Feminism, sexism and the realisation that normal is not necessarily the norm

My elder sister helping Dad with demolition

Whilst on holiday in Vietnam a couple of years ago, we visited a military history museum where we were introduced to the propaganda posters which were commonplace across the country throughout the 20th century. Since I was made aware of these artefacts and the abominable story behind them, these bloody posters have popped up everywhere. I can’t seem to escape them, whether it be in cafes we’ve visited a hundred times, books or on the tv, they’re on my radar. I’m not sure whether they’ve just appeared or whether the reality is that they’d always been there. Perhaps I’d chosen not to notice them or that my lack of knowledge inhibited my awareness of such things but now that I’m awake I simply can’t unnotice them.

Growing up, my family didn’t fit societal norms. Mum worked a number of jobs, Dad didn’t work so assumed the household chores (what would have been considered women’s jobs in the 70s and 80s). He was a great cook long before Jamie Oliver, knew his way around a washing machine like the back of his hand and was as impressive as Freddie Mercury with a vacuum cleaner. There wasn’t a list of women’s jobs or men’s jobs in our house, they were just jobs. Dad was also handy when it came to DIY – teaching both myself and my sister to decorate, as well as how to perform general house and car maintenance tasks. I thought that was what everyone did. Additionally, my childhood didn’t follow that of a conventional girl, I didn’t play with dolls or tea sets (though my sister did) – choosing to play sports, Action Man and Star Wars instead. I wasn’t brought up thinking that my life choices were constrained because of my gender. Nothing was off-limits. This was an attitude nurtured throughout my teens into my early twenties and luckily reflected in most of the men (and women) I have both worked with and for.

The aftermath of my first rugby match

This is my normal but sadly it isn’t the norm despite what my personal experience would suggest. Very few of my own experiences have seen me disadvantaged because of my gender. However, with a new, heightened awareness, I can recognise that perhaps I didn’t realise what was happening because sexism wasn’t ever a consideration for me.

I’d class myself as a feminist, not particularly a very good one, but a feminist nonetheless. I’ve been guilty of becoming frustrated with my own sex when, at times, I’ve perceived that women were damning the patriarchy unjustly. I have expressed an impatience when it has been suggested that organisations are guilty of sexist or misogynistic practices simply because it wasn’t in my experience. I have been accused of perpetuating institutionalised sexism against women (although I’m told it’s not my fault). We echo behaviours which are such an integral part of our society that we don’t even notice them – or how we are complicit in them.

I used to dismiss this as rubbish but now I’m not so sure…

A recent conversation highlighted a niggle which I’ve had for a while now. The discussion appears to have opened up the floodgates and I am awash with a heightened awareness that I didn’t have before. In a wider debate, my daughter suggested that she, and other women felt it necessary to wear make-up primarily because of the patriarchal society we live in. I was outraged. She had been brought up in an all-female household and raised to be a strong, independent woman; to hear those words coming from her mouth felt like treason. However, once she had clarified her point (and I’d removed my emotion), her argument was well-considered. Often when we think of patriarchy, we have an image of an all-male hierarchy exercising ideals which are oppressive towards women. The interpretation presented to me was a perspective which I hadn’t before considered, that of a society whose cultural norms are structured on years of historically patriarchal attitudes, in which women themselves not only reinforce but perpetuate. Views which will only dilute with years of challenge through a heightened awareness of why change is necessary.

This isn’t a blog vilifying men for their privilege or blaming them for the imbalance. However, it’s important to recognise that this privilege exists and that we all have a part to play in creating a more equitable society. In Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People about Race we are forced to acknowledge the need to heighten awareness of issues that a position of privilege makes us immune to. Eddo-Lodge has a point – and it’s one which we simply can’t ignore.

Since the conversation with my daughter I’ve revisited my experience on a senior leadership level. Again, my school would not be classed as a reflection of a normal school management structure so I look to the borough-wide meetings I attend where there is a clear imbalance in favour of males at a senior level. This is echoed in the structures of management in a great deal of public services, the private sector even more so. If we look at our Government, the 2017 General Election was a record for women with 208 taking their seat in the Houses of Parliament, only 52 MPs elected were BAME – there are 650 places available, so we still have a long way to go to have a government which is an acturate representation of our society. James Bloodworth in The Myth of Meritocracy argues that we seek to perpetuate our normal so organisations look for people ‘like them’. It’s why a lack of diversity of any kind is dangerous.

For women, it’s not just the lack of opportunities, it’s attitudes and actions. It’s in the patronising tone or the mansplaining, it’s the subconscious choices of the media to favour a man rather than to select the best person to represent an organisation. This recent thread by Ben Bartenstein summarises the accidental ignorance which is prevalent in our society. Again, it’s not about the pitch forks in search of scapegoats, it’s about working towards change. The first step in the journey towards equality is to recognise that an imbalance exists, in this case sexism and institutionalised misogyny. Perhaps in illuminating the issues, I’ve challenged your thinking and you’ll notice more. Perhaps even though it isn’t your experience, you’ll acknowledge that your normal maybe isn’t the norm and you won’t be able to avoid taking a view through different eyes…


The pitfalls of the pupil premium

I’ve been following Professor Becky Allen’s work on the issues surrounding disadvantaged students. Her call for educational reform with regard to the pupil premium in England is hopeful, her messages are clear. Alas with everything in education, often purpose is lost in its translation into policy, but Becky’s voice is one which needs to be listened to. Her talk at this year’s researchED conference spoke an evidence-based truth about how the pupil premium grant, in its current form, is failing disadvantaged students. Why has this happened? What needs to change in both policy and schools? Will there ever be a solution to the achievement gap?

When it was introduced in 2011, the purpose of the pupil premium was to help schools improve the attainment of disadvantaged students. Perhaps here is where it was fundamentally flawed? The notion that an injection of money into schools would address all the factors which impact on a child’s ability to succeed was extremely naive, especially since there was an increasing wealth of evidence that school alone could not solve the problem. It could be argued that pupil premium funding was the government’s attempt at a slight of hand, whilst championing an increase in financial support for the most vulnerable in schools, it was clear that funding was being slashed in other areas of children’s services, especially where wrap-around care such as Sure Start was concerned (highlighted in The Guardian earlier this year). Additionally, the bureaucracy which schools and families would have to go through to achieve the necessary funding would ensure that the process was a lengthy and difficult one (especially in the cases of SEND). Assuming that the reason for the introduction of the pupil premium was an honourable one, where did it wrong?

Policy into practice

In 2011, it was dictat that schools would be given autonomy in how the pupil premium was to be spent in their individual setting. But was it really a case of free will? By nature of the fact that funding had to favour students in receipt of the PPG, choice was somewhat restricted. Furthermore, achievement of disadvantaged students being a key indicator in Ofsted judgement outcomes meant that practices would become distorted along the way, serving league tables rather than children. These factors aside, schools have choice in how the money is spent.

Trying to make a fluid concept (disadvantage) concrete is another fundamental flaw. To clarify, disadvantaged students at one school may look very different from those at another. In fact, every student who would qualify for the grant (and indeed many of those who don’t) would tell you very different stories of what being disadvantaged means to them. In education our obsession with metrics has meant that we need to intervene, collect data and measure impact to prove our worth. Whilst necessity, success looks very different depending on setting and values making the measurement of impact a difficult thing to do.

What is the moral purpose of the pupil premium grant and has this been lost along the way? There have been countless examples where schools have spent thousands of pounds on prize draws to reward PPG students for merely attending school or injecting silly amounts of money into initiatives such as targeted students only revision classes. You may argue that being in school improves achievement (and there’s lots of evidence to support this) but is this alone enough to improve a child’s life chances? What about the academic diet they receive? Are practices like those mentioned really improving long term opportunities for students? Do they teach the right attitudes? Are they instilling the necessay values and disciplines which will lead to sustained success as an adult? Do targeted classes fulfil the ethos of schools being inclusive?

Consider Tommy, he is one of three. His mum is an extremely proud single-parent who works two jobs to provide for her children. She’s never been in receipt of benefits but she’s always living just above the breadline. Tommy’s older sister is in the 6th Form and his younger sister is coming to secondary next September when he’ll be in Year 11. Every week the school’s finance team receive a phone call from mum to request that they move money from Tommy’s elder sister’s account into his, he’s got a voracious appetite so he always over-spends. He doesn’t go on trips because mum can’t afford to send all three of her children – so she sends none. He’s a capable student but very happy-go-lucky and a little lazy, often under achieving in lessons. He’s incredibly compliant and would benefit from extra support, encouragement and resources. Tommy doesn’t meet the criteria to be on any list.

Every school has tens of students like Tommy. When schools group by data alone children like Tommy get missed.

Is the funding failing?

Professor Allen makes a strong case that pupil premium funding has failed to make the necessary gains in improving the achievement of disadvantaged students. She also points out that it’s not the funding itself which is the problem, more the way schools spend it – the key point in my opinion. It’s important to ask ourselves if we removed the accountability measures associated with disadvantage would people admonish their moral responsibility along with it? I will always remain relentlessly hopeful in humanity to do what is right.

Finding a solution

The reality is that we’re never going to close the gap, accepting this is the first step towards finding a way to improve outcomes for disadvantaged students. It’s also important to understand that whilst good practice can be shared, what works in one school will not necessarily be the silver bullet in another – no matter how similar they appear to be on paper. However, in all the research I’ve seen where schools are successful in improving the achievement of disadvantaged students the following characteristics are common:

  • A clear vision and purpose driven by the importance of a good education for all
  • Clear communication of this vision to everyone involved and how this looks in the school’s practices
  • A commitment to quality first teaching
  • A focus on improving achievement for all with the understanding that whilst this may not close the gap, there is a relentless drive to ensure that student achievement (both disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged) is better than elsewhere
  • Having advocates who know the students in receipt of PPG (and those like Tommy) – someone who can give staff insight into the individual and who monitors students from a distance
  • A team of people who are knowledgeable and are trusted by families

These are the golden threads running throughout the narrative of schools who are improving outcomes for disadvantaged students. There’s a case for the narrowing of the curriculum during the EYFS and KS 1 stages with a focus on literacy to prevent gaps. Perhaps more spending at these stages both within school and with wrap-around care would be a useful place to start?

To say the pupil premium isn’t working is a fair comment to make. I agree that we need to do some things differently but there’s a danger when a salient point becomes a sound bite or when suggestions for improvements become invitations for the removal of resources. When this happens the first to suffer are always society’s most vulnerable. If you want to know what Becky thinks then make sure you read the punchline.

Lesson plans and planning lessons


“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Romeo and Juliet (Act II, Scene II)

Do lesson plans and planning lessons equate to the same thing?

Who is a lesson plan intended for? Are they fit for purpose? Do the benefits of lesson plans outweigh the time taken to write them? Could the time taken writing lesson plans be used more effectively elsewhere?

It’s always good to look back on your own journey and a chance opening of a lesson plan from nearly ten years ago made me realise just how far I have come in my own teaching. It also made me question whether or not teachers are still wasting time filling in needless paperwork which is neither beneficial to their students’ learning nor does it encourage them to think about the pedagogy of their teaching. Many teachers are lucky to work in enlightened environments but are some schools still living in the Dark Ages?

Here is an example of a lesson plan I have been guilty of writing in the past….

I remember spending hours writing lesson plans, collating achievement data and colour-coding seating plans which would be happily handed to an observer/inspector upon their entry into the room. I also remember my extreme annoyance when the bundle of joy I had laid before them was simply left on a desk at the end of the lesson. What I failed to realise was just how little the lesson plan focussed on what I wanted students to learn. I often chose to focus more on how I would want the lesson to look to an observer than what and how I wanted to teach. The content and the pedagogy was last on the list. I am comfortable enough within myself for critics to say that I was bad at my job or that I didn’t understand pedagogy, however I propose that the culture of education in the early 2000s (and still now in some cases) encouraged teachers to be more show than substance. It was how my PGCE encouraged me to plan and how the school I worked in expected me to prepare my lessons. It was all that I knew. I have to admit that it was also my expectation early on in my career as a senior leader, something which I apologise for now. Thinking that main pay scale teachers can spend hours preparing lesson plans which are pointless is a completely unreasonable request and should be avoided at all costs.

Why lesson plans don’t equate to planning for learning….

Teaching is incredibly simple yet society has managed to make it both complex and convoluted. Learning should not be thought of in silos, one-off lessons of 50 or 60 minutes. This is why a thoroughly considered curriculum narrative is key to good teaching and learning. What does the journey look like? Christine Counsell explains the importance of curriculum beautifully here.

As with overall curriculum, content should be at the core of the lesson:

  • What do you want students to learn? How does this fit into the bigger picture?
  • How are you going to get them from a point of novice to understanding?
  • What needs to happen along the way to create the best conditions for this?
  • How are you going to assess at various points? (short-term and long-term)

This gets missed in a lesson plan which is designed for observers rather than the teacher. A lot of information is redundant. How does the number of PP and LAC students influence the teaching of Pythagoras’ Theorem for instance? Should we not base our teaching on the assessment of students’ needs in this area rather than external, irrelevant factors? Sometimes the promotion of this information actively disadvantages students, especially where expectations are concerned. Of course teachers should know their students but surely the needs of these students differ on a lesson-by-lesson/subject-by-subject basis therefore arbitrary government-driven groups are pointless. Additionally, there is something seriously unnerving if we need to write what the teacher and students should be doing in a lesson, isn’t this obvious? It’s ridiculous to consider timings minute by minute. We should plan for general timings but teachers are in danger of losing sight of what’s important if they have a plan which they are afraid to deviate from. Sadly, I’ve been guilty of doing all of the above in the past.

Mark Enser has written a series of blogs which were accompanied by an excellent researchED presentation, this encompasses what teaching should be about. Planning should reflect this simplicity.

How my planning looks now….

Even though I’m a senior leader, first and foremost, I’m a teacher. Reflecting on and improving my classroom practice is still as important as it was when I was an NQT. Our school uses the Trivium as a starting point for our philosophy of teaching, with a focus on Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction (which as Jan Rowe, Head of ITT at LJMU thinks should be called Principles of Good Teaching) as the fundamentals of expected practice. You can read more about Rosenshine from Tom Sherrington here. I plan lessons looking at content and development of ideas and understanding. I think about questions and assessment of students’ learning throughout. I don’t worry too much about timings although I am aware of how long we have to teach overarching ideas (I still need to get better at this) and I know the none-negotiables which are expected at each stage of the journey. My planning focusses on using direct instruction to maximise teacher talk (thanks to Kris Boulton), retrieval of existing knowledge, reducing students’ cognitive load so that they grasp content more easily as well as deliberate intelligent practice and using variation theory to help students begin to make links (some of these lend themselves more easily to the teaching of mathematics but they’re all worth looking into). I’ve got to thank Craig Barton and Jane Jones (ex HMI) for their work which has enlightened me.

As a result of all that reading and learning about pedagogy, my lesson planning now looks like something like this:

  • What do I want students to learn? How does this fit into the bigger picture?
  • How am I going to get them from a point of novice to understanding?
  • What questions am I going to ask?
  • How will I check for understanding and future planning needs?

The focus is primarily on the what and the how, I make handwritten notes. Often they stay as handwritten notes or if I have the time I’ll transfer the content to a PowerPoint or Promethean software. The beauty of my own notes is that I’m actually thinking about the sequencing of the learning and the needs of the students I teach for that topic. It also means that if a student is off they have something concrete to work from which acts as a great stimulus for catch up discussions. I’m not afraid to use a textbook or a well-considered worksheet to accompany my teaching but I’m very discerning about what I use with students. John Tomsett has written a very timely blog about his own teaching echoing such sentiments here.

My lessons don’t have as many exciting activities as they did back in 2008 but they have a much greater focus on learning and, as a result of that, students leave with a sense of achievement which in itself develops their motivation to get better. My teaching isn’t perfect, it never will be – but it’s getting better day-by-day. My planning has cut out any redundant information and is centred around the most important cornerstones of pedagogy.

The difference in my approach now is down to my environment. Having the freedom to work in a way that will be most effective is liberating. Teachers can plan in the most impactful way when SLT are not prescriptive about lesson plans or pointless bureaucratic processes. This takes brave SLT and a lot of effort on their behalf. Putting trust in staff is key, as well as putting time into individual teachers who need support to develop their practice. In the long-run it’s worthwhile.

As senior leaders, we have a duty of care to empower our teachers. Getting rid of meaningless lesson plans to encourage planning for learning is a step in the right direction.

Exclusions, shaming and bias

Is it always wrong to steal?

Are there times where the end justifies the means? Are we ever guilty of making allowances depending on the who dunnit rather than the what they dun?

To err is human, to forgive is divine.

We’re all only human and capable of bias. However, do our biases affect our powers of reason and indeed encourage absolute judgement when perhaps reservation would be more appropriate? The responses to the recent article in The Guardian further called to question whether our stance in certain situations differs depending on the people/schools involved.

As with the start of every new school year, education has had the usual cycle of students challenging the rules on uniform and, in turn, schools responding in a variety of ways. A number of schools have made the local and national press, especially those which have isolated or excluded students for failing to adhere to expectations. This has coincided with publications in the media documenting a number of schools who have issued fixed and permanent exclusions or off-rolled students. This is news which has yet again polarised both Twitter and comment boxes all over the web.

Clearly responses to the information presented are emotive and fuelled by personal philosophy, often backed by evidence to support the given view – which everyone is entitled to do. My question is at what point does information which is freely available become shaming? Would we encourage the sharing of information if it was our school or a school we held a particular affiliation to? Outrage seems to me as a result of the who rather than the what…

In my experience of nearly twenty years working in education I have never met a teacher who believes you should never exclude a child. Equally, I’ve never worked for a head teacher who would exclude (either fixed-term or permanent) children without good reason. Often, any exclusion or isolation is a last resort when every other option had been considered. This is just my experience but I’m sure it’s a description most of you can identify with.

Every year, whether we like it or not, every secondary state school across the country is in danger of experiencing elation or shame when league tables are published. Head teachers and their teams have to live by the decisions they’ve made and the work that they’ve done with the children that they’ve got – there’s no hiding from it. There’s not an outcry when results are published because as a society we feel that this is how to measure success. However, increasingly in education, there is a realisation that exam performance alone does not paint a clear picture of the quality of a child’s schooling (some of us have known this all along) Acceptance of this by Ofsted in the outcomes weighting of its judgements is a significant indication of the sea change which is upon us. With this in mind, should numbers of exclusions (fixed and permanent), students removed from roll, and students educated off-site not be part of a school’s evidence for the quality of its provision? Furthermore, should it not be the duty of our press to report on this?

The majority of head teachers or member of SLT who issue a severe sanction to a student would have the courage to stand by their decision when held up to scrutiny because they believe that their judgement at that time with the information they possessed was the right thing to do for everyone involved. If they aren’t able to give a clear and reasonable rationale behind their action then is it not reasonable to question whether the decision was the right one in the first place? To have an opinion on exclusions and use freely available data is not shaming. However, I personally would always check my motivation for sharing details about a school and whether this was purely in the pursuit of truth. Equally, if you’re SLT and have made a decision, it’s important to have the courage of your convictions and stand by you decisions if you firmly believe your actions are for the greater good.

On a personal note, in my experience exclusion has always been a last resort and only when every other avenue has been explored. Equally, knowing when a school is no longer the right place for a child is a very nuanced situation. Sometimes exclusion is the best thing a school can do for a student (as Stuart Lock writes here) and the rest of the community.

Seeing first-hand how hard head teachers have to work and how difficult their decisions are on a daily basis, I think it’s all-too-easy to stand on the sidelines and criticise. No action taken at a very senior level is ever done without a great deal of consideration. As individuals who are invested in education and young people shouldn’t we be supporting our colleagues and not letting our bias get in the way?

The next time we’re quick to jump on the judgement bandwagon perhaps we should ask ourselves if we would arrive at such an opinion if it was one of our friend’s who’d made the call? And if it was, would we feel any differently? Just a thought.

What’s the issue with working class students and Oxbridge?

With A level results day here I wanted to write a post about something that’s quite important to me as far as the role that university plays in social mobility. I’m not advocating that all students should go on to formalised higher education, there are lots of really great routes out there and these should be tailored to the individual. However, I do feel strongly that addressing the under-representation of groups on a wider societal level starts with the representation of these groups in education when selection becomes a factor. Furthermore, this is not a post suggesting that all students should aspire to Oxbridge, I merely want to pose a few thoughts as to perhaps why certain demographics of young people are under-represented at Oxford and Cambridge and I’d like to look at what we in state schools can do to address this.

I’ve always upheld a cynical view of Oxbridge admissions. A view supported by the belief that students from state schools were at a disadvantage throughout the selection process. Admissions statistics released by the University of Oxford this year only served to confirm my suspicions.

We often seek evidence to support our bias rather than challenge it but the reality is that not enough students from state schools (particularly from certain groups) make it into Oxford and Cambridge. In an effort to see what we could do in our own setting I attended The Sutton Trust’s Teacher Summer School run by The University of Oxford in July of this year. I very quickly realised that my opinions were formed with an abundance of bias and without many facts. This two day conference was aimed at getting more students from less-advantaged backgrounds into Oxford. The event itself was illuminating. There was a sense of earnest across the whole Admissions Team, an acceptance that groups of students from certain backgrounds are failing to apply for or achieve places and this simply isn’t good enough. They faced the statistics head on – there’s no getting away from the gaps, however, throughout the two days the entire team displayed a steely determination to address this. There are a multitude of strategies planned to tackle the deficits which range from education programmes (for students and teachers) to enhanced recruitment and support events. Additionally the team have developed online packages such as Oxplore and Ignite to support students and teachers in preparing for those intimidating interviews. With various experience opportunities for sixth form students and a drive to raise awareness of the financial support available the team at Oxford are hoping to reap the rewards of their hard work with state schools over the coming years but are realistic about the fact that this will take time. For the time being though, the efforts of the team are still not hitting the mark…

A theory: why there aren’t more state school students applying and why aren’t those who do more successful?

I’m going to be quite controversial here and say that I don’t think the blame lies with Oxford and Cambridge. In my opinion, the crux of the problem lies with schools and their students. It is influenced by two main factors: a lack of awareness/knowledge and the comfort of familiarity.

Preparation for UCAS applications is driven by teachers and tutors. In the state sector we try to serve too many purposes – covering all bases. This is most apparent in the disproportionate amount of time allocated to personal statements and references at the cost of interview and test preparation. We also try to provide a safety net for those students who aren’t offered a place with personal statements that will be attractive to other universities too.

Teachers’ lack of knowledge about the contributing factors of the application and their weighting can disadvantage those students who would be considered Oxbridge material.

Students’ lack of knowledge is also a limiting factor. A great deal of discussion over the course of the conference was on the super-curricular. This is used to describe learning beyond what is prescribed by our National Curriculum and GCSE/GCE programmes of study. One could argue that this within itself is elitist and favours independent schools. Clearly, state schools are limited to what they can teach in the time that we are given. However, a culture of teaching to pass a test and the deprofessionalisation of teachers through generalised, rather than subject specific CPD in some schools has also contributed to this. Teachers’ subject knowledge must go beyond the qualification they are teaching – good teaching leads to successful learning. Ask yourself, how equipped are we to push our students beyond what they need to know to pass the test? Here, the foundations need be developed early not in Year 12, our children deserve the opportunity to achieve their potential and it’s our job to get them there. The development of a broad and balanced curriculum, rich in knowledge is a step in the right direction for all sorts of reasons and not just for the most able students.

So why not more applications? I was particularly interested in this when I was presented with the following infographic:

This shows the number of students who achieved A level grades which would make them eligible for offers from Oxford. Now look at the trends below in the applications and accepted offers:

Selfishly, I considered students from the North West with 3595 (7.2% of the overall) being eligible to apply. Out of those who could, only 972 did and only 200 received/accepted offers. This is a similar picture for many northern parts of the country. Why are so few students applying? I believe one factor which is often overlooked is the fact that familiarity has a significant part to play. Many students opt to stay local, choosing universities far enough from their home to give independent living but quite often within a safe distance from the region of their birth. There isn’t anything wrong with this but we can hardly blame Oxford for the lack of applications. This could also be a contributing factor behind the largest number of applications coming from London, the East and South East – Oxford is familiar to students in the neighbouring regions. Obviously we must acknowledge that population density as this is also a contributing factor.

The issue of students staying in their region has been exacerbated by universities offering unconditional places to students who show promise. This is unethical practice in my opinion and promotes an unhealthy attitude among students. The rise in unconditional offers has increased from 2,985 in 2013 to 67,915 in 2018 as Sir John Dunford wrote in the TES yesterday. This can hardly be good for students’ aspirations or motivations.

If institutions like Oxford are facing this type of competition why not lower entrance expectations, especially for those groups identified as being significantly low?

There have been calls from many for Oxford and Cambridge to positively discriminate in favour of the most underrepresented groups. So why not? How many Sixth Forms attached to schools have lowered entrance criteria to include more students only to see those weaker students struggle with A level courses? Have you ever felt the guilt of allowing a student onto your course only to watch them continually fail and ultimately have to leave? If you have, you’ll know exactly why Oxford and Cambridge have to maintain their standards. They’re also meritocracies, lowering standards for certain groups of students would only devalue the achievements of these young people. It’s important to note here that there are key indicators that Oxford take into account when offering interviews favouring students who have faced disadvantage for one reason or another, however, this only provides the opportunity, the student still has to prove their worth. Nonetheless, there is a vicious cycle which exists in universities – students apply where they feel comfortable, where they fit in. If a prospective candidate sees that there are only small numbers of students like them attending a university then perhaps they would be less inclined to apply? This is a hurdle that we must address together: schools, colleges and the institutions themselves.

Anecdotally, one of the issues that state school students face when they go to interview is being intimidated by the confidence students from other backgrounds exude. The experience of the interview process is not the reality of life at Russell Group universities from our students’ feedback. Yet the way a student feels during this couple of days can have a significant impact on their interview performance and their decision whether to accept an offer. A great piece of advice I received during the summer school from one of the professors was to get students to focus on Oxford’s Student Ambassadors rather than their perceived competition as these young people were much more representative of the University’s population. As a teacher, I have encouraged students not be intimidated by competition (particularly those from independent schools) but I see now that this was the wrong emphasis to make because I was reinforcing a misguided focus.

What are my takeaways and what can schools do differently?

  1. Preparation needs to start early for the most able students and this should be integral to curriculum planning – this will not only help Oxbridge and Russell Group preparation but will give all students a broad and balanced education, good preparation for life.
  2. Personal statements should focus on a student’s passion for the subject and their super-curricular work around this. References should act as triangulation for students’ claims and this should be further evidenced in both the specific tests and interview.
  3. The biggest factors in a student receiving a place at Oxford are academic performance (external examinations and entrance tests) and the interview so schools should apportion time accordingly. There are lots of practice tests on the Oxford website so students can start to prepare early.
  4. Interviews focus on content rather than delivery – rather than preparing students to deliver a good speech, schools would do well to encourage students to think deeply about their chosen field, to form opinions based on a variety of reliable sources and to be able to consider alternative viewpoints. Tutors can spot style without substance a mile off.
  5. Students shouldn’t worry too much about how they compare to others (in both appearance and language) and just focus on what is being asked of them. Preparation needs to reassure students but not emphasise the less important details.
  6. Use the support that’s being offered – the day after I got back I contacted the outreach representative for the northwest and arranged workshops for students from both sixth form and our main school. The support is out there, you only have to ask!
  7. Build relationships with universities, not just Oxford and Cambridge. All universities invest a great deal of time in student recruitment and are more than happy to talk to students about university life.
  8. It’s never to early to plant the seed. Start early with students, why not take a group of year 7 children to visit a university? Let them fall in love with where learning can take them before teenage angst sets in!
  9. Give students solid, unbiased advice. Too often I’ve influenced students’ university choices without even realising it. From now on I’m going to encourage students to look beyond their locality – there’s lots more choice than we ourselves know about and we can limit students’ considerations with our own bias.
  10. If we want to make change happen it’s up to us to affect the change – rather than being angry and frustrated when students don’t get offers we need to fully understand the processes and do all we can to develop successful future applications.

Still more to be done…

There’s still lots more work to be done when addressing the significantly lower numbers of students from particular groups attending Oxford, and indeed Russell Group universities. I think that Sir John Dunford made excellent points about the university admissions process in yesterday’s TES, all of which would support increased success of applications from students of less advantaged backgrounds. There has been a sea-change, certainly my experience of the collaboration between Oxford and The Sutton Trust indicates the desire to proactively address the elephant in the room. The impact of their work will be limited sadly if schools and colleges don’t take the opportunity to get involved in being the catalyst for change. I personally feel that universities need to be a presence in schools, particularly in areas of deprivation and of historically low application. This cannot happen piecemeal, universities have to do more than pay lip service to initiatives by working hard to get into schools – educating and inspiring both students and teachers alike. Additionally, schools need to make this happen, we need to be welcoming our HEIs with open arms as well as businesses and colleges who can provide apprenticeships and vocational courses too. We need to give our young people the information so that they can make considered choices and we need to educate them with the knowledge that will equip them to succeed in their pathways. Sadly, all of this takes time we often don’t have so for everything we attribute time to we have to take it away from elsewhere – never enough hours in the day!

From what I’ve learned this year The University of Oxford and The Sutton Trust are already quietly working towards improving opportunities for students, as is the case with most of our HEIs. The challenge now is to join this up with the work we are doing in schools and colleges. To do this we must open up lines of communication and continue to build on existing relationships. There’s so much on offer for key stage 5 students, it’s our job to uncover the opportunities and nurture the highest aspirations in our young people.

There’s something about Mary…

There are very few books I’ve read about education which I haven’t been able to put down, Seven Myths by Daisy Christodoulou (which I’ve written about here) is the most notable exception to the rule. Today I add to my very exclusive list with the latest offering from Mary Myatt, The Curriculum (available through Amazon here). I started it Friday evening and enjoyed delving into its last chapters this morning over breakfast.

I’m not the most efficient reader, I know digesting the contents of a book or article will take a significant amount of effort on my behalf. As a rule of thumb I always ask myself:

  • What time have I got right now and how much attention will I need to read x?
  • Will the time it takes to read x be worth the impact on other aspects of my life at this time?
  • Who will benefit from me reading this book?

When I consider anything from Mary I always know that reading her words will be enjoyable and feel relatively effortless. Furthermore, many people around me will benefit from her wisdom. All things considered, setting time aside in my life to get go grips with her work is a very worthwhile pursuit.

The Curriculum is, in my opinion, Mary’s best offering yet. Why? Well for a start, it is concise. She explains concepts clearly and succinctly, in an intelligent and well-thought out approach she navigates the reader through the various aspects of curriculum in a joined up way.

The best communicators can explain the most difficult concepts in such a manner that everyone can understand, Mary not only does this consistently through all of her written work but is also as an accomplished orator. This book does that so expertly that anyone could read it and engage, from head teacher to trainee, even people not in education would get it. There’s a real skill in that. Mary only ever writes about issues in which she is well-read and where she is passionate, she never jumps on a bandwagon, the end result being beautiful products written in earnest. As with all of her work, Mary is a light-bringer. She showcases the best of what’s out there whether that be research or practice, The Curriculum does this brilliantly whilst melding with her own personal beliefs about the development of a worthwhile content for students. I’ve absolutely loved Mary’s two previous books, her style of writing seems to lead you in a journey that feels both a personal and passionate crusade on their subject matter. The Curriculum is no different – you know this matters deeply on so many levels.

My takeaways

I dont think i can do this book justice in a few bullet points and urge you to read it but here are a few gems I’ve taken away:

  • A clear vision and purpose for a curriculum is an absolute must.
  • Curriculums should focus on excellence for everyone.
  • Content should be considered and justified.
  • It’s about the macro and the micro.
  • Cognitive challenge, assessment and the drive towards beautiful work should be integral.
  • Literacy is vital – reading, writing and spoken language.
  • A curriculum needs to be lived and breathed not just a document I’m a shelf.

For me though, my biggest takeaway is that Mary has whet my appetite, she’s encouraged me to go away, look differently at our own practice and learn more. She’s shone a light on other avenues that I’m excited to explore, in particular the work of Clare Sealy, Andrew Percival and Tom Boulter, as well as Michael Young, Christine Counsell and Peter Hyman. Mary’s signposting to research, practice and resources make the book a useful road map which is worth the purchase price alone.

In the final part of the book, Mary goes beyond research, practice and her own thoughts to offer practical approaches to building a purposeful and cohesive curriculum. This looks across specific subject areas and spans both primary and secondary phases, offering great starting points for discussion as well as tools for support. I honestly don’t know how Mary has packed so much into this book but she’s certainly pulled off great substance with style.

Lastly, I like to consider how useful a book would be to a teacher at any stage in their career. I would recommend this to be part of the canon that all teachers read and revisit at some point. I’ll be adding it to the list for our next cohort of trainees first thing tomorrow morning and recommending it to a friend. If you’re looking for some summer (or at any time) reading that will be enjoyable, useful and have an impact you can’t go wrong with this brilliant book!

The reality about the white working-class. Is outrage helping?

Amanda Spielman has been ruffling a few feathers with her comments at the Festival of Education recently:
“We are having to grapple with the unhappy fact that many local, working-class communities have felt the full brunt of economic dislocation in recent years, and, perhaps as a result, can lack the aspiration and drive seen in many migrant communities.”

And the response from many has been quite a reactive one:

Sadly, Amanda is right. And our resentment of what she said, towards the organisation she leads, or our anger at the wider social injustice doesn’t help to change the reality for people from these backgrounds.

Our armchair outrage is simply just that.

We are offended and annoyed because of our biases without ever really seeing the situation for what it is. How many airing their views live in the communities of which are being spoken about? Are we having the debate around the people who our words affect without actually hearing their voices? And would we like what we heard if they had a say?

I’ve written about why I think we’re failing the disadvantaged here, here and here but that’s not for this post.

Yes aspiration is low in many white-working class areas because communities are more isolated from schools (and other institutions which were historically considered hubs of the community) than they’ve ever been but not because of Ofsted or them being “exam factories”. Schools now represent the establishment, other aspects of community institutions (like churches, pubs and libraries) are a dying breed so people become more isolated and lose their sense of belonging. And our view of aspiration from a position of concerned comfort is very different from those living and breathing the reality.

We know what’s best for them.

So who is volunteering to come and live on the council estate where my mum lives to help build a sense of belonging, raise aspiration and show white working-class communities like this that education is what’s best for them? Who is going to want to work in the local secondary school that is struggling to recruit and retain teachers not because of its Ofsted report or poor exam results (although neither are great) but simply because the town has very little to offer people with qualifications and aspirations of a better life?

Well it’s all gone quiet over here.

No volunteers?

Yet we’re happy to criticise Amanda Spielman for telling it like it is.

The issue here is that we look at a headline, confirm our own biases and jump straight into outrage. Well done keyboard warriors, you’ve done precisely zero to help. This is where our righteous indignation is damaging.

Wigan is the neighbouring town to St Helens, two very alike working-class communities with similar issues. Though they look familiar on paper, I wouldn’t try to apply my experience of teaching in a neighbouring town to leadership of a school in Wigan without at first getting to understand the place itself. And I wouldn’t even try to insult the expertise of colleagues in parts of real deprivation like Blackpool by telling them how to do their jobs because the reality for people in these coastal towns is much more of a bleak affair. In many instances these are white-working class ghettos where there is mistrust for authority of any kind and a comfort in familiarity.

So thank you but I don’t want to hear you using headlines to peddle your own personal bias unless your outrage is going to convert into action. The only way we’ll ever break the cycle of deprivation and low-aspiration is by winning hearts and minds, by understanding exactly what the issues facing an individual community are and by getting involved; by investing in it long-term.

If not, then please don’t pretend to care and don’t use the latest headline to do it.

Before you complain about workload are you doing any of these?

We moan a lot as a profession. And, though at times warranted, it doesn’t do us any favours for all sorts of reasons. Yes – managing behaviour can be hard; yes – the pay often doesn’t reflect the hours worked and yes there are lots of bits of our job which don’t add value (especially the paperwork). However, moaning and whinging is not going to develop solutions, nor is it going to win us any favours or improve our own wellbeing. This stance may seem harsh and I’m not trying to diminish how hard teachers work or denying that some aspects of education need changing. However, I do think that we’re guilty of being our own worst enemy at times and need to recognise we can’t change everything. There are things that we choose to do which don’t add value to be worth the effort and it’s time to let these unhealthy habits go. Perhaps if we can identify them and modify our own behaviours then we won’t feel as stressed about workload. Here are a few that stand out for me:

1. Being accessible all the time

Even senior leaders can afford to have a break. Will checking your inbox before bed (and maybe giving yourself a sleepless night) have more impact than at 8am the next day? Do you respond to work communucations straight away even when it’s not convenient?

Why? Most things can wait.

2. Marking for others rather to inform planning and students’ progress

Always ask yourself who is this for? When we mark it’s to assess what students have learned so that we can make sure our future teaching plugs the gaps and builds on existing knowledge. Students won’t care as much about the feedback they receive as being successful in the subject. Take time to talk to them in class, they’ll appreciate this more than the fact that you stayed up until midnight making sure everyone got a comment. Often the feedback we give is the same for a number so it’s much better to revisit this in class. Additionally, if you’re marking for parents, SLT or external agencies rather than the children you teach then everyone’s time is being wasted. I’m not saying don’t follow policy – even if it’s a ridiculous one, I’m suggesting that you use professional discretion and then have a dialogue with SLT about how the policy works in practice. If you’re spending more time marking than planning or not using marking to inform your planning then it’s time for some reflection.

3. Doing what you’ve always done

If you’re running yourself ragged doing what you’ve always done then perhaps it’s time to stop and take stock. I used to put lots of energy and activity into my lessons – too much. At the end of the hour the students were exhausted, as was I. How much learning took place I couldn’t say but my students were entertained. One day I had an epiphany, realising that I was doing more work than the students so I changed my approach. Now my planning focusses on students doing purposeful activities following clear and coherent teacher instruction with relevant supervision and support where necessary. I’m still as enthusiastic, I’m just more discerning about what we do which has reduced my planning time significantly. Students work harder, learn more effectively and their outcomes have improved.

4. Favouring style over substance

I used to spend hours making my PowerPoint presentations look amazing. Knowing what I know now about Sweller’s Cognitive Load theory I realise not only how much time I wasted but how much damage I did. I spend much less time making things look nice and focus on ensuring instruction/resources are fit for purpose. The result is a reduction in the time I spend preparing and an increase in students’ learning.

5. Being last minute with deadlines

I’ve been both sides of this: class teacher with deadlines to meet and manager setting deadlines to be met. I recognise now that being last minute.com always made me feel stressed. As a class teacher I’d often complete reports and paperwork the night before the deadline leaving me stressed and tired when I’d been given weeks to complete the task. I’m much more in favour of little and often now. I set myself small, manageable goals; short bursts of focussed attention give me a much more satisfying outcome.

6. Trying to be the hero teacher

In pursuing this foolish endeavour you not only damage your own wellbeing but create a tension among colleagues. I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t try to be the best teacher you can be, I’m merely encouraging you not to be in competition with everyone else for the martyr of the year award. Please don’t strive to earn the reputation for always being last person to leave on parents’ evening or the students’ favourite teacher. When you try too hard you waste your own time, make it difficult for others and create an unhealthy competition among colleagues.

7. Wasting time during the school day

Working in a school is brilliant. Interaction is what teachers love and working with young people is the most rewarding part of the job. Breaks and adult conversation are equally important but don’t prioritise too much downtime during the school day over family time outside of work. Always check yourself. We work to live not live to work remember!

8. Tweeting about wellbeing instead of actually enjoying your life

I struggle to understand the need to post pictures documenting your successful efforts to chill out. In our busy lives it’s probably much more worthwhile (and a lot less stressful) to be in the moment rather than tweet about it.

9. Being a blogoholic/tweetoholic

If you feel your workload is becoming an overwhelming dark cloud but you spend all of your time blogging and tweeting about education then give yourself a holiday from all things online. Try relaxing then reassess your approaches to work – a clear head might just help you gain perspective and replenish your energies.

10. Signing up for everything

Schools can’t operate without good will and we are so lucky to have people who will go the extra mile. Education is about so much more than exams; extra curricular clubs, trips and competitions develop many aspects of character that lessons alone simply cannot. However, if your participation in the extra stuff is affecting your wellbeing or if it means that you’re struggling to keep up with the day job then take a break. No one will think any less of you. I know I’d prefer to work with healthy and happy staff who want to come to school than ones who are stressed and feel that the work is never ending.

Teaching is hard, there is always plenty to be done and some systems add unnecessary work to our daily life. That’s the reality and there are many aspects of our profession that we can’t change. However, one thing we are in control of is ourselves and who we practise to be so the next time you’re feeling stressed about workload start with yourself because self-love can totally transform your outlook.

How education is perpetuating learned helplessness

Legend has it that if you throw a frog into boiling water, it will jump straight out. However, if you put a frog into cold water and gradually increase the heat then it will boil alive without knowing it. For those out there who need everything to be evidence informed I must confess that I don’t have any research to hand which will back up my claim, I myself am happy to accept this analogy though.

I first came across this way of thinking when I worked in the NHS. I was part of a team of people who were tasked to roll out a national project and we were told to treat staff like the frogs, roll out the project in such a way that they didn’t notice the change. Some changes in the NHS have been good ones, as have some in education. However a number of initiatives brought in to support our public services seemed like a good idea at the time but have created a learned helplessness within our professions.

Recently, I attended a session delivered by Daisy Christodoulou recently on comparative judgement and its use in education. What struck me most was the spectrum of responses to this way of assessment. When I began to consider the demographic of the room I realised that the majority of people there had experienced only National Curriculum levels and GCSE grade descriptors, both as teachers and students themselves. When asked to compare one piece of work against another, teachers looked for the safety of grade descriptors and rubrics. Comparative judgement is not about categories or pigeon holes, it’s simply about professional understanding and the effective application of subject expertise. Once teachers set about completing the exercise Daisy had set it within a couple of minutes they were feeling more comfortable with their judgements. There was a sense of empowerment in the room, it was liberating.

I’ve found that the initial anxiety of the teachers at the beginning of Daisy’s session is much more indicative of the bigger picture for assessment across education, often without the reassuring atmosphere that professional development events like No More Marking deliver. Teachers can feel very isolated and in a situation where they are consciously incompetent. Worse still, there are teachers and schools who are unconsciously incompetent because they don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t feel confident assessing students’ learning and communication of their subject without a tick-box or a data tracking grid. Why? Simply because we are in a situation where we don’t know any different. The National Curriculum was introduced following the Education Reform act in 1988 and students were first formally assessed on its content in 1991. Since this time there has been a descriptor or level apportioned to everything teachers do. Schools like ours rejoiced at the removal of levels because we felt that we were being trusted to assess our students using our professional judgement and that we were empowering our teachers as experts. However, this wasn’t the case for everyone. Over the last few years we’ve seen levels replaced by descriptors or words which again have no tangible meaning to them and give no insight into what a student knows or doesn’t know. Assessment is just one of many aspects of education where we have developed a learned helplessness, something which needs addressing with an intelligent and stealthy approach.

How can we redress the balance?

The reality is that there is no silver bullet in education. In fact, chasing silver bullets and ticking boxes are precisely the catalyst for long term issues – favouring short term rewards over the creation of a sustainable culture of excellence is a recipe for disaster. I’ve a few ideas about what senior leadership teams should do to prevent learned helplessness in their schools, starting with the leadership team themselves:

Be brave and discerning

When head teachers are asked by governing bodies, LAs or trust boards to set targets for the school there is an enormous amount of pressure to set unrealistic and unachievable markers, which in turn cascades onto staff – turning the focus away from teaching. The best head teachers will be brave and only agree to targets which are reasonable and promote a sustainable improvement. On a similar point, there is a tendency from some head teachers to move from one initiative to the next. If the environment is one of constant change, teachers can’t keep up, practices never get embedded and professionals can’t take responsibility for their own teaching.

Create a culture of trust and expectation

If SLT have to look to a spreadsheet when asked how their school, students or teachers are doing then monitoring is focusing on the wrong things – numbers not people. Data and monitoring are important but creating a climate where a member of the leadership team at the classroom door is an integral part of supporting the teachers as well as knowing the school and its students should be what teams are striving for. Expectations on students and staff should be clear and regularly communicated through a variety of methods. High standards should be set and if an individual is failing to make those expectations talk to them on a one-to-one. There’s nothing worse than the team telling off when it’s just one or two people who are doing something wrong unwittingly. After all, no one wants to do a bad job so a private conversation explaining expectations is much more effective in creating mutual respect and a culture of collective responsibility

Treat teachers as professionals

The importance of acknowledging teachers’ ability to apply their professional knowledge is vital for any SLT. When individual responsibility is taken away by enforcing systemic procedures and practices that don’t add value the damage done can be catastrophic. Often these are to make monitoring and box ticking easier. This approach diminishes professional curiousity and impacts on a teacher’s desire to keep learning about their passions. Furthermore, it develops a sense of relinquishing personal responsibility. Leadership teams need to lead, set out expectations, accept that there are many ways to meet those expectations and facilitate teachers in their efforts to achieve them.

Professional development that’s fit for purpose and bespoke

This ties in with my previous point. If you ask a teacher what they need to develop the majority will be able to tell you. The minority that don’t know would benefit from a developmental conversation. Trying to apply a one size fits all attitude to CPD can be detrimental to the development of more (and less) experienced staff, as can prioritising generic professional learning at the cost of subject specific enhancement. Having an annual INSET session on generic questioning skills is useless if a teacher doesn’t hold the domain specific knowledge to know which questions to ask. Leadership teams should also encourage further scholarship in their staff as well as this perpetuates the love of learning whilst keeping teachers at the top of their intellectual game so to speak.

Leaders need to be the hardest workers in the school

This is not about showboating or creating an environment where you can’t leave until the head teacher does. Equally it’s not about those who pay lip service to a work life balance. As senior leaders it is our job to facilitate teaching and learning at its very best. We must work hard quietly behind the scenes to enable that to happen. To make it easier for teachers takes a significant amount of effort from us. Encouraging departments to mark in the most effective way for them or record the data that gives the most useful insight to their students’ learning and needs will produce a spectrum of information, it is the role of SLT to make sense of it whilst quality assuring that what’s happening in classes. In my experience, a procedure put in place to make monitoring easier very rarely improves the quality of first wave teaching.

Will we ever achieve perfection?

The reality is that we are never going to get to a perfect situation where students and teachers alike all assume the level of personal responsibility for their own learning and practice. Why? Simply because humans are beautifully flawed, we’re all different and we all have different perceptions of excellence and expectation. Good leadership teams will recognise this and work hard to communicate their expectations to the people within their communities. They will focus on empowering staff and students, recognising potential and supporting the efforts of individuals to improve. Brave leaders will have conversations and invest time working with adults and students who are struggling to enhance their own personal development rather than giving out blanket messages and INSET that are wasted on the many. Above all, they are discerning in what they choose to ask teachers to do – considering whether the impact is worth the effort of their staff. All of this takes huge effort in the first instance and a relentless commitment to continuous refinement of practices – tweaking not transforming. The question is this, are we as leaders willing to put in the effort needed or are we going to take the easy option of line of least resistance then complain about how incompetent everyone else is?
Carl Jung said,

“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”

I think he had a point.

Mastering teaching for mastery

A comprehensive school’s approach three years on…

I very rarely blog about mathematics teaching but we’ve had numerous visits asking about mastery teaching recently so I thought perhaps people may like to see what it looks like in our school and what our journey has looked like along the way. There are much better people in our department to talk about this like our Acting HOD or our Mastery Coordinator (@MrMoMaths), as well as many other contributors like @MrHayhurstMaths but they tell me they’re way too busy to blog so you’re stuck with me! Here are some of the most important things to consider if you’re thinking of developing teaching for mastery at your school.

1. Mastery teaching is not a quick fix

If you’re looking to rapidly improve your GCSE results this year then stop reading now. We are over three years into our work on mastery and we know that we’ll only see the results as scores on doors with current Year 9 (& 10 to an extent) but we know that it’s having an impact on developing our students as mathematicians.

2. Mastery is an ideology not a scheme of work

When it was suggested that we start looking at mastery nearly five years ago, our then KS 3 Coordinator went with our Lead for T&L to the White Rose Maths Hub (a superb place to start). He came back bursting with excitement (and free resources), deciding that he was going to implement the SOW he had been given the next day. Our Lead for T&L was not as convinced. He was more experienced in both teaching and leading people and he knew that trying to take something off the shelf from another school and place it into a different setting was a recipe for disaster. It was. Things went pear shaped very quickly and our KS 3 Coordinator wanted to throw it out as quickly as he’d put it in. We knew mastery teaching was right for the journey we were on as a school so we sat down together reflected and did more research, tweaking a few things to better suit our students’ needs. Staffing changes gave us the opportunity to appoint a Mastery Coordinator – someone with experience of seeing mastery teaching in another setting. This time the whole department began to look in depth at SOWs and resources together, they began to spend a lot of time discussing approaches to teaching and key subject pedagogy.

3. Don’t assume teachers understand

We have an extremely talented group of teachers at our school, the majority of whom are also brilliant mathematicians. However, it is an error to assume that because someone looks good in a classroom that they completely understand the pedagogical approaches to teaching. Subject knowledge is an over-riding factor here but even that doesn’t automatically translate into good explanations and learning in the classroom. The best example of this I can give is using myself. In my previous setting, I was considered to be an “outstanding practitioner” (whatever that means) because students behaved and did well relative to other colleagues. I used to teach expanding brackets using claw methods. Every year I’d religiously teach this way, if students got it then great, if they didn’t then they were doing something wrong. I never considered that there could be a different approach because other colleagues assumed I knew these other approaches whilst I myself didn’t know what I didn’t know. In schools where behaviour is an issue or where there are copious amounts of unnecessary systems in place subject pedagogy discussions are often overlooked. The team I work with now are always talking about pedagogical approaches so teachers are armed with a variety of approaches and an understanding which underpins them. There are many aspects of teaching for mastery which need to be discussed, clarified and reviewed – this can only happen if opportunities for continual dialogue are in place. If you talk to a group of maths teachers about bar modelling for example, they’ll nod in agreement. Chances are 5% will fully understand and use in their day-to-day practice, 30% will have come across this concept before and use it to a limited extent, a further 20% will have heard of it and the rest will be nodding so as not to look stupid. The truth is, 95% of maths teachers (not just the biased sample we see on Twitter and social media) will need the time and conversation to develop understanding and practice. Don’t assume that just because you (or your best teachers) are doing/getting it, that everyone is.

4. Agree some minimum expectations

I know this goes without saying but as a team you need to decide what you’re all going to set out to do, and you need to continually revisit it to review planned versus enacted curriculum. There is no blanket one size fits all approach to teaching in our school but all maths lessons have a similar feel to them, not because we all use the same resources, textbooks or teaching styles but because everyone tries to include key features of good teaching in their lessons. These include:

  • Repetition and drill to develop fluency
  • Direct instruction to introduce concepts/topics
  • Strategies to reduce cognitive load when working with novice learners
  • Deliberate intelligent practice
  • Deliberate incremental practice
  • Standard and non-standard examples
  • Exposure to concepts across settings and revisiting them at every opportunity
  • An emphasis on strong questioning
  • An appreciation of multiple approaches to teaching a concept (teachers who are experts)
  • Interleaving of topics
  • Spaced retrieval as an integral part of homework
  • Feedback which is minimal but diagnostic and specific
  • Expectation of high effort from students with extended periods of silent, independent work in lessons

This isn’t exhaustive and it doesn’t happen every lesson, in every classroom, every day of the week but teachers are working on improving their own approaches to improve learning in the classroom.

5. Be brave

When you first introduce anything, there’s always a degree of resistance. It might be from staff, students, parents or leadership so it’s important to have given it full consideration and have a clear understanding of why you’re doing what you’re doing. Mastery take 1 was introduced in a hurry – without thought, at a time when the department’s results weren’t great; the fallout from this was resistance from staff and students but mainly from parents. I was asked to step in and line-manage the team from an SLT perspective at this time and was met with a whole host of fire-fighting. We did a lot of work with parents to explain our rationale behind teaching for mastery (once we’d talked at great length as a department and agreed why we would continue with it). We explained the difference between learning versus performance and we used evidence to support our argument – most of the complaints were from parents who felt that their children were repeating work they’d done in Year 6 but when we showed them internal tests and the diagnostics which accompanied them they began to understand. We communicated effectively and explained that this was something which we believed in and it wasn’t going away. Very quickly they saw that generally teaching was improving as was the confidence and attitude of students with regard to maths. This was the case with reluctant staff too (of which there were very few).

6. Organisation is very important

Thankfully, we have a lot of organised people in the Mathematics department. As students have to “pass” a module to move on, coordinating testing and grouping is quite a job! This is where you need to consider staffing (and over-staffing – a luxury I know) to make it work. We’ve spent three years now tweaking as we go to achieve a structure which works for us but it’s important to think what will work in your setting and what the constraints are, some of these you’ll only find out as you implement it.

7. Testing, toughness and knowing when to call it a day

We are selective about testing, we encourage formative testing throughout but students’ progress is primarily based on our assessments at the end of each module and their end of year tests. We place an emphasis on the importance of preparation for tests and that if students don’t meet a minimum expectation they will revisit a module again. Here you have to be tough and objective. I found that teacher bias (both positive and negative) is often damaging to children’s learning. How often have we kept the nice, quiet student in our group because we want to save them when perhaps they’d have been better supported elsewhere? So we set an expectation and we stick to it (on the whole) and this means that sometimes we have to be cruel to be kind. Surprisingly we’ve found it has had a positive impact in terms of student confidence, achievement and esteem, we’ve also found that students are more determined to succeed. One school of thought towards mastery in mathematics in its purest sense is not to move on until everyone has fully “mastered” a concept. We don’t subscribe to this both on a philosophical and practical level, which will create quite a stir with the puritans out there. The team don’t apologise for this as we agree that it’s a balancing act. We give groups who don’t pass two attempts at a module (which can equate to about 16 weeks covering the same content) and then if they still don’t pass we move on (very few students don’t pass on the second attempt). Teachers who have students who don’t pass work with those students outside of maths lessons to intervene in areas where those students are struggling, since our teaching and assessment is very diagnostic, teachers know exactly where to plug the gaps. Students then have to sit the resits when they are ready whilst continuing with new content in class. Intervention at KS 3 is much more effective than fire-fighting at KS 4 in my opinion.

8. Look outside your own setting

There’s some amazing stuff out there on mastery teaching so don’t just be tempted to buy a SOW and a load of textbooks without looking at what Mark McCourt has to say on the matter here or seeing what lots of great contributors like White Rose Maths on TES have to offer for free. Although these guys differ in ideology to one another, both have brilliant contributions to make. Also, if you’re intent on buying off the shelf SOWs and textbooks, proceed with caution. Approaches to teaching for mastery are still evolving so talk to schools who are using your prospective purchase and maybe order some sample copies before rushing in spending money which schools don’t have much of these days. Visit schools like ours and see what it looks like in practice. We are not a perfect example by any means but we are keen to collaborate and help colleagues along the way so ask your SLT for a couple of days in another school (cheaper than an external course and a much more sound investment than £10000 on textbooks and SOW which might be ineffective).

9. Create a coherent and continuous curriculum

Something that the Acting HOD and myself constantly revisit (often provoked by the naive should we adopt the mastery curriculum for KS 4 debate which comes up every now and then both inside and beyond the department) is this idea of mastery versus teaching for mastery. This comes back to philosophy. If you look at mastery superficially as a scheme of work or the latest fix in mathematics education you’ll never really fully understand its purpose. Our curriculum in the mathematics is a 9 year journey – we look at what is going on in primary schools (specifically Year 5 and 6) and we ask ourselves what do we want a student leaving our 6th Form to look like? We think about the most able mathematicians who will hopefully go on to study mathematics at a higher level, we consider the least able mathematicians who need a certain level of mathematics to get by and we think about everyone in between – which I think is the beauty of an 11 -18 school with great links with their feeder primaries. We do follow our Mastery SOW at KS 3 but we make sure our KS 4 curriculum dovetails into it and then builds on the skills that students have acquired whilst forming a solid basis for KS 5. We aren’t constantly looking at the GCSE examinations, instead we focus on planning rich curricula which teach knowledge, enact this in a focused and deliberate way, test what students have learned and what has stuck (changes in long-term memory) whilst developing their ability to communicate this in an articulate and fluent way. This means a continual dialogue between the staff responsible for leading the department and the teachers within it, with our Lead for T&L supporting teachers’ understanding of what it looks like in practice along the way – the time investment is worth it. Teaching for mastery is about understanding and empowering teachers to support students learning of mathematics in a deep and concrete way.

10. Whatever you do, do it well

Finally, I want to leave you with a couple of thoughts from Daisy Christodoulou and Mark McCourt. At ResearchEd last year Daisy talked about assessment and grades in isolation (available here), she explained that a grade on its own tells us very little about what a child can and can’t do, additionally when we focus of grades as targets for measures (e.g. the old 5 A* – C measures) we lose sense of what learning is all about. We have a duty of care to teach children not just so that they can pass a test to achieve a certain grade but so that within the grade they have a level of understanding and competency to build on. We must develop students who understand, can articulate and retain knowledge, not just ones who pass tests then forget. And in Mark’s recent blog on setting versus mixed ability (here) he suggests that it doesn’t matter what approach you choose to take as long as you do it well, I wholeheartedly agree with this and would echo his sentiments entirely. Whatever approach you take with regard to your planned and enacted curriculum do your research, think it through thoroughly, develop it collaboratively and review regularly but most of all deliver it well with clarity.