A lonely journey

These last few terms have been pretty long and lonely at times as an Assessment Leader. As the last academic year drew to a close, I knew that there were going to have to be huge changes afoot, and that it was going to be my place to decide what to do. However, as we had a new Headteacher joining us in September, it was decided that the beginning of the new school year would not be the right time to implement these changes: he needed time to settle into life with us, to get his feet firmly under the table and to get to know how the school ran before making big decisions. As time ticked on, I began to get nervous about having not made any changes, and so we decided that, once I had adopted an assessment system, my year group would trial it. I was, and still am, perfectly happy with that decision: I didn’t want to begin putting whole school systems in place only to find that they needed changing. This would have not only put unnecessary work on the other staff but would have meant they lost confidence in me as an Assessment Leader. I am still completely confident that I am the right person in the school to have implemented this, and that the approach we took was the best one for the school, but it has been a very lonely journey. If it hadn’t have been for some wonderful people who I reached though Twitter (Michael Tidd, Simon Cowley and Louise Dance to name but a few), the journey would have been even more isolated.

I was more than happy to tackle this issue alone: it’s often the way I work best. I like to plan things out myself and then talk them through once I have formulated an idea. I have, however, been envious of other schools who have formulated teams of people to sit and thrash out ideas together. Our isolated approach has led to some issues. As yet, I haven’t formally talked the rest of the school through how they are going to be assessing from September (they have that delight to look forward to on the first week back after the holiday). I am really excited about what we are doing, and proud of what my year group has achieved, and want to enthuse the rest of the staff too. Sadly, little snip though, little snippets of information have filtered through to different people. This is what I didn’t want to happen; I wanted everyone to have the full system presented to them properly so that I could talk to them face to face about the concerns and issues that I am sure will be raised. It has also led to other curriculum –based difficulties. For example, the progress ladders and writing targets we use all need to be changed to fit in with this new way of assessing, but other year groups have not yet made the switch. We are operating in a slight limbo, adapting materials as we go along and using a “best fit” approach for the time being. Ideally, had we been approaching this as a whole staff, we could all have made the changes together.

As we are still going through a trial period, we have made a conscious effort to inform parents of the changes, but in a low key way. Perhaps a formal meeting may have been a wiser approach; after all, many of the children have suffered a perceived fall in attainment due to the change in curriculum mid-year, which is bound to alarm parents. Even a well-intended letter can’t alleviate concerns in the same way as face to face discussion can. As the rest of the school still assessing using NC levels, many of my children’s siblings will have received their end of term reports showing great progress, whereas my children seem to have moved backwards. Of course, I would hope that those parents who are concerned would come in and talk to us, as the letter advises, but I know that many won’t. As well as calming the parents though, I would have liked to have the chance to explain myself to them. After all, not only have I taught 50% of the children involved in this pilot, but I have introduced the system which is being used to assess their supposed shortcomings. I am very proud of the system we are using (and all credit should go to The White Horse Federation for it), and want the parents to understand exactly how it will benefit their children. If the parents come in, I want them to see the impressive maths the children have been doing, and to read the stories which we have spent weeks crafting and are undoubtly the best piece of work they have ever written. I want to show the parents that, even though many of the children are below Age Related Expectation, they have made HUGE progress since our last assessment point. And, perhaps most selfishly, I want to defend the honour of me and my team. On paper, our statistics don’t look good this term: so many of the children are below ARE that I am sure Mr Ofsted would have plenty of questions to ask. But I can answer all of his questions and more, and I wanted to share those answers with the parents. We deliberately gave the reports out a day early, so that they could come in before the Easter holidays. My teaching partner was worried about the number of parents she was expecting to come in and, secretly, I had visions of queues at the door and having to move everyone to another room so I could hold an informal meeting. But, to our surprise, they didn’t come. This could mean one of two things: one, that they were happy with the content of the letter and understood the implications of the changes, or two, that they are going to spend the whole of the Easter holidays worrying about what they can do to help their children. I really do hope it’s the former: I hate to think of nearly 60 families having this weight hanging over them for the next two weeks when a 5 minute chat could easily have put their minds at rest. Perhaps I will have a stream of parents waiting at the door on Monday morning after the holidays. I’m sure I won’t be saying this when the chaos of a new term hits at 8.50 that day, but in many ways, I hope the queue does appear.


Thinking creatively

My school has not wholly embraced a creative curriculum before now, although some year groups did make some links between subjects. With the exception of our writing, most subjects have been taught discretely in the past. However, a change in leadership at the school has brought about a change in approach. Earlier in the year, we were asked to begin grouping our topics together with a view to trialling the topic approach before the end of the year. Being in Year 4, it was fairly easy to group most of our subjects together into 2 very clear topics, with lots of odds and ends left over afterwards. This week, we were given some release time to get our heads around curriculum planning. Sadly for us, it was time for the “Odds and Ends” topic. We knew there had to be some kind of link between them – electricity, sound and map skills to name but a few of the topics – but the link was beyond us!

On Wednesday evening, my teaching partner and I sat down with a big piece of sugar paper and just scribbled. Now, I’m sure for so many people reading this, none of this is new, but for us it was a first. Soon, the page was covered in random ideas, some much better than others, and the arrows linking them together soon followed. By the end of Wednesday evening, we had some kind of an order to the chaos.

Today, we sat down to properly plan it out: it seemed our main problem was having too many ideas! Coming up with the ideas without the use of the internet was clearly a good idea – we had to rely on our own creativity rather than being preoccupied with trawling the web endlessly to find what others had done. The process clearly slowed down once we clicked onto Google- the internet is full of so many distractions. However, we’ve done it. Almost all of the rest of the year has been planned: just a couple of lessons left to plan for the end of the year. We have even managed to plan in a mock election to tie in with the General Election (there are some brilliant ideas on the Parliament website which we are going to use) and we were amazed by the creativity in our links. It’s such a satisfying feeling knowing that our whole topic is planned now for the rest of the year – and this was supposed to be the tricky one! We have even managed to get ourselves some topic books to use, rather than having our work scattered far and wide in different subject books. Hopefully, the children will produce something to be proud of with lots of exciting work, photos and (I’m excited to have thought of this while typing this sentence!) QR codes so they can show off their Flipagram electrical safety videos. I remember my topic books from my Year 5 days in school vividly – I remember the pride of having taken my watercolour painted, sticky back plastic covered New Zealand topic book home and showing my parents all that I had learned. The agriculture one – not quite so much enthusiasm, but still good! I really hope that my children have a sense of achievement too when we are finished.

We have an INSET day after the May half term where we can plan out the topics for the beginning of next year. Those should be a piece of cake! We have already taught the discrete subjects this year and spotted the links, so tying it all together in one master plan will be easy. I’m really excited about next term. The previous ones have all been fab: I’ve learned a huge amount myself and taught topics I’ve never come across before, but I think the next two terms could be the best yet!


Trying something new

During a meeting last week, my Headteacher discussed changing the way we approach the teaching of maths to better utilise the skills of our Teaching Assistants. We abandoned the 3-part lesson approach a long time ago in favour of more flexibility, but for some, length of carpet time can still be an issue. Children are expected to be engaged for long periods of time, when some (or many) of the questions asked aren’t pitched at their level. So, it was proposed that we try using our TAs for the whole of the lesson, rather than having them sitting with one or two children while we talk at the children for 25 minutes.

The idea was that the TAs would take a group of children out from the start of the lesson to teach new concepts or reinforce old ones and then work with them on a task. Another group would work with the teacher straight away on the carpet, being taught at their level and then go off to do a task. A third group would begin at their tables, consolidating previous work or doing an investigation, and then come to the carpet to be taught something new once the previous group had finished their discussion.

This raised a few questions and issues for me. The pace of the lesson would need to be pretty fast: the first group with me wouldn’t be able to stay on the carpet for any great length of time, as there would be others waiting. I don’t think this would cause too much of an issue for me: I like to think my lessons are usually pretty pacey and we don’t spend long talking on the carpet, but even so, the pressure is on! Also, my “ability groups” within my maths groups are completely fluid: each day, the children decide which level of work is most appropriate to them in order to pose the right level of challenge. It took a while to train them to be Purple Learners, but I think we’re there now. This fluidity could pose a real challenge to this way of working. If I could say that “table 1 are my lower ability group, today they’ll be starting on the carpet with me,” then a rota would be easy to create to ensure that everyone started with me, started at their tables and worked with a TA each week. Sadly, my class wouldn’t be that straightforward. So, I had to devise some kind of system.

This is what I came up with.

Each lesson, I’m going to put a summary up on the whiteboard at the beginning of the lesson like the image above.

As the children come into the class, they decide which group they think they belong in. So that I know who goes in which group, they will then stick their name onto a laminated sheet (the names all start “on the carpet” – they just need to move them if they are working with a TA or starting at their tables). They all file past this as they collect their whiteboards when they come in, so there’s no extra time wasted. Today, the children were fairly accurate in their choices, although I did have to move one or two as I knew they were going for the easy option! It was crazily chaotic in my classroom, there were children all over the place doing written calculations, solving word problems and using Learnpads, but they were all engaged. There was flexibility between the groups: when the “pink” group were entirely confident, they could be extended to move on to the harder activities. Because I had already prepared the grid for tomorrow’s lesson, I was able to share it with the children today. Interestingly, no-one felt they would need the “pink” work and half felt they would be ready to start on “green”, so this evening, I have re-planned the lesson to raise the level of challenge for everyone.

I don’t know if this system will work, if I can keep up the level of organisation and planning that is needed to make it work, and if it (or I!) can survive the days when I unexpectedly don’t have a TA, but I’m giving it ago for a while. I was exhausted by 10.10 this morning – it felt like lunchtime with all the flitting around I did, but I know it will get easier and smoother the more I do it. I’m liking the idea so far… we shall see how it goes!


The joy of marking?

A photo on a tweet by Tim Taylor earlier resonated with me after a conversation I’d had at the end of the day. I was busy marking, when someone casually remarked “I bet you find that really boring, marking book after book. Still, at least it’s done. Then you won’t have to do any work at home tonight, will you?” I had the usual conversation about what us teachers get up to of an evening, and then resumed my marking of my pile of books. This conversation, alongside the “markolepsy” photo (which did make me chuckle, don’t get me wrong!) really hit a nerve – do I get bored of marking? Do I resent doing it? Surprisingly, I don’t think I do – this year.

There are times when the marking pile seems to get so high, it looks in danger of toppling over. This is usually when I have got behind and there are several pieces to mark: that’s when marking becomes demoralising. When I have a few days’ worth to do and each book seems to take forever, that’s when I start putting it off. I have to confess, there have been times at the end of the year when I have frantically raced through history and geography books, even science ones, trying to get to the end of them in time for the end of the year. I’m not proud of that, and every year I have sworn “never again”. Well, this year I may have cracked it. I am approaching a mammoth marking time – we provide detailed comments at the end of topics and we are just reaching the end of a double history topic, but I’m really looking forward to marking them. I know the children have really enjoyed the activities we have done, and they have (mostly) done them well. We have done lots of practical activities and others which have involved thinking skills, so I have lots to comment on. Discussions, group work, written work: there’s a real variety. I know from my literacy and maths marking that the children this year have been trained well to read what I write, and to respond to it, so my marking has a real purpose. Surely that’s what it’s all about? In my maths and literacy marking, the purpose is to develop their skills and to help them to make progress. In science too, there are transferrable skills which can be commented on and developed for the next topic. In many of the other subjects, such as history and geography, art and DT, there may be skills used which may not be revisited again this year. So should I be commenting on these in great detail on their cover sheets? For me, yes, I will make some skills-based comments. But it’s also an opportunity for celebration. My history and geography books have far more in them already this year than I have ever had before. They have always been something of a weakness for me. But this year, largely thanks to the resources from Key Stage History, I am really proud of what they have achieved. I know that some of them aren’t going to be as neat as I would like. In some cases, their recording is not as accurate as I would have liked either, but I know I can make meaningful comments about the contributions they have made to the lessons. We are in the process of moving towards a more topic-based curriculum. As far as I know, discussions haven’t taken place about the way we are going to record this work – subject specific books or theme based books – but I hope we go down the theme route, so the children can produce something they are proud of. It is so much more encouraging to spend hours marking something you know the children have taken care and time over and are looking forward to taking home to show their family. I take great pride in their pride, and enjoy seeing their enjoyment. It makes marking all the more worthwhile. We have to get the balance right – are we marking for the children? For Ofsted? For the parents? Or for our own benefit? If we get the balance right and know that what we write has real purpose and value (and I think we are getting there!), then the task of marking becomes a far less onerous one.


The Great Homework Battle…

This morning, I was mulling over what to write about today, and I had already reached a conclusion: homework. I was feeling a little grumpy as our regular offenders had once again failed to hand in/complete their homework, as they had done for most of the year. Most weeks, they have had to lose some of their free time to complete it. Then I read Mark Barnes’s blog about how he has to endure hours of torture at home completing homework, and I was convinced of what my topic would be today.

Homework is, without doubt, the bane of my life. I have no issue with sending homework home each week; I think it is ideal for the children to have some extra practise out of school and gives the parents some idea of what we are doing in class. I try my best to find fun maths activities for the children to take home. Admittedly, there are occasional weeks when I forget and have to find something at the least minute, but usually, it takes me almost as long to find or make something for the children to take home as it does to plan the rest of the week’s maths. And then there are the spellings. We have changed our approach this year: rather than sending lists of words home to learn, the children are given a spelling pattern to learn and apply, by finding words themselves which use the pattern. They then share the words they have found when they come in to school, and we choose a few to test them on. For some (in fact, lots) of the children, this works really well. They clearly spend time looking for the words and some use them in sentences to show they understand them. Some even choose to do optional, additional activities from their SPaG books to practise them further. These children generally do well in their tests. Perhaps this is because of the effort they make with their homework. Or perhaps it is because they are the ones who generally don’t need to practise. Those children whom the homework would really benefit often come to school without their homework books, or even hand it in with nothing in. I’ve spoken to the children, spoken to the parents, written letters, praised them on the odd occasion when the children do complete it, made them complete it in their own time when they don’t. I’ve offered opportunities for the children to bring it in early and receive help. All to no avail. If it were just a case of plucking a sheet out of a folder and sending it home, I wouldn’t mind quite so much. But I spend hours planning the lessons on which the spelling and SPaG homework is based.

This term, we are having a bigger push on spelling than we ever have done before. We have a short spelling lesson at the start of the week to introduce the pattern, then the children practise at home. Before their test at the end of the week, we have another short lesson to recap on the spelling rule. The problem is that I don’t want to just send home boring cloze activities or writing sentences for the children to do. Mark Barnes made an appeal this morning for teachers to send home fun activities, maybe tablet based or online games. Trust me, I have tried. I’ve spent hours today looking for apps and games to use to practise using the suffixes –sion, -tion, -cian and –ssion. No luck (well, except one website where the games were pretty ropey. I could introduce my own word lists, which was a bonus, but the games were still pretty awful). There are loads of spelling games out there for younger children, using cvc words, but not much for older children. Clearly a gap in the market. If only I were an app designer, I’d be busy whipping one up now to use the Key Stage 2 spelling objectives! Last week, I sent home a word search for the children to complete. Lots did. My little core of regular offenders didn’t. This week, a game. Will they complete it? I doubt it. I had intended to complete my SPaG medium term plan for the rest of this term and all of next. Mission not accomplished – one week done! I don’t have a problem with trawling the net or app stores or making stuff myself if it is going to serve the purpose I want it to: to help these children to spell. If my efforts can get just one of my non-homeworkers to spend a few minutes practising their spelling patterns at home as well as in school, then it is time well spent. And for any app designers with a spare few hours on their hands, I’ve got an idea… let’s talk!!!


Talking a different language

There are so many challenges facing teachers at the moment; the pressure is unreal. New curriculum, new assessment systems, ever increasing demands on the attainment and progress of children, huge workloads. I can deal with all of that: it’s my job.

But what I can’t deal with is the fact that schools can no longer communicate with each other effectively: we aren’t all talking the same language any more. Previously, if a child came to us mid-year, they would bring with them a list of levels for their reading, writing and maths. We may not have entirely agreed with the judgements, but at least, in theory, we would know what they meant when they said a child was a 2b. We would know where we should expect them to be when they left in year 6. Now, we can no longer be sure what an assessment means: are they below? Beginning? Working within? Secure? Above? Working at Mastery level – and what is that exactly? That’s a whole other topic for discussion. Earlier in the year, I contacted a few local schools who were also using Target Tracker as a tracking system to form a Support Network. At our first meeting, it was apparent that we were all at very different stages in our assessment journey. We shared our progress, agreed a few actions and went on our way. Well, we got back together today to see how we were getting on, and it seems we are all making progress. Is it good progress? Well, when we ascertain what that actually is, I’ll let you know. We all have systems in place, albeit at varying degrees of completion. We have all taken similar approaches, yet there are key differences. We haven’t agreed a common expectation of attainment at key points in the year, and we aren’t all assessing against the same objectives. We are going to meet together next time to see if we agree on what a “secure” mathematician looks like, but I have a feeling we won’t succeed. Each of us will be able to justify our own judgements, but they won’t compare across schools. And I am pretty sure that none of us will be prepared to change our systems to tie in with someone else’s: after all, we have each put an enormous amount of work into developing them.

If we, as a group of 5 fairly local schools, have no consistency between us, what hope is there of there being any similarities between schools across the country? One member of the group reported that her junior school works in a different way to the feeder infant school. It’s absolute craziness: any new children coming in to a school will have to be baseline assessed to provide a starting point for the school’s assessment system. I am all for freedom and independence for schools and teachers: we have been constrained for so long that we have lost all sense of professional judgement. We should have the opportunity to make judgements for ourselves. But we need to be talking the same language. We can moderate until we are blue in the face across our schools; we can have (and should have) the greatest confidence in our own systems. We should have parents who have confidence in our systems. But what good is a system if it means nothing to anyone else? I know that they are primarily for our use, but my goodness, the secondary schools are going to have one heck of a challenge next year. I can’t help but feel that, in the very near future, someone somewhere is going to pull the rug out from under our feet and tell us to start all over again. And somewhere, buried way down inside me, there’s a tiny, tiny little part that can’t help but feel that might not be a bad thing. Common expectations and a common language. At least then, the schools can start to communicate properly again.


The Interview Process

The past few years have been pretty tough in our house. When I was pregnant with our first child, MVNTH (My Very Nearly Teacher Husband) was made redundant. To pass the time between finishing his job and finding a new one, he volunteered at local infant school. And there began his love of the teaching profession. At first, he was a volunteer, then they employed him as a TA. Then, when he decided that teaching was for him, he enrolled on a Foundation Degree in Education. That done, and an additional Honours year to top it up, he eventually found himself on a Schools Direct placement. All this was done while working in school, bringing up our two young children and dealing with an exhausted full-time teaching wife.

Well, this long path is finally nearing its end, but the stress is not yet over. Now comes the interview process. Now, I have worked in my school for 15 years, so it has been a long time since I had an interview, but it seems that everything has changed. For my job, I went on a nice tour around the school with a bunch of lovely people and we had a nice chat. I don’t recall spending ages thinking up intelligent questions to ask (perhaps they just came naturally!) or trying to get myself noticed. I didn’t have to teach a lesson – I just read a class of children a story – and I certainly didn’t have to do any presentations. I remember there being a panel at the interview: if I remember correctly, it was the Head, Deputy Head, potential teaching partner and Chair of Governors. Despite there being 4 people, it was all fairly low key. Stressful enough, but nowhere near as bad as the interview process today.

I wonder whether the interview process, as it stands, shows the best of potential candidates? Does a 30 minute lesson with a class of unfamiliar children really show off what you can do? So much of a lesson is based around the knowledge you have of your children: picking up on their misconceptions, using the relationship you have with them and the knowledge of how they learn to help them to understand. With your own class, you know where they have come from and where they are going, and what you need to do to get them there. Even interview observations in your own class, it seems, can’t be run as a normal lesson. They have to have a specific focus, a particular objective and a specific desired outcome. All designed to add to the pressure load. Surely it would be far more beneficial to just spend a “normal” morning or afternoon in a classroom watching a “normal” day? You could see how the teacher relates to the children, manages the class during registration and transition times, deals with parents and those inevitable dramas that happen most mornings. See how they get the children to line up and walk down the corridor to assembly. See what lessons look like on a day-to-day basis, how the teacher interacts with TAs and other teachers. Surely that would give you so much more of a picture of the whole teacher, not just of someone performing for half an hour. Of course there would be issues with this: time scale for one, as it would take far longer to see candidates. People coming from out of the area, NQTs, the list of complications would be endless, but surely there must be a better way than expecting someone to put on a show for half an hour? For me, I don’t have to worry about interviews for the time being, but for MVNTH, he’s got a heck of a week to come. Whatever happens, it’s all good experience. Wish him luck, and we’ll see you on the other side!