Saturday, 17 October 2015

Why is it always the children who most need school who are absent the most?

I've got no data to back up the assertion in the title of this post - but ask a primary school teacher which children are away the most, and they will most likely point to their special educational needs students. So - what are the reasons?

  1. Children with learning difficulties, especially dyslexics, are likely to be working harder than other children. Their brains are being challenged to perform in ways that are unnatural for them. Therefore they are likely to get more tired than other children, and tiredness leads to susceptibility to illness.
  2. Related to this, it's hard work trying to catch up and keep up. So if they are just a little unwell, their performance will be much poorer, and they will want to stay at home when their colleagues would still come in.
  3. Maybe the teacher has told the children that they will have a test the next day. Many children enjoy tests. But for special needs children, tests can be purgatory, because unlike regular teaching, tests are generally set at the same level for all children - a level that could be inaccessible to the student. Why turn up to school to fail? Hence there's more likelihood of telling mum that you're feeling ill the next morning.
  4. Children's learning difficulties may be linked with other medical problems, such as lingering congenital issues, or eyesight. So they have more appointments with medical specialists, and these specialists rarely work evenings and weekends - leading to more time off school.
  5. Finally, the vicious circle. Children who may not be categorised as having special needs, but whose parents do not value education, fall behind because their parents keep them out of school for reasons of domestic convenience. And naturally they fall further behind.

I don't offer any solutions here, other than to suggest that you ask yourself if your classroom is as enjoyable for (and accessible to) your special needs students as for the mainstream. We can't address all the social issues above, but they can be partially counteracted if these children want to come to school.

Given all the above, it would be astonishing if those who most need school weren't absent the most.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Physical activity and achievement in Maths – it’s scientific nonsense

An American educational website recently tweeted this:

An alarm bell that rang for me was, why only mention Maths? If this thin layer helps Maths then it should be useful for other things too. So I was suspicious enough to check the original research, a paper by Laura Chaddock-Heyman, published last month.

This was her methodology. Find 48 children, half with much better than average fitness levels, half much worse than average. Check that there are no other major differences between the children (e.g. age, social deprivation, cognitive ability) and then give them tests in reading, spelling and mathematics to see if their fitness level correlates with their ability in these areas.

She stated that on testing, in reading and spelling there was no difference. We were left with only mathematics.

The scattergraph produced by Chaddock-Heyman does indeed point to a thinner cortical layer in the fitter children and also a higher performance in Maths.  

Remaining dubious,  I then looked more closely at the methodology. As I said, her respectable scientific approach was to ensure that the children were the same in all possible ways except for their fitness. So, what if I dug deeper into the selection of the subjects themselves – were there any errors there? Sure enough, among the higher-fit participants there were 14 boys and 10 girls. Among the lower-fit participants, there were 8 boys and 16 girls.

In other words, when she measured their mathematical ability, she observed lower mathematical ability among a group that was two-thirds girls.

Why does this matter? Well, like it or not, there is something wrong in the US educational system with mathematics. Boys consistently out-perform girls in this subject, and have done for the last forty years

Many other countries have little or no gender differential. But Chaddock-Heyman’s research was done with American subjects, so it needed to take the known US mathematical inequality into account. When does the mathematical difference between boys and girls start to be apparent? At some point between elementary school and middle school.  And what was the age of these children that Laura Chaddock-Heyman examined? The final year of elementary school!

So this research had an imbalance of subjects who were already predisposed to be better at mathematics owing to the gender inequality in this subject in the USA. It was no surprise that the lower-fit group, being mainly composed of girls, performed less strongly in the maths test, and no surprise that the reading and the spelling was the same in each group, because there is not the same gender differential in these subjects.

As this research is flawed, it should be ignored. If we really want to know if there is a link between physical fitness and mathematical ability, then lower-fit boys must be tested against higher-fit boys, and the same for girls – or better still, the US first needs to get its educational act together and address the mathematical under-performance by girls.

But what’s the betting that this erroneous conclusion will be promoted in teacher-training colleges and repeated in staff rooms for years to come?

Should parents have the power to sack headteachers?

As reported in the TES, an organisation that advises groups on setting up free schools proposes that parents be empowered to require a regional schools commissioner to take urgent action to improve the school, which might include sacking the head. 

We can thank US models for this. Some states, including California, have a “parent trigger” law compelling school boards to listen and act if a sufficient number of parents petition. It’s not surprising that it’s an American concept, in view of the long-standing entitlement of many US voters to have ‘recall’ elections  if their representatives are not performing properly.

The UK already allows parents to complain to Ofsted and thereby trigger an inspection – but less than one inspection in a thousand is a result of this.   However, I suspect that there would be more interest if parents believed that a petition presented with sufficient evidence would trigger a dismissal rather than an inspection.

The main concern of course is the potential for injustice. A reforming headteacher is likely to break many an egg while making their omelette, and a powerful clique of parents (and I have seen such cliques at many schools) may persuade themselves and others that if the head doesn’t run the school according to their ideas, then it’s a badly-run school.

I’m also uncomfortable about the lack of accountability. Thus, even though the parents do not hire the headteacher, they would have the ability to dismiss them if they do not get the service they expect. We don’t hire the person who serves us in Tesco, but if we are not served the way we like, would we then have the right to petition for their dismissal? I think that Tesco would prefer to use their own management structure to check on the quality of their staff, and in the same way the governors of the school (advised by the local authority and Ofsted) have the professional experience necessary to make a judgement on whether the headteacher is a fit and proper person to operate the school. Best stick to whoever does the hiring, does the firing

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

What to ask at your child's parents' evening - and what not to ask

Parents are being encouraged to ask demanding, jargon-filled questions of their child’s teacher. In this post, I appeal for parents to first consider, “What would I ask my dentist?” 

A posting today on an educational blog provides ‘19 Meaningful Questions You Should Ask Your Child's Teacher’.

These include such gems as:
·         How are creativity and innovative thinking used on a daily basis in your classroom?
·         How is critical thinking used on a daily basis in your classroom?
·         How are assessments designed to promote learning rather than simple measurement?
·         What are the most common instructional or literacy strategies you will use this year?

(See below for how I imagine a real teacher would answer the nineteen questions.)

Rather than parents taking this list to the teacher, I would advise them to say to themselves, “What would I ask my dentist?”

Seriously. A dentist is a professional who undergoes training for about the same length of time as a teacher, and then gains a huge amount of experience on the job. Teachers and dentists both look after things that are precious to you. If you would ask your dentist questions about what dental strategies they favour, whether they are up to date with the latest great initiative in fillings, how they direct the assistant so that the support is targeted where it’s needed, what innovative approaches they use – then fine, ask your child’s teacher the equivalent questions. But if you trust your dentist’s expertise and reputation, then don’t waste your time or the dentist’s or the teacher's. 

Moreover, bear in mind the level of quality control that exists in schools. Your child’s teacher is subject to scrutiny from their line manager (in the UK, that is usually the Head) and the Head is under the oversight of inspectors from both the government and from the local authority or an academy chain. And unlike your dentist, results are published annually and communicated to you.

It will be clear by now that I am urging parents to trust the teachers. If you do not trust your child’s teacher, then rather than undermining the professionalism of the teacher with such questions, you should be either going to the Head with your concerns, or finding a different school. 

If parents really require suggestions for questions at the parent-teacher conference, I propose three, rather than nineteen: 
Is my child happy? 
Is my child behaving? 
Is there anything I can volunteer for that would help the school?
Beyond that, don’t worry. Trust the professionalism of the teacher and the quality control systems in the school.

(The author of those nineteen questions, incidentally, appears not to be a practising teacher but rather a ‘former English teacher’ who now describes himself among other things as a ‘social learning facilitator’. Enough said perhaps. Here are the answers that I would imagine a teacher giving at this Parents’ Evening from Hell, for anyone who’s interested.)

1.     How will you respond if or when my child struggles in class?

Just as in all schools, tasks and investigations are planned to meet the child at their level of challenge. A child who is not coping is given support or challenged at a revised level. If it was a real problem, I would have spoken to the special needs co-ordinator a long time ago and I would have consulted you. Don’t worry.

2.     What are the most common instructional or literacy strategies you will use this year?

I’m a teacher. I plan the content of lessons, but as for strategies they come up naturally. I have no idea which strategies I use more than others. It depends on the lesson.

3.     What are the most important and complex (content-related) ideas my child needs to understand by the end of the year?

May I refer you to the published curriculum on the government/state/local authority website, which outlines what children need to know year on year?

4.     Do you focus on strengths or weaknesses?

So it’s an either/or, is it? I wonder if you would ask a gardener if they focus on weeds or flowers…

5.     How are creativity and innovative thinking used on a daily basis in your classroom?

Ummm.. it just happens? You can’t really teach without it…

6.     How is critical thinking used on a daily basis in your classroom?

I’m a teacher, ok? So there is critical thinking in my classroom. Daily, you ask? Maybe one day last week I didn’t have any. But I assure you it happens. 

7.     How are assessments designed to promote learning rather than simple measurement?

Where did you get these questions from? An educational blog? You’re kidding. But ok, here we go. It is wrong to assume that ‘simple measurement’ doesn’t promote learning. All assessment promotes learning because you are finding the gaps that need filling. Assessment that doesn’t promote learning is not assessment. That indeed is the essence of teaching – plan it, teach it, see if they’ve understood it, and then respond accordingly.

8.     What can I do to support literacy in my home?

Sigh... How about reading to your child and getting them to read to you? Just a thought.

9.     What academic standards do you use, and what do I need to know about them?

National Curriculum levels [or local equivalent]. As for what you need to know, if you are completely ignorant of the standards then it will make little difference to your child’s education. We will refer to the standards in your child’s report and provide definitions. If you do want to know more, Google it.

10.  What kinds of questions do you suggest that I ask my children on a daily basis about your class?

‘Did you have a good day?’ That’s it. If they just say ‘yes’ and don’t want to say any more, then drop it. The school is their life, not yours. Let your kid have a break from your helicopter parenting.

11.  How exactly is learning personalized in your classroom? In the school?

Look on our website. There is probably some platitudinous policy there saying how every child is an individual and how we enrich them on that individual level. The truth? Your child is one of thirty children in my class and most of the time most of the pupils will learn in a group because that is the way the most learning is achieved with the limited time that I have available.

12.  How do you measure academic progress?

Like every school, formally with occasional tests and informally from observations. Mostly I just know where the children are because I am a competent and experienced teacher.

13.  What learning models do you use (e.g., project-based learning, mobile learning, game-based learning, etc.), and what do you see as the primary benefits of that approach?

If you are interviewing me for a job then by all means ask me questions like that but I have to say it’s a bit odd at a parents’ evening. To be honest I don’t think of ‘learning models’ from one year’s end to the other. I teach and the pupils learn.

14.  What are the best school or district resources that we should consider using as a family to support our child in the classroom?

Don’t. Please, please don’t. Just listen to your child read and practise their times tables with them occasionally, but otherwise leave the curriculum to the school. I will teach them, and if they need help with homework they will ask you.

15.  Is there technology you'd recommend that can help support my child in self-directed learning?

The internet.

16.  What are the most common barriers you see to academic progress in your classroom?

Progress is fine though I could do with forty-eight hours in the day.

17.  How is education changing?

I could talk to you until sunrise about this, or you could find your answer via Google. I’d prefer the latter.

18.  How do you see the role of the teacher in the learning process?

Teaching. Oh, sorry, you wanted something more cuddly.... Enabling. Facilitating. Whatevering.

19.  What am I not asking but should be?

“Is my child happy and doing as well as can reasonably be expected?”

Friday, 21 August 2015

State schools outperforming independents – really?

The Telegraph claims A-level analysis offers good news for the Government’s educational programme – but something dodgy is going on.

A report in the Daily Telegraph today gives the Government something to seize on – “England's best 500 state schools are outperforming the top 500 private schools”. This is according to an analysis of A-level results. The Government might indeed like to make something of it, as it would seem to justify their educational policy. But it is interesting that the Telegraph could not find a member of the Government willing to be named, only a “senior source” who claimed that this shows that the independent sector should be learning from the maintained sector rather than the other way around.

I suspect that the reason the Telegraph failed to pin down anyone who would put their name to such a conclusion, is that the conclusion is nonsense.

First, it assumes that people send their children to independent schools in order to get good A-levels, and therefore if state schools are ahead in A-levels, then they are better schools. However, parents who choose the independent sector do so for so many more reasons than the exam certificates at then end. They may choose this sector for the greater range of extra-curricular activities and access to sport; or because their children lack confidence and the parents believe that the pastoral care is better; or because the parents work away and they need their children to board; parents may consider that these schools will develop resilience or other virtues in the child. Or, simply, the local comprehensive has a reputation for failing to address behavioural issues and the parents are not prepared to tolerate that. Whether it's right or wrong to choose an independent school is a different discussion, but certainly the choice of school is made on a more subtle basis than academic achievement, and education is more than A-levels.

Secondly – and this is the killer – the article is statistically disingenuous. They have compared the top 500 out of about 3500 state schools, with the entirety of the UK independent schools (approximately 500) that offer A-level courses.

This would indeed be a versatile statistical tool, to compare the top seventh of one category with the totality of another. Here's my idea. Take 70 women at random and ten men at random. Tell the shortest 60 women to go away, then measure the remaining ten women and all the ten men and declare that women are on average taller than men. Or that Greeks are richer than Germans, Austrians are plumper than Americans, or Skoda drivers drive faster than Saab drivers. Or whatever you want to prove, really.

I hope that pupils in or out of the top seventh of schools would be alert to the dubious statistical practices here.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Primary School Gardening

It impresses inspectors, promotes healthy lifestyles, meets many Science learning objectives, and ticks PSHCE boxes – and everyone can achieve. This September, why not take up some of that surplus turf and lay out garden plots?

When a ten-year-old writes a story, he or she might be very proud of it, and we might indeed say it is a great story, and tell them why. But it will not be of the standard that a university student could write – how could it be? We acknowledge it on its own terms. Likewise when they compose a piece of music, or sketch a still life, we judge it and praise it as being of a good standard for that child, for that age. Always, it seems, our acknowledgment of primary children’s efforts is de haut en bas

But just imagine if their stories, music and drawings were of such a high standard that when we gave them feedback, we would have to evaluate their product as if they were adults. 

There is a discipline in which children can achieve on the same level as adults, namely in the garden. I know this, because as I write I can see my runner beans at home, which are flowering spectacularly and are promising to deliver a weighty harvest before many weeks have passed. Yet the runner beans that currently tower over our plots at school, planted by groups of KS2 children last spring at the foot of beanpole wigwams that they had set up themselves, are flourishing just as brightly and with just the same potential as mine. In fact, the plots on which the pupils have grown their vegetables and flowers are better weeded and more stone-free than my own garden, and are considerably more appealing visually, with their additions of windmills and the occasional gnome. (Last term’s ‘best garden plot’ competition concentrated their minds.)

At my school, gardening is not a lunchtime or after-school club, as at many schools, but is a timetabled part of the curriculum. It was not an easy decision to make – after all, what other part of the curriculum would you give up in order to accommodate what many would see as a hobby? – but I have never regretted it. Many of the skills we want the children to develop are addressed by gardening. There are planning and logistics – the children have to decide what they are going to plant, where and when. If they plant lettuces here, what sort of gap has to be left before planting a row of radishes? What are the optimum times for succession planting? Social skills are encouraged by gardening, because the children have to collaborate with their plot-mates. Indeed, in my school we don’t even allocate the plots: the children negotiate with one another for their choices at the beginning of a new ‘gardening’ year (which runs from one October to the next) and the pupil-run Garden Council inform us of who is to tend which plot.

As we have been doing this for a number of years, the children tend to educate one another in horticultural techniques – we encourage groups that comprise children from a range of school years so that experience cascades to a new generation. Of course the children need guidance, and it is essential to have knowledgeable, experienced gardeners on the staff - my school is fortunate in that respect, and sometimes garden enthusiasts on the parent body come along to advise and help. The pupils aren’t always getting their hands dirty and knees muddy, as we also have occasional classroom sessions, where we give the children advice on what to grow, and relate what they are doing to the science of life cycles, ecosystems and photosynthesis.

We don’t do gardening for the entire year – it’s only timetabled during the first half of the autumn term, and then again from about March onwards, and one has to be flexible when the weather is inclement. But on or off timetable, it is remarkable how often the children ask to spend their break-times and lunch-times on their plots. This is because they can all succeed (I really mean all – one of our most successful gardeners of recent years was a statemented child who was disapplied from SATS) – and they reap plenty of healthy food that they can proudly take home, and, hopefully, eat with their families – the most popular food crops are lettuce, spinach, potatoes, radishes, runner beans, broad beans and strawberries.

And if you’re not convinced by the Science and PSHCE links, or by the healthy eating that is promoted, or by the outdoor lifestyle, or by the possibly life-long enthusiasm you will have engendered – maybe you will be convinced by the inspectors. In their last visit to us they expressed themselves deeply impressed by the way our garden initiative contributed to so many aspects of the academic and social needs of the pupils. 

Thursday, 6 August 2015

A teacher recruitment time-bomb?

Just because teacher training applications are down, is there anything to worry about? Yes, lots – but maybe there are positives to be drawn from the situation.

At first glance, the report in the TES last week seems alarming: a 9% drop in applicants to be teachers, at a time when we know that the school population is rising, and is due to hit 8 million by 2023, the highest level since the tail-end of the Baby Boom reached school leaving age in the early 1970s. Who will teach all these children?

Is it actually alarming? It should be emphasised that this is a drop in applicants, not in the number of those accepted for a place – what the story doesn’t say is that there are still three and a half applicants for every place available. Having said that, it is important for training providers to have a choice. Unless the applicants are very committed and confident, or very foolish, they will also have applied for other courses or jobs, meaning that as university results and A-levels appear, many of the 120,000 applicants will drift away. Last year with 10,000 more applicants, only 93% of teacher training places were filled; it was 95% the year before. The really worrying figure is that over the five years to the end of 2014, new entrants to the profession fell by 16% (Daily Telegraph). A downward trend in teachers and an upward trend in children is not great news for the quality of education.

The negative implication of the news story is in fact borne out by a deeper look at the statistics. We do have something to worry about. In 2013 the primary outlook was slightly better than the secondary one (secondaries have shortfalls in practical and scientific subjects) but in 2014 it had declined to the same 93% new entrant level.   

There is not much to cheer us in the situation. The government’s statistical report disingenuously boasts that ‘New entrants to initial teacher training are becoming better qualified’, with 73% of postgraduate trainees holding first class or upper second class degrees. So - there are fewer, but those there are, are better. However, this percentage is not substantially different from the national picture (71% of all students achieve these grades, which are on the up) and let’s not forget that those with less than a lower second are barred from teacher training anyway, so with only three degree classes to choose from, that 73% figure is not particularly magnificent.

The truly alarming thing is that of those who do complete their training courses, a high number (it could be 40%) will start as a teacher and then leave within a year – the quit rate after graduation doubled between 2005 and 2011 (Guardian). It might be that the government’s recruitment targets allow for this sad haemorrhaging of potential talent – but it is the same impetuses behind both these stories - depression of recruitment and discouragement of retention. Repeatedly we hear and read of teachers’ disenchantment with the consequences of the changing systems over the last decade – incessant governmental fiddling, increased workload and the unrealistic expectations of inspectors and managers.

It is indeed a time-bomb, but maybe there will be some good to come out of this situation. Teachers’ conditions are going to have to improve if schools are to retain and recruit. Maybe this will involve a serious look at the professional and personal consequences of the target-driven system.