Assessment without levels – where are you now?

Along with the new National Curriculum came the news that the levels were to be no more.  Of course we know that they were far from perfect, but many teachers have known nothing else and the thought of replacing them with something unknown strike fear into the hearts of the most experienced teacher.

Last year we decided to stick with national curriculum levels while we investigated a replacement.  I had a good idea what I wanted my assessment structure to look like (based on ideas from Activate in science) but life is rarely that simple.

We wanted a system that looked similar across the school, and then we had an additional consideration – we needed a structure that worked across the whole of the trust.  That is a system that worked across a mainstream secondary and secondary special school, with the possibility of working with a mainstream primary school as well.  On top of this we need a system that allows progress to be rigorously tracked and analysis of data to be done.

I recently received an email from Capita with the following infographic.


The infographic paints a depressing picture and it shows that schools have had difficulty making use of the new freedoms given to them by the government.   I’d guess that other schools have been faced with many of the same considerations that we have (the phrasing of the questions suggest that this data doesn’t include academies)

During the summer term we decided to buy into the system that Capita had developed to run in SIMS.  We played with the primary version but were waiting for the secondary version to be released to see what that looks like.

I paid more attention to the science system than maths and English since that affects me directly as a science teacher.  The primary science system has a bank of statements that teachers made a judgement against, with 4 different grades.  It will be interesting to see what the secondary science system looks like where the content is less tightly prescribed by year group.  What seems evident at the moment is that assessment windows will have to be looser with teachers inputting data when appropriate rather than at tracking windows, and that a lot more data will be collected (rather than a single level and a prediction).  Of course SIMS will do some computational magic and turn our statements into a numerical value that we can do whole school analyses with.

I’d be interested to see where other schools are up to at implementing a system to replace national curriculum levels.  Please leave a comment below

Why teaching children isn’t that much different to training a dog #NQTadvice


I’ve got a German Shepherd (that’s us the picture above) and we’ve started obedience lessons.  She’s 20 months old now and has some basic commands including sit, down, roll over and so on.  However just like teaching children, the real magic comes when you start to put the commands together.

The similarities

Consistency is key.  When training a dog you need to be consistent.  If the command is down then get down, sit down and similar, these commands will only serve to confuse the dog.  It’s the same with children, if you confiscate a mobile time the first time you see one but turn a blind eye the second or third you authority will be lessened.

Clear expectations and body language.  If I laugh at my dog while I give her a command (as I try to do when she is biting my ears) then it doesn’t work.  Although she hears the command, my body language says play. Children can read body language pretty well and you need to practice giving the message you want with your whole body – remember only a small proportion of communication is verbal.

Rewards work better than sanctions.  When I’m at training class I keep a packet of dog training rewards in my pocket.  When she does something really well she gets a sweet – shouting at her for not doing the right thing doesn’t help her to learn.   Whilst there needs to be a place for sanctions, it is easier to build a culture in your classroom based on positive behaviour.  Your consistent expectations will be the foundation that underpins this culture, but praise students, give out rewards and even phone the odd parent with a positive message.

Reinforcement works wonders. even the brightest and motivated of learners forgets.  We start obedience training with a recap and come back to skills within a session.  When I’m teaching I finish with a summary/plenary and start the next lesson with a recap.

Chunking and breaks.  When I’m dog training we take short rests or breaks and then do a different activity.  For example we might be doing heel walking, then we have a rest and do stay & wait.  The same approach can be applied to teaching where you include a range of different activities into your lesson.  This is especially useful for SEN students who can have an even shorter attention span than my German Shepherd.

Accept that most people won’t be a master dog trainer! I’m not training my dog because I want her to appear in the next BBC hit series or to be a viral Facebook sensation.  I’m doing it because it enriches her life and we enjoy it.  The more training you do with your dog, the stronger the bond becomes and the better the training.  When you start teaching don’t expect to be a master dog trainer.  Watch what the other teachers do and steal their secrets and methods.  Find your own style and don’t try to be something or someone you are not.  Learning to be the best teacher you can be will take time.

Learn from your mistakes.  My first dog training session was like something off the generation game with me walking the wrong way and bumping into the other dog owners.  I didn’t give in and you need the same resilience as a teacher.  Don’t give up when something doesn’t go the way you expect it to, dust yourself off and keep going.

Finally have fun with your students and enjoy the experience.  Don’t worry and enjoy the time you spend with your learners.


Would you mark GCSE exams? What if it were part of your job?


The government abolished modular exams, it devalued vocational qualifications and made the EBacc the measure of how a school is doing.  The push to examinations depends on two tiers of professionals with the right subject knowledge – the people who write the questions and the people who mark them. We are starting to hear that there is going to be a shortage of examiners and markers.

I have considered exam marking as a way to get to grips with teaching GCSE, and to really get a handle on what students do right and wrong.  Unfortunately two things got in the way.  Firstly I barely have time to mark my own students’ work, let alone a crate of exam scripts on top.  Secondly the money isn’t worth it, once you are taxed (assuming you declare it) the money you earn is reduced still further.

There has been a suggestion in the Telegraph today that teachers be forced to mark scripts if they want to progress (although the introduction of academies makes that difficult to enforce).  Without time to train teachers and then give them time to mark (would the government release teachers to mark exams, or would it expect year 11 teachers to do the marking once the exams have been sat?) this is a non-starter.

Of course the exam boards could get teachers to mark their own students’ work instead, but oh but we tried doing that with qualifications like BTECs (where the exam board charges the school for doing all the work) and that wasn’t rigorous enough.  Fortunately all of the teaching unions seem to have sensible ideas on the marking and teacher workload so this unlikely to happen.

Would you want to be coerced into marking external exams? How would you feel about marking exams as part of your job? How do we go about recruiting more examiners?  I’d be interested to hear your opinion :)

Image © ccarlstead on Flickr

Holidays in term time – the latest front on the war to improve standards

time to chill

This week term time holidays have been in the press.  The BBC report a record number of prosecutions as more and more schools/local authorities are taking action.  Unfortunately I know from talking to colleagues in different schools that there is little consistency between local authorities and even between academies within the same area but this is likely to change as pressure to stop holidays during the school term.

From the BBC news report, gathered in a freedom of information request to the Ministry of Justice:

  • 12,479 people found guilty of truancy offences – up 22%
  • 9,214 fines, averaging £172, issued by courts – up 30%
  • 18 jail sentences in 2014 – compared with seven in 2013
  • Ten of those jailed and more than half (58%) of those fined for a child missing school were women

It’s been hard to escape the media coverage as this topic arouses strong emotions in both parents and teachers alike. Here is some of the media coverage from

Comments from readers of these sites are varied and worth skimming through if you want a feel for public opinion.

The Jeremy Vine show even picked up on this issue.  I’ve extracted some of the comments below

Of course there are arguments for the parents, many of who (and some teachers too) feel the rules are too rigid, and there are arguments in favour of the education of the child.  Term time holidays are cheaper, and some professions will not let all their staff take their holidays in the school breaks but this is something the government and the unions should be looking to address.

This year my tracking grid for some classes looked like a piece of swiss cheese because it had so many gaps in it.  Of course not all these absences were down to holidays in term time but in each gap was a student who had missed some of their education.  This is education that they won’t get back, at least not in quality, and reading through some notes or a page in the textbook won’t suffice.  That’s why we ask our students to be in school for 190 days a year.  This is even more pronounced where students are working towards some form of accreditation like GCSEs, and where every lesson can count.

As a school leader we are asked to raise attendance and to keep pushing to get it higher and higher.  We can call parents, text them, support them, warn them and then prosecute them but ultimately the attendance of our students is out of the control of the school.  From September a student with an attendance below 90% will be classed as a persistent absentee which means the school putting in extra support to get them back in school.  A two-week holiday would immediately take a student below 95% attendance and closer to the 90% mark.

Ultimately we need cheaper holidays in the summer (unlikely), employers to adopt more family friendly holiday patterns (possible) and parents to do their utmost to get their children in school (improving).  Until this happens the number of prosecutions will continue to increase year on year.


Image: Time to Chill © Tim Robinson


Sex in class – sex education done right #SexInClass


“it’s proper complicated innit like, a fanny”

I’ve always been one of those people who gets asked to teach sex education because I’m quite an open person and I don’t have a problem talking about sex (in the classroom and in the staffroom!).  Bearing this in mind I was quite interested to hear of a channel 4 programme on sex education (thanks Ben) and set my Sky box to record it for when I came back off holiday.

Working with teenagers (even in a special school) you realise that many access porn at homes and parents are clueless on how to stop this.  The government have gone some way down this road but some parents don’t understand the technology and I’ve even come across parents who refuse to turn on the adult filter because it inconveniences them!  Even government plans to put porn behind an age verification system won’t work – the genie is out of the bottle and here to stay.

So why is this important?  The programme shows (as have newspaper features and programmes in the past) that teenagers see porn as a documentary or instructional video rather than a form of entertainment (written mostly for men).  Their ideas of what is normal or acceptable sexual conduct is influenced by what they watch in porn clips, from acceptable body image to thinking it is normal to ejaculate on a woman’s face at the end.

“she should swallow out of respect”

The video uses some gimmicks that probably wouldn’t work in a mainstream classroom (unless you had a couple of volunteers) such as getting the boys to shave their pubic hair so they could see how unreasonable it would be to get girls to do the same.  But on the whole the strategies used in the film would transfer well to a mainstream setting (I can even see parts of it working in SEN)

I do have some reservations in teaching about sex for pleasure, only because I think it has to be done properly and by someone who has the appropriate experience and attitude (together with parental consent) to do it justice.  It is also socially acceptable having a woman talking to boys about penises but would the reverse hold true?  Belgian sexologist Goedele Liekens makes this look easy but not everyone has her experience and sensitivity.

What did I take away from the programme?  I think there is a lot more to sex education than the plumbing and being safe.  Modern issues like consent and those arising from pornography weren’t as important when I was at secondary school thirty years ago.  Times have changed and it’s time for sex education to change with them.

As a society the issues go deeper than pornography and sex comes into aspects of life where you wouldn’t have found it years ago (like the controversy a few years ago of large chains selling thongs targeted at primary age students).  We do cover body image in our PHSE days but I would like to add more to counter the growing use of sex in the media and for marketing.

I’ve also been encouraged by reading some of the tweets from those that have watched the programme – all positive.  Whilst I would like to think that this is where sex education is going, it is down to us to make sure it gets there.  There is nothing to stop us taking parts or all of the activities from the programme and using them so that our students get a better sex education.  After all, we don’t want teenagers thinking “if she’s given me consent to shag her I’m sure i can come on her face” or wanting to dump a girl for having a ‘hairy fanny’.

If you haven’t watched Sex in Class yet, it is still available on 4OD here.


Nicky Morgan wants to ban work emails after 5pm

In an article in the Telegraph today the education secretary Nicky Morgan referred to the excessive workload that is starting to affect recruitment and retention of teachers.  The message the newspaper chose to focus on was the suggestion that teachers should not be answering emails or marking work after 5pm.


Unfortunately cutting out emails isn’t going to make much difference but she touched upon something that could.  Nicky referred to sharing planning as a way to reduce workload.  Of course teachers will always have to adapt plans to suit the needs of an individual group but it is the idea of working smart where she hits the mark.

Working smart

Be organised.  This sounds like a given but I spent years as an AST working with failing teachers and one of the traits they had in common was an inability to manage their time and workloads.

Bin paperwork – be paperless as far as possible. Store worksheets and marks electronically. Share these with colleagues and use them as a starting point for future lessons.

Plan smart – use peer assessment, self marking and computer marking to help reduce your workload.  Create a departmental marking policy that works to maximise impact rather than trying to tick boxes for Ofsted.  Unfortunately marking is coming under more scrutiny as Ofsted look for effectiveness of teaching over time.  Keep comments brief and give students opportunity to respond to marking – and mark this on the next cycle.  It might sound onerous but it can work to reduce workload once students are trained.

To do lists are closely related to planning.  I keep mine in Outlook – I use tasks and I flag emails for follow-up.  I can access this list wherever I am.  Different people use different systems but find something that works for you.

Have a structure – whether it be for paperwork (I’m probably about 90% paper-free now) or for the files on your computer.  Don’t just drop files on the desktop – it’s easy at the time but you will want them later.

Embrace technology – most teachers use technology now to create worksheets and resources, but create lesson plans electronically. Reuse and share them. I plan on my Outlook calendar – easy to share if I’m out of school as well. Create your diary online and calendar your planning and marking.  Rota in which class books you will mark and when.  SIMS (or your MIS) is your friend – use it to your advantage to log positive and negative behaviour, communication with parents etc.

Be disciplined.  I dread to think of how many hours over the year I’ve spent in the prep room or the staff room chatting.  This has a valuable function in keeping stress levels down, but an hour of PPA time spent marking is an hour earlier you can stop work that evening.

Work as a team.  Primary schools embraced joint planning years ago, secondary schools are starting to catch up with this now.  Divide the workload and spread it out.  Make sure all members of the team are clear in their expectations and responsibilities – for example knowing the deadlines for writing a unit of work and where to save it on the server when done.

Delegate tasks and responsibilities.  Ask the TA with the group to phone a parent and log the call, or ask trusted students to straighten the room at the end of the lesson.  Ask your team members for help with generating ideas, but don’t take on work that isn’t yours.

Learn when to say no and be assertive.  Don’t be afraid to say “I’m sorry I can’t do this tonight – I don’t have time”.  You could follow that up with a comment like “but I’ll have it done before the weekend”.  This also applies to needless paperwork and planning.

Work life balance.  It has been said that you should work to live, not live to work. Whilst teachers love their jobs (or the ones that stay in the profession do!) there is more to life that school.  Switch off, relax and do something else.  I have a long drive that acts as a buffer zone between home and school, and a dog that needs a lot of walking.

There is a lot that teachers can do to help themselves, but we have to accept that teaching isn’t a 9-5 job.  Those that manage to fit their work into those hours are either not doing everything they should or have an alternative career as a time management consultant ahead of them should they tire of teaching.

Have you any suggestions for reducing teacher workload?  Please leave a comment below.

The Chimp Paradox – why school leaders at all levels should read this book


I heard Professor Steve Peters speak at the ASCL conference about his work and his book.  As well as being a very entertaining speaker his ideas seemed to make sense, essentially a model for how your brain works and how to learn to work with the primitive aspects to the brain.

I’ll confess I didn’t read the book in the traditional sense but I listened to the book, read by Prof Peters himself (courtesy of my Audible subscription).  I find non-fiction books hard to read and thought an audio book would be easier than reading.  With a hundred minutes in the car each day the audiobook was indeed better than a paper copy although I did have a tendency to let my mind wander (probably because you don’t get the same kind of imagery in your brain as you do reading a fiction book).

The first few chapters of the book covered the material Steve used in his talk about the chimp, the computer and the human in your brain (SEN teachers will be able to relate to the concept of the chimp being in control!).  As well as giving a model to explain how your brain works, the purpose of the book is to train you how to program the brain, replacing the things that happen instinctively with things that you would prefer happen.  This is then extended into target/goal setting for yourself and for working with others.

The book avoids using terminology that would bamboozle readers and keeps things simple, explaining why you have to set and follow the strategies set if you want to succeed (and some excellent advice about finding a partner).  I would recommend this book to people from all walks of life who want improve their lives by achieving success, happiness and confidence!