Sunday, 14 October 2012

Systems and culture

We have culture. A developing culture, but hopefully a clear one. One which aims for excellence, to be purposeful, relevant, reflective and thoughtful.

We also have systems. These systems are developing too. They have to adapt to external pressures, unlike our culture.

This is what I'd like to see.

Systems which are elegant, relevant and effective. No clutter, no excess or wastage; just purposeful, useful systems for measuring and checking, planning and assessing. They need to be adaptable and we need to reflect on their use.

A culture which is thoughtful, and all of the other adjectives above, but also owned by all, shared, valued and believed in. Culture is an abstract concept, in some ways, but ours must be as tangible as jellied eels in the East End, dripping on bread 'up north' and potent cider in the South West.

To that end, I want to know what you think. Are our goals clear? Are they shared? Do the systems we has support the culture we're growing? So you have any concerns, worries or questions? What would you like to see, to discuss or to explore?

Sunday, 23 September 2012


In my department, we've spent a couple of years improving our schemes. At first, they were non-existent; at best, they were collections of vague objectives copied from curriculum documents and a task or two for a novel. There was no notion of progress, assessment or differentiation.

That changed as the school changed. Our schemes became thorough, well mapped and useful. They were differentiated. Progress was planned for.

It didn't seem enough. Reading the ofsted document 'Excellence in English' put the notion of relevance in my mind. The best laid plans for literature in year ten were, on the surface, superb. In reality, that realism and relevance was missing.

Why should they care? Beyond snaring enough marks for a certain grade, what was their motivation?

The answer came to me when I was strolling slowly home at about 3.04 one sunny afternoon, having worked all the way through from 8.57.

Thematic schemes would fix my problems. War poetry was 'dusty' and 'dead' - none of them cared about the classics of the genre. Sure, you could drop in Casualties of War by Rakim, or show a spot of Saving Private Ryan, but it still didn't seem to do the job.

Thematic schemes would place the idea of conflict in its wider context, relating to the reality of modern society. It would allow the teaching of persuasive techniques, the study of journalism, the writing of short stores - a rounded education, rather than an excessive focus on narrow objectives over a six week period, before moving onto another set of AOs or AFs after the next break.

Our schemes had the basics, forced in by the needs of the school at a certain stage of its journey. Relevance and a thematic focus would allow us to move to the next level. We started adapting our existing schemes this year. In the conflict module, we studied 9/11 on 9/11 - in a multicultural, multi faith classroom, the discussions provoked engaged students like never before. Simple questions about their views on war led to the realisation that they think war is a normal state of affairs. Their reflection in this was powerful. Their responses and thoughts when studying poetry by Ed Poynter showed how they'd developed their thinking - much more personal and considered than before.

The year seven induction scheme became more powerful when they were writing for a real audience, knowing their work would get to that audience. Revamping of the school's digital media facilities further enhances opportunities to do this.

Of course, all good teachers create relevance somehow, often intuitively. As an objective for a department, however, it is powerful. It has promoted discussion of teaching in new ways, and encouraged the sharing of ideas and resources amongst the department.

We have many more targets. Improving enrichment opportunities, leading the promotion of reading, increasing independence as engagement. The list goes on. Relevance is the start. We can show our passion, show why we care, why we teach what we teach, why we love the subject.

An unexpected response...

A response from Mr Gove's office to my previous blog, which I cunningly emailed him. They're sorry that my students didn't get the grades they earned. They like academies. They believe ofqual. Sorry. They told ofqual what to say!

Dear Mr Dunford

Thank you for your email of 24 August, addressed to the Secretary of State, about GCSE results. As I am sure you can appreciate, the Secretary of State receives a large amount of correspondence and is unable to reply to each one personally. It is for this reason I have been asked to reply.

I was sorry to read that your students did not achieve the grade they were expecting in their GCSE English exam. We know that this year’s grading of GCSE English qualifications has caused significant concern for many students and sympathise with all young people who took GCSEs this year and didn’t get the results they expected.

Ofqual, the independent regulator for qualifications in England, has conducted an investigation of the grading decisions taken by exam boards. Ofqual published its initial report on 31 August and this can be obtained via the Ofqual website at www.ofqual.gov.uk/files/2012-08-31-gcse-english-awards-2012-a-regulatory-report.pdf .

The report states that for English GCSEs this summer, a complex and unique set of circumstances came together to create a highly unusual situation for schools and students. Ofqual found that the standard set for English GCSEs this year is comparable with the standard in previous years and the June 2012 grade boundaries were properly set. Therefore, candidates’ work was graded at the right standard. Ofqual has also found a greater variation between schools’ results than would have been expected. It is looking into the issues further and will produce a final report in October.

The Education Committee of the House of Commons is also looking into the issues, and it took oral evidence from Ofqual, headteacher representatives and the Secretary of State on 11-12 September. Details can be found on the Parliament website at: www.parliament.uk/education-committee . The Committee’s investigation continues; as a next step it has asked further detailed questions of Ofqual.

Decisions on standards, results, grades and grade setting for GCSEs are the responsibility of exam boards and Ofqual which is accountable to Parliament. Ofqual rightly takes its responsibilities over tackling grade inflation and maintaining standards in qualifications over time, very seriously. Ministers and the Department have no role in making decisions about grade boundaries – this is a matter for exam boards and the regulator.

Because of the concerns expressed about grading, exam boards have made early resit opportunities available to affected candidates in November. Should you have specific concerns about grading decisions, which have affected your school, you should approach the relevant exam board or Ofqual directly to discuss them further.

In the meantime, we look to Ofqual and the exam boards to make sure that the current GCSEs and the systems that underpin them are as robust as possible for the young people who will take them in the coming year.

Regarding your comments about academies, the Government trusts professionals and believes that teachers and headteachers should control schools and have more power over how they are run. The experience of the City Technology Colleges in England and evidence from the best performing education systems from across the world shows that more freedom for schools means better results.

Academies also help drive improvements across the whole education system through collaboration and partnerships with other schools. Allowing more schools to benefit from Academy status within a supportive network is a crucial part of our approach to school improvement and we expect all academies to work collaboratively with each other and with other local schools.

Ministers believe the creation of academy chains is key to sustained locally driven improvement across the system. We are now experiencing partnerships across the country where academies are using their new freedoms to work together, to share expertise and resources and to provide local solutions that are accountable and sustained.

Our best schools are now playing a key leadership role in driving the improvement of the whole school system, through creating and leading new academy chains.

The Government wants all partners to address poor performance within their chain so that all pupils in it have a good experience of school. We will hold each chain to account for the collective standards of its membership and we will expect immediate solutions to be developed by chain partners for any fall in standards.

Once again, thank you for taking the time to write.

As part of our commitment to improving the service we provide to our customers, we are interested in hearing your views and would welcome your comments via our website at www.education.gov.uk/pcusurvey

Yours sincerely

Jenny Crowley
Public Communications Unit

Your correspondence has been allocated the reference number 2012/0057937. To contact the Department for Education, please visit www.education.gov.uk/contactus

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Friday, 24 August 2012

Dear Mr Gove

Dear Mr Gove,

Since yesterday's results came out a lot has been said. Much has focused on numbers - percentages, grade boundaries and such. Personally, I'd like to write to you about some young people I know. I know these young people very well; many of them, I've seen most days since they were 11. Some have arrived later, and I've been privileged to get to know them. They're not, by and large, from the rosiest backgrounds, and most people don't expect too much from them. Judging by what some people say, we shouldn't expect much from them - they're 'barely literate', from the wrong post code, or haven't got the right type of parents.

These young people have been left heart broken and despondent by the pressure you have subtly, oh so subtly, exerted on exam boards. Pressure to stop 'grade inflation'. Pressure to discredit an exam system you wish to change, to destroy a comprehensive system which you wish to privatise and monetise. They feel, right now, that their futures are threatened. They've already spent their teenage years living in a depression caused by your fellow ideologues, fans of market forces and deregulation. I seem to remember you decrying teachers as 'ideologues'. You accused us of being 'enemies of promise' and 'happy with failure'. I assume your fantastically rigorous education means you are fully aware of the irony here.

Anyway. I'm being sidetracked. I want to talk about those people I mentioned earlier. I want you to know exactly why I, and others, will fight you to the bitter end.

I'll start with a young man who joined us halfway through year ten. This young man is an inspiration to me and many members of staff at my school.  His English wasn't great, but he could make himself understood, and it was clear he was a natural intellectual. Initially, we communicated through his burgeoning English and my poor French (I only went to a comprehensive, so I'm obviously not fluent. Oh that it had been an academy!) This young man worked incredibly hard. When learning skills in lessons he constantly asked for feedback, always asked for further detail when I marked his work, and always kept trying to improve. Over the time I taught him, he, in many respects taught me more. He taught me, through his Controlled Assessment, about his worldview and inspiring figures in his life. He revised and revised for the exams. He worked hard at speaking in a fashion that would enable him to attain a higher grade at Speaking and Listening. His analysis of the works of Blake, a poet I'm sure you admire, as I do, whom I ensure is studied by all of the students at my school, was perceptive, powerful and original. He knew his targets, he worked towards them. I told him he'd get that grade, and go onto even greater academic achievements in the future.

He achieved them. Had I entered this brilliant young man, a young man with realistically grand political ambitions, in January, he would have achieved a most impressive C grade. Yes. An impressive C grade. There is such a thing.

This young man will go on to succeed, to make his mark on the world, but right now, he feels scared that he can't go to the college of his choice. He fears that he won't be able to make the difference he knows he can.

I'll let you know when he does. He might even tell you himself. I hope he does.

An entirely different case is that of a young woman, from an often turbulent background which reflects the often tough reality of life in an inner city. For many complex reasons, she lacks confidence in herself. This is often expressed in a quite dramatic fashion. To get her into an assessment was often a challenge. To get her into lessons at times when life outside of school was working its way into the classroom was a challenge. Ultimately, with support from a caring team who know their pupils unbelievably well, we got her into the state of mind that she could achieve. All of that disadvantage was left behind as she began to work like a dream, recovering from a shaky start. She never quite believed me when I told her she had made it, as far as we knew, to a C. All of her work was at least C grade, with creative writing higher, and her exams pushing for a B.

Yet she went to school yesterday and was told she had only achieved a D.

There are countless more stories at my school alone, hundreds across my city, and thousands, no doubt, across the county. Who will have been most affected? The least advantaged, those that need the most support in this Big Society of ours. Pupils who didn't have private tutors, or tiny class sizes, or the most supportive background. It would appear that your actions, for they are yours, despite your weasel words when interviewed, are prejudiced - racist and classist. Your politics disadvantage the already disadvantaged.

Why? To turn schools like mine, hard working and innovative schools with proud places in their communities, into part of an academy chain, to make money, because the market knows best, as the Libor scandal and the rest of the nonsense that is modern capitalism has already shown to be wrong. Ironically, many academies have been hit, because many are in deprived areas, where we appear to, coincidentally, find these C / D borderline students.

I'm happy for those that succeeded because they entered children in January. But I'm beyond gutted for all the children who, like mine, have had their dreams dashed and their hard work negated by this political decision, playing to the gallery of right wing ideologues who believe the NHS is costly, the police should be privatised and that public sector workers are merely pension chasers. I'm gutted for the staff who feel like they've lied to the children they care about and work for, every day, for years, in the most challenging conditions.

However, I am happy for you. You love a little controversy, you love looking tough. Please remember though, that picking on children is mere bullying, and you, Sir, would appear to be a mere bully.

Thank you for taking the time to read my letter, and please remember that this is not over. We, staff and pupils alike, will rise again, and work to show you and those like you exactly what we can achieve, regardless of your pesky meddling.

Yours sincerely,


Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Travelling SOLO. Part One - Planning Writing

Recently, educational life on twitter has been reinvigorated by two things. One was the belated discovery of a chapter of English teachers (suggestions for more creative collective nouns for us - a bore, a metaphor, a pretension perhaps?) and the other was my happening upon SOLO taxonomy. I'm sure many of you reading this will be familiar with SOLO - if not, here is a blog I sent my department explaining the generalities of this potentially excellent tool.

Since then, I've gone in deep. My experiments have covered the three strands of English. In this blog, my application of SOLO to mock GCSE CA will be the focus.

Some context. My year 9 second set ended KS3 ranging from 5c to 6c. They'll all be expected to attain C or above, and, based on some of the great progress they've made this year, I'd hope some can attain the highest grades. They're a cracking set of kids, with a lot of personality and a lot of potential.

One problem I see too often is when a student who can attain a C, intellectually, begins GCSE English with insecure skills, which don't match their potential; it can be incredibly frustrating and demotivating for them to feel they are constantly underachieving. This year, I'm ending year 9 with a range of mock KS4 assessments - these will provide myself and my KS4 manager (I'm very lucky to have two extremely capable key stage managers who manage their areas skillfully while I attempt to lead the department to the promised land of outstandingness!) with accurate data with which we can plan a range of early intervention strategies. This wasn't the class's first lesson using SOLO - they had already used it to research the pros and cons of the fascist monarchical system for a debate.

That's the context. Beware. I may ramble. This is what happens when a frustrated novelist hits a keyboard.

After reading up on SOLO, I made myself some hexagons and headed to the classroom. My intention was that the class would complete a Me, Myself and I style piece, introduced, prepared and produced in 6 lessons. We began by identifying the key elements of informative, personal writing, looking at some examples from minor celebrities and politicians, as well as previous attempts by pupils. After completing these tasks and identifying the main features, we moved onto the planning stage, which is where I had planned for SOLO to take centre stage. In hindsight, SOLO could have played a role here, in order to develop extended ideas about the key features, so that all pupils had a greater understanding of genre and purpose.

The planning stage was enlightening. The pupils were predominantly level 5. Their writing often lacked a sophistication of structure, with plodding narrative and the more obvious shaping of texts predominating.

SOLO changed this. Using hexagons, they generated as many ideas as they could about their chosen event or individual. One recurring issue that SOLO couldn't help me with was two boys who were unable to develop an idea. Eventually, I changed their task to a narrative piece, so I could at least get an idea of where they stood in terms of GCSE bands.

So far, so normal. Pupils always brainstorm before writing, usually turning it into a plan which the more able structure interestingly, and the rest write in the order they thought of it.

This time, the relational thinking kicked in, and all that changed. I watched as a series of complex shapes and patterns appeared on their cleared desks. Extended abstract thinking happened, as extra hexagons were grabbed to add an extra detail that the learners felt would hold their piece together. For pupils at this stage of their education, it was great to see. They were really thinking deeply about their structure and their ideas.

Next, they paired up and went over each others plans. They suggested ways to improve them, and, in some cases, fresh ideas occurred. This was, I felt, down to the clarity of the thinking. The plans were then added to, whether it was extra detail or new links. I resolved not to look too closely at the plans, or the work until it was completed.

Marking was, for once, hugely anticipated! I was keen to see what they had produced. Pleasingly, progress appeared to be superb. Much of the work was equal to the predicted GCSE grades of C or B, with some attaining above - especially those who have the lower predicted grades. They've worked hard this year to secure their sentence structure and paragraphing skills, and this new input to their planning and thinking skills seemed to have secured this.

Ambitious overall structures were attempted, and attempted much more successfully. A few went for a more sophisticated structure, and didn't quite make the whole thing stick, but their grades for content and organisation were higher that if simple structures had been used. Where it worked, their personality and other writing skills shone through. None of them forgot to use paragraphs - there's usually a couple!

Within the texts, the links and thematic ideas that they'd noticed in their planning shone through. It didn't read like C/D borderline work.

Pupil feedback was overwhelmingly positive; they love SOLO. Comments focused on how they liked the way it allowed them to see their ideas, and the links between them, in new depth and detail. This was certainly reflected in the confidence with which they structured their writing.

In reflection, I'd change a few things next time. Possibly, I'll get them to have concepts for their writing on the hexagons, and then add detail as they start to move them about. This might make the extended abstract ideas more organic. However, I'll certainly be using SOLO to plan writing with all my groups in future, as the level of sophistication in writing can help all students. Next time I have a writing task for lower attaining groups, who struggle to become multistructural, I'll definitely use SOLO to simply help them in generating ideas.

Next time I get time, I'll try to reflect on using SOLO to research Blake's life, predict the content of his poetry, and then compare the Chimney Sweepers for Innocence and Experience!

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Service provision...

Seeing as I'm stuck on a train with extortionate wifi, intermittent reception and a grumbling baby, this will be brief.

It's making me think about service provision. Modern Britain is largely built on services - from fraudulent, mythical financial institutions to call centre and more. And it's working well.

This dominant ideology is as busted a flush as Crapper's prototype after his mate used it after twelve pints and a lamb bhuna. It's also becoming a dominant ideology in teaching, with the rise of academies and increasingly privatised education.

What's our role in this? What are our main aims in a league tabled, impersonal, context free world? Are we going to cater to the demands of the wider market, our personal market, or hit it all?

Hit it all, I say. Why not? Beat the system in as many ways as possible.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Write or be written!

Today, I attended a Conference for English subject leaders. The first session and keynote address was from Simon Wrigley, ex-chair of NATE and English Adviser for Buckinghamshire. In a thought-provoking address, he touched on the tensions at the heart of teaching English and teaching in general in the current climate, and on some exciting ways of developing independence and confidence in writing.

Firstly, the philosophy and thoughts behind teaching writing, from which I feel wider truths of 21st Century teaching can be extrapolated. Wrigley began by looking at the ways in which we are presenting writing to pupils. He looked at a question asked by the National Writing Project (now sadly defunct - although these versions survive in the US and UK) in 1990 - 'How has writing been defined by the way in which we evaluate it?'

If this question was relevant in those far flung days, then surely it is even more relevant now in the homogenised and standardised environment in which we teach? This was illustrated from some frankly awful quotes from National Strategies documents which stated that writing should 'show how they have responded to learning objectives; they should not just be doing writing' and 'creating a piece of writing is like pegging washing on a washing line'.

As reprehensible as these statements appear to me, instinctively, there is an element of me, as an English teacher trained in the last decade, and a Team Manager responsible for the outcomes of pupils across five years of secondary school, that recognises some form of truth reality in those words. The work our pupils produces must be measurable, and it must be measurable against the standards by which they will be judged. It would be remiss to ignore this; their GCSE grades are passports to their futures and will affect many facets of their futures.

However, it is my feeling that teaching in an overly structured fashion inhibits the development of real confidence and independence, two skills which, although not important to our governmental superiors, are key for any young person seeking to achieve in both education and life. Finding that balance in our teaching is imperative; if we can get that mixture of independence right, we will see happy, confident children, attaining well across a range of subjects, not just English. It is the 'wholeness of writing' which is important, and towards which we must strive. Wrigley referred to David Morley, writing in Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing, saying writing 'can make you feel more alive - concentrated yet euphoric'. Working out the balance between the literacy objectives which many of us need to inculcate in our learners, and the freedom and love for writing needed for real engagement, is a zone of proximal development in which we need to be pitching our planning and our pupils' learning. (Apologies for being slightly lose in my interpretation and application of Vygotsky's ideas!)

Classes would be transformed if writing was truly owned by the pupils. It would make the teaching of the 'dry' areas of grammar more accepted, as they saw they ways in which they could use those skills to improve their writing. It would reinvigorate the approached we take as teachers to these areas, which are perhaps made dry because of our approaches and prejudices towards them.

Wrigley moved on to some writing exercises, including free writing based on floor plans or maps which we drew, and the creation of a writing history, detailing key writing moments, good or bad, that stuck in our minds. These could well be applied to engaging reluctant writers, giving ownership to them and developing 'psycho-sturdiness' - feeling OK with the fear of the blank page and the writing journey. He also outlined some practices from the nwp including the valuing of authenticity and diversity, of voice and journey above writing product, and of the sharing of writing becoming something all are confident with - staff included.

The consequences will be engaged classes, confident writers, happy teachers - and, if applied consistently, from entry to exit, outcomes will improve, as they engage with the process, with the whole of writing.

Writing that was the easy part - now, to make it happen.