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.