The Magic of Northern Rocks

It’s coming up to a year since I made my first real foray in to the world of Twitter after my mate Jim said I’d really enjoy it. He was right. I’ve had a whale of a time since last summer. It took me a while to work out who was who and who was linked to who and to realise how there’s a system: do a blog, then a mate tweets saying this is a brilliant blog, then tweet back thanks…and so it goes round. And then there’s the spats! Oh how I enjoy sitting back and watching them unfold. Such fun.

I always wondered how people managed to say things in 140 characters and then I realised that it’s actually quite easy but that most people *cheat* and add the rest in a blog. So I got a blog! I find I like having one and people seem to enjoy what I write. So that’s me sorted and a fully paid up member of the Twitterati.

I never stop talking about Twitter at work because I’ve discovered it’s a great place to get ideas and to learn things, to have your thinking challenged and shaped, to share and join in. Plus, somehow, Twitter knows everything first. I don’t know how this works but it keeps me well informed. The gang at work think I’m quite mad! But I know better.

You see, in addition to all this good stuff, there’s more. I started reading about these things called Teachmeets and Pedagoo and conferences and research meetings and it all seemed fabby. So imagine my joy when I realised there was one coming near me – Northern Rocks in Leeds. I was a bit late to the party but managed to get a ticket from someone who was unable to attend. Yippee. And there’s a thing – imagine Emma and Debra (those brilliant organising women) with all they had to do to get the damn thing running managing to match people like with me with people with a ticket to sell. I couldn’t wait to get there. I wanted to see loads of things and I was sure I’d be able to find the people I recognise from Twitter and speak to them for real.

And so I set off after a lot of wittering and worrying about driving to Leeds – I’m traumatised after an incident in the dark and rain involving a bus lane, a red light and an unmarked police car when all I wanted was to find a car park! Thanks to @tstarkey1212 for putting up with my wittering – wouldn’t it be nice to meet him on the day! In the end I got there trouble free and very early and ran in to my friend @mishwood1 – a good start but that was the last I saw of her!

It was great in so many ways and there really aren’t words to thank Emma and Debra for putting it all together. It was magical and special and heartwarming…thank you both.

I loved the panel debate at the start with Dominic Cummings giving a good account of how the Government works. Long story short, it doesn’t and “The Thick of It” had it exactly right. Then what to choose? Well, in my case a bit of a mixed bag but something to learn from all of them. There was a lot to think about and I’ve typed up my notes to send out to colleagues as there was much to help us frame our thinking as we wrestle with the difficult but exciting task of devising our new KS3 curriculum.

There was that much to do that I managed to catch up with absolutely no-one I follow on Twitter! I reckon I’ll just have to try harder the next time – or even better stay over the night before as there seemed to be lots of meet –ups then!

So, a wonderful day but as it progressed I could feel a sense of melancholy seeping in to my soul. You see, next September I am retiring just when education is so interesting and dynamic, when there is discourse and dialogue and good old verbal fisticuffs, when so many teachers – 300+ giving up a Saturday voluntarily to learn more about their profession – are committed to what they do and the children they teach in the teeth of almost daily slurs and insults from the very people who should be supporting us and making our lives easier. And I will soon be leaving it. I am, I realise, becoming more irrelevant by the day.

On then to the final session. Oh my! It was one of the best things I’ve ever been to in the world of education. The Hywel Roberts and Mick Waters show was truly wonderful. Between them they very cleverly invited us to feel better about ourselves, our profession and what we do. Lazy enemies of promise according to Michael Gove. Could we come up with something better asked Hywel? You bet. Mine were weavers of dreams, couriers of promise, safe harbours in storms. Mick put us back together by telling us how great we were and what is important about what we do. When he spoke of the boy with poor sight who saw a firefly on one of Mick’s trips and still remembered that as an adult the tears started trickling.

And then Orrsome Rachel Orr got to her feet on those teetering heels to sing the aria she wrote specially for the occasion. Silent, fat tears ran down my cheeks as I was overwhelmed by a wave of pride and grief. Pride in this noble profession of ours and the dedication of the vast majority of teachers who work minor miracles in classrooms up and down the country every day. And grief for my loss. I will soon be just an ex-teacher. I won’t be part of it. And I’m not sure my heart will sing again.

I was lost but now I’m found.

I’ve never thought that the story of the way I was bullied out of my job at a school I loved and worked hard at for over seventeen difficult years would be of interest to anyone outside my family and friends – and even they got fed up with it! – til @nancygedge blogged about her experience. It was a short but compelling post about being lost because of bullying treatment. And yes, what Nancy describes is exactly what it was like. Here’s my story and thoughts, which have turned out to be more and longer than I realised.

I was relocated to the school in question as part of an LA re-organisation. It was the very place I didn’t want to go and, believe me, I and other colleagues were most definitely not welcome. It was a 13-18 school – or exam factory depending on your view – and rather smug and self-satisfied. Like all re-organisations it was shocking and painful for almost everybody for reasons too complex to blog here. The school considered itself to be a cut above all the others and was palpably disconcerted – not to say horrified – when it was “invaded” by “toddlers” as the Year 7s and 8s were rather disparagingly labelled and, even worse, teachers from middle schools. Zut alors! Quelle horreur! What in the name of anything worth having did they know about exams and such? So there we were: a lesser breed.

For reasons I have never quite fathomed – although there was an interesting rumour that came back to me from at least six schools that I had slept with one of the advisers. (I hadn’t) – I was sent to the school with a big promotion to Senior Teacher and a curriculum area to lead. I was eminently well-qualified for this having been a Head of Year! Nonetheless, despite my terror, I knuckled down, spent the summer swotting the area I’d been given and worrying about how you teach GCSE English. When term started it wasn’t easy. The existing staff from the previous school were frequently dismissive of us – the incomers – made disparaging remarks and belittled our skills and abilities. It’s only as I write this that I realise that the bullying was often subtle and had been going on for much longer than I realised.

Not to be defeated, we, and I, slogged on and slowly, slowly I gained the respect of my colleagues – by and large for the work I did. I had a variety of responsibilities over the years and moved the school forward in lots of ways but it was always tough. I worked very long hours – the school was open until 10p.m. every day and I was frequently there until past 9 and for at least half of the holidays. I had to be – there was too much work to get through and little support in getting it done.

I had a lot of laughs there and worked with some great people, especially in the English department. I enjoyed a lot of my time there but the bullying, I see now, was a thread that ran through it. Some examples:
• The first head I worked for would frequently say things like, “Three people have been in to see me about what you said in briefing/that you were a bit sharp with them/that you said/did Y.” And they were always too afraid to talk to me/tell me/ask me. That went on for years until one day a light came on, I got brave and told him I wouldn’t accept any anonymised comments/complaints; that I would happily sit down with him and whoever was aggrieved to sort out any issues. He never did it again.
• Some staff made my elder son’s life a misery because he was mine. He was hard work but he was just a kid. He accidentally injured a boy one day. No-one told me. They sent him home on the bus on his own. It was two days before the Head had time to see me/us about it.
• The school ran into difficulty and the SLT was re-structured. Against all the odds I was unexpectedly appointed AHT for assessment – something else I didn’t know a lot about! The Head of maths lead a Head of Faculty revolt. They wrote a letter to the Governors asking that my appointment be over-turned on the grounds I had never taught 6th form (although I had been a very good 6th form tutor) and that I could sometimes be sharp. Seriously. No-one did anything, no-one took them to task. It made my life much harder.
• A colleague I did not get on with left a union publication about workplace bullying in my pigeonhole with a handwritten note saying “This is what happens to bullies”. Nobody did anything.

Thankfully, I had good friends who gave me a lot of support but it was disheartening. I did a Boxer – got on with it, worked hard and over 10 years I taught myself a lot about assessment and data, set up systems for reports and so forth – the head who came in next thought my work was great and told me I was much better than a person at his previous school for whom he’d just written a reference for a deputy headship. The next head on interview day, after an informal meeting with some staff including me, left with the words “You know your data”. Wow.

Unfortunately for me as it turned out, she was appointed. I won’t bore you with all the details of her reign but suffice to say some instinct alerted me on day one and I started keeping records – just as well as it turned out. She proved to be arrogant, bombastic, completely unself-aware, lacking in any vestige of emotional intelligence, self-centred, self-interested and a self-declared expert on any subject mentioned. The reality was a person who talked in sound bites, had no real interest in the school, the pupils or the staff and who made what frequently seemed to be capricious and disquieting decisions. She spent large sums of the school budget on amenities for her office – a large screen television an armchair costing £2k and large amounts of her time out of the school at a variety of courses and conferences where she booked – or upgraded to -the finest rooms. She had been walked off the premises of her previous school partly because of a vote of no confidence by the staff and allegations of bullying. And she had not the merest shred of humility.

Within two terms it was obvious that she had me in her sights and to this day I don’t know why. I’m not perfect – far from it – but I was well respected within the school for my hard work over a long and difficult period of time which had moved the school forward in many different ways. I was a highly regarded classroom teacher and my results were great – better than the department and faculty average.

So what did she do? As @nancygedge has pointed out, it’s in the grey areas and the trivial little things that, taken alone, amount to what might be considered a bit of a whinge. It’s only when they are put together that they suggest a more serious picture. It was things said, remarks made, emails sent – quite often late on Friday requiring a report to be on her desk on Monday morning – something not experienced by colleagues. It culminated in the events around the appointment of what turned out to be two deputy heads.

She announced one day that she was having to do too much work and was shattered so would be advertising for a deputy head and would possibly appoint two – she had a track record of this buy one get one not free approach! I duly applied and went through the process to the wire only to be unsuccessful as she appointed two male (another track record) deputy heads. This was devastating but what followed was even worse. I asked for feedback from the LA member of the panel who seemed unable to point to any specific reason for my lack of success other than “It’s in the fine detail, Julie”. His most memorable example of this was that when asked how I would deal with an angry parent I didn’t say I would offer a cup of coffee. I was dumbstruck and left the meeting commenting that there really was nothing more to say.

The new boys duly arrived in September and new job descriptions were drawn up. I alone among my senior leadership team colleagues was stripped of my entire job description (JD) which had included assessment, data, report, G&T, teaching and learning – it was a big JD as I had a reputation for getting things done. I was told “Assessment is vital and it is not in place.” By this time I was so beat I was unable to respond. Suffice to say I took everything I had been doing to my next school and have continued to refine and improve it. My work in this area saved the school from a category at the first Ofsted after my arrival (the lead HMI told me this) and subsequent Ofsteds have been pleased with the work I lead while Mocksteds have told us we’re in front of the game – so I must be doing something right.

My new JD contained nothing other than all those annoying things no-one wants to do – for example, fire drill. I was distraught – for someone on the interview circuit and still hopeful of a deputy headship (I’ve blogged about not making it) it was a serious blow. No application I could make would ever be taken seriously. And so it went on. The new boys, empowered by the Head, denigrated and sneered at everything I – and to be fair, others – had done. The school became an unsafe place. I thought I was holding together but really, I wasn’t. I became forgetful and distracted. I forgot how to smile. I tried to dress smartly and with pride as I always had done, but reflection shows that I just picked up a rag bag of clothing every day and looked often dishevelled and unco-ordinated. My shoulders drooped more with every passing day. I no longer had any faith in myself, my confidence was shot and I spent most of my time thinking about what I could do if – when – the axe fell.

I had no hope that the union would help me – mainly people developed a bunker mentality and heads were kept down. Truthfully, I have long felt that as a member of SLT my union – the one I’ve been in since the first day I went to teacher training college – wasn’t really interested in what was happening to me because I’m a member of SLT busy exploiting their members – although I did log some stuff with them. What about the Governors as @nancygedge suggested? I thought long and hard about that but where to go when the Chair and the Head were inseparable? Who would raise their head above the parapet? On one level, I don’t blame my colleagues and on another I feel they let me down. As Nancy says, it’s in the grey areas and to vocalise them can often sound like a bit –a lot – of whinging. And when people become afraid they have no time to look around at the bigger picture.

And then, a little ray of sunshine just when I was at my lowest ebb. The Head suggested a secondment and called in an LA adviser (remember when we had them?). The foolish woman had been in the authority a nano-second and being self-absorbed had taken no time to find out about who was who and what was what. Unbeknown to her the LA man was someone I had known for thirty years and met regularly for lunch and a gossip. As it turned out he was one of my two saviours. He spoke to a local Head – my second saviour – who agreed to take me on secondment for two terms. And here’s the thing, the awful Head paid my salary for five terms in the end while I worked at what is effectively a rival school!

Thanks to these two saviours, I finally found sanctuary. In the fullness of time a post was advertised which I was able to apply for – against a national field and nine (!) shortlisted candidates and I have thrived ever since. I have never stopped counting my blessings and my gratitude to the school is heartfelt, my loyalty rock solid.

I was lost but now I am found. I am home.

Assessment – a bit nearer…

In common with all schools we have been going through the process of devising an assessment system following the decision to discontinue levels at Key Stage 3. In the beginning we lamented the loss of levels mostly, it turned out, because we were in a sort of collective haze of disbelief and worry about how we could deal with this enormous task but we soon got over ourselves. When something big and new is required, I have a tried and tested process: outwardly ignore; meanwhile think about the issue at hand – turn it over as I go about my daily routine, chew it over when I swim causing me to lose count of the lengths I have done; talk to colleagues; research (of course, my go-to place for research is now the generous cyber space that is Twitter) – find out as much as I can about the issue and what is going on elsewhere until I have my thinking in some sort of shape. Once I get to this stage I put something in writing and call a meeting of the Assessment Focus Group (AssFoc) which is an ad hoc group convened as and when necessary to deal with all matters related to assessment and data.

AssFoc talks, discusses, disagrees, amends, adds, subtracts from what I’ve drafted out and I then go away and re-draft. We repeat this as often as is necessary but it rarely requires more than two meetings before we are ready to share our outcomes with the rest of the staff.

This process has served us well where the new assessment landscape is concerned. I have blogged previously (still can’t do that “here” thing!) about our early discussions where we toyed with a variety of ideas. Funnily enough we were agreed from the start that we didn’t want to continue with the old levels. I’m a big believer that when things move on you have to move with them or you will find yourself seriously adrift of what is happening in the wider education world. In fact, where possible, I’ve always tried to stay ahead of the game by using what has become considerable knowledge of assessment to predict what’s coming next. I’ve got quite good at it over the years! We did, however, spend a lot of time talking about some form of levels type system passing quickly through numbers to letters and back to numbers; looking at how we could marry such a system in with new GCSE grades/numbers and getting quite excited when it was mooted that GCSEs might be known as Intermediate levels which meant KS3 could be Elementary Levels. Than as often happens with these things we all went away and I continued with my thinking and talking until actually a simpler, more direct, robust idea gradually settled.

What follows is our current, and possibly final, thinking. It is probably easier to understand when talked through but, of course that is not so easy to do. What happens next is that AssFoc will meet – they have already had the draft paper – to discuss the ideas and consider if they are workable and will do what we think they will do. Amendments will be made and then the whole will go to a joint Heads of Faculty and Community meeting before cascading to the rest of the school. The next twelve months will be considered a pilot year where we continuously assess what we are doing and its success and make refinement as we go along before a formal review towards the end of next academic year.

What follows is the draft document due for discussion this week. If anything here is useful to others then that’s great. If it’s not then you might have something a lot better so get blogging it and let us all in on the secret!

Following previous debate and discussion at Assfoc and also with individuals, not to mention my frequent trawling of blogs via Twitter! I have further refined my thinking about how we need to approach assessment in a post-levels world.

Our principles of assessment should be:
Simple – everyone, pupil, teacher, parent, external agency – should be able to understand and apply the
system with little explanation
Designed to ensure that pupils can demonstrate what they know and what they don’t
Used to ensure that gaps are filled for the individual and closed between the various cohorts
Honest – not rewarding mediocrity or giving the benefit of the doubt – or worse
Based on developing the key knowledge and skills required for success at KS4
Informed by formative assessment designed by each faculty/subject
Informed by summative assessment termly to build to an outcome for the year

Developing the Curriculum
We have now agreed that the curriculum will be divided into 9 blocks – 3 for each of Years 7, 8 and 9- with each block containing a variety of elements of knowledge or skills from that subject. Each faculty and subject is currently deciding how best to divide their content considering:
• what pupils must know/understand/be able to do in order to be successful in the subject and capable of continuing to study it post -16. We know that not all children will choose to continue to follow a particular subject post-16 but an aspiration that they should all be so equipped is surely aspirational and desirable.
• what concepts matter the most and need to be studied in depth and detail. It will not be possible to treat all aspects of a subject equally or in depth – there simply isn’t the curriculum time however the timetable is carved up. So let’s not get overwhelmed by trying to get quarts into pint pots and rather accept – and embrace – the realisation that choices will need to be made. I think it might be liberating.
• what tools pupils need to access/absorb/embed knowledge and skills

This must then be set against our 4 curriculum principles to ensure challenge and aspiration:
• Be coherent and consistent, designed to develop creative thinkers
• Invest in and extend students’ cultural capital
• Be academically and aspirationally challenging
• Provide an enriched experience of education

Simply put: faculties/subjects will need to identify the key knowledge and skills pupils need to be successful in KS4, then work backwards to decide what this will look like throughout KS3. It’s a flight path model – without all the paper to stick in!

Some Caveats:
• We are not helped in this work by the fact that, with the exception of English and maths, the new GCSE specifications are not yet available. I think we can overcome this to some extent by using the current Band descriptors with a (new) 5 equalling the new C – this is around what is currently a B – and scaling up to 6, 7, 8 and 9. This is not perfect but will get us nearer to where we need to be.
• Despite coming up with ways we could use letters or numbers and align them with the new GCSE numbers, I have come round to the view that we would be better off avoiding letters, numbers or other ways of describing some version of levels. Our system, thinking, language and assessment needs to be focussed round levels of progress. In the first instance, I think this should be a straightforward 3 and 4+ levels. I understand there are good arguments for defining 5, 6 and maybe even 7 levels of progress but I think we have to do what is manageable at the beginning of this time of major change.

Developing Assessment Statements
• Each Faculty/Subject will need to look at the GCSE criteria for their subject and then the starting point of the children – their KS2 APS, while these last.
• They will then need to draw up for each APS level – 2,3,4,5,6 – a statement outlining what pupils need to know, understand and be able to do by the end of each year in order to be on track for each of 3 and 4+ levels of progress. The assessment statements must be as unequivocal and unambiguous as possible to create robust, accurate assessment and avoid grey areas.
• Working backwards, this would then inform what pupils need to know/understand/be able to do by the end of each curriculum block in order to be on their progress flight path.

Flight paths
6+ A* 9-8
6-5 A-B 7-6
5-4 B-C 5-4
3-2 D-G 3-1

Reporting Progress
Currently, we report to parents three times a year and I think we should continue to do this. However, the shape of our reports will need to change. We won’t have a level/grade target so will now focus on how they’ve done relative to their starting point – levels of progress (LOPs). This means there is no limit to what a pupil can be expected to achieve. The assessments should be based on a range of data: ongoing feedback and observation, punctuality and so forth.
• One suggestion is that in autumn and spring we simply report on progress and attitude to learning using a form of RAG rating. I think the RAG rating is a useful visual tool for all of us. Using the definition that expected progress = 3 levels of progress, this would work as follows:
o Making less than expected progress – RED
o Making expected progress– AMBER
o Making better than expected progress – GREEN
• Attitude to learning would be a straightforward RAG Rating using the definition “ attitude to learning includes everything that contributes to good learning: punctuality, homework, effort made, equipment, good behaviour”
o Unacceptable attitude to learning – RED (two or more of the items above being breached consistently)
o Good attitude to learning – AMBER (most of the elements being in place consistently)
o Impressive attitude to learning – GREEN (all elements – and perhaps more – being in place consistently)

It would be possible to assign each of these colours a number to facilitate tracking:
o RED -0
o AMBER -1
o GREEN -2

Summative – End of Year – reporting
• The pupils who are in school from Year 8 upwards will sit many more exams than is currently the case and they need to have the understanding and stamina to cope with that. It’s not realistic to try and run formal exams but we can replicate a version of that in classrooms.
• To this end, pupils in KS3 will sit a formal assessment towards the end of each curriculum block. This must be designed to test all the elements of the term’s work and to assess all levels of ability – new GCSE papers will not be tiered.
• It can be in any format designated by the faculty/subject but must present the pupils with a challenging assessment and a valid experience of working in formal “exam” conditions. It would seem logical to me to design the end of term assessments in the same format as GCSE as soon as we know what that looks like. We might need a bit of best guess til then!
• Staff workload in terms of marking needs to be considered. My proposal is to have a dedicated assessment week – with a bit of flexibility for subjects with less curriculum time – when all classes should be doing mainly assessments in controlled conditions. This will mean that staff can use that considerable time while pupils are doing tests for marking the tests of previous classes.
• The assessment outcomes will be percentages which will be entered on SIMS.
• The percentages will be averaged at the end of the year giving an end of year assessment which might look as follows with the percentage thresholds:

Chart Showing Percentage Thresholds
Definition KS2 L2 KS2 L3 KS2 L4 KS2 L5 KS2 L6+
Making less than expected progress – RED 20 30 40 50 50
Making expected progress– AMBER 30 40 50 60 60
Making better than expected progress – GREEN 40 50 65 70 80

• My proposal for the assessment weeks is to place them three weeks before the end of term to give maximum time for curriculum coverage. Following the assessment weeks, time can then be used for intervention and extension.
• Data captures will not necessarily take account of these end of term assessments but will rely on the professional judgement of teachers to determine if pupils are making expected progress

Other Thoughts
• KS4 reporting needs further work but won’t be needed until 2016.
• We may want to look at some way for pupils to be able to track their own progress once we feel we have a secure system in place
• Mock exams in Years 10 and 11 will be put in place for the current Year 8 by which time we should have the basic assessment systems working effectively.