Our Day Out (at the DfE)

I wasn’t quite sure why I got an invitation to consult/consort with civil servants and a minister at the DfE yesterday, but when the email came through, I booked my train tickets as fast as my fingers could type in my debit card details. It’s not a chance you get every day and I was intrigued to know whether or not these latest interactions with the teacher twitterati were PR stunts or genuine attempts to engage. I came away feeling that they were/are really genuine attempts to engage and that there is real potential for every day classroom teachers to be taking part in a process that could lead to improvements in the system. I also left feeling that I wish these conversations had taken place a few years ago and not as we face the implementation of monumental changes this September.

On arrival, we were introduced to three civil servants who were each involved in the delivery and development of the new Primary National Curriculum and its attendant assessment structures. There was no doubt in my mind that here were people who were desperately keen to hear what we had to say and who were motivated by trying to ensure that children received a broad, balanced and engaging educational diet. Again, how I wish I had met them three years ago. The meeting began with the statement that the purpose was to explore the implementation of the new curriculum, the impact of the removal of levels on assessment and that accountability was probably outside of the remit of the meeting. It took about sixty seconds for us to explain that curriculum, assessment and accountability were inextricably linked and that it would not be possible to separate them out and so, for the next two and a quarter hours, that delicate and unbalanced eco system was carefully considered. With some surprising results. So here is what I learned/gleaned from the experience.

The National Curriculum (which is not, as we pointed out, National if not everyone has to teach it)

We had few concerns about the curriculum, which since its edit, has not really changed much at all. Dave from @thought-weavers pointed out that it was hard to suggest that it was balanced when one subject warranted 88 pages and another 2 in the guidance. Tim @imagine_inquiry and @emmaannhardy both pointed out the need for subject specific support for teachers which had been removed from local authorities and not yet properly replaced by teaching schools. As @cheryl-kd pointed out, herself working in a teaching school, it has been hard enough to figure out what your school is doing without being able to disseminate to others. The main point however, was that the curriculum was largely irrelevant when the key driver for all schools was assessment. What is measured is what gets taught, we pointed out, so you might have been better off starting with the measurement and working back from there. Which is not what has happened at all. My key points were:-

1. The curriculum is only broad in schools that don’t narrow it in preparation for SATS in Year 6.

2. That if we really want to close the gap for poorer children, we should attend to vocabulary and cultural capital – yet it is those children who are constantly withdrawn for intervention while the others have their general knowledge, vocabulary and arts education broadened in class. The gap widens.

3. That until we stop seeing literacy as a ‘subject’ and not as a human necessity crossing all subjects, it will continue to be uncoupled from knowledge (and joy).

4. The only way to really ensure that EVERY child gets a broad and balanced curriculum is for Ofsted to make it clear that this will be considered every bit as important as data.

At some point in that discussion, Liz Truss arrived. I’m trying and failing to resist the temptation to talk about the twelve year old who sat in a chair behind her constantly whispering in her ear. I got the distinct impression that she wanted to listen and engage, but she was hugely distracted by her phone and her assistant and I found that somewhat irritating. I came from the North for this – it would be nice if you could listen. And here’s an observation….

Gaming and Cheating

Most of the discussion centred around the role that high stakes testing had on school behaviour and culture. Liz Truss was keen to point out that many of the government’s measures had been designed to end the ‘game play’ that teachers had engaged in to secure results. In the middle of the meeting, she shot off over to the commons to vote for a motion in a debate that she had not listened to or taken part in. What better example of game play can there be? You are elected to vote for issues on behalf of the constituents you represent. But your voting outcomes are so closely tied to your party allegiances that the actual issues or debates, regardless of how they impact on your constituents, are irrelevant. You act in the interests of your party to secure your survival. Tell me Liz, how different is that to acting in the interests of your school to secure your survival? What I actually said was:-

“I’d like to be clear here that until teacher’s pay and performance is uncoupled from high stakes testing, there will be what you call ‘game play’ and I prefer to call ‘survival strategy’ because when your pay, your job, your mortgage, the future of your own children depend on you delivering results, you will do ANYTHING to achieve them.” There was silence. I think I might have poked the table a bit too hard at that point.

This formed the crux of the rest of the conversation – assessment. It became very clear early on in the meeting that no-one at the DfE had properly considered the impact of testing and the removal of levels on schools. The process had begun with ‘what shall we ask them to teach?’ with the assumption that a programme of study would equate to an enacted curriculum. There seemed to be little understanding that within our accountability system, so closely focused on pupil progress, that the question most senior leaders ask is ‘how are we going to be judged?’ The civil servants and minister seemed genuinely surprised and disappointed that most schools were keeping levels. How could we turn this freedom down?

“Because,” we said “if we are to be judged on how well children make progress, we have to be able to measure them, even when we know that the measurements we have are a nonsense.” So we asked, how are children now going to be measured? In a nutshell:-

1. By a raw score at key points of data collection (end of KS). There will be no guidance to schools on the assessment criteria for external tests – it is felt that the curriculum guidance itself is sufficient.

2. From this, schools are encouraged to develop their own competency criteria. This child can…. and build from there. This can form part of the progress conversation with Ofsted.

There really was nothing clearer offered. And if we’re brave, there is a genuine opportunity to move away from levels and see evidencing progress as a combination between conversation and selection of work in which children and teachers can articulate what they can and can’t yet do. But what about all those colour coded spreadsheets showing expected levels of progress in schools? Liz Truss seemed aghast that they even existed – when told that I spent up to 15 hours tracking children on spreadsheets and writing action plans for them when I knew that a) the data wasn’t really accurate and b) that I’d be better off teaching them than writing action plans, she stared, mouth agape and rolled her eyes. She seemed to really have no idea that this was what teachers spent time doing. “But who on earth would ask you to do such a thing? Where is this coming from?” she said. Senior leaders, we replied and they’re doing it because they think it is what Ofsted expect. Ahhh…. Ofsted. Her eyes gleamed, she leaned forward. I’ve been teaching for twenty years – I know when a topic has engaged a kid. And I got the feeling that Ofsted was very much of interest to Liz Truss. And I started to feel uncomfortable – I felt strongly that Ofsted were in the firing line here, and she was very, very keen to hear anti-Ofsted anecdotes. Why should this worry me?

Let’s imagine that three things happened in the next six months:-

1. Michael “there will be blood on the floor” Wilshaw is replaced by the much less combative Michael Cladingbowl – i.e. a new sheriff.

2. Classroom observations stop being graded by Ofsted (none were graded in @cheryl-kd’s inspection just last week).

3. Power is pulled back from the privatised franchises and more centralised inspectors are appointed – Ofsted is rebranded, streamlined, softer. What would happen?

Teachers would dance in the streets I guess. They’d demand the end of mocksteds, graded obs from senior leaders, they might even vote Conservative….but what would have changed? Really? If you reduce the power of a police force but the laws and punishments remain intact, has anything really changed? Are Ofsted to blame for the problems we have in schools really? To be honest I don’t think so. I think they’re in danger of becoming the scapegoat that falls in order to protect the system that is really at the root of our problems – the system of over-reliance on high stakes testing and the ways schools are almost entirely judged on data. And let’s not be under any illusions – take classroom observations out of the equation and you are left with one thing. Data. No wonder we are clinging on to the flotsam of levels.

Here are some ideas I put forward to the minister:-

1. Make it clear that schools should not spend their budgets on pleasing Ofsted. It is a financial abuse of the system.

2. Uncouple teacher performance from test results.

3. Develop an assessment system fit for purpose – one that recognises the limits of testing and instead moves towards holistic assessment of children’s abilities to articulate, write in extended ways, interpret information and present.

To the first she laughed – ‘we’re trying to give schools more financial autonomy’.

To the second, she pointed out that in Scandinavian countries where testing and accountability were uncoupled, there had been a slide down the PISA tables. I pointed out that those countries were still above us and tried to explain the statistical anomalies of PISA, but her face went blank.

To the third she said it was too hard. Where would we get the external moderators from? How would we avoid making it overly bureaucratic? I had answers, but the twelve year old was whispering in her ear that she was late to meet a lord. But….I wanted to say….just because something is hard, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth doing….but I didn’t. I have now.



There were many other excellent statements made by other people present who no doubt will write their own accounts. This is mine. But here are some of the other points made:-

1. The minister did seem to listen to Emma Hardy’s concerns about the paperwork being generated by PRP.

2. She did seem to concede that teachers were working unacceptably long hours.

3. She even seemed to concede the point that while low stakes, check-point testing might be useful, examinations might not give the fullest picture of a child’s competence.

4. She did seem to support the idea of a broad curriculum (but then only talked about Maths and Science as examples of good practice in schools).

5. She was so keen to promote the idea of text books. She genuinely didn’t understand why we should need to differentiate learning or the difference between differentiated and personalised learning and seemed frustrated that differentiation seemed to be getting in the way of producing textbooks for all schools (produced by Pearson, perhaps?)

6. There was clarification that P levels would remain for special education, but very little consideration of the relevance of the NC for pupils with profound disabilities.

7. @heymisssmith was very clear that this current government had destroyed the teaching profession and asked Liz Truss to pass that sentiment on to Michael Gove 😉

8. @emmaannhardy made the point that the new curriculum was missing a sense of purpose – what is primary education for? And being ready for secondary is not a good enough moral purpose. This led to a discussion of the clarity of ethos and through line of the international school’s curriculum leading from the PYP to MYP to IB.



28 thoughts on “Our Day Out (at the DfE)

  1. The OECD warned in mid-2011 there was already too much emphasis on exam results in England which had negative consequences such as teaching-to-the-test and gaming. The DfE ignored the warning (if they were even aware of it). EBacc rankings, performance-related-pay and constant carping about “rates of improvement” have upped the stakes not reduced them.

    Finland, top-performing European nation, doesn’t have league tables, high-stakes tests or an inspectorate. And accountability isn’t just policing whether tough or softly-softly. The OECD listed accountability measures used in 34 of its member countries (summarised in the faq “How are schools held accountable in OECD member countries?” available here: http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/faqs/#sthash.oq1yQhj7.dpuf).

    1. What are Finland’s measures? Where can I find out more about their education system? What are the benchmarks for a “top-performing European nation”? Thanks 🙂

      1. In a nutshell: Finland’s system is fully-comprehensive. No inspectorate, teachers are highly-educated and trained (expected to have Masters in educational pedagogy). Core curriculum with plenty of elbow room to match curriculum to local needs.

        The OECD published a document re Finland’s slow and cautious approach to school reform here:


        The benchmarks for “top-performing European nation” are the PISA tests. Pasi Sahlberg’s blog gives an overview from a Finnish perspective:


        Having said that, Finnish 14 year-olds’ results in TIMSS maths were average, the same as English 14 year-olds. Finnish 14 year-olds are still top of the European league for Science in TIMSS – but English 14 year-olds still consistently high (although you wouldn’t think so to hear politicians talk). See faq “did English and Northern Irish pupils perform in the TIMSS?” at: http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/faqs/#sthash.wTfRpL3X.dpuf

        This American article (a little out-of-date) gives a summary of Finnish education – you’ll find Pasi Sahlberg is mentioned.


  2. So Ms Truss thinks they’re giving schools more financial autonomy when they become academies? For a department that prides itself on “evidence-based” policies, it’s disturbing she isn’t aware the OECD found the UK was one of only four countries that allowed a high degree of autonomy to schools in how to spend their budgets and allocate resources. That was in 2009 before the Coalition came to power.

    The Academies Commission found the extra freedoms supposedly offered by academy conversion didn’t account for much: non-academies could do most things academies can do.

    But the Government keep pumping out the same old propaganda about academies being free of council “control”.

  3. Liz Truss is fixated on textbooks. She derides worksheets apparently unaware that workbook/worksheet use is far higher in Korea than in England. And she appears to loathe the “Anti-Colouring Book”, never out of print in 25 years. Why? Because when she was given one as a child she scribbled over the pages.

    It would be funny if it were not for the fact she’s a schools minister.

    I wrote about Truss and textbooks here:



  4. Hi Debra. Really interesting account. A great opportunity to get lots of points across – it seems like you did a really good job there. I think there are some issues we need reconcile for ourselves – it’s the old Stockholm Syndrome. We can’t complain about government telling us what to do and then also complain when they don’t; sometimes the freedoms exist but there is a vacuum of leadership that holds us back. I think that this is true in relation to assessment. Given the well-documented issues with levels, I’m disappointed that people aren’t more positive about the opportunity that their demise presents. Of course there will be tests but we don’t have to make that the focus of all we do. A national assessment system is an unwieldy beast with huge technical issues; personally I think we should minimise the scope of national tests and let schools assess the breadth separately; the machinery needed to moderate accurately nationally isn’t worth the cost. If children are learning really well, the tests should slot in to a bigger picture of assessment. Mainly I think it’s up to schools/ teaching professionals to get organised and champion something they want to see in place, not just react to policy changes – I know that’s easier said than done.

    My other comment is about your issue with the ’12 year old’. This person is probably very bright, doing a regular DFE adviser job that they applied for against a strong field. There are lots of young people in government. I don’t think we should have a problem with that. Is there a minimum age for credibility or some criteria for ‘not looking so young you can’t be taken seriously’? Just a thought.

    Anyway… look forward to Northern Rocks and further discussions.

    1. Ha – I know the twelve year old bit was naughty! It’s my mid-life crisis 🙂 And yes, I’m about to add a little section to the blog about the opportunity that getting rid of levels represents for us as a profession – something to be embraced I think, but I do completely understand the fear. There is a disconnect between what we want and feel able to do which is not always a real constraint. Food for thought.

      1. Mid-life crisis! Wait until you’ve got a bus pass. I thought the 12-year-old bit was true – thought Liz might have a kid in tow because it was “Bring Your Child to Work Day” or something. So, was the baby-faced whisperer an intern? Or a spad?

  5. Reblogged this on James's space and commented:
    Teachers and a Minister. Well done to those to met with the minister excellent points made and clearly shows that these meetings needed to take place 4 years ago before the changes. Not now, when the changes are being implemented. Such a golden opportunity missed because of the prejudices of politicians.

  6. This should be compulsory reading for all teachers. We see ministers and civil servants who have no idea of the implications of their “decisions.” Free school meals and more PE (yesterday’s wheeze!! – no pun intended) being a prime example. We have already tried a new meals system in order to somehow figure out how feed the increased numbers of children from September. However, it might mean starting lunch on a staggered basis from 11 o’clock. Firstly who wants their lunch at that time. Secondly like most primary schools we only have one hall so it cuts into PE!! In the end it is all politics. The reference to PISA gives the game away. Are OFSTED really going to scrap their apparatus of measurement of schools when there are no levels – I don’t think so. The turf war between Gove and Wilshaw is dangerous to us all – children, parents and teachers!!

  7. Ha Ha!! I thought, until this morning, that Liz Truss wrote “Eats, Shoots and Leaves!” what a faux pas!!!


  8. This is a good blog. In the light of recent twitter comments, let me say that I prefer your blogs when you engage with serious and important issues, and keep the personal (attack) comments out of it (although, as Tom points out above, there is the comments about the 12 year old).

    Your comments about the Minister are very germane. The ministers and Government are here today and gone tomorrow. I guess the civil servants might be around longer. It is pretty shocking that Dfe are unaware of the implications of the changes they have implemented (having said that, there is still no recognition by Ofsted that the changes they have implemented have had very negative adverse effects in schools). It seems no one wants to take responsibility. Real positive change can’t happen unless someone does.

    The only ways to ensure that gaming and teaching to the test doesn’t distort teaching is to remove the test, or generate new tests that can’t be predicted (much like the old O Levels, and A Levels, I guess, on which anything in the curriculum could appear in a form difficult to predict). I would favour removing SATs in primary schools….this still allows some unattributable surveillance testing to allow Government to see what’s going on, but removes the high stakes nature of testing which currently distorts everything. Schools would be left to decide how they wanted to implement the curriculum and how they wanted to assess their own progress. Teachers could teach and children learn…….

  9. Sounds like you made lots of good points. Unfortunately, as you also point out, with many of these changes coming in September it is a shame these conversations didn’t take place a little earlier!

    The removal of levels does offer some fantastic opportunities, but if schools merely maintain the status quo or replace NC levels with a new name but the same problems, then the benefits will be lost. I am fairly confident that as a profession we can support students without attaching a number to everything they do, but then that won’t fit on a spreadsheet, will it? But as you point out, this is maybe down to a fear of questions about progress from Ofsted of even the DfE. Maybe some joined up thinking is needed…

    The initial framework for the new National Curriculum was looked at by some of the great and the good of our education system. Maybe alarm bells should have rung a bit louder when two of the expert panel resigned because they were being ignored and one criticised the draft that was produced! A lot of what Andrew Pollard, Mary James and Dylan Wiliam could have brought to our education system was just ignored or changed in such a way to suit a pre-defined agenda, leaving the botched version we are now left with.

    Adding to what Janet said above, in Finland there is autonomy for schools and for teachers. So they do what they think is the right thing to do for their children, not what is right to jump through the next hoop to satisfy a third party.

    Keep fighting the good fight! You must feel like you’re banging your head against a brick wall sometimes, but you have the backing of lots of hard working teachers!

  10. With regard to moving on from levels, I think Tom Sherrington is probably right. It needs some schools with a national profile to blaze a trail – probably in partnership with others but they will have to carry the torch. And then it needs other schools to pick up the baton (can I mix this metaphor further?). It will only take Ofsted to hold up such a system’s success as a beacon of good practice (yes, I can) and everyone will want to adopt it.

  11. Reblogged this on 3D Eye and commented:
    What do we want from our elected politicians and their government officials? In previous posts this week we’ve considered the views of several educationalists on how our system needs to change and how politicians need to act in order to improve and indeed reinvent our system of education.

    In this post we’re re-blogging a post written by Debra Kidd (Love Learning – Campaigning for Education) that describes what happened recently when a group of ‘progressive’ and ‘child-centred’ educationalists actually met with a senior politician and a group of her officials at the Department for Education.

    We’re very thankful that Debra and her fellow bloggers and tweeters were able to articulate views that set out a vision of how education needs to change in England. Perhaps Tristram Hunt will now invite this same group for detailed discussions on One Nation Labour’s future policies for schools and for education in general. Unlike Liz Truss he could even give them his full undivided attention with no interruptions, no distractions and no SPADs whispering in his ear.

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