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been interested in how schools were making their judgements rather than dictate the use of rather stale and soon to be outdated ways of assessing.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.


When we was Phab!

It’s good to get away. Not just to get away from the hustle and bustle from your own environment but also to have an opportunity to meet other like-minded (or not) people from your profession. At a time in the academic of year where the promises of Autumn seem to be at their most fragile and you feel success is balanced on a knife’s edge, it’s good to get away and realise that…you are not alone.

It was the annual Phab (that’s Primary Heads Association of Bristol to you) conference in Chepstow. A day and a half of Heads and Deputies talking, laughing, eating, drinking, singing (partly due to the drinking) thinking, supporting each other, reflecting and looking forward.

Listening and talking to other Heads about their schools, achievements and struggles. Not only do you realise that there are situations that are way more challenging than yours but more importantly you find yourself able to offer support and advice. This in turn is reciprocated and suddenly you have an idea you can take back and a person you can go to after the conference to ask for help. I believe they call this ‘networking’. I prefer to call it ‘chatting with a purpose’ and is a good example of why I love being Phab.

Our highly esteemed Chair @overton66 had started the main proceedings on Friday with the statement: ‘I know we seem to say this every year but it really does feel like we are living in uncertain and exciting times in education’. He’s not wrong. The landscape of education is changing more rapidly than Phab’s resident in-house band’s set list. (Current name: ‘The 4Heads’ although I’m leaning towards ‘The Phab 4’.)

The big movers and shakers of Bristol LA have changed, there are many different school models across the city, and partnerships are popping up here there and everywhere; all this against a backdrop of a never endingly changing national picture of expectations from Whitehall. The goal posts are not so much as changing, as more disappearing leaving schools to put down their own jumpers for goalposts and hope for the best.

How awful!

But as Gus Hedges, the smooth talking Chief Executive of GlobeLink from ‘Drop The Dead Donkey’, always said: ‘’Problems are just the pregnant mothers of solutions.’’

Our new LA leaders were also there at the start and made it very clear to us that as the redefining of what it means to be a school in Bristol gets underway, it will be done with us not to us. If that’s not an incentive to get involved then I don’t know what is as I genuinely think they meant it.

Then, to get us inspired, we had the pleasure of working with Mick Waters. In just over an hour he had gone through:

  • What was important in a child’s experience of schooling.

  • The danger of PISA.

  • The damaging role politics has played in education.

  • The shifting sands of assessment data.

  • The false prophets behind Gove’s ‘freedoms’.

  • What the new national curriculum has left out.

  • The rich educational, cross curricular, mind expanding opportunities of a 6 minute video of a man dancing with people around the globe.

I think it is also safe to say that pretty much everyone in the room agreed with his every word. I did. This did occasionally lead me to think ‘Oh goodness, I have become conditioned by Ofsted? – Do I only care about data and things that can be measured? Am I ruining the lives of my children?’ (Luckily, I came to the conclusion that I hadn’t, I don’t, and I’m not.) But I recognised that as a city we have a chance to address all those issues and build a stronger and richer experience for our children.

Then it all got terribly exciting. I mean we started thinking about where Bristol could go. How we, as an educational city, could write its own mandate for what we will give the children that grow up under our watch. Wouldn’t that be fantastic? I think we’ll do it, I genuinely do. But for it to work we are going to need an almost Herculean effort from the LA. Because after we’d all decided what it was we were going to put in place so our children could succeed and be fully prepared for a life of contributing to their world fuelled by a love of learning and life; we would have to have a guarantee that no one could come and dismantle it. It would be a bit like a fixed mortgage. We would need the LA to buffer any national changes or additional crazy expectations that came from Whitehall in order to win votes or to be seen to be addressing society’s ills in the eyes of the media/public – they would have to stand up to national government and say: ‘No, we can’t do that at the moment, we’re busy.’

Imagine that?

Imagine working in a world where you were in control of the goalposts. Imagine a whole city working together to give the same experiences and entitlements for every single child. Imagine raising standards in every single area of the widest curriculum? Imagine being able to do this and know you were making a difference? Imagine that the best ideas, the ones that the professionals deemed to be important, were valued and respected and given the time and freedom to succeed.

That is what it should mean to be in education.

Having the chance to instigate it?

That is what it means to be Phab.

Keep calm and carry on.

It’s only a game so put up a real big fight.

Big Break theme tune. circa (probably 90s when Saturday entertainment was at its lowest – then again I watched ‘Take Me Out’ last night and nearly wept myself into a dry husk)

The world of education spins at a relentless pace. Being inside the world of education can occasionally feel like you’re in a washing machine that is refusing to stop: swirling around getting bashed about and tangled up with whatever washload of edubabble that has been put in the drum with you; outside beyond the glass it all looks lovely and calm but before you can see what they’re actually doing out there you’re whisked away again as Gove’s trouser leg tightens its grip around your neck.

Why are we moving so fast and why is it all so complicated? Sometimes I blame Twitter. There are days when I can’t get through a single swipe on my Twitter timeline without reading countless contradictory opinions and analysis on effective teaching methods or government initiatives. Normally I would say that this is a positive thing: free speech, the ability to argue, the opportunity to reflect. But occasionally it all seems a bit much and my poor little noggin gets confused. (This probably explains why I’ve started following @FacesPics – nothing eases my confused mind better than occasionally looking at inanimate objects that look like they’re frowning.)

The problem with Twitter being such a rich source of information and opinion is that it constantly reminds me of the million things I’m not doing or simply don’t know about: I don’t know what ‘dichotomy of teaching’ actually means! I also couldn’t honestly tell you what teaching style I prefer…I don’t think I have one: one that works? Or is that too vague?

Don’t get me wrong, I love reading everything that people put out there and it makes me think but therein lies the danger. It often makes me want to try EVERYTHING! My deputy and I had to make an agreement at the start of this year or rather I had to make a promise: any fabulous idea that I had stumbled upon I had to keep to myself. This was because our morning conversations often went like this:

Deputy: Morning, how are you?

Me: Oh fine, fine. You?

Deputy: I’m fine. So today I’m meeting with the support staff to go through how to use numicon.

Me: That’s great. I read this blog last night and I think we should be teaching maths through role play!

It just wasn’t helpful anymore. So now I still read Twitter and blogs but when my head starts swimming with ideas I close my eyes, say my safe word and find a picture of a stapler that looks like it’s laughing. And everything is OK.

Now to the game. This is a cliché isn’t it: it’s all a game. Lesson observations are a game, ofsted is a game, learning objectives are a game, PE is a-well that sort of is a game isn’t it. I don’t know why we label everything that we feel we have to do as being a game. By doing so what are we actually saying? Are we saying that we don’t value a process but are doing it anyway? If so aren’t we then removing ourselves from any accountability? (I did it, I didn’t do it well because I didn’t believe in it and therefore it hasn’t worked but that’s not my fault because if you remember I did say at the beginning that it was just a game?) Or are we becoming conditioned to feeling like we do not own our profession anymore but we lumber on because somewhere we can remember why we chose this profession in the first place.

A week doesn’t seem to go by when a new rule isn’t added to this game. Many schools are pressured/advised into doing things in a particular way or focussing on a specific element of teaching in order to show progress: mark like this, write learning objectives like this, differentiate this way, structure lessons like that, challenge pupils by doing this not that. Many of the ideas will be perfectly valid and if it genuinely helps why not but this isn’t the game is it? The game has now become the evidencing of it all. The evidence that we are required to show in order to prove that we did it…the proof, it seems, is no longer in the pudding.

For example: a senior leader and I were discussing a work scrutiny focussed on differentiation and marking. We couldn’t see clear differentiation three ways. We talked about it and started to focus on what this teacher needed to do – and then we stopped. What were we suggesting? Were we suggesting what the teacher had to do in order to meet the needs of the pupils or what the teacher needed to do so that we could see ‘differentiation’ when flicking through the books? If it was the latter than sadly, we would be playing the bloody game. And what would be the real point in that? I spoke to the teacher a couple of days later and I can honestly say that they know each and every pupil like the back of their hand and they know exactly what they need to do in order to get there. I think that is good enough for me. As I said earlier…I think I like whatever works.

I think it is time to pause the spin cycle. Ignore populist and current ideas. Put to bed systems that only demonstrate what management did during non-contact time. We must be brave and focus on what we know our pupils need; not what we are told makes a generic good school. If we do focus on what our pupils need and work hard to make sure they get it, how can we fail in becoming a good school? Then hopefully, others around us will see the value in what we’re asking them to do and will support us in doing it consistently every day. Maybe more importantly,  they won’t fear or be suspicious of our methods or involvement in their teaching.

Education: it is not a game but it is worth fighting for.