Sunday, 12 November 2017

Teacher workload – should we negotiate more in order to achieve less?

A few years ago I was talking with a friend who was considering teaching. He asked me about workload, what he might expect. I told him I felt that it was probably a job that can’t be done effectively in fewer than 50-60 hours a week, that the holidays are some compensation, but that work is still required during those periods to remain afloat. I acknowledged to him that I had invested much more than that myself in the first few years of my career (when I was young and single), and that some find themselves working more like 70+ hours a week.

School Teachers Pay and Conditions (STPC) sets out an allocation of 1265 hours per school year that head teachers can ‘direct’ teachers for school related activity across 195 days a year. Of those 1265 hours, an amount not less than 10% of an individual’s timetabled teaching hours must be ring-fenced and identified for planning, preparation and assessment. None of these stipulations apply to anyone paid on the leadership spine. Importantly, there is a recognition in STPC that the job is not expected to be done solely within those hours.

Within the interpretation of this paragraph sits the workload battleground. What is ‘reasonable’? Where does ‘directed’ time end and ‘expected’ time begin? It cuts to the heart of so many issues around professional agency, the expectations of leaders, the priorities of the teaching unions, the influence and consequences of accountability measures. In the end, though, our answer to these questions shape how attractive, sustainable and effective our profession is. ‘Reasonable’ is a dangerously opaque adjective that is ultimately defined in a school setting by leaders to whom the guidance doesn’t apply.

The teaching unions handle this issue badly, but I have sympathy for their dilemma. Too often they end up arguing over what can be sandwiched into 1265, whether a call home takes five minutes or ten, whether collecting in exam papers should be something a teacher does and so on. Many teachers have little time for such arguments because it can smack of ‘jobs-worthiness’ and sit uncomfortably with their own sense of professionalism. The unions, understandably, seek to hold leaders to account for 1265 because they are far-less able to do so around paragraph 51.7.

OFSTED has a clear role to play, and I have sympathy for their dilemma. They recognise that the inspection framework is a document they can wield but not control. The unintended consequences of leaders (often under the ‘guidance’ of snake-oil consultants) interpreting the need for ‘incisive feedback’ that pupils ‘use effectively’ are manifold and often very damaging. Examples of wildly unreasonable marking and feedback policies abound, and these are often imposed with the confident lie that ‘OFSTED will want to see…’. HMI and inspectors have tried hard to counter this, but the reality is that the current climate of high-stakes, graded outcomes for schools frightens leaders. Every ‘brave’ head moved on following an inadequate inspection report only strengthens the ‘mimetic isomorphism’ within schools that Dr Becky Allen recently cited in her excellent Caroline Benn Memorial Lecture.

Teachers are reporting an average term-time working week of around 55 hours. This is wildly out of proportion with 1265, meaning that the reality of ‘reasonable additional hours’ is almost 70% more than the time managers can direct. That is not only unsustainable, it is inefficient and uncontrollable.

1265/195 = 6.5 hours to a working day, 32.5 hours a week over 39 school weeks.
55 hours a week over 39 school weeks = 2145 hours and an 11 hour working day.

Where could we go from here? 

Dr Becky Allen argues powerfully for legislated and fixed lead-in times for assessment and curriculum reform, an explicit 35-hour working week, reform of inspection methods, and leadership that is supportive of autonomy.

She also argues that the ‘auditing’ culture of school leadership needs to change to enable a ‘trust-culture’ and re-invigorate this autonomy. I agree with most of what she says, but would argue that there needs to be a careful distinction drawn between leadership activities that ‘audit’, and those that seek to evaluate and understand the quality of teaching in a school. We should seek to eliminate leadership by spreadsheet, but encourage more leadership presence and example in classrooms. Trust should never be blind, and teachers and leaders need to work together to ensure that reducing tasks that are about compliance and audit does not lead to closed doors, ‘private’ classrooms and a potential decline in collaboration, professional enquiry and standards.

What if the education unions came together to negotiate an INCREASE in 1265? Sound crazy? Bear with me. The standard riposte to stories in the press around teacher workload is the apparently generous 13 weeks of the year in which teachers don’t teach. What if we were to help close down that argument by changing our contracts and explicitly giving teachers professional agency over an additional several working weeks in the year?

I’m not suggesting we alter the 195 days leaders can open schools and direct teaching. I am suggesting that we explicitly measure a teaching contract over 46 or 47 working weeks of 35 hours (with 5 or 6 weeks recognised, but not ring-fenced, as paid holiday). We should then require school leaders to audit and account properly for how much time over and above 1265 a year their policies and practices take. Head teachers would still only be able to explicitly direct 1265 hours of teacher time, but they would need to be able to audit and account for around 1645 of teacher activity. For the unions, this would be a strong and brave negotiating platform. They would be offering 30% more explicit working time in return for the removal of paragraph 51.7, and a more rigorous means of holding leaders to account for the time they expect the job to take.

This would give teachers contractually explicit professional agency over how they spread their work over a reasonable period of time (including 13 weeks during which schools are closed). It would also require leaders to more carefully evaluate and measure the impact of the additional work activity they ask of their teachers. 

We have already seen that teachers spend at least 70% more time than 1265 hours on their work, so this would only go some of the way to addressing that gap. Further reductions could come from the type of measures Becky and others have outlined. However, it doesn’t solve the issue of teachers with responsibilities feeling they can’t cope, or feeling that they need to reduce their contracts to fit it all in. It doesn’t answer the question of whether or not we are simply expecting teachers to teach too many hours. It doesn’t change the fact that we too often ask virtually the same of a teacher paid £23k as we do one paid £39k. It doesn’t help those paid on the leadership spine who are struggling with no contractual limits on what can be asked of them.

Funding is key to all this and cannot be dismissed. There are many views on how wisely the additional money education received during the Labour years was spent. My own criticism is that a little too much was spent on additional non-teaching staff and leadership (both at school and local authority level), but that nothing was done to address the wild variations in funding between regions. Sensible discussions around funding need to acknowledge that there are indeed areas where savings can be made in many schools, but that we urgently need to level the funding playing field and invest in making teaching a more attractive career if any gains made since the 90s are to be built upon. 

Teacher pay increases incrementally; it seems to me that teaching time should do the same. That costs money, but would make a big difference in those early years of a career.
Do we need to be more explicit about how responsibilities (TLRs) are allocated, and the reduction in teaching time that should accompany that? Maybe we need fewer TLR holders, but to make those roles more possible to perform. Isn’t the truth that TLR is too often used to retain and encourage staff rather than to provide an essentially needed leadership function? With better pay and conditions that may not be necessary.

Evening events. Parents expect these but they can place a huge burden on family life. Parents want written reports but too often don’t read them. They want regular parents’ evenings but too often don’t attend. Some of these activities are simply not efficient or productive uses of precious and expensive time. If, for example, we accept the evidence that most of the written feedback being done is ineffective, we need to educate parents and manage expectations around what they should expect to see. None of this should mean closing down lines of communication or diminishing standards, but it does mean becoming more ruthlessly efficient in terms of how we direct teacher time.

Momentum is building on this issue, and it is high time. The pips are squeaking in budgetary terms, and in terms of the well-being and tolerance of teachers. Recruitment is becoming impossible in some areas, and (bluntly) this is now having an impact on the calibre of people entering the profession. We need to invest time, creativity and funds in making teaching a role that is held in high-esteem, coveted and viewed with prestige, as well as being one that is compatible with a healthy personal and family life. The best school leaders, governors and academy trusts already go a long way to achieving this, but they are constrained by the factors I’ve outlined.

This is not something that ‘the system’ can resolve organically or alone. It will take leadership, negotiation, investment (in every sense of the word), and legislation. The lead, therefore, has to come from government.

Let’s hope they aren’t too distracted.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Beauty and truth...#Nurture 1415


I will have been SLT lead for Teaching and Learning across two schools for five years this coming January. For the last two years I've been Vice Principal at a large and complex secondary school just outside Cambridge. I've learned a huge amount, been faced with a number of very demanding and sometimes distressing challenges, written two timetables, steered a path through PRP, developed a brand new curriculum and had countless transformative and delightful experiences. I hope that along the way I made a difference to the school and to the experience of the students. I hope that some of my colleagues benefited from working alongside me. I certainly learned a lot from them and shall miss the community and its creative, dynamic approach and ethos very much. The image below is the plaque on the side of the building I spent most of the last two years in. Although I've always struggled a bit with it as a general aphorism, I've always quite appreciated it where it sat by that door - there is a brutal truth to working in schools (children and teaching assistants are the most honest people you'll ever encounter!) and that truth, plainly expressed through hard work and collaborative effort is, more often than not, in the final analysis, rather beautiful.

From January I have the exciting challenge of leading Teaching and Learning across a growing Academy Trust. I will be working in and across a number of schools, helping to shape a common vision and approach, working with teachers and leaders on improving the quality of provision and experience for a growing number of students. I can't wait to get started.

I'm an infrequent blogger and I've resolved to change that too many times to be hopeful of being much more prolific in 2015, but I thought I'd share a good old list of things I think I've decided about leading Teaching and Learning, and then a few practical reflections on my own teaching over the last twelve months or so. I hope they are of interest to some of you.

Ten things I thought about leading Teaching and Learning in 2014...

1. To approach a complex challenge simply, there isn’t much more to leadership than inspiring calm, confidence and kindness. Work hard and be nice to people.

 2.     I was too sceptical about the role of research in teacher development for too long. It can work but it must benefit the school and the students as much as it does the teacher. One person researching DeBono’s thinking hats probably only benefits one person. A school-wide culture of research, informing planning and training, generates real improvements to teaching and learning.

3. In an accountability-heavy system like ours, schools should invest in enabling and encouraging teachers to be examiners. We need to make sure that the system has credibility. To do that, we have to play our part.

4. Improving the quality of instruction and questioning is the most difficult but most impactful work any teacher can do. But they can’t do it in isolation. Constructive, formative observations are essential and we need more of them.

5. It is right that there is a fierce focus on the quality of written feedback. Books should be marked regularly and usefully – it has an immense impact. But let’s not forget workload – teachers should not be editing work for students. It has no impact and breeds dependency and sloth.

6. Schools hobble teachers with unreasonable expectations, poor behaviour policies and bad management. Teachers hobble themselves by not building effective relationships

7. Collaborative planning time is difficult to find but essential if we are to improve subject knowledge and the consistency of experience within schools.

8. The term ‘Middle Leader’ should be scrapped.  It is wholly inadequate and pretty insulting. There is nothing ‘middling’ about having energy, enthusiasm and ideas. We need less hierarchy and more high thinking.

9. The lack of guidance and oversight of performance related pay is poisonous for our schools. It must be either scrapped or reformed.

10. Trying to make everyone teach or plan in a particular way is futile and foolish. Ensuring every teacher understands what your school expects great lessons to comprise of, is the first step to school improvement.

Five things I’ve done more of as a teacher this year: 

Slow writing. I’ve worked in more detail on guided writing and getting students to very closely re-draft small chunks of writing before setting them off on longer tasks.
Marking. I have never been very good at this but I’ve consciously tried much harder to be more frequent and formative.
Talking. I’ve never believed that teacher-talk is bad and never will. I think I’m pretty good at leading discussion, dragging everyone in, giving everyone a voice and a role, and I have the skill and experience now to do it with greater confidence.
Screencasting. I’ve been pretty impressed with some of the teacher-generated presentations that have appeared on YouTube and have produced a number of them myself to set as homework or to help students with revision. I’d like to learn more about flipped learning in 2015.
Pictures and images as fascinators or stimuli. I take pictures and squirrel images from twitter and the net, using them all the time as starters, fascinators, stimuli or just for a laugh. I find they help me to punctuate ideas and to keep the tone and pace light.

Five things I’ve done less of as a teacher this year: 

Teaching to targets. I used to map my teaching a lot more closely and explicitly to target-grade skills and criteria. I find myself doing this less and less; I tend to model A* skills only, occasionally drafting down to demonstrate how excellent writing can be dulled by lazy vocabulary, a lack of focus or simple errors.
Whole class reading. I have mixed feelings about this; I still think we gain a huge amount by reading together and used to very confidently spend the bulk of an entire lesson just reading and discussing. Increasingly I am conscious that relying too frequently on this approach is too easy for some students to passively inhabit. Not so much that it lacks challenge, but that it lacks demand. I’m also harder on and more rigorous with checking when ‘A’ level students haven’t kept up with their independent reading.
Objectives on the board. I’ve almost given this up. Usually I’ll define the success criteria (how they will do well), but I prefer to share over-arching objectives for a unit or use a ‘big question’ for a single lesson. They never write them down for me.
Giving students a choice. Earlier in my career I would more frequently offer a choice of two or three activities. I tend now to direct much more confidently – I’ll modify a task to differentiate because I know better the skills that a particular student should be working on.
Moving on. I used to teach new terminology or skills far more chronologically and sequentially, assuming that there would be greater retention and application than in fact there was. My understanding of how we learn has been informed by a lot of reading over recent years and I now find myself revisiting the basics of, for example, parts of speech, with students more often. I make fewer assumptions about what they have definitely learned.

Some things I really enjoyed doing this year:

In January Cambridge University Press published the third editions of their School Shakespeare range for Twelfth Night and Much Ado, edited by Anthony Partington and I. This was the culmination of a huge amount of work and we were really chuffed to see such beautiful finished products.

In March I was really pleased to be involved in the first ever Cambridge SLTeachMeet. I presented on our new curriculum at IVC - the ICE programme. It was hugely well attended and a real success. The kind of thing I'm looking forward to doing a lot more of in my new role.

In April I spent a day teaching in a US High School - Freedom High in Morganton, North Carolina (my wife's hometown and former school). They were delightful and indulged me by pretending to be very interested in my thoughts on Shakespeare. Their teacher, Tim Fossett, very kindly repaid the visit when he came to Cambridge in July. While I was there I rather fell in love with his funky chairs and convinced my Principal to buy some for IVC - they look like this and sixth formers LOVE them…

Most of the summer was lost to writing a new text book for Cambridge University Press. The hastily prepared new GCSE specification demands new publications, so we spent much of August (and a chuck on September and October!) - writing a new book. We'll be excited to see what it turns out like come January.

September was IVC's 75th anniversary. There were lots of events such as this mammoth whole College photograph, a gala weekend and a 1939 day in College that was fantastic fun. The story of Walter Gropius, Henry Morris and the Village College movement is such an inspirational one and well worth a read about to those unfamiliar.

In October I was successful in securing a new position as Vice Principal leading on Teaching and Learning across the Cambridge Meridian Academies Trust - a fantastic opportunity to join an organisation that contains some brilliant and hugely talented people and that has a vision and ethos for schools that excites me massively.

In November, I took a team of debaters to the Houses of Parliament. I've always loved debating and led a team to the final of the Bar Mock Trial competition in Belfast at my previous school. This lovely lot did brilliantly well and we had a fantastic day in London. I wish I had time to do more of this sort of thing.

So here's to an exciting and successful 2015!

Friday, 22 August 2014

The Coalition's crop...

It occurred to me this morning that the Year 11 cohort of 2014 are the Coalition's crop. They were in Year 7 when this parliament began and are leaving Year 11 as it draws, leisurely, to a close.

I was a Year 7 student in a comprehensive in the north of England on the day that Mrs Thatcher resigned in 1990. It was an English lesson (we were probably tackling a whole class reader under the direction of our enemy-of-progress in chief) and I vividly recall the door being flung open by a gleefully excited Head of Geography. 'She's resigned!!!' he shrieked. And we cheered, all of us, throatily and mightily with what felt like a collective, visceral understanding that this was joyous news to be shared and savoured*.

Point of the story is that I suspect many children currently in schools will remember Michael Gove as a similarly significant folk villain of their school days. Like Thatcher, indeed like any radical, his legacy is significant because of the amount that he managed to get done in the time he had. He did so much that he can't help but have done some good. History (and the fiscal and moral balance sheets of several Academy Trusts in ten years' time) will be the judge of that.

But those tremulous Thursdays in August are when we teachers and school leaders are judged. And the reckoning can be rather high; this year higher than ever as the 'outcomes' handed down to our students are for the first time explicitly linked to pay progression in the Autumn. The government's shameful abrogation of responsibility over the implementation of that particular piece of professional vandalism will haunt schools for years to come. The lack of guidance, oversight and direction on precisely how and against what 'performance' should be measured and judged on or by was as deliberate as it is revealing. Teachers around the country working in less enlightened professional environments will find themselves being censured and financially penalised for a perceived failure to reach statistically pantomimic targets that nobody properly understands. The 'turbulent' (for 'turbulent' read manipulated and farcical) movements in GCSE results we saw yesterday are the result of the combined stupidity of knee-jerk political tinkering and the imposition of 'comparable outcomes' on what had hitherto been a criterion referenced examination. Only 'resilient' schools, children and teachers can successfully navigate such conditions.

Which brings me to the constructive point I wanted to make. Resilience is a word you hear a lot more these days than you used to. I like it as a word and as an attribute actually, although it is an abstract noun used liberally in a very concrete world. Reports yesterday talked about how schools that had a culture of re-sitting or that had been 'gaming' the system would be most heavily affected by the changes. In reality, those most harmed when goalposts are shifted are those for whom it is always hardest to score. They need the most training and guidance and have a tendency to give up or go home without the certainty and direction of a confident manager. The resilient children and schools will find the net, the fragile and less robust will miss or fall away.

Don't blame schools for doing their best to thoroughly coach and train disadvantaged children or those lacking in the support of confidence to imagine a well educated and qualified future for themselves. Don't be surprised when a profession with the moral purpose, intellect and drive that teachers possess does everything it can to understand how, when and why you want to assess their students. If gaming the system means doing everything I can to understand the criteria and maximise my students' ability to meet that criteria, then pass me the dice and pour me a bourbon.

What the government have done with their most reductive and underhand reforms (such as the removal of Speaking and Listening as an assessed element of GCSE English) is seek to change the rules at half time. It is they who have turned assessment in England into a game and it has been done precisely because they believe standards will only be seen to have risen when more people fail. More people failing means that only the most resilient and resourceful will pass.

In this country being resilient too often means being wealthy or possessed of parents with ambition and aspiration for you. The 'reforms' we saw playing out yesterday harmed most those without these gifts of fortune.

Those possessed of aspiration often develop strong resilience and that is a worthwhile lesson for schools: there are many examples of schools doing extremely well not because they have discovered a magic pedagogical formula (although sometimes they seem to have been drinking their own snake oil and believe they have) but principally because they are excellent at breeding a sense of confidence and resilience through their systems, rhetoric and competence. Through their leadership.

I'd far rather we had a reliable, stable and criterion referenced examination system free of political interference. I'd like assessment to be tougher; I want children to gain deeper knowledge and be possessed of finer skills when they leave school. But we don't have that. Instead we have a tatty, tinkered with and tired mess of a 'game'. And as long as the government continues to treat assessment like a political game, wise, ambitious and resilient schools need to behave like players.

* If that anecdote makes you sneer and think less of the people in that classroom then you probably didn't grow up in a coal mining area of the north of England in the 1980s. If you did and you still sneer then my blog probably isn't for you. It was a big deal - she'd done nothing for us and we were right to celebrate. Game of fistycuffs to anyone who wants to disagree.

Monday, 26 May 2014

BBC World interview 26/5/14

I was asked to go on the BBC World GMT programme this morning to comment on the changes to the GCSE English Literature...

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Don't judge me?

A lot has been written lately about lesson observations and the wisdom/usefulness of grading single lessons or chunks of lessons. There is strong evidence that suggests observation is an inaccurate method of measuring the quality of learning, if indeed learning is something that can be observed or measured in any meaningful way at all.

So even if we accept that judging or evaluating the quality of learning is almost impossible to objectively achieve in a single lesson, should we give up the notion of evaluating the quality of teaching?

If a colleague or qualified peer comes into my classroom to observe my lesson I expect to receive honest and thoughtful appraisal. I’ll listen very carefully, take criticism to heart and feel a swell of the ego when praised. And that appraisal will be in my mind when I plan the next lesson - all to the good generally. That’s because I care about and respect the views of my colleagues and still have the same decidedly uncool desire to please teacher that I had when I was at school.

But not everyone feels this way. The process terrifies some: scared or scarred by poor experiences or aggressive management. Others have a loathing for the very notion of appraisal, seeing it as an unwarranted professional insult and intrusion. I have sympathy for the former position and some disdain for the latter.

I’ve thought about this quite deeply and experienced both approaches – graded and ungraded observations. There are two reasons why I have concluded that offering summative ‘judgements’ at the end of a (full) lesson observation are probably necessary. These reasons aren’t pretty but they are pretty important.

1.     Schools need to be able to identify under-performing teachers, strongly supporting issues of capability and, when sadly necessary, disciplining if the problem is one of misconduct/malpractice. This can’t come out of the blue and is usually (understandably) vigorously challenged by the individual concerned and their professional association. We therefore need a clear framework for the identification of inadequate teaching (what won’t be tolerated) and the subsequent support and actions (how will we help and at what point the teacher be removed from the classroom). Not a pleasant topic or process but essential at times. You have to identify when the teaching seen is inadequate and also when aspects of it require improvement.

2.     The profession needs to have a defined level of excellence to aspire towards. Teachers are generally pleasers – we like our students to get high marks because we loved nothing more than being awarded an A* ourselves. We are motivated by praise and positive feedback. We therefore need to know what we mean by excellence in teaching – there ought to be a means of recognising and celebrating when what you see a teacher doing in the classroom is sublime, inspiring or exceptional.

There are, however, big problems with these as positions. Point number 1 creates fear and point number 2 breeds resentment and jealousy. This is true at both teacher and whole school level.

The table below is an illustration of why I think the majority of lesson observations (those where the teaching is generally pretty good) are not all that useful. The aspects of teaching that ‘feedback’ tends to focus upon are generally the less contentious ones, the elements arguably less personal in terms of the teacher’s own persona and actions. BUT - the elements less often addressed in feedback are the ones that I tend to find get evaluated more when identifying either inadequate or exceptional teaching.

Feedback ‘comfort zone’…

Where feedback fears to tread…
Quality of resourcing
Regularity of feedback
Student effort
Timing/sequencing of activities.

Quality of instruction
Quality of questioning
Interactions with students
Teacher behaviours
Teacher expectations

When trying to define precisely why something went very badly or, conversely, why it went very well you often find yourself identifying precisely the things we politely avoid when evaluating most teaching. Consequently, I would argue that when the element of summative grading or judgment is removed, too much of the observation process gravitates towards the 'comfort zone' of less significant elements of the teaching, rendering the entire process less formative.

We need two things to happen instead of abandoning the notion of summative grading of the quality of teaching in a lesson. Firstly, the element of fear needs limiting by ensuring that progression to capability or career ending disciplinary procedures cannot be the result of a single observer’s perspective or (worse) of a single inspected lesson (moderation). Secondly, we need to abandon the notion that a teacher can be dubbed overall ‘outstanding’ or to ‘require improvement’.  The most skillful teachers deliver duff lessons; even the most average practitioners have inspiring moments. Most of us operate on a spectrum of capability that fluctuates quite widely depending on a range of factors, some in our control, many not (this weeks weather looks like testing lots of us for example!).

In seeking to avoid a system that unfairly stigmatises or labels teachers we must take care not to replace it with a toothless system supporting bland, unhelpful evaluations of the quality of teaching.

Plenty will disagree with me on this one I suspect. Doubtless a fascinating and very important debate.