End of Days


Ah, the end of the year. In your diary for the last two days of school there is nothing but empty space, apart from a tiny entry marking out a final school assembly. There is no more data, no more reports, no more planning or marking to do. Yes, this is the wind down you’ve been waiting for: the holiday can almost start here.

But for some reason, the activities that apparently must make up the last days of a primary school year, as pre-determined by some higher power, do not ever result in the relaxing fade out to the academic year that you would hope for.

Trying to find out why the end of the year has to end this way is like trying to find out why the universe was created or why there are wasps or why Bruce Forsyth still commands prime time television space. There is no one who has an answer but we all just seem to accept it; happy that it’s just the way it is.

And so, the last day of the year begins…

Presumably the theory behind ‘toy day’ was that it would allow the children to be preoccupied with the making of their own fun (with no input or resources from the teacher) and this would allow the teacher to a) sleep; b) tidy their cupboard; c) sleep at the back of their tidy cupboard. But it never works out like that does it?

Children are incapable of playing a board game from start to finish; they insist on bringing in their most flimsiest toys so you spend half your time pissing about with sticky-tape and re-shaping bent bits of plastic; or worst of all they actually want you to join in with a game of ‘Doctor Who Uno’. Unfortunately, explaining to a 7 year old that the point of toy day is to minimise teacher/child interactions is harder than explaining grid multiplication: so you inevitably end up playing a game which neither you or them know the rules to and when you try to explain to them how their game is actually meant to be played they quickly lose interest, leave you to go and find the robotic puppy that has just simulated urinating in your book corner, resulting in you packing their game away.

By break time you realise that toy ‘day’ is not working and it may have to turn into toy ‘hour’. Luckily they all brought in their pirated DVD collection and after you have excluded the films that are either still playing in cinemas or may contain scenes of nudity, violent images, explicit sexual swear words and scenes of mild peril, you take a class vote. And as they are only 7 year olds and have no taste in films, ‘The Princess Bride’, ‘Labyrinth’ and ‘The wind in the willows’ are rejected in favour of ‘The Smurfs’ or ‘Alvin & the Chipmunks: the squeakquel’. Still, their choice…put it on and that should be 90 minutes of down-time for you.

Ten minutes in and you realise that this may not be the case as you remember that no child can remain silent during a film especially those that have seen it, who cannot keep complex plot points to themselves. Also, no matter how loud and fast a film is, even 7 year olds get bored by the celluloid equivalent of a pile of excrement in a bag. So your time is spent shouting “be quiet!” and growling “just enjoy the film.” Forty minutes in and when you see that only the owner of the DVD is actually watching you decide to stop the film and hope that tidying up will get you through to lunchtime.

With any luck lunchtime will be extended leaving you with half an afternoon to fill. As they come back into class you try some negotiation: “we’ll play one class game then you can tidy your drawers: if you do that quickly, we’ll play another class game and then maybe, MAYBE, I’ll let you play with your toys again while we finish watching ‘Cats and dogs 2: the revenge of Kitty Galore’” They accept your terms and you play a quick round of ‘heads down, thumbs up’ a game so pointless and inane it makes ‘sleeping lions’ look like an advanced version of chess. Then it’s time for them to tidy their drawers.

For the next thirty minutes the classroom is turned upside down as old and forgotten homeworks, spellings and Tudor worksheets are found, evaluated and binned. Your time is spent shouting things like: “I don’t want anything left-it’s all taken home or put in the bin”. Despite this every child, will at least once, come up to you holding some crumpled half-finished science investigation asking “What about this?” You try and look as if you are seriously considering taking it off their hands to put it in your special file of outstanding achievement ready for the next Ofsted before tentatively asking: “Do you want it?” to which they instantly reply in the negative leaving you to suggest that if they don’t think their parents would want it either, they should put it in the recycling bin.

Once all the drawers are emptied, the recycling bin has been filled three times over, and half the school library books are now piled on your desk you decide to sit them down to give them an end of year talk. You explain how great they have been, how hard they have worked and how much you will genuinely miss them next year. Suddenly there is a lump in your throat as you realise that all these little faces will no longer be looking up at you next year. As you stare at the photos of them that you took at the beginning of the year for your class contract you are reminded of just how much they have grown in their time with you. It has been a great year and it feels strange that a different adult will be at the centre of their school universe next year. Luckily, before you start crying one of them says that this is all lovely but you had promised they could play with their toys again; and so with thirty minutes of the school year left, you agree to let them trash the classroom one more time.


Levels are dead…long live the Levels.

ImageIn a recent local authority meeting for ‘locally maintained Head Teachers’ we were asked by our local leaders to partake in what was essentially a massive brain storm session. Like an excruciating episode of the Apprentice, where a team has got to the end of day one and still hasn’t got a new revolutionary design for a toilet, our leaders were equipping us with post-its and marker pens and putting us into small groups to try and work out, please dear god have an answer for the question: what is good about being a locally maintained school?

As we desperately begun searching for the unique selling point that would prevent them from being told ‘you’re fired’ by central government it became clear that apart from moral, social, philosophical, personal and political reasons (and what good are they in the boardroom?) there aren’t any. In reality this is a quite a good thing because it signifies that local schools have been working together quite happily to improve the quality and consistency for all pupils within the area. The matter of whether you’re a free school, academy, federation, faith school, LA maintained school doesn’t really come into it: when you get professionals trying to improve things for their schools they often recognise the need to collaborate and often don’t let technicalities get in the way. But the more this was discussed and liked by everyone in the room the less it looked like there was a clear ‘model’ for LA schools.

But then the DfE confirmed that they are getting rid of the current system of ‘levels’ used to report children’s attainment and progress and (as Gove wants us all to be free thinking and innovative)…it will not be replaced. This has caused a huge level of debate on twitter and there are some very interesting and contrary thoughts about it. One thought that has not been explored but surely has been considered by Local Authority Leaders and Directors of services is that this could be a chance to save the local authority’s bacon: Over-hauling levels could be the pig’s ear that the LA could spin into its very own silk purse.

Ultimately, what really matters is the progress and the achievement within a particular discipline to a particular expected standard. That is never going to go away. The biggest issue with this is consistency in terms of accuracy of judgement. Anyone who has ever taken part in a staff meeting or inset on ‘benchmarking’ writing levels knows how difficult it is to attain consistency across a single table of teachers let alone a school’s worth. No matter what you agree on by the end of the day, in a year’s time some teachers will still be led by their own personal judgements on what constitutes a true level. Monitoring helps iron out the inconsistencies but it still occurs-especially during transition periods (you know that bit in Term 2 where you see that no one has made progress and some pupils have gone backwards?). And that’s just in a single school: imagine the variation across the country.

Whatever system you choose, you are still going to have this issue. Standardised testing is meant to put a big sticky plaster over this as it levels out the playing field. Now we can clearly measure progress from KS1 to KS2. Not really…we can measure how one adult judged a pupil’s writing against how a different adult judged the same pupil’s writing  (well, two pieces of writing completed within 45 minutes) four years later.

We could have more standardised testing. Yearly SATS that do not rely on personal interpretations of level descriptors but instead, give scores within each element of reading, writing and maths; which in turn track the levels of achievement for each child. This has already been introduced in the Y1 phonics screening and the Y6 SPAG tests so why not stretch across the entire school. Easy. No margin of error and with a pass score everyone can understand.

I don’t really fancy this idea but then I do quite like curriculum level descriptors. They provide a structure of progression that allows us (teachers, pupils and parents) to see what areas of reading, writing and maths need to be developed through quality teaching and learning.

The problem is not with how we assess but when. This is where local authorities could really challenge the status quo and perhaps develop a more robust way of measuring pupil progress and achievement and therefore the performance of its schools.

What about, doing away with end of Key Stage tests? Pasi Sahlberg, an educationalist from Finland (one of the world’s top performing countries in terms of standards of education) said that too often standardised tests were seen as ‘end points’ used to judge the final score at the end of a particular phase in a child’s educational career. Instead they should be seen as a ‘check point’ throughout a longer journey.

So why not assess pupils at certain times in their life as opposed to certain times during the school calendar. Age appropriate assessment could allow us to see if the pupil is achieving as well as their peers of a similar age. This would either mean testing pupils on their birthdays (oh alright the day after, honestly, you Liberals!) or ensuring that we accurately match level descriptors and developments with age expectations rather than end of year expectations. This would allow us to track progress fairly and in relation to every pupil in any school-it would be a far better form of standardisation than getting a cohort of pupils to sit the same test at the same hour on the same date. So don’t throw away your level descriptors just yet but get ready for a new assessment timetable and tell the unions we may need to boycott SATs for the next two years.

It would need a bit of careful thinking, a lot of professional trust and a significant amount of communication between schools. These are all things that a local authority could organise and provide and if applied across a whole city could support consistency as well. It would also move us away from the obsession of reinventing the wheel in terms of finding the next approach to assessment and chasing fads to prove tiny bits of short lasting impact. Responsible assessment followed by appropriate and effective input all sewn up by the language of ‘age’ that everyone understands. By giving schools the ‘freedom of choice’ Michael Gove may have unwittingly provided local authorities with a unique opportunity to start an educational revolution and in doing so, cement their place on the educational landscape.

Come on Mr Mayor…don’t just plant a tree, sow the seeds of change!


Bristol has a Mayor. This is fine, I have nothing against Bristol having a Mayor; in fact I imagine it could be quite exciting, shake things up a bit. Bristol’s Mayor is a man called George Ferguson. So far there are three things that I know about him:

  1. He wears red trousers a lot.
  2. He played a significant and important role in the redevelopment of Bedminster’s Tobacco Factory.
  3. He wants every child in Bristol to plant a tree.

Of these three statements one impresses me and causes me to think all is not lost; one has made me confine the wearing of my own pair of red trousers to when I’m gardening; and one of these statements really, really annoys me. I think it should be clear to most people that the red trousers issue is taken care of; I think the Tobacco Factory is great so that leaves us with statement three: he wants every child in Bristol to plant a tree.

It was a couple of days after his election victory that Mr Ferguson addressed a room full of Head Teachers at the University of the West of England. Poor bugger, he was probably still hung over from celebrating but his PA had obviously said ‘Get on that stage Mr Mayor, this is an opportunity’. So he came on and I remember two feelings: slight surprise because close up his red trousers were actually tartan, but more than that I remember feeling a bit sorry for him. He seemed a bit flustered and who could blame him? He hadn’t talked that much about education before and suddenly here he was talking to a load of Head Teachers, I mean what was he meant to say? Turned out he did some crowd pleasing material on us all being heroes and then, in what I imagined was a stream of consciousness, he said that he wanted every child in Bristol to plant a tree.

I quite naturally ignored this as did most people on my table. It was just a bit of fluff and nonsense designed to sound inspirational in a ‘children are the future of this planet and so are trees’ kind of way. It didn’t carry any weight, no we would forget about this idea. Put it at the back of the cupboard with the other ‘big’ ideas like building a solar powered snow plough and running a competition to find Bristol’s favourite soup.

So imagine my surprise when I received an email asking me to sign up for the Mayor’s big scheme of getting every child in Bristol to plant a tree. Why? Will it make Bristol a green city? Will it provide a safe canopy for our children to walk under on their way to school? I don’t think it will. It might make Bristol a better shaded city in the summer months and it may encourage more tree climbing therein creating a more risk taking generation which could be a good thing but…I think that might be it.

No, what really annoys me about this idea is that it is in danger of being really small minded and for a man who displayed such vision when saving such a culturally significant building as the beloved Tobacco Factory and who proudly wears red tartan trousers in public, this paper thin initiative is a massive disappointment. Education at this precise moment in time is not in the best of places and I would have thought that the proposed National Curriculum, which seems to be unifying all educators through their hatred of it, would be seen as the golden egg squeezed out from Gove’s massive egghole (urgh) to be picked up and capitalised on.

Imagine a whole city turning its back on a badly formatted and politically engineered curriculum and instead creating something truly inspiring and meaningful for its children. A City Curriculum with local and global dimensions agreed upon by all educators and pushed forward by the city’s Mayor. A newly elected Mayor should seize this opportunity to engage with school leaders and play a part in developing something far greater than the sum of its parts. A city curriculum could truly lay the foundations that would allow an entire city becoming ‘outstanding’ based on any set of criteria from anybody’s score-book. Schools may not be able to do it on their own, they carry with them too much baggage, but with a leader or a figurehead to help facilitate the journey we could do it. The Mayor is in the correct neutral position to at least give it a try. Or…we could plant a tree and then get on with teaching 7 year olds about the house of Plantagenet. Your call Mr Mayor.