Author: timparamour

Inside Finland’s Miracle

Tim Paramour

This week I had the privilege of travelling to Finland to find out what makes their world-beating education system tick- and what the UK could learn from their achievements.

As Finland slides into view, Paavo Piik, an Estonian theatre director I’m working with, smiles and gestures towards the coastline. “There it is,” he says, “the promised land!” To teachers all over the world, Finland has become a byword for getting it right in education. I’m exhausted after two back-to-back early mornings but that doesn’t dampen my excitement as our ferry approaches the end of its two-hour crossing from Tallinn and Helsinki takes shape in front of us. I’m halfway through my final term as deputy head at an inner London primary school and since I started teaching in the British system twelve years ago, and throughout all the frustrations that has involved, I’ve always wanted to come and see this…

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7 Principles for a Better Primary School Accountability Framework

Tim Paramour

The politicians currently dictating what happens in our schools have got it into their heads that they can raise standards just by making statutory tests harder. There is no evidence for this. They say we need to improve our position in global comparison tables such as those produced by PISA or the OECD. This would probably be a good thing to do: if our 18-year-olds were as good at passing tests as 18-year-olds in Finland, it would mean we were getting something right, even if it wasn’t the whole story. But even if you believe that improving our global ranking should be the sole aim of education policy in this country, then we are still going about it in completely the wrong way, and in completely the opposite direction to a country like Finland.

I’m a big believer that if you’re going to point out a problem, you will be able to do so far more convincingly if you can simultaneously offer a…

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A Brexity Christmas Carol Part 2 – The First of the Three Spirits

The Brexity old miser Brexiteezer Scrooge has been visited by Zac Goldsmith and warned of a visitation by three spirits who will seek to save his soul. To go back and read the first part of “A Brexity Christmas Carol” please click here

Scrooge went to bed and set his alarm for 7am. Just because the lazy foreigners he employed wanted to waste a perfectly good working day, he wasn’t going to let an opportunity for a bit of quiet work in a deserted office pass him by.

He was quite sure now that the incident with Zac Goldsmith was some strange hallucination; a flight of fancy brought about by a rogue piece of meat infected with some sort of foreign bacteria. Nonetheless, he felt a certain sense of unease as he lay in his bed, still wrapped in his dressing gown and wearing one of the promotional floppy St. George’s flag hats his pub had given away to its customers during England’s characteristically imperious display in the European football championships. He was unable to sleep and kept turning anxiously to watch as the big digital clock display beside his bed flickered inexorably toward 1am. When the hour came, Scrooge breathed out.
“There,” he whispered to himself, “nothing happened, did it?”
“Nothing at all,” replied a familiar-sounding voice. And there, standing by the open window, through which a bitter gust of wind was billowing into the room, stood Victoria Wood.
Scrooge jumped from his bed in terror. “What?! How did you…”
“Well don’t look so surprised,” Wood interrupted, “Zac Goldsmith told you I’d be coming, didn’t he?”
“He…”
“You know Zac Goldsmith would actually be faintly shagable if he weren’t such a self-absorbed, jumped-up little prick. Anyway, come on Misery Guts. We’re going.”
“Going?” Scrooge replied, “going where?”
“The past,” she replied.
“How do you mean?”
“Well, your past to be precise,” and she gestured towards the window.
“But Spirit, I cannot go out there. I am but mortal, and liable to fall.”
“Then take my hand,” Wood said, not unkindly and, as Scrooge placed his hand in hers, he found they were no longer in his draughty bedroom, but in a school room. The walls were bare, the individual desks wooden and rickety.
“I know this place,” Scrooge murmured, as he watched a class of children working silently on a grammar exercise, just as children in a school should and just as they had started to again thanks to that brilliant Mr. Gove. “They seem unsurprised by our presence.”
“They can’t see us,” Victoria Wood replied.
“This is my school,” Scrooge said as it suddenly come flooding back to him.
“You remember it?”
“Remember it? Oh, but Spirit, I could walk these corridors blindfold. But it’s impossible. It was sold off by Margaret Thatcher in the 80s. I built one of my pubs on the old playing field.”
“This is 1952,” Wood said, “Margaret Roberts hasn’t even entered parliament yet.”

The bell sounded and the children filed out into the playground, but one boy stayed behind, keen to finish his work.
“That boy, Spirit,” Scrooge said in wonderment, “that’s me! And that’s my old teacher, Captain Archer.”
“A soldier, wasn’t he?”
“Most men of his age were. He’d fought in both world wars. A hero.”
Captain Archer stood beside Scrooge’s younger self, stiff as a board but smiling kindly.
“Don’t you want to go and play with the other children, Scrooge?” the teacher asked.
The boy shook his head awkwardly, “I want to get this finished,” he replied.
“Is there a problem with some of the other boys?” Archer asked.
Scrooge watched himself and felt a stirring of emotion he rarely felt at his age. “Such a lonely child.” He murmured.
“He’s only seven years old and he lives in an austere world,” Victoria Wood said, “but it’s going to get better. The NHS is only a few years old. From here onward, Britain enters a whole new phase of its history as it emerges from the carnage of two world wars. Social attitudes will relax and a whole new attitude to society will spread throughout the country, demanding support for the vulnerable and security for everyone in old age. The bullying you were suffering then would never be tolerated in schools now. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to get away with most of the jokes I told in 1952.”
Scrooge grunted, “you forgot to mention the uncontrolled mass immigration making us feel like foreigners in our own country.” He looked over to the portrait of Winston Churchill behind Captain Archer’s desk, “he’d never have let it come to this.”
“I don’t know about that,” Victoria Wood replied, “in 1946 he made a speech in Zurich calling for a United States of Europe. Across the channel now, the first countries are making plans to form the European Coal and Steel Community, the organisation that will one day become the EU. Our Prime Minister Mr Churchill is very supportive. The whole continent is scarred by war. For these people a united Europe is a utopian dream, not an unwanted burden.”
Scrooge looked back over to his younger self, avoiding his teacher’s questions about his plans for Christmas. He’d had enough.
“Show me a happier Christmas, spirit.”
“Gladly,” Victoria Wood replied and took Scrooge’s hand again.

An instant later they found themselves outside a large red-brick building in an industrial part of a large city. Everywhere he looked there were passers-by with big hair, flared trousers and garments striped or chequered with inadvisable combinations of orange and brown. The building in front of him was festooned with Christmas decorations and from within the sound of “Merry Christmas Everybody” was audible. Following Victoria Wood into the building, Scrooge realised where he was. This was Fezziwig’s Brewery.
“This is Fezziwig’s Christmas Party! This is the year I became the regional manager” Scrooge said excitedly and quickly spotted himself, thirty years old and still with a full head of thick black hair. “Why oh why, when I still had so much hair on my head, did I insist on that awful mullet?” he asked Victoria Wood in wonderment, and then something else caught his eye: it was his old employer. “And there’s dear old Fezziwig himself! Bless his heart- it’s Fezziwig alive again!”
“It’s 1975,” Victoria Wood replied. “Britain has just voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EEC.”
“Yes,” Scrooge replied, “I voted to remain myself. But we just wanted a trading and customs union, not all these damn regulations.”
“It was always perfectly clear about its aims. These are hard times for Britain: our empire has disintegrated and we’re struggling to understand our place in a changed world. After frequent power cuts, a three-day week and rolling strikes, European commentators have started referring to us as the ‘sick man of Europe.’ But all of that will slowly start to change.”
“That’s quite enough work for today, folks,” Fezziwig called out to his staff. “These aren’t the easiest times for a business this size but the brewery has had a pretty good year all-in-all and it’s time to celebrate!”
“Such a gentle soul,” Scrooge remarked. “Too gentle for the world we live in now. Fezziwig’s Brewery went bust in the noughties and all its branches got turned into high-end flats and trendy gastropubs.”
Scrooge’s younger self was deep in conversation with a young woman.
“Belle,” the name caught in Scrooge’s throat.
“She was French, wasn’t she?” Wood asked him.
“She was. Such a beautiful, funny…oh Spirit, show me no more.”
But in an instant the party and the brewery had disappeared. In its place was Albert Square in central Manchester. Decorations adorned an impressive Christmas tree in the centre of the square and Scrooge’s younger self was sitting with Belle, both warmly wrapped up in hats, scarves and gloves.
“It’s a job with the Guardian,” Belle was saying, “it’s an opportunity I really want to take. Can’t you start your own business from Manchester?” Her breath was visible in the cold December air.
“No,” Scrooge’s younger self replied, “It must be in London. Our projected profits would be 25% greater.”
“Bloody London,” the elder Scrooge growled, “bloody Guardian.”
“Then I don’t know what else to say,” Belle said softly.
“We said we’d get married,” the younger Scrooge replied, “And get a mortgage on a property. We always said that.”
“We said that when we were both poor, and contented to be so until we found a means to combine our happiness and good fortune. But you are a man changed, Brexiteezer.”
“But I’ve found a wonderful semi-detached house in Whetstone,” the younger Scrooge protested. “It has a long lease, a garage and a half-convincing mock-Tudor frontage.”
“I’m sorry, Brexiteezer, it’s over.”
“Take me home, Spirit!” Scrooge exclaimed, realising he had tears in his eyes, “Why do you delight in tormenting me?”

But he was already back in his bedroom. Victoria Wood had gone and he was alone once again.

Click here to read the third part of the story: “The Second Spirit.”

Where in the World Are We? – What the PISA rankings tell us about the state of UK education.

This week saw the publication of the latest PISA rankings: a league table of different countries’ education systems which is compiled every three years by the OECD. The tables compare the scores achieved by sample groups of 15-year-olds from each country who sit tests in reading, maths and science. The general consensus across most of the media, from the BBC to the Telegraph is that the rankings show the UK “falling behind the rest of the World.” Is this fair? The answer, I’m afraid, is a definite, resounding “sort of.”

The main headlines are that the UK has improved its position considerably in the science table (from 21st three years ago to 15th in the most recent rankings), improved slightly in reading (from 23rd to 21st) and dropped slightly in maths (down from 26th to 27th). The UK students’ average scores in the tests were actually remarkably similar to three years ago so all these movements are affected more by other countries’ relative performances than by a decline or improvement in our own standards. They’re not actually bad results and they’re all above the OECD average. The overall conclusion one can draw about the education our young people are receiving is probably the same as the conclusion one would have drawn 3, 6 and 9 years ago: education in the UK is ok.

These rankings are subject to several criticisms, not least that many supposedly-higher performing countries and administrations are able to effectively cheat by excluding lower-performing students from the tests. There are also questions to be asked about how the culture and economy of a given country feed into the rankings. Does an inherently more egalitarian country where education is more widely-valued such as Finland (or, in a very different way, Singapore) simply have a much better chance of succeeding than its more unequal rivals such as the UK and the USA? If so one could question the notion that PISA rankings are assessing education systems at all (rather than entire societies and their attitudes.) There is also, of course, a debate to be had about whether the narrow subject focus of the tests is sufficient to encapsulate all or even most of what constitutes good education.

Nonetheless, the Tory government has made improving the UK’s performance in these rankings the cornerstone of its educational agenda. In so doing they gave themselves a luxury they would never grant to teachers or schools: the right to choose the way their own success should be measured. And still they appear to be falling short. Schools have been closed and rebranded, the curriculum and exam syllabuses have been torn up and replaced with a narrower, more knowledge-based alternative and all this upheaval has brought about an unprecedented crisis in teacher retention and recruitment. And the signs are that it simply hasn’t been worth it: the government is not fulfilling its own stated aims. Young learners have had their opportunities to engage in sport, art, music, drama and practical, vocational skills curtailed on the altar of a vision of “academic rigour” that simply hasn’t materialised.

To make matters worse, the direction of travel being taken from here doesn’t offer any cause for optimism either. PISA’s own director of education Andreas Schleicher warned earlier this year that an increased focus on setting and selection (the apparent core of the government’s agenda since Theresa May entered Downing Street in July) can only be to the detriment of its position in the rankings.

So the overall message the country should take from these PISA rankings is mixed but their verdict on our government and their education policy is pretty unambiguous: to use Ofsted’s terminology, they have been served with a seriously damning Notice to Improve.

The Elephant in the Primary School Classroom: The Data is Made Up.

“Data” is used to justify and condemn all manner of things in education. The percentage of children achieving particular standards in particular subjects with, especially at primary level, a sharp focus on reading, writing, maths and science, is the primary measure by which we assess the success of an educational policy, institution or initiative. There are big, big questions to be asked about whether that is the most appropriate measure of school performance, and certainly we should be concerned about using it as the only measure, as happens all too often. Yet there is perhaps an even bigger problem with this situation in primary schools at present: the data is made up.

There, I said it.

Every teacher and head teacher knows it, every Ofsted inspector knows it and I think some of the students have clocked it too.  It is something we dare not say for fear of exposing our own roles in this elaborate, nationwide deception but something which, as I am no longer employed as a teacher, I am at liberty to acknowledge.

It started small. During the last decade, teachers knew they were required to report children’s assessments at the age of 7 as “teacher assessments”: judgements they would make the results of tests that children could sit in small, adult-guided groups. Key Stage 2 results, on the other hand, were formed on the basis of hard test results, sat individually and in silence by eleven-year-olds in their last term at primary school, marked and moderated externally by examiners in other parts of the country to whom test scripts were sent by post. As these assessments started to be used increasingly by Ofsted inspectors, local authorities and politicians to form make-or-break judgements about schools and even individual head teachers, a sense developed in every single school I encounterred that there was a game that needed to be played. In the beginning this meant entering a pupil’s “teacher assessment” score in Year 2 very slightly higher than the staff knew was strictly accurate. They would justify it to themselves by saying things like: “I’m sure he’ll be there by the end of Year 2 in July” or “she’s had a lot to deal with at home and we need to make some allowance for that.” In time, this became more sophisticated. As primary schools came to realise they were being judged largely on the basis of pupil progress between Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2, many schools with very successful outcomes in Year 2 actually started suppressing those assessments slightly. Show me any teacher who worked in a school with both an infant and a junior department at the time who claims they haven’t heard the words “don’t send up too many Level 3s- they’ll have to be 5s” and I’ll show you a liar. It’s worth reflecting on the fact that infant-only schools, that make all their own assessment judgements with usually relatively light-touch moderation from the local authority, are more likely to be graded “Outstanding” than any other type of school. Funny that.

There have been numerous other assessments left open to the same sort of game-playing. Science assessments at the end of Key Stage 2 have been formed by teachers without a test for well over a decade now and most Year 6 teachers I’ve ever met arrive at these simply by arbitrarily tweaking a few maths predictions. The phonics screening test in Year 1 is conducted by a teacher and a six-year-old alone in a room. I have no basis on which to question the integrity of the adults administering these tests but such a huge amount of pressure is placed on the outcomes that they will no doubt be striving to ensure every pupil can do as well as they can. It is safe to suppose that Year 1 teachers’ respective interpretations of what this means vary considerably from setting to setting. Now there are the new Year 6 writing assessments and it’s hard to know where to even start. No one can agree on what the expected standard looks like, no one can moderate them consistently and the DfE themselves don’t seem to have a clear position. What schools end up reporting is almost entirely arbitrary.

Then there are the tests themselves in Key Stage 2. Over the past six years we know huge numbers of schools have been handed over to academy chains and we know that some of these are more scrupulous than others. Given the number of financial scandals involving these groups, we know many of the people overseeing these organisations have few scruples about massaging reality when it comes to their balance sheet. How many more might be willing to bend the rules a bit when it comes to administering the tests? Once, when I was on a school trip, I heard two Year 6 teachers who worked at an academy in London discussing the publication of the mark schemes (earlier that day) for the tests Year 6 had sat nationwide the previous week. One told the other about the answer to a particular question, to which her colleague replied, “Oh good. That’s what I told them.” This struck me for two reasons. Firstly, what business have you got teaching Year 6 if you don’t know the answer to an eleven-year-old’s test question with any certainty until the mark scheme is published? Secondly, and more urgently, what could that remark mean other than that this teacher had been giving answers to her students? I’ve heard other stories from former colleagues speaking to staff in other schools. And it’s no longer just academies. This “results-at-any-cost” mentality has got into the heads of senior leaders in plenty of schools that are still under local authority control. The range of access arrangements and easily corrupted “support” in the form of “readers” on offer could very easily be abused. At most, schools will receive one monitoring visit from the local authority for an hour or two during test week, and even that only one in every three or four years. Moreover, the local authority has little incentive to identify maladministration in its jurisdiction and the negative headlines that could generate.

The data generated by these assessments is used to sack head teachers and close down schools. It is used to dispense knighthoods and £200,000-a-year consultancy jobs. Within schools, teachers’ pay is linked to the results. Every term, at pupil progress meetings, an unnatural dance takes place between the SLT and the class teachers as leaders attempt to collect the data they “need” to show school improvement, and teachers submit the data that will make their work look successful. Teachers talk about this stupid game all the time. If they believed it really meant anything, they might be more inclined to want to play it. But the real reason they despise it so much goes unsaid in public most of the time. They can all see the Emperor has no clothes. Primary school assessment data is no longer worth the paper it’s written on.

And that’s before we even ask whether we’re actually testing the right things.