DfE – the F is for ‘Frankness’

Although beforehand none of us really knew what we were going to talk about, one thing was clear; we were all going to exploit this opportunity to speak our minds. Not in a mad old rant sort of way but through civilised and respectful conversation. (I think we mostly managed it)

We were an odd collective bunch of educationalists but we all shared thoughts and ideas about the old system, the incoming one and what we thought could improve our world of education.

I think all parties were honest in their comments – including the DfE. It wasn’t a case of them necessarily defending their ideas, frameworks and policies against a barrage of criticisms: more a case of them listening to the ‘real world’ implications of what they had put in place.

The curriculum

Although this got a rather favourable review from the people around the table, below are some key points made that challenged it (forgive me if I don’t attribute each point to who made it – although if I start talking in metaphors you can be pretty sure that it came from one half of @thought_weavers)

Broad and Balanced – well it is and it isn’t. The increase in expectations within reading, writing and maths coupled with the ‘stripping’ away of certain broader and balanced elements may, could, just might, result in some schools in challenging circumstances not feeling able to do the ‘it’s not in there but it’s implied you should cover it but we won’t be checking’ elements of it. The pressure to do ‘well’ in the tested bits could mean that these areas are overdone and the balance becomes distorted.

The counterpoint is that if you don’t ‘perform’ well in these tested areas you are in fact letting the children down more so than by not committing to the full curriculum. If children can’t read, write or calculate effectively how are they able to cope at secondary school? If making children ‘secondary ready’ is the hidden agenda behind primary schooling shouldn’t we focus on that bit if that is the bit that required improvement? The counter-counterpoint however is, in my opinion, starker; how is a child secondary ready if they have not received a fully rounded education that has included citizenship and has allowed them to persevere in all manner of disciplines not just literacy and numeracy? I’m sure there is yet another counter-counter-counterpoint to that argument but I’ll move on.

Support – Although much of the curriculum hasn’t really, really changed an awful lot there are some areas that have. I’m thinking computing and the content of the history curriculum. There was a general sense around the room that we had been left a little high and dry in how to skill up staff so they can deliver this effectively. We may be pleased that there are no prescriptive QCA schemes of work and that schools have freedoms to tailor much of the curriculum to their own tastes but where do we start and more worryingly…what if we get it wrong? What if we interpret differently to (whisper it) the ofsted team that come in to inspect our curriculum? There has been no support or guidance for schools to get the curriculum working for their schools.

Elizabeth Truss MP was concerned that ‘teaching schools’ hadn’t been involved in this process of offering support to local schools. We pitched in saying they either hadn’t offered it, the local authority hadn’t brokered any support packages, the teaching schools themselves did not have the capacity to support everyone else. One teaching school represented at the meeting made the point that they too needed to trial it in the first year before being able to support others which seems fair. All of these points seemed at odds with Truss’s perception of how teaching schools were supporting other schools.

At this point it was nearly impossible to discuss the curriculum without straying into our other topic for the day which was assessments.

Assessment

The disappearance of levels – Caroline (because it was her idea remember) was asked very bluntly why levels had been taken away and no other system had been introduced. She gave an answer. I can’t quite remember what it was. I seem to remember thinking if the aim was to make it more transparent to parents then I think you’ve failed as I haven’t got a clue what you’re talking about. (But then again, I was onto my third cookie by then and the sugar was starting to distort my senses)

Many people in the room seemed to be of the opinion that many schools were leaving levels alone until they had sorted out the curriculum. Caroline made an interesting point that levels, although not the preferred method of assessment, were not banned. I thought this sounded like pokemon cards at school: if they stay in your drawer and you only use them when I can’t see then that’s fine but don’t let me catch you playing with them in class or you’re in trouble.

Caroline did say that levels are gone because they are too crude an assessment. The children are put into boxes and it is difficult for teachers to move them to a different box. There needs to be a more gradual, well rounded, all-encompassing and detailed picture of assessment. But then she started talking about a standardised score that children would get at the end of Reception that would relate to a standardised score children would get at the end of KS2 and this would be the indicator of progress. Well, isn’t that just a bit like levels and APS? Don’t we expect children who are at this level at KS1 to be at this level at KS2 based on expected rate of progress? If you’re going to have a scale that you are going to use to track my Reception pupils all the way to Year 6 – why not tell me what it is and what it looks like in all other year groups because then I can make sure we’re judging my pupils’ achievement in the same way. Making me invent my own system feels really dangerous and makes me feel quite vulnerable. Just a thought.

Testing – This took up a lot of the discussion. The concept that testing to get a score was at odds with a holistic system of assessing children that went against trusting teachers’ judgements seemed to be an alien one to the folks at DfE. And I can see why. You do need, at some stage, a baseline check to see how everyone is doing compared to everyone else. It’s an easy way to get a collective score for a school. It was pointed out how much testing actually helps the child as opposed to helps the schools to be judged by those who are doing the judging.

We were asked what would our way be? I wasn’t the only one to suggest some kind of pupil portfolio where bodies of work were sent in. From my own perspective, I like this as one of the most frustrating conversations I have with teachers is during ‘assessment week’ where teachers will say things like: ‘I’ve got evidence in his book that he’s a 3B and I know in class, on a really good day he can write at a 3B….but on the test he might not, so, I’m going 3C.’ Now, I know why teachers do this, they don’t want to be ‘caught out’ on test day only for me to say ‘What were you thinking? 3B indeed!’  I don’t want unrealistic teacher judgements that are not representative of a child’s ability (either too high or too low) but I trust my teachers more than a test and I have moderating systems that allow me to do this confidently. That is why a national system that puts more faith in a pupil’s real achievement over time would be more valuable than one that sticks rigidly to a 45 minute test paper.

Ofsted – not on the agenda but how can you get people involved in education in a closed room for 90 minutes and not mention the beast in the room? No one criticised the purpose of ofsted but we had a few things to say and a few pointers. (Not that the DfE can do anything about ofsted)

  • Why not go back to longer inspections so ofsted can see the whole school for real.
  • A commitment that ofsted want to see a broad and balanced curriculum in every school.
  • Better links with what the DfE sends out and what Ofsted comes in to see.

I shan’t say no more about Ofsted because it wasn’t why we were there. But also, I can’t remember anything else particularly so I’ll leave it there anyway. You can read part three now you lucky bugger.

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