Accountability in education, Uncategorized

My Experiences in England: lessons for New Zealand education.

My aim is to write a number of blogs on different aspects of schools in England. Governments, both Labour and Conservative, wanted to see major improvement for all students in England. They therefore began the search for accountability, and in so doing have created formulaic responses that in the worst cases have taken the creativity from teaching and from learning.

I will focus on the following:

Judging a lesson

Performance-related pay.

Teachers’ Standards

Judging a lesson. When I left teaching in New Zealand (1996) we were edging towards improved lesson observations. We were building the expectation within schools that every term someone would come in to observe the learning in your classroom. I must admit that the emphasis was more on the teaching than on the learning. We were exploring hierarchical observations vs collegial observations. We were building programmes which focussed on teacher growth rather than on judgement.

So I was surprised to find in English schools a wealth of advice on how to judge a lesson, led by the published Ofsted guidance on lesson observations. Lessons were graded, as were schools: outstanding, good, requiring improvement ( was called satisfactory until 2011) and inadequate. In most schools these observations were carried out by HODs or members of  the senior management team. Sometimes the observations were announced and sometimes unannounced.

Until last year the quality of teaching/learning was not related to teacher pay. That has now changed. But the records of observations done by the school were asked for by the Ofsted inspectors and those who did the observations also did observations with the inspectors to have their ability to classify verified by the Ofsted team. So the  routine practice of lesson observation was seen as particularly important in assessing the school.

If you go online you will find many many guidelines, books written on what makes a good or outstanding lesson. Ofsted expected that such observations were routine within a school. In some schools that was not so, and school leaders had to learn how to observe. And so a wealth of courses grew up and consultants and books. It became an income source for many in the consulting industry, and a cost to schools particularly at a time when local government education support was being cut back. Such support is now privatised.

I am confident that I could always classify teachers into outstanding, satisfactory or needing support, and as a principal in New Zealand I did, but not based on one lesson and not using that terminology or recording it. And yet I did see this happen in England, although I do believe that that was very poor practice. Poor practice saw these observations become judgemental rather than supportive. Poor practice saw the judgements recorded, but the necessary support not eventuate, leaving the  judged teacher losing confidence in their teaching.

And even more serious is when that judgement is based on half of one lesson alone.So much can happen within a lesson. The teacher may be trying group work for the first time. Not all students are going to adapt to that with fully focussed learning from the very first group work exercise. Under poor observation practices and judgements, because all students are not showing progress in their learning the lesson can be judged as inadequate or needing improvement. That mitigates against risk taking and experimentation. You might be observed just when you are trying out a new way of student learning.

Another issue I became aware of was the fine line between a good lesson and an outstanding one. In an out standing lesson every student is making rapid and sustained progress. While I can make that assessment for a class of students over a term, I find it really difficult to make that judgement over part of one lesson. And maybe it would not matter so much if these judgements were not so vital to a whole judgement of the school or to one teacher seeking promotion or a pay rise.

Every classroom teacher In England is expected to have a lesson plan, detailing what they expect to be learnt in that lesson, and detailing what levels each student is currently at, and what specific learning needs different students have. And that is good, but it can be turned into an exercise to please the senior management, rather than a means to teach better. It is possible to have all that written out, ready to be handed to the observer, and the learning still not be meeting the different needs of each student, because the teacher does not know how to do this. So sometimes the tasks become a barrier, another hassle rather than a means to improving the learning. In a good school, the support would be in there before the observations had highlighted the problems.

When an observation is made it is now common practice to ask one or two students to describe what they had learnt in that lesson. Student voice is really important in lifting standards in schools, but  in the wrong hands it can be misused. On the other hand students can be wonderfully honest. I watched  as one student advised the Ofsted inspector that this particular lesson , in which the student was obviously bored, had been taught twice by that teacher in the last week and the student thought that it was being repeated for the inspector!

The other activity carried out by most lesson observers is to look at a range of student exercise books. The aim here is to look at the feedback that the teacher is giving to the student. Feedback is very important, and  parents often complain that their children’s homework is not marked. A tick alone is not feedback that can help the student improve. Again in England there are a range of guidelines and advice on the different ways to feed back positively to the student. Sometimes that feedback is tailored to how the student might attain their target grade for that term in that subject and where the particular piece of work fits in. So an exercise book where there are no grades or advice or targets mitigates against that teacher gaining a satisfactory grade for their lesson.

In a judgemental school where the senior team are trying to lay blame for poor progress on the teachers, the observation routines can become a means of putting teachers down, rather than of lifting the learning.

Lesson observation is a positive means to improving how we teach. But when  this tool  is used for pay  and promotion purposes and for judging the school, it becomes a whip, something to be feared, rather than something to be welcomed, because you, the teacher can learn from it.

I believe that where we were in New Zealand in the 1990’s where observation was collaborative and supportive, is where observation can be of most benefit. I value observations including the emphasis on feedback to students, the use of the student voice and evidence of knowledge of where each student is at in their journey, but I am very wary of how these good practices can be abused and actually work against good learning and teaching.

Most importantly, the purpose of such lesson observations must be clear. They cannot serve two different purposes: lifting the learning and teaching within a school AND a tool for pay/promotion progress. That confusion of purpose endangers the really good things that can come out of a positive observation practice within a school community. Sadly, it is in schools where their relatively poor student achievement indicates that improvement in learning and teaching is urgently needed, that the different purposes of lesson observations can become so confused and where poor practice in observations is the norm.

My next post will be on performance-related pay and what has happened in England.


Is school leadership the answer to lifting student progress?

One of my favourite sayings is that attributed to Lao Tzu:

“The worst leader is one whom the people despise; the good leader is the one whom people obey and acclaim; but the best leader is one  whose aims are fulfilled and yet the people say ‘we did this ourselves’ “.

I was reminded of this saying when the current government in New Zealand announced a major boost to education expenditure,  focussed on improving student progress by introducing the concept of executive principals and change principals.

The Executive Principal will be expected to lead a group of 10 schools and focus on the improvements needed. There will be 250 appointments. There are 2538 schools in New Zealand. It will be interesting in the South Island with schools such a distance apart, finding ten schools that want to engage with each other!

There will be 20 Change Principals appointed. They will be appointed to schools who are judged to be struggling and whose Boards cannot afford to pay the extra money to attract an effective leader.

There are several assumptions here. How is a struggling school defined? And is a great leader  one who will be persuaded to apply only because of a possible $50,000 extra each year of the appointment? Or is there some other way of assessing great leadership potential?

I have just returned to New Zealand after five years working in education in England. Three years were spent working in local authorities, supporting schools  deemed from their examination results to be failing. The last two years were as a interim head teacher, put into a school whose results were not as they should have been. The  English experience has left me with much to reflect on.

It is my assessment that reliance on a Principal to achieve the necessary change is not the healthiest long term answer to lifting student learning.

Five years ago in England, the notion of hard and soft federations was being actively explored. These were schools who volunteered or were persuaded into a federation with another school. The hard federation included the appointment of a joint Governing Body and of an Executive head teacher/Principal. The soft federation left the governing bodies and head teachers for each school in place and provided some money to allow for collaboration etc.

These federations always needed the school that was being helped to improve to see that there was a need to improve, and that there needed to be changes. In my experience with a range of programmes, initiated from Whitehall, and actioned by the local authorities, there was normally an element of force applied within a short timeframe. So there was definitely little time allowed for  honest self analysis and acceptance. It was not unusual to see the head teacher, most members of the senior team and some pivotal Heads of Department removed and paid out. Sometimes that would have been the best way forward, but there were other ways to achieve the same result for the students.

Federations were mostly achieved with State schools within one local authority. The Labour Government had also introduced academies. Most state schools in England receive their funding from the state after a % has been taken by the local authority for a range of support.

The first set of academies replaced local authorities with local businesses and new governing bodies. These local businesses took the % that had formerly been deducted by the local authority. These first academies were the struggling schools, and in the most part they were secondary schools. And the schools were not given choice : they were academised.

When the Conservatives formed their coalition government in 2010, they expressed the desire that all schools would become academies. And there became two forms of academies. If your results were good enough your school could apply to become an academy in its own right.  And thus they gained all the money from central government and there was no % for local authorities. It was very like Tomorrow’s Schools in New Zealand. Such ‘converter academies’ became autonomous units.

But still there remained those schools deemed by their results to be failing. With an end to local authorities having much role in school improvement, there was a stronger move to private companies and continued forced academisation. In another blog I will focus on the privatisation of education in England and the development of academy chains.

All the emphasis has been put on super leaders being the answer to student progress in learning. But the model has not worked in the short term. The schools in the academy chains, mostly those forced to become academies, have not had the rapid improvement that was expected of them, despite the super leadership and the attached bigger salaries.

The strongest school head teachers that I met and worked with in England either elected to stay outside the academy chains, or to work with other schools in mutual and agreed support. I did see a few remarkable leaders of hard federations, whose salaries did not increase and who were focussed on rebuilding those schools with whom they were working into independent entities as soon as possible. But they were rare.

A culture of depending on one person to lead a school through major change, begs the question of what do you do when that head teacher/leader falls ill, wants to retire, before they have built a sustainable school that can grow without a super leader.

And when you want to build communities of ten schools with an executive principal, as with the proposed New Zealand model, there is the issue of building a consensus among ten very different schools as to which are the issues that they wish to concentrate on and who is the best to be deemed the executive principal. I can see some fun ahead between primary and secondary schools. And do early childhood groups fit into this grouping?

Can a Principal who has demonstrated success in an urban decile 8 school be just as successful in a small town low decile school, where children do not choose to come to this particular school. Smaller schools can have so many different issues. Is there just one stereotype of leader which can be applied to all the different situations. Is there just one formula for a successful school, that can be applied universally without regard for the different learning contexts?

For the New Zealand government to have put so much money into this proposal does concern me. I do see value in collaboration. And I do see value in funding such collaboration, but the money should not be so much for the leader, but for teacher release, for coaching within the schools and for the very important first steps when schools analyse their strengths and weaknesses. This model requires facilitators, not executive principals.

We need to avoid the blame game and the judgement just on results. A school with good examination results can still be a school where bullying is rife. Learning is so much more than achieving good scores at whatever level. And successful leadership is so much more than the achievement of those examination results.

In my mind a good school is one where everyone claims a role in contributing to that success, where all the talent is used, where all the talent is recognised. Those who develop and work in such environments rarely put up their hands to be super or executive principals.