The rise of the identikit school is not good for learners with SEND

It had been a long time since I visited the city where I went to university. In my memories the streets were vibrant and I remembered lots of small independent shops where everyone skipped around smiling (ok so I may have exaggerated this last one…)

I recently got the opportunity to revisit (after over fifteen years) and expected things to be just as they had been in my memories. Of course, my rose-tinted glasses now have ordinary glass in and I saw things how they are at present. It’s a sad reflection on our society that one city centre looks much like another, with most of the shops belonging to large chains and the only differences between towns and cities is how the same shops are arranged.

The same thing is happening to our schools and the government is embracing it as a positive thing. With the expansion of local multi-academy trusts (MATs) the same trustees/directors/governors may control most of the schools in a given area, and depending on the scheme of delegation, the schools could end up being extremely similar

On first appearances this may seem extremely positive with similar branding, sharing of good practice and a similar ethos. Naturally, these similarities extend to the treatment of students with special needs and schools tend to apply the same policies that have ‘worked’ elsewhere. For us, that meant a constant stream of referrals coming from schools that wanted rid of their special needs students. It got to the point where we could read the referral and guess the academy chain the student had attended previously.

With the schools in a given area being under the control of a relatively small number of MATs, and with the government’s desire to see the growth and expansion of existing MATs, there is less and less room for individuality between local schools.

Where does this leave learners with special needs who don’t fit the mould? I’m sure many of these schools would like to brand themselves as inclusive but they are unable and unwilling to cater for all but the least severe of needs.  The future of inclusion could be at risk and start to take a very different direction over the coming years and the government and local authorities seem powerless to do anything about it.

Have you seen similar in your school (mainstream or special)? Do you worry about the future of inclusion? Leave a comment below.


Image © Keith Hall

An open letter to the ASE – seven years later

Nearly seven years ago I wrote an open letter to the ASE which you can read here.  I complained that the ASE wasn’t listening to members and wasn’t delivering what science teachers wanted. I had many responses, some public which you can read in the comments and some private which you can’t! The resounding response was for me to become involved with the ASE and help steer it in the right direction.

So have I done since?

  • I am now the regional secretary for the East Midlands and help organise CPD events for members (and non-members) in our region. These are linked to hot-topics or changes to the curriculum which members are asking for
  • I’ve been involved more with the ASE at a national level. I’ve been a past member of their assembly (now called education group) and also a member of the publications committee. I’m currently a member of the 11-19 committee which meets three times a year and discusses topics like SEN, the new GCSEs and science teacher retention.
  • I’ve attended several annual conferences and this year I’ve presented at the ASE conference for the first time (on behalf of the 11-19 committee).  I’ve joined the organising committee for the annual conference next year which will be held at Birmingham University.
  • I’ve submitted articles for EiS, SSR and the ASE website, some of which have appeared in print.

Of course, the ASE hasn’t rested on its laurels over the last seven years:

  • The structure of the ASE has been streamlined to make it more responsive to members and secure its future
  • A new CEO took the reins and the ASE has a much higher profile, with the ASE appearing on the national news several times and communicating better with its members through social media (including launching the excellent #ASEchat)
  • The ASE has successfully promoted professional registration with more and more members signing up (I was awarded Chartered Science Teacher status in 2011)
  • The ASE has produced some excellent materials to support science teachers such as the excellent language of maths in science and the language of measurement.
  • We’ve had some excellent Presidents and Chairs of the ASE in the last seven years, with another excellent candidate waiting in the wings as Chair-Elect. These have helped to further strengthen the ASE and refocus it on its core purpose of improving the quality of science education for all
  • A new website is due to launch within the next two months

To some extent, the people who responded to my original post were right.  The more involved you become, the more you stand to get out of the ASE. However, there are still many science teachers who are not members and the challenge is to communicate the benefits of membership to those educators. With the loss of local authority influence and the rise of the multi-academy trust, it is getting harder and harder to reach individual science departments and therefore individual teachers.

This slideshow highlights some of the benefits of membership, if you aren’t a member have a look at what you are missing:

Are you a member of the ASE? What do you value about your membership? If you aren’t a member what is it that stops you signing up?

Moving away from a data intensive tracking system

I was inspired to write this post by seeing (again) this question from @teacherhead at a recent presentation

Educators who follow me on Twitter know my dislike of data collection – it’s the primary reason I left my previous job as a deputy head. The main reason these systems are introduced is linked to accountability to governors and those up above.

What we as teachers (really) want is students to achieve their potential and do their best in exams at KS4/5. What the school wants is the highest possible progress 8 score (especially now it takes only a couple of clicks to rank all the schools in an area by P8 score!) and for students to hit their targets. Hopefully, these two align but that isn’t always the case…

Unfortunately, we go about this process in a rather laborious way. We collect data at termly (or even half-termly!) intervals on current and predicted grades. We ask teachers for evidence to support this data and so teachers have to fit in extra tests, exam questions and other assessments. All these assessments need marking and grading so we take classroom time away from teaching and learning (how much of this assessment data is used formatively?) In addition, we add to the workload of teachers and so the exodus of teaching staff from the classroom continues.

It’s common to hear the phrase “You don’t fatten the pig by weighing it” and anyone who works in education understands its relationship to what happens in the classroom.  So where do we go from here? How to move away from a culture that has become so intrinsic to school processes that school leaders can’t imagine a life without it? (When I started teaching, data manager was a job that hadn’t been thought of yet!)

So how do we replace data in the accountability cycle? What system do we use instead of (half)termly data drops?  One process that we used in my last school was to hold pupil progress meetings, we called ours i4 meetings (a name borrowed from another school)

  • Information gathering
  • Identify where you can make a difference
  • Intervene systematically
  • Impact measurement

You are able to run the whole process with or without assessment data. The only place a complete picture of a student will exist is in the subject teacher’s mind.  It’s called professional judgement and draws on everything that happens in the classroom, on knowledge of the individual and their circumstances, and on student performance with familiar and unfamiliar assessment material (note not necessarily test scores!)  As part of the process you can discuss who is performing below potential and what the school can or can’t do to support (interventions) When you run the next series of meetings you can determine impact. We tried this system using subject groups and using pastoral/year groups (in a small school the difference is the staff present, not the student groups)

This isn’t a perfect system and requires that there is trust in decisions made at all levels. What’s the alternative – spending teacher time testing students (weighing them) so that you can input data into a spreadsheet that has little impact?

I’d be interested to hear what schools have done that worked well and also contributed positively to the work-life balance of staff.