Why Obama Keeps Disappointing American Educators

995407_10100528580248109_298299594_nThis was my first rodeo.
Having traversed a ridiculous number of dead-ends to even find the rodeo (it was out in a field, which the facebook page gave no address for) we seated ourselves at the top of a rickety bleacher. Sun streaming, cowboys swaying, we had absolutely no idea what to expect. The mandatory national anthem came first, though this is the first time I’ve ever heard it interspersed with recordings of inspirational quotes from Martin Luther King and JFK. Horses rode out: one representing each of the ‘forces’ that protect the United States. The military, the navy, the emergency services. My particular favourite was when they introduced the air force as fighting to protect “our air space and outer space“. If aliens arrive in Missouri, we’re going to be well-covered.
Watching education debates in the US fills me with a similar level of wonder and befuddlement. Nothing is quite as it seems. It’s sometimes hard for a British person to remember that the US isn’t really one country, it is fifty states – each with their own laws and school systems. It’s also hard to understand scale. The US has 300 million people in it. It covers a landmass that you can drive across, continuously, for 50 hours, and that’s assuming good traffic all the way.
Hence, my latest missive for the TES unpicks some of the past efforts made by Presidents (and their merry men) to try and co-ordinate this sometimes surreal landscape. For my part I think Obama has done as good a job as he could at attempting change. Many of my colleagues in Missouri are deeply unhappy about the introduction of, what I consider to be, a very basic National Curriculum. And they are outraged at the idea of systematic teacher evaluation. To me it is simply unthinkable that states wouldn’t have some kind of equalised curriculum, or that in – in a country with no standardised inspection frame akin to Ofsted – that teachers can simply meander on unchecked.
But then, I also wouldn’t tie a 6 year old to a sheep, which was precisely what shot out of the paddock of the first rodeo event. The look of horror on my mother’s face will remain with me forever. It’s how I feel about much of the current US edu-debates.

5 Lessons From Derby: The Significance of Al-Madinah Free School

Any government spokesperson who says the failures of Al-Madinah Free School do not tell you anything about the wider policy, is entirely wrong.  The gaping and problematic holes in the free schools policy have been apparent ever since Michael Gove pushed through the free school legislation in a 5-day procedure usually reserved for terrorist threats, and anyone pretending otherwise is being disingenuous.
The government chose to ignore these problems. And now Al-Madinah Free School has taught 400 children for over twelve months in an environment that Ofsted describes as ‘dysfunctional’ and inadequate in every category. The report notes how most of the primary teachers have never taught before and many staff are in roles for which they “do not have the qualifications or experience”.
Over half of the secondary pupils have unauthorized absences and the overall attendance rate is less than 90%. The school did not know how many children have SEN statements. Last year’s budget has not been reconciled. The school is unaware of whether it has a surplus or deficit. On their own, each of these things is exceptionally problematic. That they all co-exist, in one school, is extraordinary.
How did it get like this?
The government will no doubt trot out lines such as “we did everything we could”, “this is the price of innovation”, and “let’s not take away from the great work done by the other free schools”. But those are hollow and irrelevant platitudes. Even if 90% of Free Schools are brilliant, it is not okay to sacrifice 400 children in a process that was obviously foolish from the outset.
5 Lessons The Government Must Learn, & Quickly
1. The application process has always been questionable
The government kept the entire school application process secret. They would not reveal who applied, what the applicants wrote, the evidence they had of demand or staff competence, and the government won’t reveal the reasons why people did or did not get accepted. There is no evidence that decisions were made consistently or rigorously, and the one year battle I have had with the DfE to try and get this information shows a concerning reluctance to reveal this information (I am still awaiting an appeal decision) . But, why?  On the basis of Al-Madinah it appears that at least one problematic school has slipped through the net. Could there be more?
2. The decision to allow ‘anyone’ to teach in autonomous schools will backfire
The government announced during the Olympic Ceremony that academies and free schools could hire unqualified teachers and that those teachers would never need to get qualified. Because of this, Al-Madinah was able to to open a school consisting almost entirely of lay professionals who had no experience of lesson planning, assessment frameworks, or safeguarding. Pleas that the policy change delivered “flexibility” is not good enough. It was blatantly obvious some schools would take advantage and this is the first casualty.
3.  A “middle tier” is needed to support schools in trouble
Al-Madinah is now in trouble – and who is going to help? Free schools are only accountable to the Secretary of State, who relies on Ofsted to give the nod that says they can stay in business. But Ofsted can’t be everywhere. So when things go awry, the school will limp on until Ofsted arrives again (which could be a period of years). And then, once problems are revealed – what happens next?  The local authority has neither the power nor the capacity to help. So who will help the school improve? Or, if the decision is made that the school will close, who will see that it is wound down responsibly? Who will help the students get places in other schools? We know that the DfE is completing ‘monitoring’ visits in the first year of school operations, but we don’t know what the visits involve, what they find, or who is responsible for resourcing necessary improvements. Basically, if a school is struggling there is no clear plan for improving it.
4.  We need a process for closing  free schools
If the government is going to run with the line that “this is the inevitable consequence of innovation”, then it really ought to have a plan for that inevitability. Unlike in the US where most states now issues contracts with very clear quality measures, (so a school will knows the standards it is required to meet annually), the rules around what constitutes minimum required quality in England is fuzzy. There is confusion over funding agreements and Ofsted’s right to revoke a founder group’s ability to run a school. There is no clear line about the length of time a school has to get its quality sorted before takeover, or what processes it must go through. Al-Madinah have already openly questioned whether or not the government is entitled to try and close it on the basis of the current inspection. If these rules are not crystal clear (which I’m not convinced they are), any further action on Al-Madinah could become a lengthy tussle.
5.  Who will pay to close free schools?
Even if a free school closes willingly, there is still the problem of contracts. Property rent, computer equipment, cleaning companies. With no contract oversight (and in this case no reconciliation), who is responsible for buying out those contracts? What happens to buildings purchased? State education departments across the US have spent millions on legal bills trying to resolve issues of closure because they didn’t have clear rules decided in advance. I’d have sympathy for the government on this, if I hadn’t been telling them all along that this would happen.
On its own Al-Madinah is a school that needs help to better provide for the children it serves. Really, I understand that. But I will not lay off using this example as a way of highlighting bigger issues. The government will want to paint this as an accident, or as an unexpected situation, maybe even a minor inevitability. But it’s not. The situation was absolutely predictable and absolutely stoppable. If not completely, at least in part. There was no need to allow schools to have almost entirely unqualified staff. There is no reason why Ofsted could not inspect sooner, and no sense in implementing this policy before a proper middle tier of scrutiny and support was created. That contracts of quality were never thoroughly outlined always seemed weird, but what I find unforgivable is the lack of a transparent opening and closure process.
Politicians cannot tell teachers and children there is no excuse for failure then pussyfoot around when it’s their mistake laid out on the table. This has been a cock-up and Gove, as the person who pushed this legislation through, needs to admit it. If he does, then perhaps we will finally see something done about it.
Related Posts:
Why did West London Free School change their vision?
Following up on Free Schools & Transparency

Why Open University Matters

ou graduationIn 2004 I wanted nothing more than to stay at university and continue studying for a Masters degree. But it wasn’t to be. There wasn’t any clear way I could pay for it, I didn’t really understand how to apply for one, or what difference it would make to my future. So I got a job instead.
In the first few months at that job, during slow days on my computer, I would look at Masters degrees and continue dreaming. Having studied some of my A-Levels through night school I wasn’t averse to the idea of continuing education in the evenings and so it was that I came across the Open University. Over the next six years I would not only study for an MA in Social Science, but I would also take the first year undergraduate engineering course and the health & social care one.
Even when my career plans changed, and I became a teacher, I carried on with OU. Completing a dissertation during the first term of teaching is a new level of hell, but it was absolutely worth it. And it would be those undergraduate courses that later enabled me to take over an ailing Year 13 Health & Social Care course and get them on the right path.
It was therefore genuine anger I vented last month when, via Twitter, I was pointed to an article by Michael Gove in which he compared his education reforms to those that had helped “Educating Rita” (a play about a woman taking an OU degree). Not only do I not think Gove’s reforms come close to the benefits of the OU, I’m also disgusted by what has happened to the institution under his government’s watch.
This is why my Guardian Column this month is a love letter to the OU and a slap in the face to those working to undermine it. The OU undeniably changed my life. Without it I would not have kept studying, and I would not now be a Fulbright Scholar. I hope therefore you can forgive the article’s furious tone, but we will be less of a nation if we do not keep OU degrees available for the many and not just the few.

What I Learned From Writing About Exams….

In last month’s Guardian column I made a plea for better whistleblowing procedures around school examinations and coursework. The piece was inspired by the number of politicianss I’ve heard saying that getting rid of coursework will restore rigour. Thing is, teachers can – and do – cheat in exams. And if you really want to improve coursework rigour, there are other places to start.
Before publication I genuinely did not think the piece would be controversial. I thought the points I made were reasonably self-evident. Boy, was I wrong.
Things I Learned From the Exams Piece:
1) Lots of teachers get mad when you suggest any of them are doing less than a perfect job.
Initial tweets and comments about the piece veered from disbelief to abuse. Commentors who thought I’d only ever taught at Waterloo Road clearly missed my bio line. On the upside, my Twitter DM box & emails filled with support. “Sorry I can’t say this publicly but….” was a common starting point. Many of these contacts admitted they had left teaching because they couldn’t take the pressure they were under to cheat, both in courseworks and in exams (or were union reps who had dealt with these cases). This astonished me. When collecting examples, people had talked about the bizarre things seen but no-one had suggested to me they were under pressure to cheat. Most examples given were mischief or mistake, but not a blatant campaign of dishonesty. Unfortunately, it seems that in some schools there are systematic expectations of inflated grades, and few protections available for whistleblowing teachers.
2) The government do not appear to want to do anything about coursework gaming
In the article I mentioned that at least one exam board has a practice that easily enables coursework cheating. This point was hardly mentioned by anyone, but for me – it’s critical.  Why is the government willing to cause a furor by getting rid of GCSE exam early entries, but is not closing this blatant loophole? It could be tackled immediately. No great faff. No pulling of kids out of exams. No cost, no headlines, nothing. So how is it not the first thing that they have done in a move to ‘restore rigour’?
I still can’t work it out. Unless it is headlines, and not improved rigour, that is actually their goal….
3) There must be clear and consistent rules about exam invigilation
The email I received from an exam invigilator highlighted the problems facing those wishing to expose exam maladministration. First, there is not a clear unified procedure, and there should be. And second, there needs to be better training and protections for exam invigilators. I was also contacted by Anne Borrowdale, at Exam Team Development, who are working in partnership with the Examination Officers’ Association to get the voice of invigilators into the exam delivery process. In particular her organisation are trying to train invigilators in how tho apply rules and handle candidates. This is vital, and I think it should also be extended to teachers and students if possible. They have launched a booklet, When Shhh is Not Enoughto help educate people further.
4) Invigilation is no longer a ‘teacher’ task for a reason
Finally, a few people noted that as the teacher workload agreement wanes, some schools are starting to ask teachers to invigilate again. This is a major concern and any moves by the government to have teachers take over this task must be carefully watched and resisted.
Skip to the end….
Ultimately I can’t shake the feeling that no-one really wants to touch this issue, not even the government. If they were genuine about stopping gaming they would get into the mucky details: why do exam board practices vary so dramatically vary? How are exam inspections targeted and carried out? The government could make whistleblowing easier and more acceptable. Instead of leaving teachers without any incentive, protections or even a clear path towards it. Telling the truth is difficult, but we must all encourage it. Even if it makes for the occasional torrent of abuse.

An Exam Invigilator Speaks Out…

Last month I wrote about the problem of teachers in exam halls. Several people were unhappy with me. Commentors argued I was deluded, or I must have taught at “Waterloo Road”. By contrast, my email and twitter private message box filled with  people who agreed with the piece because they had seen these exact same things.
One of the most interesting emails came from an exam invigilator. When drafting the column I wanted to include a paragraph about the tricky position they are in, but it had to go due to space constraints. Thankfully, this email brilliantly explains the problem. The source said I could reproduce it here:
Have I seen teaching staff commit malpractice? Yes, a number of times. Have I reported it? Yes, but only to my exams officer, I thought that was as far as my duty went. I didn’t whistle-blow, even when I knew the school hadn’t taken any action. One time, I looked into raising a possible malpractice issue with JCQ – over students getting extra time – but gave up when I couldn’t find how to file an anonymous report about a general concern which covered several exam boards. (Fortunately JCQ have since tightened the rules so it shouldn’t happen again) I didn’t want to identify where I worked partly because I didn’t want to get my exams officer into trouble, partly because I’d have lost my job. Outside invigilators are casual staff, so we’re not protected by the whistle-blowing act. We’re supposed to be protected from “detriment” if we whistle-blow, but I don’t know what that means in practice. So I agree entirely with your comments on whistle-blowing. JCQ needs one central contact point, and should publish clear instructions on whistle-blowing in a prominent place in the ICE booklet. They should also include a question and answer about it in the back of the booklet, stressing invigilators’ responsibilities.
 Having outside invigilators in charge and keeping teachers out of the exam room has mostly stopped the nightmare you describe happening, though it’s still a problem with exams on computers or art exams, when it’s hard to know if teachers could be doing more than just give technical support. But outside invigilators aren’t perfect either. I’ve seen numerous examples of invigilators getting things wrong which are never reported. I’ve made loads of mistakes myself, even though I’m highly conscientious. Usually I tell my exams officer, apologise, and try to make sure I get it right next time. Very occasionally I keep quiet, because I don’t want to get into trouble. I’d like to swear that I always tell my exams officer if a candidate has been given an actual advantage or disadvantage, rather than it being a technical breach of regulations with no harm done (like a JCQ notice not put up, a label left on a water bottle), but I’m not sure that’s 100% true. For example, I don’t know if it mattered that I provided Maths A level candidates with the wrong formula booklet a couple of years ago. They didn’t notice, and I didn’t tell anyone, but it was definitely maladministration. 
 I was told recently that in 2012, only 60 centre staff across 6000 centres had penalties imposed for malpractice, most of which were for minor offences. This sounds nice and low, but when I think of all the mistakes I make despite being a committed, knowledgeable invigilator, I conclude that most malpractice by centre staff probably goes unreported. JCQ rules state that failure to report malpractice is itself malpractice, but how often do exams officers actually report invigilators or teaching staff, unless there’s been deliberate cheating or a clear impact on candidates? If there’s no harm done, no one’s made a fuss, and the inspector isn’t going to pick it up, isn’t it better just to make sure it never happens again? Mind you, the inspector doesn’t check on the standard of invigilation, in my experience. I’ve never seen an invigilator questioned in all the years I’ve invigilated. Inspectors have focused on paperwork, paper security and access arrangements. They spend a minute in the exam room or looking in through the window, noting whether the desks are the right distance apart and that the notice board is correct, but as long as the invigilator isn’t asleep or on the phone, that box is ticked.

TouchPaper Problem #2 – Productive Emotions

This is the second blogpost expanding on the TouchPaper Problems first discussed at #Researched2013

2. How can one invoke in a class the emotional state most productive for: (a) prosocial behaviour, (b) evaluative thinking, (c) memorization, (d) creation?

One of the things we do as teachers is plan activities. We figure out what students should be  know or do (or we’re told what they must know and do) and we then plan a variety of tasks that, if undertaken carefully, should mean the student ends up with whatever it was we were attempting to transfer to them.

Too often, when planning, teachers worry about the way students will feel during the tasks and less about whether or not the students will gain the required knowledge or skills. (Someone saying “I have planned a really fun lesson” is the usual giveaway for this one). On the other hand, teachers sometimes worry about what students will be thinking about and neglect to ponder whether students will be motivated, interested, delighted, disgusted. 

Some people may scoff at this latter part, but learning involves both things: emotions and cognition. Our emotions are related to motivation and interest, and those things affect the way we think. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we must be happy to learn. In fact, there is fairly good evidence that a mildly negative mood is actually more productive when we are doing detailed work requiring highly accurate step-following – for example, solving a complicated mathematical equation.

This got me thinking. Are there rules of thumb that teachers could use to consider the mood of their classroom and then align it most productively? If the aim in a session is to have students working well together (perhaps this is a drama exercise) is there a conducive mood for this? At the cognitive end of things, if I want students to memorise a list of French verbs and their agreements – what should the atmosphere of my classroom now be?

But just answering the question of “what mood is productive?” is not really a problem. So I pushed a bit further.   Even if I was certain that a mildly negative mood is best for maths – so what? How do I safely and humanely induce it?

Now, I say safe and humane, but I’m also willing to accept the idea that non-humane ways might work too and  in the spirit of not wanting to rule things out I’d be willing to let these into a solution (presuming they could, somehow, be ethically proven) because then at least we’d know. Of course, knowing something will work is not the same as needing to do it (and obviously, I would advocate against it).

Nevertheless, in my head this problem would be solved if someone could show what is the most effective mood for each of these outcomes, and at least one way to induce that mood among a majority of students in a classroom environment.