Influential?

I’m still not really sure why I got invited. But I was. I’m currently on a train home after spending a couple of hours in a discussion at the Department for Education, after a message from the @educationgovUK account.

The aim of the session was to get some viewpoints from classroom teachers on the new/proposed National Curriculum. Apparently later sessions will hopefully include primary teachers, but this was secondary with a dash of special education. It wasn’t totally clear how the seven of us had been selected, although I presume there were others who declined for whatever reason. I want to make the point that I’m reporting general thoughts, from my POV, so please don’t assume I’m accurately quoting anyone else. Please let me know if and how I need to make corrections or clarifications.

EDIT: post by cleverfiend now up.

It felt like a positive session overall, although of course the real test will be if any of our suggestions are acted on. In no particular order:

We felt that the biggest issue facing schools and classroom teachers was a lack of time. This applies not only to the time needed to produce innovative and interesting activities, on a day to day basis, but the time between the specification being finalised and starting to teach it. The meeting was jointly led by @trussliz and @jimm2011, who appreciated our insistence that schools need to pay close attention to what Ofsted and the exam boards say, more than the criteria.

The uncertainty – perhaps exacerbated by recent rapid changes to assessment rules – was linked by @hgaldinoshea and Janet (twitter link tk) to the number of schools opting for the iGCSE route. We were assured that the English and Maths specifications (for first teaching from 2015) would be published imminently. The others will follow, although no date was given. @mary_uyseg emphasised several times that for schools, assessment models would always be one of the first concerns, both to provide the best for their students and also because of results affecting the institution collectively and the staff individually.

The difficulty of getting information out to schools and teachers about national curriculum changes was discussed. The expectation is that all schools – whether formally linked or not – are expected to ask their local Teaching School for advice with new curricula and specifications. Their support may involved a fee but the DfE has provided funding for them to take on this role, which is less specific than the responsibility historically held by LAs. (Even I was not so insensitive as to suggest that maybe there are better ways to address communication weaknesses than by leading new policy ideas to the Daily Mail or Times.) It was suggested that making sure exam boards and Ofsted pass on details, perhaps simultaneously tweeting links which could be RTed via subject associations, would be worthwhile. I made the point that interest and participation from Department staff in twitter chats would be an easy way to show engagement, and apparently this will be happening starting with the next #sltchat.

(A personal aside; although it was suggested that Michael Gove take an overt interest in such things, I actually think it would be counterproductive. Not least because it would be harder for him to justify his errors (whether you consider them rare or frequent) to such a polarised audience. And the work of the misguided and cowardly @toryeducation tweeter doesn’t count as engagement.)

The balance between freedom to innovate and the time needed was raised. @oldandrewuk was not the only one to point that although the old QCA schemes of work were perhaps unnecessarily detailed, at least there was much less ambiguity. @cleverfiend used the example of levels – a whole different argument – to point out that schools would end up adopting any offered alternative simply to save valuable time. (If I had thought of it, I would have contrasted the different markets for off the peg and bespoke tailoring. Schools tend to offer uniforms in standard sizes because they work well enough in most cases. The benefit of individual fitted versions of the clothes don’t justify the cost in terms of work needed.)

It was suggested that subject associations would be in good positions to develop and share possible teaching routes once the exam specifications were available, including exam formats and timing. It was agreed that better links with primary are needed, and Liz Truss acknowledged that the new details will place demands on staff, especially areas like languages in primary. We suggested offering funding to subject groups like the ASE to improve their reach, at least during the transition.

Speaking of subject specialisms, it emerged that there are several expert discussion groups that are hosted at the department, made up of teachers and other educators. They are not paid for their time, receiving travel expenses while they address concerns like ITT provision during changing specifications. Readers may already be aware of the weakness of this model as demonstrated by the recent demise of the expert group looking at ICT/computing, (Link tk) an issue which was raised and received a very clear “No comment.” It wasn’t clear how these expert groups were set up and how they report outside the Department, let alone how they recruit.

I’m sure I’ve missed subtle points, and possibly major ones. Links to the national curriculum documents I reviewed ahead of time (found by me, nothing that’s not online) and twitter accounts will be sorted as soon as I’m a desktop, not tapping away on my tablet on a crowded train. Hope this makes some kind of sense in the mean time.

Two postscripts:
1 I’ve honestly no idea how my name came up. All of the teacher/blogger attendees made clear we had never claimed to speak for anyone except ourselves. I hope that for future events that @educationgovuk is able to sort out some kind of nominations system.
2 Yes I’ve met @oldandrewuk and he looks exactly like his twitter profile picture.

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Questions In Tests

Do I turn over?
Do I write the questions out?
I don’t know this answer
But we haven’t learned about the lesser spotted wurble beast…

I think I spent more time in yesterday’s test getting up and down to answer these kinds of questions than I did marking. Like all of us teachers, time is at a premium so this was more than a little frustrating. I dealt with it in my usual way, by writing. Yes, slowly and painfully and no, my arm’s not better yet.

The questions, inane as they seem, are symptoms of a more general problem – one that arguably I’ve contributed to. They tell me that the kids don’t really get the point of a test. They don’t appreciate why they are doing it. They aren’t making a clear distinction between lessons, when questions are expected and encouraged, and tests which are intended to, well, test.

Are we taking too much for granted? Maybe I’m expecting too much of my students, not in terms of their content knowledge, but in their understanding of why we test them at all. So what can we do about it?

Well, I’m going to start with this particular test. I’ll leave one question unmarked, and we’ll go through the rest, modelling the process, before peer marking that one. This will lead to a discussion of lessons vs tests, both in terms of what we write down and what I can do to support them. I tend to find sporting or musical performance analogies help in these kinds of situations.

This will also reinforce the need for good questions *in* lessons, and notes that make sense even *after* a lesson. Hopefully it will be a chance to discuss how to improve answers depending on the purpose and context of the question.

Finally, I’m planning to have my students generate a FAQ list based on our summaries. By putting it in their own words I’ll provide a structure they can engage with, as well as setting up a format for future tests where I list common issues with a specific question or query. We’ll see how it goes.

Briefly: yes, I know I’ve not blogged much. I’ve also been quiet on twitter. Despite a minor fracture, I’m hoping to get back online now and I’m sorry for neglecting the electronic staffroom over the past few months of a new job, illness and general incompetence.