On Purpose and Pace

At what pace should our schools operate?

A spectrum of speed can be found in our schools.  At one end, the pace might be a little pedestrian.  Pupils amble to lessons and drift to their desks.  The bell serves as a guide rather than a mandate.

At the pacier end of the spectrum, the bell summons students and staff to their next post. Senior leaders hotfoot from one hotspot to another, and lessons zip along with an electric buzz – a stream of pacy, punchy activities divided by the piercing beep of a stopwatch. Posters remind students that every second counts and the plasma screens provide a daily update to Year 11 on the number of school days remaining until their first exam.

I prefer our pacy school to our pedestrian school, but I wonder if we might be wrong to assume that pace in our schools is always a good thing, and whether we might benefit from dropping down a gear so that our schools move at a brisk canter, rather than an all-out sprint.

This all-out sprint involves hyperactive, interventionist school leaders where every member of SLT promotes their latest wheeze, drive and initiative in a frenzied bid to rapidly improve the outcomes of all students.

The words ‘rapid’ and ‘rapidly’ feature ten times in the Ofsted handbook, for example:

  • Pupils ‘trust leaders to take rapid and appropriate action to resolve any concerns they have.’
  • ‘Leaders pursue excellence. They improve provision and outcomes rapidly and reduce achievement gaps between groups by monitoring the quality of teaching, learning and assessment as well as learners’ retention, progress and skill development.’

Hot on the heels of ‘rapid’ and ‘rapidly’; ‘quick’ and ‘quickly’ appear 8 times in Ofsted’s handbook:  inspectors will note ‘how quickly leaders tackle poor teaching.’   Meanwhile ‘strategy’ or ‘strategic’ is found just 3 times.  ‘Thoughtful’ occurs 4 times, though three of these relate to students, not the school e.g. ‘[pupils] are thoughtful, caring and respectful citizens.’   You won’t find any instances of ‘judicious’, or ‘cautious’, and while the word ‘careful’ and ‘carefully’ feature 3 times, two of these are directed at the inspectors e.g. ‘Inspectors must consider carefully the effectiveness of safeguarding’.

At the other end of the Ofsted process, this preference for pace is evident in their reports, with all of the comments below featuring in reports written over the last few months:

  • the performance of the school has declined rapidly since the previous inspection in 2014
  • Leadership and outcomes of the 16 to 19 study programmes are improving rapidly
  • The ethos of high aspiration this creates is leading to a school which is rapidly improving
  • The attendance of pupils in key stage 3 and 4 is improving rapidly, as a result of the determined work of school leaders
  • Outcomes at GCSE have rapidly improved since the last inspection
  • Consequently, pupils make excellent progress towards rapidly improving outcomes at GCSE and in 16 to 19 study programmes
  • The school continues to improve rapidly
  • Leaders make very good use of the additional funding available to them to make sure that the gap in progress between disadvantaged pupils and others is closing rapidly
  • The gaps between disadvantaged pupils and others closed in 2015 and are now closing even more rapidly
  • Standards in the sixth form are not yet rising rapidly

A rapid rise in standards sounds impressive, if perhaps a little unconvincing.  The word ‘steadily’ appears far less frequently in Ofsted reports.

Beyond Ofsted, there’s something about our profession that lends itself towards hyperactivity.   Alex Quigley likens a teacher’s predicament to that of a goalkeeper in a penalty shootout.  The goalkeeper feels that he ought to pick a side and dive to the right or the left, as he would look a bit silly if he stood his ground in the middle (even though statistically he’d save more shots if he held his ground occasionally).  Similarly, in education we want to be able to say ‘there’s nothing more I could have done’.  Quigley questions the impact of this throw everything against the wall and see what sticks approach –  ‘Perhaps, counter-intuitively, what if all that extra work a teacher does isn’t productive?’

I worry about the impact of this relentless busyness on our teachers and leaders. Fuelled by caffeine and Berocca, colleagues leap and bound through their days, grabbing a quick snack while on break duty and hoping that their immune system can hold out until the next holiday.

So how could our schools replace their mad dash with a purposeful clip?

The first solution might lie in building slack into key processes.  One of the best teachers I’ve worked with describes his lesson planning as identifying the destination he wants his students to get to, along with two or three stepping stones to get there, but leaving plenty of space in each lesson for him to gauge understanding, fill gaps and recap prior learning.

Similarly in our assessment schedules we should ensure that the frequency of our formal assessment points allows plenty of time for meaningful learning in between.  I think three formal assessment weeks per year should be the upper limit, and two might be optimal. These assessment points can be followed by a review week in which teachers and students can reflect on performance and return to gaps in knowledge.

Slack can also be built into CPD schedules, allowing leaders to respond to teachers’ needs as they emerge.  Leaders should be encouraged to give CPD time to teachers to invest in long term planning.  For those schools with an INSET day on the first day of term, why not give the day to colleagues to use as they wish, with the one condition that they should do work which will support them for the rest of the year, rather than catch up on a couple of odd jobs from last term?

In this Long Read in The Guardian Oliver Burkeman explores the dangers of an obsession with time management.  Here he draws on a conversation with software engineer Tom DeMarco:

“An organisation that can accelerate but not change direction is like a car that can speed up but not steer,” DeMarco writes. “In the short run, it makes lots of progress in whatever direction it happened to be going. In the long run, it’s just another road wreck.” He often uses the analogy of those sliding number puzzles, in which you move eight tiles around a nine-tile grid, until all the digits are in order. To use the available space more efficiently, you could always add a ninth tile to the empty square. You just wouldn’t be able to solve the puzzle any more. If that jammed and unsolvable puzzle feels like an appropriate metaphor for your life, it’s hard to see how improving your personal efficiency – trying to force yet more tiles on to the grid – is going to be much help.

If the jammed puzzle feels like a metaphor for our schools, we should grapple with the obvious but challenging question of what to stop doing.  Fewer assessment points, fewer meetings and briefings, fewer ‘data packs’ for every class to be presented to classroom visitors, fewer emails and fewer ‘focus weeks’ might just enable our teachers and leaders to turn the treadmill down a notch or two.  New priorities and initiatives should meet the 5-year rule: if a proposed priority would not be relevant in 5 years’ time, then perhaps we shouldn’t introduce it now.  Another solution lies in avoiding the temptation to chop and change mid-year.  Teachers need to know that the things that matter in their school will matter for the duration of the year and beyond, and not just until the Assistant Principal in charge of teaching and learning stumbles across another buzz word or blog post.

I’m all for urgency and purpose in our schools – we have one chance to educate our children. But education should not descend into a mad dash, and as we approach a new year I wonder if we can work towards schools that are purposeful, not panicked; focused, not frenzied; measured, not manic.

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Over-Egging the Exam Pudding

I think exams are an essential element of any self-respecting education system, and the most important thing we can do for our young people is send them out into the world with a pocketful of decent grades.  But of course some schools take this too far.  For any younger readers, here are 6 signs that your school might be over-egging the exam pudding:

  1. The maths teachers you have in Key Stage 4 are different to the Maths teachers that your siblings have in Key Stage 3
  2. Lots of the more challenging students who were in your class in Y7 have since left, probably during Year 10
  3. You are expected to perform two grades higher in your coursework as in your exams
  4. Your knowledge of mark schemes is as good as your knowledge of subject content
  5. Exam bootcamps are funded, but you have to pay for other trips yourself
  6. You are licensed to drive a computer in Europe.

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7 Reasons Why Schools are Like Restaurants

We compare teachers to doctors, and education to healthcare.  We make comparisons with elite sport (‘what teachers can learn from Olympic athletes’) along with all the marginal gains stuff that might work for the SKY cycling team, but might not help a coastal school struggling with fundamentals, like recruiting a full quota of Maths teachers*.

I wonder if our teachers are more like chefs, and our schools more like restaurants.  Here’s why:

  1. Like schools, everyone’s been to a restaurant, so everyone has an opinion
  2. The daily pressure of serving meals and teaching kids creates a hectic environment in which it can be difficult to step back to reflect
  3. There isn’t a clear understanding of what works.  Some restaurants have queues around the corner, others pack up after a few weeks. We’re never entirely sure why, as there’s an elusive and wide range of ingredients that go into making a successful restaurant. This lack of shared understanding makes it tough to constantly improve at a system level – we end up imitating success stories without understanding the underlying reasons for that success.  Fads and trends prevail – anyone for pulled pork with ‘slaw, and Aperol spritz in a jam jar?
  4. For the same reason, it’s easy to dismiss successes as context-dependent – “that would never work over here” … “we tried that – didn’t work”.  As Dylan William says, “Everything works somewhere, and nothing works everywhere”
  5. The success of the most exclusive restaurants is often based on the quality of the ingredients, rather than the input of the chefs.  This isn’t always recognised.
  6. Celebrity chefs and successful chains tend to open new branches in areas where there’s an affluent customer base.  Restaurants in disadvantaged areas tend to be more run-of-the-mill.
  7. We’re at the mercy of over-zealous critics, and we’re only as good as our last rating.  These reviews and accolades do not always chime with the daily reality.

Nietzsche.jpg‘In large states public education will always be mediocre, for the same reason that in large kitchens the cooking is usually bad’ (Friedrich Nietzsche).  I’m more optimistic than Nietzsche about the potential for success at scale, but he might have been on to something.

*see an EARLIER POST on why schools are different to the SKY cycling team.