Today we are learning how to do the things your parents should have taught you

I’ve worked in three schools that had a Nursery as part of its early years setting. Two out of three of them were, in my opinion, outstanding examples of what provision at that age should be. They were lovely and fun places to be; the children expressed themselves and enjoyed all manner of child initiated learning; the adults did more monitoring and assessment in one day than a SATS marker would do in a lifetime and, most importantly, there was rigorous literacy and numeracy teaching every day.

Occasionally, especially if talking to certain Early Years experts, you had to keep that last bit quiet. If you told them that you had just seen a great maths lesson in a nursery class where the children sat in a circle for about twenty minutes whilst being taught number bonds (sometimes up to 20) followed up by some investigative practical maths activities, well first you would have to help them back onto their feet after they had fainted from the shock and then you would have to suffer a telling off that would go on for so long you couldn’t help but think it contradicted their own advice about inputs being very short.

Their argument: ‘You’re not meant to teach them, they’re not at school, they need to be nurtured, they need to explore the world, they need to be led by their own curiosity not by formal lesson structures…you evil, evil man.’

My response: ‘You see that child there? He’s just made a hat out of leaves and that one has just learnt paint isn’t tasty. Pretty sure they’re being led by their own curiosity thanks. And as a bonus they’re learning loads about maths because they can do it and they seem to enjoy it.’

I was often never more impressed at what schools can achieve than when I visited Nursery classrooms. When the teachers and support staff refused to adhere to a glass ceiling of what the youngest children in our system could learn and how far you could stretch their understanding. None of this ‘but they only need to count objects up to 10’ nonsense. They’ve done that, they did it really easily; imagine if you put two more counting bears on the carpet? All of that PLUS more creative and child centred learning than you could shake a bead bar at. All that PLUS a level of assessment that is thorough to the point of lunacy.

I do think the aforementioned Early Years Specialist is a now a rather dated gross stereotype-but I have met those ‘types’ in my career. And I normally ended such a meeting with a swift word in the nursery teacher’s ear to say ‘yeah, ignore what they said, keep doing what you’re doing.’

So, imagine my delight when I heard that Sir Michael Wilshaw was suggesting that children should be taught more and taught earlier. Bring it on, I thought. At last someone understands. The ‘gap’ that develops between many of our disadvantaged children and their peers is often there at the very start. It should be our job to give them a leg up before we’re even aware they need it. Don’t wait until you know they’ve fallen behind. Crack on and teach them how to enjoy stories, make them love putting crayon to paper, get them counting, adding, taking away, grouping anything that can be grouped. In short, exploit the time you have with them to the max. They’ll enjoy it, they’ll associate school with learning which will fuel their curiosity and they’ll have a better chance of succeeding later on. Good on you Sir Michael, you’re a star.

But wait…

What about that checklist though? How’s that going to work? Is he saying that children won’t be able to attend full time school until they can successfully hold a knife and fork, ask to go to the toilet in a complete sentence and then sort themselves out after they’ve done a poo? Are nurseries now going to have less time to teach all the stuff I went on about because they’re going to be modelling the sentence ‘Please Miss, may I nip to the loo as I really need a wee?’ on flashcards to a distressed child who is now bent double from trying to keep the wolf from the door (as it were)?

What if they can’t do it? When they join Reception are we going to have to split the class into two groups: those that can eat spaghetti correctly using the fork and spoon method and those that consider cutlery to be a distraction that they have neither the time nor the inclination for? Are we going to lose half a year of potential literacy, numeracy and wider curriculum progress because the autumn topic is now ‘putting on a coat and asking for things nicely’?

Why is it now the school’s job to teach children how to put on outer layers of clothing and using a type of knife that isn’t preceded by ‘craft’ or ‘stanley’? Forgive me, Sir Michael, but it feels like you’re dumping society’s failings onto us again and expecting us to fix it. Responding to the challenges of a changing society is one thing but I know how this works; you’ve put it out there now. You’ve released this concept that schools should teach this rubbish so pretty soon every parent up and down the land is going to expect it. Mums and dads across the country will gradually absolve their parental responsibility as it will be deemed the school’s job to sort it.

Call me a weak minded, moaning quitter if you will, but we can’t have complete responsibility for the holistic development of every child…that ain’t fair!

 

Ofsted Inspections: Fairly without fear or favour…who are you kidding?

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It is hard trying to run an organisation whilst simultaneously trying to improve it: this is made doubly hard when you are doing so in an open environment. When you are constantly made aware of the unpopularity  of your decisions  by the very people whom you are trying to improve or trying to make improvements for. It really doesn’t help then, when the people above you behave in a way that makes you wish you could put them on the naughty step until they’re sorry – voicing their opinions which seem to contradict previous agreements, or putting pressure on you to change course. So no wonder that Wilshaw is ‘spitting blood’ over some of Gove’s alleged words and actions against Ofsted.

Poor Wilshaw, I thought, that really has the potential to ruin your weekend. Then I read another quote from Wilshaw about Ofsted: ‘As long as we exist we will do the job fairly, without fear or favour’. And at this point I had to laugh at the sheer self-pitying and self-indulgent notion of this statement. How about you, Sir Michael, consider those F words from the perspective of the people who are at the mercy of your blunt instrument of torture improvement.

Fairly

Is Ofsted fair? I am the first to agree that schools need support and validation from an independent and external body in order to help improve achievement for all children in the country. But is the current system fair? No. A system cannot be described as being fair when it lacks a key ingredient for fairness: consistency.

I strive for consistency. I truly believe that it is the key for sustained school improvement. Find out what works and do it well. If you apply this to any aspect of school life it will have a positive impact right across the school. Yet it is impossible to apply this to Ofsted. Having recently heard a Head who is in the middle of their training to be an inspector, I was alarmed when he said the following:

‘The entire focus was on how to fill in the evaluation forms: you don’t write a judgmental statement down unless you can back it up with evidence. You have to be able to have a chain of evidence that backs up the reason behind your judgement.’

That sounds ok doesn’t it…but he continued:

‘We then saw examples of a lesson and we had to evaluate it as if we were carrying out an inspection. Around the trainees in the room, our judgement on the quality of teaching varied from inadequate to good. I suggested that this was something we should probably discuss but was told the variety in judgements did not matter…all that mattered was that we each could refer to evidence behind our judgements. It didn’t matter what we thought only that we could argue it.’

How is that fair? How can a school’s inspection result being mainly determined by the lead inspector’s whim and own personal interpretation of what the school ought to be doing be a fair system through which to judge the quality of education across the country?

Without Fear

Is it any wonder that schools fear Ofsted? When it is so transparently clear that schools are not judged in a consistent or fair manner you can’t blame schools for living Monday to Wednesday 2:00pm in a state of fear. How can you prepare for something when you have no idea what tangent the inspection will go off on? Is the lead an early year’s specialist, a data obsessive (which normally means they can only interpret data if it’s presented in a way they like), someone who has judged the school before entering, someone who values PE above everything else, someone who prefers a particular teaching method? There is no consistency in what individual inspectors are looking for or think, so, schools cannot trust the teams entering their school.

I appreciate that every school is different but that doesn’t mean inspections should vary so wildly. Inspections should be focused on the consistent effectiveness of schools over time. They should gather information and work with the leadership team to find out how good the school is based on agreed national expectations (no data myths) and against the school’s contextual information. We would all know where we stand and we would all be able to welcome Ofsted into our schools.

Without Favour

Actually the idea that Ofsted aren’t doing anyone any favours isn’t wildly inaccurate – but that’s probably not what Wilshaw was inferring. (I get it Mike, and you have my permission to charge into every free school like a massive bull in a tiny china shop and go knock yourself out.) I want to love Ofsted. In my particular experience I got the result the school needed in order to help get everyone on board with my improvement plan.  But the inspection itself was a truly horrendous experience that did nothing to suggest that Ofsted are robust bastions of education. Instead I felt that it was a hoop, a barbed wired hoop being held by an ignorant bully, which I had to squeeze my school through in order to get on with improving my school. That is not right.

So I support Wilshaw’s rhetoric of ‘fairness without fear and without favour’ but after he’s got to the bottom of his gripes with Gove – he’s still got a long way to go.