The Subject Series, Part 3 – 10 Questions to Check how Good Your School is

10 Questions to Check how Good Your School is:

  1. How good is your English department?
  2. How good is your Maths department?
  3. How good is your Science department?
  4. How good is your History department?
  5. How good is your Geography department?
  6. How good is your MFL department?
  7. How good is your PE department?
  8. How good is your Art department?
  9. How good is your Music department?
  10. How good is your Drama department?

This is the third and final post in a series of blogs which attempts to place subject specialism at the centre of school improvement.  I’ve tried to make the point that it’s easy to over-complicate school improvement, when in essence it means students performing better in the subjects that they study.  Crucially though, subject-led school improvement will only hit the mark if fundamentals such as solid leadership, behaviour, curriculum and assessment are already in place.

In this final post, we’ll consider what subject-led school improvement looks like at a school level, rather than across a trust, by focusing on a few areas of school life that don’t get much attention.

Career progression

We have a structural problem in our profession that to advance in your career usually means moving further away from your classroom and your subject.  Take a successful Head of Department who joins a senior leadership team as Assistant Principal.  Not only are we paying this person more to teach less, but we’re also taking them out of their subject and asking them to focus instead on whole-school concerns.   A Head of Department who previously grappled with the challenge of ensuring that students are exposed to the best that’s been thought and said in their subject might now find themselves signing off risk assessments for school trips.

We therefore encourage colleagues to race to the top, rather than to invest in subject knowledge and the skill of teaching their subject.  To tackle this, we should move towards leaner leadership teams, with successful heads of department remaining with their subject, even if it means paying them as much as we previously paid junior members of the senior team

Line Management

Thousands of school leaders across the country line-manage departments in their school, but how many of these have received training on what good line management looks like?  Here’s one way of doing it:

At the start of the year agree a 1-page plan for the department containing the following:

  • 1-sentence summary of the most pressing priority the department faces: “This department will be more effective in 12 months’ time than the department it is today because … “
  • Brief outline of what success might look like e.g.
    • Higher proportion of top grades
    • More students taking our subject at KS4 and KS5
    • Greater quality and quantity of writing at KS3.
  • How we will achieve the above, broken down into the following areas:
    • Teaching and teacher development e.g. All teachers receive frequent incremental coaching
    • Assessment/data e.g. Balance between low-stakes formative assessment (quizzes etc) and termly standardised tests, with appropriate response to students’ performance on these tests
    • Curriculum and planning e.g. Map-out curriculum to ensure timely delivery, co-planning of each unit
    • Student effort e.g. Ensuring students have the resources to work hard and productively away from the classroom.

This 1-pager drives the agenda for all line management meetings, which should take place every week. I remember line managing HoDs thinking ‘hmm, what shall we talk about this week?’  Get this 1-page plan right and the agenda writes itself each week.

Co-Planning

Instead of cross-curricular links and ‘teaching and learning communities’ spanning different departments, let’s provide our teachers with the time and space to work with colleagues in their subject.  Beyond some whole-school CPD on critical areas of classroom practice (e.g. basic principles of assessment, questioning and feedback) time for CPD is probably best spent in departments, with teachers of the same subject agreeing how to bring key language to life in their subject, how to improve the quality and quantity of students’ writing in their subject and how to ensure appropriate challenge in their subject.  Co-planning within subjects – unit-by-unit and lesson by lesson – strikes me as one of the most powerful things that schools can do to build subject specialism.

The role of an academy trust, or anyone else interested in school improvement, is to sort out the fundamental infrastructure in schools (leadership, behaviour, curriculum, assessment) so that subjects can flourish.  It is through subject specialism, not generic improvement plans, that our schools will thrive.

The Subject Series, Part 2 – Pedants for Precision

It’s easy to over-complicate school improvement, when in essence it means students performing better in the subjects that they study. For this, we don’t need generalist school improvement consultants, we need subject specialists with the knowledge, skills and experience to provide specific, tangible support to the departments that they work with.

test tubes

In my role at United Learning I have the privilege of working with 6 subject specialists who lead on school improvement by raising standards in their subject across the 19 southern academies in our group.  They make a difference in a way that a generalist school improvement consultant could only imagine.

Ben is our Science Advisor. On an early-morning train journey to Northampton he gave me an insight into the things he looks for when he goes into schools:

It’s my job to ensure that none of our science teachers are working in isolation.  I spend a lot of time talking about writing.  Good science teaching involves getting students to write about scientific ideas, so when I go into lessons I look at the quality and quantity of students’ writing. I want to see writing that is a product of a student’s thought process. They should be able to write a full paragraph about a given scientific concept. We’ve all heard students say “I understand it but I can’t put into words”. This is precisely why they need to write it down, because it crystallises what’s in their head and identifies any gaps in understanding, however small. I’m reminded of the line, “I write in order to understand”. I want teachers to see that the process of writing is how students develop clarity of thinking.

I also encourage teachers to focus on knowledge.  The best science departments insist that students secure a basic factual understanding, often through regular quizzing of factual knowledge.  I can’t apply my knowledge of convection currents to explain a sea breeze if I don’t know that gasses expand because particles move further apart when they’re heated.  So, I encourage Science teachers to give students the chance to practice thinking logically, to see a logical sequence – “if this is true then that’s true, and if this is true then that must also be true…” so students need plenty of opportunities to apply facts across different contexts. 

Imaginative questioning stems from this. For example, in order to explain why solids cannot be compressed a teacher might follow logical sequence of questions such as:

  • Can particles be compressed? No
  • Are there any spaces between the particles in a solid? No
  • Can the particles be pushed closer together? No
  • Therefore, what would happen if I try to compress a solid?

What is interesting here is that the first three questions are closed and concrete, yet the final question (and the teaching objective) is open and abstract. The final conclusion is a logical extension of those concrete facts. 

Attention to detail is important too.  For example, you might see a teacher giving out 1cm square paper to practice graph drawing when students need to be accurate to 1mm when plotting graphs in controlled assessments or exams.  Students need to be shown this attention to detail too. For example if you draw a diagram of a covalent bond you have overlapping circles for each element, like a Venn diagram, but if students don’t draw the dot and cross (representing the shared electrons) within the overlap of the Venn then they may lose the mark if it is drawn shoddily. It’s important that teachers ensure that students are precise about what they’re doing so that there’s no ambiguity. The best science teachers are relentless pedants for this sort of precision.

This precision relates to language too, if there’s a turn of phrase used by a student that is ‘sort of right’ but not precise enough I’m interested in how teachers pick up on this.  I love it when teachers have very high expectations for students’ verbal responses and reject answers that are nearly there but not quite right.  Take a question on pressure: In terms of pressure, why do polar bears lie flat on the ice?  A student might say ‘because this spreads out the mass’ which is a broadly accurate description of what the polar bear has done, but doesn’t answer the question or pick up the marks.  A better answer is that the bear spreads the force (or weight) acting on the ice over a wider area which lowers the pressure. Here, the answer is improved by relating the variables which contribute to the quantity of pressure. It is not that “spreading out the mass” is wholly wrong, it’s just that it’s not nearly right enough. As teachers it is tempting to forgive these ‘nearly answers’ which do hint that students have a fledgling understanding of a given concept, but also show that they are falling short of being able to articulate it using the best scientific language.

I love the precision in Ben’s analysis.  There’s no way a non-scientist would be able to provide such granular guidance.

With the growth of multi-academy trusts we’re going to see more people working across schools in improvement roles.  There’s a danger that we end up with an army of generalist consultants who know their way around a RAISEonline and an inspection dashboard but have no clue about the specific language required by students to gain full marks in a Physics question on pressure.

The flipside of this danger is the opportunity to allow people to develop their careers while retaining their subject specialism.  Our subject advisors have been successful Heads of Department who want to retain their specialism while having an impact across a range of schools in a range of contexts.  Crucially, they are responsible for outcomes in their subject across our schools, meaning that when they go into our academies they roll their sleeves up, work with students and build capacity of subject teams. They’re also well placed to establish links with exam boards and provide precise guidance on moderation, standards, exam preparation, curriculum design and the writing of assessments.

School improvement means students performing better in their subjects.  The majority of support that schools receive should therefore be provided by subject specialists.

UPDATE: Following some feedback on Twitter (“are these not the same as local authority subject leads?”) I should probably stress that (a) Our subject advisors are responsible for outcomes in their subject across our schools and (b) because we as a MAT can ensure consistency in the basics of school improvement (leadership, curriculum, behaviour, teaching, assessment – see previous blogs) we can enable our subject advisors to have impact. Point (a) means that our subject specialists work directly with students, they do masterclasses with A/A* candidates, they provide guidance on controlled assessments and mock exam grade boundaries.  In short, they are subject specialists with teeth.  Point (b) means that they can be sure of a common curriculum across our schools enabling them to invest in assessments and student resources which support this curriculum.

The Subject Series, Part 1 – Good to Great

Earlier this year I was sat in the feedback meeting at the end of an Ofsted inspection.   The school had retained its Good status.  After receiving the feedback from the lead inspector, the Chair of Governors asked what the school needed to do to get to outstanding.  The response was “get more green on your RAISEonline”*.   The lead inspector wasn’t being flippant, and I appreciated her honesty.  It got me thinking, perhaps an outstanding school is simply a good school with better grades.

Abacus

Throughout the land, school leaders are grappling with the question of how to become outstanding.  Courses are delivered, meetings are held, papers are written, usually with a catchy heading like  ‘good to great’.  Several common themes emerge from these courses, meetings and papers.  One is that outstanding schools are outward facing, serving their communities and supporting other schools.  Another is that outstanding schools are less prescriptive, captured in the phrase ‘tighten to good, loosen to outstanding’. A third common theme is that middle leadership would tend to be stronger in an outstanding school, with the school’s success less reliant on a hyper-active SLT.

There’s something in all of these points, but there’s also something missing.  Perhaps the best way of moving from solid to excellent is by placing subject specialism at the heart of the school.  It’s easy to over-complicate school improvement, when in essence it means students performing better in the subjects that they study.

Subject specialism as a lever for school improvement starts with the curriculum: a 5-year journey in each subject which gradually exposes students to the key knowledge, skills and understanding of that domain.  This means that that the Y7 curriculum does not seek to replicate the GCSE specification, but does seek to provide a solid grounding in the key knowledge that underpins the whole discipline.  I’m reminded of my visit to Michaela when Jonathan Porter talked us through the Y7 Geography curriculum which gradually constructs an understanding of place through knowledge of continents, capitals, oceans and rivers; few of which will be directly tested in a GCSE paper, but all of which will enable students to appreciate the basic layout of the world around them.  With this big picture in place, students will gradually gain a more granular understanding of Geography in the 5 years ahead of them.

This 5-year journey in each subject requires a coherent timetable, with sufficient time devoted to individual subjects, particularly the subjects that the majority of students will take throughout secondary school.  A humanities carousel, or a curriculum which bundles subjects together in Y7 to ease the transition to secondary school, will struggle to support this 5 year journey.  Specialist teachers are critical to this too.

With these structures in place we can turn our attention to CPD.  Where this is done best, I see the member of SLT who leads on teaching and learning identifying the common features of good teaching that they would expect to see in classrooms.  These might include the skilful delivery of challenging content, modelling of excellent work, astute questioning and precise and frequent feedback.  Once these key features are understood by the staff body they can be devolved to a subject level, with teachers of the same subject deciding together how they will bring these features to life in their classrooms.  Teachers need less generic guidance on the benefits of modelling, and more time to work out how to model excellent work in the units that they are about to teach.  What this modelling looks like, and where in the learning process students encounter a model, might vary significantly depending on the subject.

Co-planning can be powerful here because it nudges teachers to discuss what happens in their classroom, and to consider the best way of delivering each topic, while also building accountability for the quality of lesson planning.  United Learning schools devote the first day of each term to co-planning within departments.  It’s trickier when a school only has one teacher of each subject.  In these cases we build links between subjects at different schools, and encourage teachers to sign up as examiners and engage with the online community for their subject.

On a different encounter with an Ofsted inspector I was recently asked how we develop scholastic excellence in our students.  We do this by placing subject specialism at the centre of our school improvement strategy.  

A school that places subject specialism at the heart of its work would soon see plenty of green on its RAISEonline.

 

*RAISEonline is a document which compares school performance to national performance, with green signifying better than national achievement in your school

Infrastructure of School Improvement

Imagine a delegation from a developing country visiting London to learn how to create a successful metropolis.  They could admire our cultural attractions, our vibrant neighbourhoods, our international businesses.  We could dazzle them with our sky-scrapers, our stadia and our calendar of sporting and cultural events. But these visible symbols represent the trappings of success, not the underlying foundations.  They might indicate success, but they don’t enable success.

Underground

Rather than looking up at these trappings of success, our delegation might learn more from the infrastructure beneath their feet: a tube network which handles almost 5 million journeys a day, a sewage system which hygienically disposes the waste of ten million people, a network of cables which connects millions of homes and businesses to an endless supply of cheap electricity and broadband.

One of the toughest decisions for a multi-academy trust is where to draw the line between central prescription and local autonomy.  I’ve found a tentative answer to this in the rule of thumb that academy trusts should focus on the infrastructure of school improvement.

This infrastructure includes 5 foundations: leadership, behaviour, curriculum, assessment and teaching.  No matter which government is in power, no matter who holds the post of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, no matter which performance measures schools are judged on, this infrastructure will serve as the platform on which to build exceptional schools.

Leadership matters because schools are tribal institutions, driven by rituals and routines; habits and history.  Schools are intensely human, which makes them especially well-suited to the grip of a figurehead who takes ownership of the school.  As a colleague recently put it, you walk around a school, taking in lessons, corridors, break times and assemblies, but it’s only once you’ve sat down with the headteacher that your view of the school comes into focus.

Behaviour matters because it’s difficult to teach or to learn in classrooms where disruption is a constant risk.  Successful schools cultivate respect for the authority of adults and the sanctity of the classroom, creating a complete intolerance of one person disrupting the learning of another. Recruitment and induction (of staff and students) are critical to the communication and consolidation of this culture.

Curriculum matters because it’s the stuff that teachers teach and students learn; the stuff that we pass on to the next generation as their cultural inheritance; the stuff that gives our young people at least half a chance of making sense of the world around them.  This curriculum should be guided by a commitment to coherence and continuity, with each subject setting out a 5 year journey which gradually builds secure understanding.

Get the curriculum right and we can then turn our attention to assessment, striking a balance between summative assessment which addresses the macro issues of how our students are doing, and which students might need more support; with formative assessment which addresses the micro issues of whether each student has sufficiently understood each key element of the subject to enable progression to the next element.

Our final foundation is teaching.  Don’t be  fooled by the relegation of teaching to number 5 on the list – from our teachers’ perspective getting better at teaching will be the absolute priority, and getting the other 4 foundations in place will enable teachers to focus on this.  I think the best approach to teaching and learning starts with a clear agreement on the common features of excellent teaching, such as the skilful delivery of challenging content, modelling of excellent work, astute questioning and precise and frequent feedback.  Teachers and heads of subject then adapt these common features to their own subject and bring them to life in their own classroom.

In United Learning academies, where I work, you’ll see significant differences on the surface.  Some schools have 50-minute lessons, others have 100 minute lessons.  Some have a vertical house system, others a year group structure.  Some schools set students rigidly by attainment, others favour mixed-ability classes.  Yet beneath the surface you’ll find similarities in the pipes, sewers, roads and bridges.

Look beyond the gleaming trappings of success; invest in a common infrastructure and watch schools flourish on their own terms.

5 Enemies of School Improvement

I recently had the pleasure of listening to Daisy Christodoulou and Christine Counsell talk about curriculum and assessment.  They were both frighteningly insightful, explaining the intricacies of curriculum and assessment with incredible precision and conviction.  They make a compelling case that a coherent curriculum and intelligent assessment should be front and centre of any attempt at school improvement.  It’s reassuring that Daisy and Christine are in key positions at Ark and Inspiration, two trusts committed to improving schools in challenging communities.  We need intellectual heavyweights to be involved with our toughest schools.

Fire

At United Learning we’ve committed to subject-driven school improvement by investing in a team of subject specialists who support heads of department and teachers in their subjects.  Their impact is huge.  It’s easy to over-complicate school improvement when in essence it means students performing better in their subjects.  It makes sense, then, that subject specialists should be at the heart of this.

Yet I fear that schools struggle to prioritise curriculum, assessment and subject specialism because they get bogged down by day-to-day strife.  Such schools can easily find themselves in a death spiral, overwhelmed by operational challenges and unable to make the time and space for the stuff that will actually lead to sustainable, long term improvement. Take a few issues that can easily suck all of the energy out of a school and prevent leaders from investing in proper improvements:

  • Disproportionate obsession with Ofsted
  • Disproportionate obsession with Year 11
  • Falling roll
  • Poor behaviour
  • Recruitment and retention of staff

None of these require huge explanation, so I’ll be brief.

Obsession with Ofsted can hamper improvement because schools at risk of a poor inspection need to devote all of their energy to the ingredients of long term success, such as behaviour, curriculum, assessment and teacher development, whereas Ofsted preparation can suck time from these pursuits, and promote instead a desire to make the school look as good as it possibly can in its current state.

Obsession with Year 11 can hamper proper improvement because resources are finite, so throwing key resources (best teachers; time money and energy for after-hours intervention; 1:1 instruction) at Year 11 inevitably means denying these resources to other year groups.  If we didn’t have performance tables to worry about, secondary schools would surely prioritise Years 7 and 8, rather than Year 11, as they would then benefit from the gains in learning made by these younger students for years to come.

A falling roll can hamper school improvement because it reduces still further those limited resources coming into the school. Perhaps more damagingly, it can create a sense of failure in the school community, with each empty seat in the class representing a boy or girl who chose the school down the road instead.

Poor behaviour hampers school improvement because teachers struggle to teach and students struggle to learn in classrooms where disruption is a constant risk.  In such a situation, a sense of damage limitation dominates, as leaders try to get through each day without any major disturbances.

The cumulative effect of these 4 challenges is a school culture that is no fun for students, parents or teachers, all of whom can vote with their feet in search of another school.  Recruitment and retention of staff soon becomes a fifth deadly killer.

Just as medieval cities struggled to flourish when they were at risk of war, revolution, fire, plague or flood, so our schools will struggle to flourish when they’re grappling with these five mortal threats. So how can we free our schools from the clutch of these killers?

Academy trusts are well placed to invest in long term fundamentals on behalf of individual schools.  We do this at United Learning through our common curriculum which has been designed for most subjects from the beginning of primary through to Year 9. Not only does the provision of this curriculum relieve schools of the burden of curriculum planning and ensure that all of our schools have a challenging, knowledge-rich curriculum, but it also enables us to develop resources that fit around the curriculum, such as termly tests, low stakes quizzes and knowledge organisers.

In doing so, academy trusts are able to invest their resources in the front-end of school improvement, rather than the back-end.  By the back-end I mean the evaluation: Ofsted, mocksteds, performance tables, department reviews, and quality assurance processes.  These things might have their place, but they don’t do much to actually make things better; they simply attempt reveal the quality of the current end-product.  Instead, academy trusts must invest in the front-end by sharing systems that work, connecting teachers from different schools, developing its leaders and building all of its support around a shared infrastructure comprising a coherent curriculum, intelligent assessment and subject specialism.

Beyond the work of academy trusts, we need to develop a culture of honesty about the time and effort required for proper improvement. This involves saying to Ofsted “we haven’t got any in-year data yet because it’s November and our first round of summative assessments is in December, but you’re welcome to look at the books and the low stakes tests that we use to identify gaps in understanding.”  And what if December comes along and the in-year data fails to indicate significant improvement on historic data?   It’s worryingly convenient that in-year data presented to Ofsted always paints a rosy picture.

Part of this culture of honesty means avoiding the blame game.  We know from DFE performance tables that it’s more difficult to secure good outcomes with disadvantaged students, and we know from data on Ofsted inspections that the more disadvantaged students you have, the tougher it is to secure a good inspection judgement (e.g. HERE).  There should be no shame in a school seeking help to shore up the fundamentals in order to create room for the things that will matter in the long run such as curriculum, assessment and subject specialism. Similarly, Ofsted should listen to schools who ask to delay their next inspection so that investment in fundamental improvements can take root.

Sending Christodoulou and Counsell to a school which has not secured the basics would be like assigning Usain Bolt as a personal trainer to a patient in intensive care.   When schools are struggling to get through the day, they’re unable to grapple with the stuff that their long term success depends on.  Let’s make space in our schools for the stuff that matters.

Airbags

The image below shows that family income has a significant impact on test scores at the age of 3, and that the differences between kids from different income bands increases as they progress through school.  It is an illustration of a depressing yet familiar story.

story

Less familiar are those moments when we see this achievement gap play out in the life of an actual kid.  On a school visit I recently spoke to a girl in Y11; she qualifies for the pupil premium.  This girl took two GCSEs in Year 10 and gained an A in French and an A* in RE.  She is predicted mostly A’s in her other subjects this year.  When I asked her of her plans for next year (her school has no sixth form), she replied – “I’ll probably go to the local college to do BTECs.”

On the website of every school in England you’ll see a report on how it spends its Pupil Premium grant – it’s a statutory requirement.  Last year a DFE study revealed that schools spend this grant (almost £1000 per student per year for secondary schools, more for primary schools) on 18 different interventions, on average. The most popular interventions include paired or small group additional teaching; 1:1 tuition; trips to culture venues; social/emotional support programmes and extra-curricular clubs e.g. breakfast/homework.

Aside from the fact that an average of 18 different interventions indicates a lack of clarity about the specific barriers facing disadvantaged kids in our schools, I wonder if thinking about pupil premium as a collection of different interventions might suit our budgeting and reporting requirements, but not the actual journey that an actual disadvantaged student takes through our school – a journey beset by potential pitfalls and obstacles.

Perhaps we could rethink our approach to Pupil Premium by identifying critical moments when these students are vulnerable; moments when social mobility gets stuck.  The diagram below, for example, suggests that the gap between richer and poorer kids widens at the start of secondary school:

school

These moments when social mobility gets stuck might also include:

  • Primary > Secondary transition
  • If/when attendance slips below 95%
  • If/when a student reaches a behaviour threshold e.g. 5 incidents in a half term or similar
  • Y9 options
  • Start of Y11
  • Post-16 options
  • UCAS process
  • A level results day

The moments above can be challenging for all students, not just Pupil Premium students, but it’s at critical junctures such as these that more affluent kids receive additional support from their families.  The sociologist Robert Putnam talks about airbags inflating in the lives of richer kids at the first sign of trouble:

When a kid from an affluent home does a dumb thing, like getting involved with drugs, airbags instantly inflate to protect the kid form the bad consequences of that dumb decision. So if one of my grandchildren got involved in drugs the first thing I would do is find the best lawyer in town and the second thing I would do is find the best rehab facility in town… and I’m not apologising for that.  That’s what parents and grandparents do, they try to help kids get around the results of bad decisions.  But if one of the poor kids in our book does exactly the thing that I’ve just described: no airbags – and that encapsulates the degree to which we’ve shunted these kids from the rest of society. (quotation taken from this podcast interview)

With no airbags to cushion the crash, our Pupil Premium kids can easily succumb to teenage trials and tribulations.  So perhaps we could improve our Pupil Premium provision by basing our support not around different pockets of spending, but around the critical points in the journey of kids through our care.  Going back to our list of sticky moments in social mobility, here’s what our support might look like:

  • Primary > Secondary transition: Member of staff from secondary school makes a home visit and then checks in with the student every day for first week of secondary school, then once a week thereafter.
  • If/when attendance slips below 95%: Parent/teacher meeting
  • If/when a student reaches a behaviour threshold e.g. 5 incidents in a half term or similar: Tailored support to address cause of behaviour issues
  • Y9 options: Guidance on appropriate courses from specialist careers coach
  • Start of Y11: Provision of all revision guides and revision audit e.g. do they have access to a quiet space? Do they know how to revise? Do they know how to access past papers?
  • Post-16 options: Guidance on appropriate courses from specialist careers coach
  • UCAS process: As above, plus fully subsidised visits to appropriate universities and interview prep if required
  • A level results day: Priority support at 7am on results day as clearing lines open

Our poorer kids don’t always benefit from the seatbelts and airbags that keep more privileged kids on the straight and narrow.  It’s for those of us in schools to identify moments of vulnerability for our most disadvantaged kids in order to stop the achievement gap playing out before our eyes.

 

Images above from these reports:

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/61964/opening-doors-breaking-barriers.pdf

http://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/st-social-mobility-report.pdf

Making Good Progress?

My favourite passage in Daisy Christodoulou’s Making Good Progress is this one, in which she reveals the flaws in a ‘catch-all’ assessment model which uses a single scale to measure progress in each subject:

making-good-progress

“The best analogy for this kind of measurement is measuring height.  You can use the same tape measure and the same scale to measure a 4 year old as you can a 16 year old. The method stays the same even as the child grows. You can also use the same scale to measure progress over time and, if you have a tape measure with small enough divisions, you can measure progress over quite short periods of time.  This was ultimately why people started using grades in every lesson and why the desire for subgrades and sublevels came about: people saw them as the millimetres and centimetres that made up the metres of progress.  And, if you subscribe to this model, then ever finer subdivisions of grades are a perfectly good idea: they will allow you to measure the precise amounts of progress that are added in each lesson. It would be possible to say that after a week of lessons a pupil had added x% of a GCSE grade, or z fraction of a sublevel.  As we have seen, learning is not actually like this.  Complex skills are made up of many different elements and those distinct elements all look very different and cannot be measured with the same scale.”

This distinction – between performance in a given subject and the incremental practice required to enable this performance – is at the heart of Daisy’s book.  It’s a distinction that results in lessons that might “look very different from the final skill they are hoping to instil”.   Our assessment of the process of learning therefore serves a different purpose to our assessment of the product of learning, since when we’re assessing the process we should be seeking out gaps and errors to enable the student to improve, whereas in assessing the product of learning we are seeking to describe an individual student’s performance in relation to her peers.

The protagonists of Making Good Progress are formative and summative assessment – star-crossed lovers who both have their place in a coherent assessment system, but rarely together.

Daisy accurately notes the “tension within schools between senior managers, who are often more concerned with accurate summative data, and teachers who are often more concerned with accurate formative data.” Yet rather than wishing a plague on both these houses, Christodoulou offers practical guidance on disentangling formative and summative assessment in our schools, liberating our teachers to address the specific elements of their subject.  The exam hall, not the classroom, will generate the hard-nosed data our senior leaders seek (but only once or twice a year).

Christodoulou’s focus is the assessment of students, but her book got me thinking about the way we assess teachers and schools, and whether we need to disentangle formative and summative assessment in these areas too.

Take the assessment of teachers, better known as performance management.  Too often we combine summative and formative assessment – “we judge you to be a Good teacher … to improve try to model the appropriate use of challenging vocabulary”.  There are two very different intentions at work here.  The first – providing a holistic judgement of a teacher’s effectiveness – can only be done, if at all, with reference to student outcomes across several of the teacher’s classes.  The second – providing feedback to help the teacher improve – can only be done meaningfully if the lesson(s) that we see the teacher deliver are a fair reflection of what usually happens in that classroom: if the sample reflects the domain, to use Daisy’s language.  Effective formative feedback also requires trust between the teacher and the coach.   This trust evaporates if the coach is also grading the teacher. In trying to formatively and summatively assess teachers at the same time we end up doing neither to any useful standard.

There’s a similar risk when judging schools.  Ofsted is intended to support school improvement – “We focus on how standards can be raised and outcomes improved” (Ofsted Strategic Plan 2014-2016) but in providing a summative judgement on the effectiveness of individual schools, based on a 1 or 2 day visit, our inspectorate has perhaps failed to create the conditions that would allow for genuine school improvement to emerge, such as trust and transparency.   Making Good Progress argues convincingly that summative descriptors of the end product struggle to capture the small steps that constitute progress towards this end goal.  Such feedback amounts to telling a comedian to ‘be more funny’, just as some Ofsted reports can make recommendations such as “Further raise achievement across the school, particularly that of the most able pupils and boys” without capturing the steps required to enable this.

Christodoulou calls for teachers to devise a ‘model of progression’ for their subject – a coherent framework which links the granular activities taking place in the classroom to the end product: mastery of the subject.  In simple terms, this model of progression means a clear sense of what getting better looks like in any given subject.

It strikes me that Ofsted, and we as a profession, lack a model of progression for school improvement.  It’s difficult to argue with the Ofsted criteria for Outstanding (e.g. “The school’s thoughtful and wide-ranging promotion of pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development and their physical well-being enables pupils to thrive”) but these post hoc descriptors fail to provide a route towards this end goal.  This is why school improvement plans which borrow the language of Ofsted are often just bland statements of intent.  Just as National Curriculum Levels distracted teachers from the incremental practice required to make genuine gains in learning, so Ofsted descriptors might distract us from the incremental growth required for genuine school improvement.

A further implication for Ofsted in Making Good Progress is the problems caused by Ofsted’s interest in in-year data.  It’s commendable that Ofsted seek to give credit to the current performance of students, but Christodoulou makes a compelling case that the primary purpose of in-year data should be to reveal gaps in students’ understanding, which is clearly at odds with the pressure to provide a positive in-year picture for Ofsted.  The presence of new HMCI Amanda Spielman in the acknowledgements page offers hope.

This book can be a challenging read, as Christodoulou gently reveals the flaws in practice that are commonplace in our schools, even after NC levels have disappeared.  Perhaps those hours that we spent trying to define what a Grade 5 looks like in Geography in Year 7 could have been used more productively.

Yet there is plenty of hope in Christodoulou’s work; hope for a future in which we genuinely seek out – rather than cover up – gaps, flaws, errors, and misconceptions; not just in our students, but also in our development of teachers and our improvement of schools.  The proper work of student learning, teacher development and school improvement can then begin.