Work Sampling – another passing fad?

There’s been plenty of talk this week about the role of work-sampling in schools, most notably this blog from Teacher Toolkit and these responses from Greg Ashman and Martin Robinson.

My first experience of work-sampling was during an Ofsted inspection when we gathered around a conference table as members of SLT and sat with the inspectors poring through a sample of students’ books.  It’s not hard to see the benefit of book-looks from an accountability perspective – judging the content of a book is much more concrete than judging (or not judging) the content of a lesson, and if inspectors can no longer show a preference for a particular style of teaching and learning, then at least they’re on more solid ground when assessing actual work in actual books.

Of course we should be wary of asking schools for things which ease the lives of inspectors and other outsiders (myself included), with no clear benefit for teachers and students.  Just because books are easy to check doesn’t make them worth checking.  Martin Robinson raises some particular issues for practical subjects, and I can’t help but think of Daisy’s concerns about samples and domains when I wonder whether the books assembled in a conference room provide a fair reflection of students’ activity in the classroom.

But I think there’s something positive in this work-sampling trend that’s worth keeping and exploring.   For too long we haven’t paid enough attention to the work produced by students in their lessons.  Teachers and leaders talk about the sub-levels of progress that their students have made, but not about the beautiful essay written in history, the robust PE bag made in textiles or the forensic investigation conducted in science. Reading Ron Berger’s Ethic of Excellence reminded me that we need to refocus on the productive process of learning.  Paying attention to the work students produce seems a good place to start.

Work-sampling should also be in a teacher’s favour if and when it comes to their performance management.  I would much rather be held to account for the work that my students produce throughout the year, than for the ‘progress’ they make in a single lesson.  Too often, our determination to raise standards in schools involves asking teachers to do more.   Scrutinising students’ work puts the onus back on the students.  There’s no better indication of progress over time, and no surer sign of the typicality of teaching, than the work students produce over the course of the year.

So how can we make work-scrutiny a useful exercise?  I think it’s most useful when done in the classroom, during a lesson.  This will hopefully mean that students of art can show you the fruits of their creative labour, while students of DT can reveal the various stages of the productive process, from first draft to final evaluation.  In academic subjects, we can look for students’ best work of the year and we can check that students are spending more time responding to feedback than teachers spend giving feedback.  We can ensure that the books contain a decent amount of work, that the work is challenging and that it contains rich, subject-specific vocabulary.  We can look for careful presentation and high standards of spelling, punctuation and grammar.  Perhaps most importantly, we can check that the work students are producing now is better than the work they were producing at the start of the year.

It’s clear from the dialogue on Twitter this week that, like any accountability tool, scrutinising students’ work can easily become yet another stick to beat teachers with.   But if done carefully we might be heading in the right direction with this one.   Nothing is more important in schools than the work students produce in all of their lessons, so it makes sense to pay close attention to it.

A Diagnostic Approach for our Lower Attainers

People who work in challenging secondary schools will be familiar with students arriving in Y7 significantly below expected standards for their age.  I remember one year at Burlington Danes when 85% of our new recruits were reading below the expected standard for their age.  In my current role across a network of schools, we’re trying to be more forensic in what we do to enable these students to make up the ground they’ve lost on their peers.  We’re all too aware of the grim national picture, in which progress for our lower attainers tends to be slower than our higher attainers, exacerbating the achievement gap that already exists when students enter secondary school.

It’s probably fair to say that ‘more of the same’ – i.e. a standard school curriculum – won’t enable low attainers to catch up (though this is far preferable to putting these students on a more ‘accessible’ vocational-heavy pathway) and that we need to understand the barriers that have prevented these students from gaining secure outcomes at primary school.  We can probably agree that the inability to read fluently is a critical barrier.  I’ve been inspired recently by the Michaela approach to tackling illiteracy, as pioneered by Katie Ashford and described here.

When speaking with Katie I am struck by her practical approach to what can seem like an intractable problem.  She tests students for reading age on entry and then separates those reading below their chronological age between those who are simply slower readers (solution = make sure they read more in order to gain fluency), and those who have not yet figured out how to read securely.  Those in this latter group are withdrawn from some lessons and begin the Ruth Miskin Fresh Start phonics programme until they’ve caught up.

Katie would probably call me a softie here, but I wonder if a further barrier for some of our lowest attainers might be in their non-cognitive skills, such as concentration and self-control.  In an ideal world, these non-cognitive skills would be cultivated at home, so schools could focus on formal education.  In reality, perhaps we can explore ways of re-calibrating these non-cognitive skills, much the same as the Fresh Start programme strips literacy back to its phonic foundations.

I’ve been excited recently by three Freakonomics podcasts which offer some hope for re-setting students’ attitudes.  This podcast suggests that cognitive behavioural therapy can improve self-regulation in our most challenging students, a point developed in the sequel here, in which CBT is used by Hampshire Police with men convicted of domestic violence.  Finally, this episode ‘Does Early Education Come Way Too Late?’ looks at the limits of schools’ impact on students with poor non-cognitive skills.

In a week in which Ofsted acknowledged that it’s easier to get a better rating with brighter students, in a month in which we’ve moved a step closer towards an academic curriculum for all (90% EBacc), and in a year in which the progress of all of our students will show up in performance tables (Progress 8), it’s vital that we have an honest and evidence-informed dialogue about the barriers facing our lowest attainers.  I’m convinced that we can enable all of our students to leave secondary school with a decent education (comparable outcomes notwithstanding!) but I’m also convinced that some of the barriers that have prevented progress at primary need to be diagnosed and tackled head-on at secondary, rather than wished away.

Terminal Decline – the grip of short-termism, and how to avoid it

Education is the ultimate long-term endeavour.  Whatever our view of the true purpose education, we can probably agree that this purpose is only fulfilled years after our students have left our care.

Yet schools can easily fall prey to the grip of short-termism.   Ofsted can call at any moment, performance tables are released throughout the year, and with some schools losing 1/3 of their staff each summer, it’s no surprise that school leaders are preoccupied with the next set of outcomes in Years 6, 11 and 13.

Yet the dangers of this short-termism are obvious.  Obsession with these terminal years in our students’ education can lead us to overlook the foundational years; years which should allow students to develop a solid understanding of their subjects.  Get these foundational years right, and we can avoid the need for remedial intervention in Years 6, 11 and 13.

Take a student who arrives at secondary school without secure literacy.  If we can provide this student with a sound grasp of reading and writing in Year 7, we unlock the remaining 4 years of their secondary education.  If the same student drifts through to Y11 without these fundamental issues addressed, then the intervention he receives in Y11 will – at best – simply paper over cracks.

If we didn’t have performance tables to worry about, secondary schools would surely assign their most effective teachers to Years 7 and 8, rather than Year 11, not least because investment in foundational understanding in Year 7 unleashes a wonderful multiplier effect in the remaining years of the school, whereas investment in the terminal years reaps no long term gains.  Worse still, an obsession with passing exams in Year 11 can handicap the student and the school in their sixth form years, as gaps in understanding are exposed by tougher exams which respond less favourably to intense coaching.

Schools in challenging circumstances are particularly vulnerable short-termism.  Under the constant scrutiny of DFE, Ofsted and Regional Schools Commissioners, it’s no surprise that headteachers devote such energy to the year groups which show up on the next set of performance measures.  Conversely, schools with a stable set of outcomes can spread their attention more evenly across the year groups, ensuring a coherent, progressive 5-year journey for all of their students. Those of us who hoped that the Coasting Schools measure would divert some attention away from challenging schools and towards more affluent communities were left disappointed.

Re-calibrating our obsession with the terminal years feels a bit like trying to jump off a treadmill that has gradually crept up to full speed.  So how can we make the leap?

We can start by making a distinction between strategy and tactics.  Boot camps and booster sessions for Year 11 are tactical approaches which might be worth employing during exam season, but can easily absorb energy and resources which could be deployed elsewhere.  A more strategic investment of energy would be on the fundamentals that affect all students, like cultivating quality teaching through a CPD programme which provides coaching and feedback for all members of staff.  Eric Kalenze alluded to this at ResearchEd when he talked about struggling schools responding to accountability measures by doing exactly what they’ve always done, but doing it with more intensity, rather than taking stock, reflecting on why things might not be working, and investing in long term gains.

Secondly, we need to get better at spotting the difference between a school which has invested in long term growth (a coherent 5-year curriculum; excellent behaviour in all year groups; stretch in Key Stage 3; challenging homework throughout the school; investment in staff) and schools that chase their tale every year by throwing more and more resource at the diminishing returns offered by Y11 intervention.  Ofsted’s recent report “Key Stage 3: the Wasted Years” is long overdue, and I’m glad that the inspectors I’m in contact with speak of a heightened focus on Key Stage 3 in the inspections they’ve conducted since September (see this excellent blog from Alex Quigley on how the Ofsted process favours higher attaining schools, while the tweet below from Ofsted’s Sean Harford suggests improvements might be on the way).


Data can help us too.  If league tables focus solely on the most recent cohort to leave the school, then schools will prioritise these terminal years.  We would be better off looking at 3 year trends for exam results.  Throw in some data on attendance in Year 7, exclusions in Year 8, the number of lessons taught by supply teachers in Year 9, the range of trips in Year 10, and we would be in a stronger position to assess the 5-year journey that our schools provide for our children.

Stakeholders involved with schools should focus on the foundational years, safe in the knowledge that the terminal years will never be overlooked as long as performance tables and floor standards are around.  There’s a temptation for outsiders like RSCs, governors and academy sponsors to focus on Y11 and Y6.  We tend to feel comfortable talking about these year groups, and it’s easier to make comparisons and checks against other schools and historic outcomes given the amount of data that exists for these year groups.  We should resist this temptation though, and focus instead on the daily diet that students receive throughout their time at school.  If students in Year 7 follow a challenging curriculum, with high standards of behaviour and homework, for example, there’s a good indication that the fundamentals are in place.

Public limited companies avoid short-termism by seeking long term institutional investment, for example from pension funds.  This offers some protection from the quick wins sought by individual investors on the stock markets.  Perhaps this is one reason why stand-alone academies seek the support of multi-academy trusts.  The sponsor can be the school’s long-term cheerleader, buffering the school from the short-termism of DFE performance tables and Ofsted.  If the DFE contacts the school in response to a slight dip in results, the academy sponsor can provide reassurance with evidence of strong foundations lower down the school.

Listed companies also have to resist an obsession with their quarterly earnings.  This article in Harvard Business Review offers some solutions:  “Unilever, Coca-Cola, and Ford, to name just a few, have stopped issuing earnings guidance altogether. Google never did. IBM has created five-year road maps to encourage investors to focus more on whether it will reach its long-term earnings targets than on whether it exceeds or misses this quarter’s target by a few pennies.”  It would be remiss for a school to dismiss the outcomes of any single year group – our children only get one chance at success – but we should encourage school leaders to champion the ‘five-year road map’ that their students follow.

Ultimately, for schools in need of significant improvement we need to recognise that quick fixes will only get us so far (see this blog by John Tomsett on great schools not being grown overnight).  We need to be honest about the trade-offs that headteachers need to make when deciding which year groups to focus on, and supportive of headteachers who spread their strongest teachers across all year groups, rather than give priority to the exam years.

It’s the schools that invest all of their energy in these exam years that are most likely to find themselves in terminal decline.

The Art of Prediction

“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future”

It’s also difficult if it’s about exams that have not yet been sat; exams which will be graded against standards which are only fully clear after the event.

So how can we navigate this world of known unknowns?

We should start by recognising that predicting student outcomes is a useful and legitimate endeavour if it’s done properly.   It provides students with an indication of where their current efforts might get them, and it enables teachers and schools to direct additional support to students who need it most.

While some schools choose to talk only in terms of working-at grades rather than predicted grades, it’s only when teachers are asked to consider a predicted grade that they are prompted to consider all information – of the student, the student’s work, and the course – in the round.

Predicting grades will never be an exact science, but the approaches below might help avoid nasty surprises in August:

Start with why: Predicting accurately begins with a shared understanding of why we are predicting.  Teachers might need reassurance that optimistic predictions are no good to anyone, and neither are pessimistic predictions intended to give students a wake-up call.   Trainee teachers in particular might not realise that predictions can be the trigger for targeted support and tough conversations.  Make it clear how predictions are used to inform the support that students receive.

What are we asking teachers to do?  Be crystal clear about the judgement that teachers are being asked to make.  One source of confusion arises when people use the phrase “if students sat the final exam now”, which often leads teachers to penalise students for parts of the course that haven’t even been covered, which surely isn’t useful for anyone.

We can’t just wish people to be more accurate: I remember working with a colleague who asked teachers to predict with 90% accuracy.  The next year he asked for 95% accuracy.  The following year it was 100%.   But of course we can’t just wish teachers to be more accurate.  Encourage honesty over accuracy.

Be clear about what teachers should do if they simply don’t know: If I was a school leader, a teacher saying to me “I simply don’t know what this student will get in my subject” would be an incredibly helpful thing to know.  Make it ok for teachers to admit this.   If there are teachers in this position, school leaders should link them up with other schools for moderation and quality assurance.

Gather your evidence: It’s easier to make accurate predictions if you have a broad sample of students’ work throughout the year.  Think of ways to ensure that teachers collate students’ assessed work and keep it to hand when making predictions.  Compare this with the work they’ve produced in timed exam conditions on unseen past papers.  Analyse trends from previous years to help make predictions – look at the trajectory of students who were at a similar stage at the same time.

Start at the beginning:  Before the start of the year ensure that subject leaders have access to recent past papers, exemplary work at selected grades, and all recent mark schemes and examiners’ reports, with a summary of key points from each.   Assembling these resources before September will enable more accurate predictions throughout the year.

Avoid the sugar coating: It’s ok to predict a U grade if that’s what you think a student is going to get.  There’s no hiding place on results day, so it’s better to ring the alarm bells in good time.

Greater precision doesn’t mean greater accuracy: Predicting in fine grades (C1, C2, C3) might seem to be more accurate than whole grades, but we should be careful not to take comfort in illusory precision.  Given that swings in grade boundaries can wipe out whole grades, such precision can – in hindsight – seem misplaced.  In my experience, predicting in fine grades makes sense in maths and English, where teachers can draw on a bottomless pit of past papers (and schools tend to make time for students to sit these papers).  In other subjects, I’m not so sure.

Allow for shifting grade boundaries:  Look back at past papers and base your own grade boundaries on the toughest you can find.

Safety in numbers:  Be wary of grades being predicted in isolation – build quality-assurance into the process by ensuring that Heads of Department and other colleagues check the predictions before they’re submitted.  Be especially wary of standalone courses (e.g. economics, psychology, sociology) which don’t always benefit from the scrutiny of a head of department or a line manager.  We could even take this a step further by holding a CPD session in which all teachers of examined classes gather together, armed with their course materials, to make their predictions.  This would build quality assurance into the process and allow less experienced teachers to learn from colleagues.  Moderate these predictions with other schools wherever possible.

We can’t predict the unpredictable:  Perhaps the whole business of making predictions is based on a false assumption that if students meet certain criteria, they will be awarded a certain grade.  In reality, comparable outcomes dictate that the standards required for each grade are not absolute, but will depend to an extent on the performance of the national cohort.  There are no easy answers to this, except to be honest that making predictions is not an exact science.

Reformed GCSEs and A Levels, with tougher, longer and unknown terminal exams, will make the art of prediction even trickier in the coming years.  Let’s hope that the emergence of Progress 8 will ease the obsession with the C/D borderline – an obsession which often drives the desperation for accurate predictions, as ‘C3’ and ‘D1’ students are funnelled into intervention sessions.

As I reflect on what I’ve written I’m drawn to consider again if the time and effort required to make accurate predictions is justified.  Perhaps we would all be better off if teachers invested that effort in supporting all students to do the very best they can?  On balance I think that it is still worth taking the time to make predictions, not least because the information required to reach a judgement involves teachers thinking deeply about their students’ work, and matching this against the specific requirements of their course.  This can only be a good thing for all involved.  That said, given the amount of information required to predict accurately, we should refrain from asking for predictions too frequently.

Thanks to Aidan, Ben, Dave, Janina, and Matt for your predictably helpful support with this.

Forget the BRICs, focus on the RICs

Something I wrote for TF magazine back in the spring..

Jim O’Neill – former Goldman Sachs Economist and loyal Teach First supporter – coined the term ‘BRICs’: the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China which continue to challenge the established economies of The West.  In education it’s time to focus on the RICs – rural, isolated and coastal schools which remain untouched by improvements seen in urban settings.  A fresh recruitment drive, focusing on Teach First ambassadors, could help bridge the gap between our urban centres and the RICs.

One of the successes of Teach First was that it tapped into a latent appetite amongst university leavers to make a positive social difference.  Before Teach First, top graduates could have chosen teaching, but Teach First successfully packaged urban teaching as a prestigious pathway for these ambitious university leavers.  Sure enough, education in many of our urban centres has been transformed.  In London, Teach First was one element in a perfect storm of interventions which have brought about possibly the greatest turnaround in the history of public education.

Yet the picture remains dismal in many English regions.  In towns such as Bradford, Blackpool, Nottingham, Hull and Wolverhampton, fewer than 50% of students gained 5A*-C grades last year including English and maths.  In my home town of Southampton – just over an hour from London and blessed with a Russell Group university and a decent local economy – the figure was just 51%.  A short ferry ride away, the beautiful Isle of Wight has been described as one of the worst places to go to school in England (e.g. HERE).

Replicating success from one context to another is a complex task.  Whether it’s in Brixton or Bognor, there are countless reasons why a school might be struggling to fulfil its potential.  But one point we can all agree on is that schools can only be as good as their teachers and leaders, so if we want rural, isolated and coastal schools to flourish we must fill them with the best people, and here’s where we turn our attention to an untapped pool of teachers: Teach First ambassadors.

The magnetic appeal of London for university leavers requires little explanation, but once teachers have spent 5 or 10 years in London, their priorities can change.  They might want a house with a garden, access to the countryside or coast, a garage for their bikes, a 10-minute drive to work rather than an hour long rush hour commute.  But these teachers don’t want to lose the social purpose that attracted them to teaching in the first place.  They want to work hard and to make a difference for young people and they want to be developed and challenged as school leaders.    There is a gap in the market for a new programme to bring together these talented teachers and the schools beyond the capital who need them.  It can do this in two ways.

First and foremost, this new initiative will be a matchmaking programme, seeking and selecting suitable candidates and linking these with schools looking for an injection of talent.  This will involve showing teachers how far their money will go if they work at a school in Bradford and buy a cottage in the Yorkshire Dales, or work at a school in Suffolk and rent an apartment with a sea view on the ‘sunrise coast’.  The teachers will be expected to make a commitment of at least two years to their new school, and the school will be expected to support the teachers’ leadership development.

The second element of the programme will involve high quality professional development, starting with a summer programme and continuing throughout the two years.  This will enable our teachers to stay connected with each other, avoiding the sense of isolation that can beset teachers in rural and coastal schools.  Mentoring from successful school leaders will also sweeten the pill, as will research opportunities and the chance to establish networks with local businesses.  With support from local authorities, these teachers could work between schools, or could bridge the gap between schools and other public services, such as mental health, early years provision and social services.

Let’s go back to what Teach First did so brilliantly when it launched in 2003.  It didn’t create jobs which weren’t there before; Teach First repackaged an existing job – working in a tough school – into an attractive proposition.  Now we must do the same for established teachers who might love making a difference in rural, isolated and coastal schools, even if they don’t know it yet.