pastoral support can suffer as a result as well as the constant emphasis on test scores having a damaging effect on pupils' emotional health and well-being. Whether these methods actually improve lasting knowledge and understanding is also debatable. Certainly many secondary teachers question the KS2 data that they are given for some Year 7 pupils, yet these provide the baseline used to measure progress and set future GCSE targets. Primary colleagues will soon find baseline assessment of Reception children being used in the same way.

Given the link between intakes and outcome, of course the other way to 'game the system' is to use powers over admissions and exclusions to alter your pupil population. earlier this year, the Head of Burlington Danes academy spoke out against the 'underhand tactics' used by some schools operating 'covert selection' practices.

The schools that are most easily able to use such covert methods are schools who are their own admissions authority, particularly academies. The Tories are determined to drive through further academisation, using GCSE results as a weapon to force through attacks on supposedly 'coasting schools'. Yet there is increasing evidence confirming that academisation does not improve educational outcomes. That's also shown by the GCSE results for Lewisham's academy schools (and, conversely, by the improved results at Sedgehill School, a school that would now appear to have been unfairly singled out for damaging public criticism).

In planning for improved GCSE results, schools need to make sure that these outcomes are not achieved at the expense of other vital goals - not least the well-being of the young people we teach (and of those who teach them) and genuine equality of opportunity.

'Speed-ups' - how much more can you ask of staff?

Without looking at the overall context and the real lives of our young people, these league tables are treating schools like factories churning out a 'product'. In a competitive market, we're all told to increase our production targets or go under.

Putting aside the inappropriateness of such a marketised model for public services, let's suppose schools really are just meant to be 'exam factories'.  A forward-thinking manufacturer would know that the real answer to increase productivity is investment. In schools, that would mean more resources, smaller class sizes, more staff, more time for preparation and training. 

Of course, far from increasing investment, this Government is determined to make further cuts. The planned 'National Funding Formula' threatens school budgets in London in particular. A paper tabled at the latest Lewisham Schools Forum warns, alongside other budget pressures, that schools in Lewisham might "need to find savings of up to 20% over 5 years". Such a level of cuts would have a disastrous effect on London schooling and is one more reason why John McDonnell was right to oppose Osborne's fiscal charter.

The alternative approach, from the short-sighted 'captains of industry' in Downing Street, is simply to speed-up the school 'production-line' even more. But how much harder can the workforce be driven?

Already, according to the Government's own figures, teachers are working well over 50 hours a week, in breach of the Working Time Directive. How can any teacher perform at their best when they are exhausted by working such long hours? Why are schools continuing to ignore their legal responsibilities by consistently expecting teachers to work over 48 hours a week?

Yet reports from schools suggest that the pressures on teachers are only increasing. New marking policies that require detailed comments from teachers are adding further to the workload burden. Yet these are being introduced at the same time as some schools are reducing the amount of non-contact time available for teachers to prepare and assess.

What will be the consequences of further 'speed-ups'? Already, as the Guardian highlighted, “Department for Education figures show that in the 12 months to November 2014 almost 50,000 qualified teachers in England left the state sector. That is almost one in 10 of all teachers – the highest rate for 10 years and an increase of more than 25% over five years”. There are a number of Lewisham schools that saw around a quarter to a third of their teachers leave over the summer. Children, particularly the most disadvantaged, need familiar faces and stable relationships in their lives. That stability is being lost in our schools.

As teacher shortages continue to grow, teachers will continue to vote with their feet and leave for posts where the pressures are more manageable. Trade unions have a responsibility to organise to protect teachers from excessive workload, in the best interests of the children they teach as well. What unions locally would welcome is being able to work with the Authority to ensure that unreasonable expectations are not being set. That way, we can work together to make sure all Lewisham schools are seen as an attractive place to choose to teach.

'Ticking-boxes' - or using time productively?

One of teachers' main complaints is not just that the hours of work are excessive but that too much of the pressure is from activities that seem to have little benefit for the students we teach. A culture of 'accountability' has developed (outlined in the 'Exam factories?' research ) where many teachers feel they have to concentrate on accounting for what they are doing, rather than concentrating on teaching and learning.

Monitoring of marking, lesson planning, data collection and lesson observations take up a lot of time but the main outcome is too often just added stress rather than useful feedback and collaborative discussion. That stress impacts on teachers' relationships with children.

Over 60% of staff surveyed by Professor Hutchings 'agreed a lot' that "I spend a disproportionate amount of time on documentation related to accountability rather than on planning for my lesson", nearly 70% that "my stress levels sometimes impact on the way I interact with pupils" and over 75% that "I do not have enough time to focus on the needs of individual pupils". 

One teacher quoted explained "I am totally exhausted all the time. I work 60–70 hours a week just to keep up with what
I am expected to do…. The pressure put upon teachers to provide accountability for so many factors is unmanageable and seemingly pointless. Many teachers in my workplace are feeling permanently stressed and demoralised. More of us are looking to leave as more and more workload is being given with no regard to its impact on teachers or the children

This is a picture that will be familiar to far too many teachers, including teachers in Lewisham. Genuine school improvement cannot be generated in such an atmosphere of fear and demoralisation.

No to performance-pay and imposed targets

If somebody presents you with a table showing the % of students making 3 levels, or 4 levels, of progress across a school, the only appropriate response is to ask them why they have such a lack of understanding of school measurement that they could think this is in any way useful.
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As unions warned, performance-pay in particular is adding to teachers' fear and being used to bully staff into taking on excessive workload. Last year, thankfully most Lewisham teachers were awarded pay-progression, in contrast to reports from some academy chains. However, the fear remains that more pay rises will be denied or even, under Nicky Morgan's latest proposals threatening demotion from the Upper Pay Spine, actual pay cuts imposed.

Teachers (and schools) are also often being judged against unreasonable numerical targets based on unreliable statistics and statistical methods. Lewisham NUT has circulated advice to teachers warning against accepting such objectives.  We have warned that too much credence is being given to setting expected 'levels of progress' which take no account into the differential progress that children from different starting-points are likely to make. 

This has been explained by statistician Henry Stewart for the Local Schools Network in his post entitled 'using data badly': "If somebody presents you with a table showing the % of students making 3 levels, or 4 levels, of progress across a school, the only appropriate response is to ask them why they have such a lack of understanding of school measurement that they could think this is in any way useful ... setting targets entirely unrelated to what the data tells us is more reminiscent of Soviet Stakhonovite targets or those of the Chinese Great Leap Forward than targets rooted in sound educational knowledge". 

Again, Local Authorities and school managers, please take note. 

So what does work? - The London Challenge ?

Far too much school policy has been driven over decades by an agenda based on marketisation, privatisation and on increasing teacher workload rather than increased investment. The fruits of those policies are, regrettably, a demoralised and divided system which is now under severe pressure. 

Nevertheless, there have been examples of policies that helped produce more genuine gains. One of those that is worth looking at is the 'London Challenge'. In another piece of research, Professor Hutchings argues that this initiative helps to explain the 'London effect' whereby London schools generally 'outperform' schools elsewhere, especially looking at disadvantaged pupils (although other researchers point to other factors such as the mixed social intakes in many London schools and particular improvements in primary schools).

Hutchings concludes that: "perhaps the most effective aspect of [the] Challenge was that it recognised that individuals and school communities tend to thrive when they feel trusted, supported and encouraged. The ethos of the programme was a key factor in its success, and contrasted with common government discourse of ‘naming and shaming’ ‘failing’ schools. Expectations of school leaders, teachers and pupils were high; successes were celebrated; and it was recognised that if teachers are to inspire pupils they themselves need to be motivated and inspired".

That's a conclusion that we hope will be taken on board by any school or Local Authority analysing its GCSE results. Teachers need to feel trusted, valued and listened to. As I have written in a letter to Lewisham councillors, "the NUT and our fellow teaching unions are concerned to make sure that the voice of classroom teachers and their unions is heard in these discussions. Teachers can provide a unique insight into the difficulties they face in supporting students, and in explaining the support and input they would benefit from". 

I hope that Lewisham councillors will open up a dialogue with teaching unions and make sure that classroom teachers can input into discussions on school improvement, not just school leaders and council officers.

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