Game of Shadows



According to Dr Avis Glaze there are 21 trends for the 21st century that will have a profound impact on education and therefore the whole of society. During her talk at #ILConf2014 we were asked to pick our top trend. I chose number 16.

A spotlight will fall on how people gain authority and use it.

I chose this as it seemed to me to be a worrying example of locking a stable door after the horse has bolted, set up a meth lab, organised a red wedding and is now trying to become president of the United States.

For any cats without a Netflix subscription let me explain. The authority has already been gained, in shadowy darkness, and the spotlight, by shining on how it is being used, has been turned on too late.

You just have to cast your eyes over the ‘Trojan horse’ headlines concerning those handful of schools in Birmingham that have hogged the spotlight recently. These schools illustrate not the faults of Islam extremism but of the subversion of power within a particular type of school. As local authorities fracture, the cracks have been filled with unregulated systems of power.

Is it surprising that in these schools there are stories of governing bodies becoming distorted with an over-representation of a single-minded vision that has gradually suffocated and silenced the Head? Allowed to operate outside the local authority and with less checks than state maintained schools, for academies, there is no spotlight except for Ofsted.

And when the corruption and damage to a school-full of young people is finally exposed it should prompt the ultimate powers that be to re-think the system; instead however, their solution is to maintain the organisational status quo whilst trying to now catch everyone else unawares.

Sadly it doesn’t stop there. What about those academies where it is not the governors who are operating under the radar and on the sly, but the Heads themselves? Never mind the pathological lying crazies who syphon off the school budget to pay for parties, holidays, unaccountable pay-rises and an awful lot of shoes; what about the career nepotism? What about those organisations where the common interview is something that they have neither the time nor the inclination to bother with? I mean it is easier to invite someone for a cup of coffee and offer them a job whilst you’re dunking your hob-nobs, than go through the tedious process of shortlisting, putting in place a panel, coming up with tasks and actually putting a range of people through their paces in order to, you know, find the best person for the job, but hey…who’s watching?

I’m all for building up a team and spotting talent but I’m also a believer that the good will out. If I had someone in my mind who I wanted to get a job but found someone else better through interview then surely I still win. I get the best person, a nice clean conscience and the smug feeling that everyone else knows I make decisions for the school not for my convenience.

More importantly, if you do appoint through the nudge-nudge wink-wink system how are you building in accountability? How can you justify their authority and your integrity when the spotlight shines on your organisation and it casts no shadow? Your failings are always your own but at least when the gaining of authority has been proper, the processes you go through to sort out the problems are easier to put in place because we can rely on, oh what’s the word, ah, yes; we can rely on our professionalism.

Finally, and this seems like a far more trivial example of the 21st century gaining of authority than those mentioned already, what about twitter? Is it a sorry state of affairs that popular social media users gain authority, or if not authority, influence? I have experienced this first-hand (albeit on an exceedingly small scale) when I was asked to DfE to talk about the new national curriculum and life beyond levels. I was not asked because I am an outstanding Headteacher, or because I was an outstanding teacher or because I have contributed anything of significance to the world of education. I was asked because I tweet and have written one or two blogs about education that, if I’m lucky, contain the odd cheap gag. Is this really an appropriate acquisition of authority? Now don’t worry, I do not seriously consider myself to have any ‘authority’ with the DfE but the principle of government and policy makers allowing themselves to be influenced by social media commentators occasionally seems a bit worrying. I mean, can’t they think for themselves? Should they really go after popular opinion so lazily? Does a massively re-tweeted message necessarily contain a sensible idea?

Probably not.

But at least in the world of social media the spotlight is on. Those tweets and blogs are for everyone to read and opposition to any popular tweet is just as visible to anyone willing to be engaged. If, when the spotlight shines, the public do not like what they see, they will simply unfollow and the deranged ramblings will fade to black and cease to have any influence or authority.

The same cannot be said for those who have been allowed to have authority within a world of shadows.


Moderation – one size fits no one


What do you get when a particular process is one person’s main job? A highly skilled professional with a wealth of knowledge and understanding? An individual who is blinkered by their preferred systems? I know which one I’d prefer but then again sometimes life is like a box of chocolates from Lidl: what you see ain’t always what you get.

I recently experienced a moderation morning. I was genuinely surprised at how archaic this system seemed in the light of all the changes coming in next year. I would have thought the moderators would have been interested in how schools were making their judgements rather than dictate the use of rather stale and soon to be outdated ways of assessing. I don’t mind a system and rigour – that is very much welcomed, but to mask an individual’s preference through artificial officialdom is a bit weak.

There were some frustrating suggestions about what we should be using in order to make judgements with no acknowledgement of our systems. Well, no that’s unfair. They did acknowledge our systems but they pretty much wanted us to use theirs.

Before that discussion got too heated however, there was the ongoing battle about when should you judge a child to be at a certain level? Consistency over time is key, we all know that, but if a child is capable and has demonstrated it, how long must we wait before we nail our colours to the mast?

Whilst I appreciate that a child using a full stop for the first time in their entire life does not mean they are suddenly writing at Level 2B but the ‘we must see at least one hundred pieces of writing including twenty examples of cross-curricular writing before we commit to a level’ theory really gets my Gove. Why? Simple: I trust my teachers; I have faith in my senior leaders who moderate with my teachers; I am not an idiot.

Let me explain:

I hate it when I flick through children’s books and see that a child is working ‘pretty much’ consistently at a particular level and yet when I look at data they are assessed at a level behind. When I ask the teacher why this is so, the response I normally get is based around the child’s failure to consistently do one teeny-tiny element of a level descriptor. The handwriting isn’t always joined; they missed a full stop last week; they haven’t used an exclamation mark in a month. I believe that this single-minded obsession with fulfilling every single descriptor stunts progress. If you committed to assessing at the ‘higher’ level then when you plan for that child not only will you still be getting them to use an exclamation mark in every sentence but you will also be focussing on more appropriate next steps. By not doing this, by keeping that child down, you’re showing low expectations that will only result in low standards. Be brave…challenge the child and challenge yourself. Don’t be irresponsible but if you ‘think’ a child is a 2A pretty much most of the time just crack on and say it: I won’t mind, the child won’t mind and, after your performance management, you won’t mind either.

This is what I encourage my teachers to do because I believe it gives a more accurate picture of a child’s ability. I also have a leadership team who moderate children’s work and I trust them to know that a teacher isn’t going insane and up-levelling everyone. We therefore create an accurate and consistent picture of progress and achievement across the school.

Oh and as I said earlier: I am not an idiot! I don’t want every Year 2 child achieving 2A and level 3 plus…because I know that will be impossible to replicate with Level 4s and 5s when they’re in Year 6 and I gots to show progress don’t I! No, I don’t want assessments too high to make us look good now or too low to make us look good later; I just want accurate data.

But on the day of moderation, if we don’t have multiple sources of evidence, including the use of test resources from 2007, evidence of ‘current level’ work in at least 5 pieces of writing and if we haven’t used their assessment descriptors we get penalised. Never mind that our systems have been checked and approved by my local schools cluster, my governors, the local authority and HMI. Apparently the lone moderator who has not changed their ways since 1998 outranks all these people; who knew?

So ok, we’ll play ball. Not enough evidence. Fine. I’ll put that lad down to a 2C. Not a problem. Why is this not a problem? Because I know that within three weeks I’ll have the evidence to say he’s a 2B.

Oh, apparently that is a problem. I can’t do that because the moderator would be very surprised if the boy had made any further progress in that time. (This boy, if you remember, had written at a 2b level but not enough times to please the moderator so he was lowered to a 2c.) So even though the moderator understands that he has written at 2b meaning technically, by my understanding, he doesn’t have to ‘make’ any more progress they still wouldn’t expect me to say he’s a 2B in a month’s time when I’ll have the evidence to prove it. I genuinely don’t get this argument. I mean, what do they think we’re going to be doing from now until the summer? Of course he’s going to do more writing and of course my teachers are going to assess it and, when they do, I’ll make sure they use your ancient system and of course when he comes out as a 2B (again) I will be sending that level off to the local authority. To suggest otherwise is a nonsense as it stems from bureaucracy rather than allowing educators to do their job.

Then came the comment that the moderator would also be surprised if any other pupils moved up a sub-level before the data deadline – in about a month’s time. Again, what do they think schools are doing in the last term? I have no idea but apparently, working really hard up to the last minute to get as many children as possible writing at age related expectations isn’t one of them. It was only a few months ago that Ofsted were expecting every child to make progress in every lesson – but now I’m being challenged over the assumption my children will make any form of progress in three and a half weeks!

What irritates me here is that I don’t think I’m being challenged educationally. I’m being challenged because the reality of the situation doesn’t fit in with the contrived nature of how moderations are carried out. It’s akin to trying to fit a strait-jacket onto an octopus. Progress is messy and awkward and relies on teachers’ professionalism to get it right. If the moderators want to come in and assess 10% of pupils in every school using their own antiquated system to get a picture of achievement across the city that is fine, but they cannot demand schools use their systems instead of or as well as their own. This will be no truer next year when the poor moderators will be unable to rely on their beloved level descriptors. What will they do? What system will they use? How will we know schools’ differing systems are being judged relatively?

There’s only one solution…moderation.


The real problem with insets


Planning an inset can be difficult. Lofty ambitions can often descend into days that are just easier to manage. I personally tend to fall into the trap of not thinking broad enough; I’ll have a brilliant idea as to how we’ll solve a particular issue and then the night before I’ll realise that Early Years or support staff will literally have nothing to do. This leaves me with two options: run around looking for middle leaders to come up with an additional focus within twelve hours or do nothing, buy loads of cakes and avoid making eye contact with any poor member of staff who is feeling undervalued.

There are, in my experience, three types of inset: the guest, the initiative, the catch-up.

The guest

This can be a high risk (it’s normally high cost too come to think of it) and involves booking an outsider; an expert to teach, motivate and inspire the staff. The Head’s dream is that in one day this person will have the educational Midas touch: transforming tired, stuck-in-a-rut teachers into energetic and free-thinking practitioners with the click of a PowerPoint. The fear is that the guest will come out like some c-beebies presenter coked up to the eyeballs and annoy everyone with their energy and jokes. Never mind that the content is golden, I can tell within five minutes that Sandra (the teacher who has been teaching Year 5 in this school since before I was born) has decided that whatever this performing little monkey is going on about is just a fad and that I’ve only booked them to put a tick on my school development plan. I can literally see the £2800 I convinced the bursar to spend on this clown swirling down the drain. Some of them are responding and making notes but in my heart I know that within two terms the impact of this will be hard to see. It’s a shame because all I wanted was to get the staff excited to remind them that teaching is fun and an opportunity to take risks but I can see that they have other things on their mind.

The initiative

I don’t need any guest this time because I can do it. I’ll stand up and present a ‘new dawn’ and a new way to do things. It’s been really carefully thought out by SLT, it is something we have to address and none of us can fail to see how it won’t transform the teaching and learning in this school and make us a step closer to ‘outstanding’. We plan the day really well too. Time to listen and learn, time to discuss and then loads of time in the afternoon to start putting ideas into action. It’s the perfect inset. So when the day comes and I’ve again forgotten about the support staff and have had to max out my visa on cakes to placate them, I’m still convinced today is going to be talked about for years to come as the inset that changed everything. It starts badly as the PowerPoint version in school is different to the one at home so none of the nice graphics have loaded properly and the font has reverted to comic-sans which makes me physically retch every time I click onto the next slide. Then I realise that the great idea doesn’t sound so simple now I’m actually speaking it out loud and then there are the questions. The annoying, niggly, not part of the big picture questions. SLT, I notice, remain mute at this point leaving me to respond to such weighty educational issues such as ‘will it interfere with PE timetables’ and ‘but I have PPA on that day’ and ‘so is this instead of maths or as well as maths?’. But I solider on, knowing that when they split up in the afternoons and start planning it out, they’ll see the genius behind it. At 2:30pm when I go for a wander I notice that every teacher has decided that they’ll plan it next week and for now, if it’s ok with me, they’ll mark their big writes from last week and try and organise next term’s trip. At 2:45pm I decide to go home and console myself that at least this inset failure didn’t cost me a fortune but then I remember about the cakes.

The catch-up

Even though every inset, no matter how focussed and inspiring, ends up with teachers doing some form of catch-up work, sometimes a whole day given over to this is no bad thing. Especially at the beginning or end of years when teachers can organise their classrooms, establish systems with their new teaching teams and really map out the year ahead. This is a strategic decision. Staff will welcome the space to breathe and get their ‘houses in order’.  This day has nothing, nothing to do with the fact that I’m too tired to try and think of anything exciting or that the bank has frozen my account due to the four excessive bakery orders that I keep failing to make the minimum payment on.

But then sometimes you get lucky all your strategic planning comes together. Your guest was perfect (and affordable) the idea is sound and all staff are involved and excited by the changes ahead. I am thrilled to say that I speak from experience having had a two day inset where my school managed to book @deputymitchell who worked with staff during the first day on blogging followed by a day of 2014 national curriculum topic mapping. The days were awesome.

I cannot recommend @deputymitchell enough. He was enthusiastic but grounded in reality that made all the teachers think that they can do this blogging thing and more importantly made them want to do it. By the end of the first session I knew that the inset was going to be ok and in a year’s time I genuinely think I’ll be able to point to some of the things going on in school and at some of our achievements and say ‘that inset caused this’.

The next day, I presented how our curriculum was going to evolve and teachers had the day to map out their breadths of studies, piece together topics and identify resources. They were focussed on that all day and I was continually interrupted by excited teachers checking if their big ideas for this topic and that topic were ok…I said yes to all of them after all I had told them about the ‘freedoms’ this curriculum gave us so could hardly so no.

And…all the support staff had two days of bespoke training and development and they loved it. Finally, they weren’t just sitting in on what the teachers were talking about or putting up displays. They were learning too and they were extra pleased that they will be expected to feed their training and skills back to teachers next term.

So in short, it was great but then that’s the real problem with good insets. All this motivation and seeing how the teaching is going to improve and knowing how excited the children are going to be and the difference it’s all going to make.

It’s annoying.


It makes me miss the classroom.