I Won. DfE Must Release Free School Application Forms.

In October last year the DfE refused my FOI request for (a) Free School application forms, and (b) the acceptance and rejection letters sent to applicants. After a long and ludicrous battle (started here), the Information Commission Office have released their Decision Notice about my case.
In sum: I won.
The ridiculously lengthy 17-page judgement demonstrates why the information must be made available to the public. Given its length I haven’t taken it all in thoroughly yet . But essentially the DfE’s claims that releasing this information would “prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs” came down to four arguments:

  1. It would reduce the quality of future applications
  2. It would reduce the DfE’s ability to figure out which applications were of high quality
  3. It would put people off applying in future (because they are scared off by scrutiny)
  4. Application forms & letters are not a good way to scrutinise school quality

The ICO recognised the DfE’s concerns but countered that some were poorly evidenced or did not constitute a genuine problem. For example, the DfE claimed that applicants might face demanding challenges from the public. As the ICO notes, people applying to run public services ought to expect demanding scrutiny.
My favourite part of the judgement, however, is Section 73. Here the ICO determined whether or not there is a case for releasing the information given public interest. Their conclusion is unequivocal:

“The Commissioner considers that the public interest factors in favour of the disclosure of the withheld information are very strong. The withheld information would provide considerable information about the implementation of a relatively new and very important educational policy and also provide information about the basis for decisions involving the expenditure of large amounts of public money. Disclosure of the information would help to increase the transparency of the programme…

Transparency is all I ever wanted in this process. Not because I want to frighten potential free school applicants, or ruin a working policy, but because the freedom of information is a right when services are being undertaken at public expense. Because taxpayers are owed honesty. Because scrutiny steers a course towards better and more constructive policies. And – if for no other reason – than simply because, this is democracy and the law. No matter how much the government loves their flagship policy, they don’t get to shrug off democracy like an ugly accessory that doesn’t match their outfits.
So thank you, ICO, for helping get what is rightfully ours under the law.
DfE: You have 35 days to comply.

The Very Few Thoughts I Have About "Being A Woman Blogger"

XKCD How It Works: Remixed
XKCD How It Works: Remixed
(NB: I don’t think this is how it works, AT ALL)

99% of the time, I forget I am a woman. At least, I think about it no more than I think about my being short, or Northern, or a Leeds Rhino fan. Other people might think about it. And because I’m not completely naive: I’m certain all kinds of subconscious cues affect my behaviour in gender-driven ways. But my main reaction to people mentioning I am female is usually surprise (because I had forgotten), swiftly followed by boredom.

The worst is when people ask me why women don’t blog and tweet about education as prolifically as men*. I don’t know why. Clearly, whatever it is about my gender that allegedly inhibits me from hitting the blogpost ‘publish’ button simply didn’t kick in for me.

When I point this out, people invite conjecture about their pet “no-woman-blogger” theories. Perhaps I think women do more childcare? Or have less time? Or fear self-promotion? Or reject the “aggressive atmosphere” of Twitter? Sometimes they give me a great big list of these theories. Doesn’t matter though, because I still don’t know.

Here, however, is what I do know, and what I would like any wanna-be-female-blogger worried about entering the fray to know: In four years of tweeting and blogging I’ve rarely found the medium to be aggressive, and I can’t think of a single occasion when the issues I encountered were solely down to being female.

Have I provoked the ire of angry commenters? Sure. Have I been picked on unfairly? Yes (it started here but became a debacle). But both were rare occasions and easily defused. Plus more, so much more of the debate I have experienced has been positive, and illuminating, and about ideas and learning, and not at all about me personally. Only once in four years have I blocked someone on twitter due to abuse (& that was a person saying racist things about my students).**

That said, I’m not stupid. I realise my pleasant online existence thus far is part down to fortune. I haven’t done a job that means people hate me a priori (e.g. advising a political party), I don’t hold unorthodox educational or religious views, as a white person I don’t get racist abuse, and because I have no children people don’t call into question my parenting skills. So, I understand, I have blogger advantages that others do not and I don’t know what I would do in those situations, so I can’t really discuss them.

But, given what I DO know, what are my “messages” for would-be “women bloggers”?

Nothing really. I point all new bloggers to the same advice on edu-blogging – it’s here, by @oldandrewuk – and is excellent. But seeing as I keep getting told that women are not blogging because they are afraid of the “aggression” here’s my suggestions for dealing with that particular chestnut (and these tips go for the fellas just as much as the ladies):

1. Model the behaviour you want from people – If you don’t want to receive aggression on Twitter, don’t be aggressive. When someone annoys you, take a second to think “how do I wish this person was behaving?” and then YOU behave that way. Back in February, when I awoke to find the @toryeducation account had written ludicrous tweets about m, I reminded myself that I  want twitter conversations to be curious, interested, helpful and thoughtful. So that was how I responded. In fact, that’s how I try to respond to everyone on Twitter even when I think they’re being a pain in the neck. Like any human, I slip from time to time but I do try hard not to. People comment that this must take a lot of patience. It doesn’t. It just derives from my belief that, with twitter, you will largely get back what you put in. So if in doubt, go for curiosity and helpfulness, even if some other outburst might be more immediately satisfying.

2.. Be pleased with criticism, and use it for good. If people are responding to your blog, it means they read it and have engaged. Well done! In this vast internet world you have written something that made people take to their keyboards. But don’t let the pride ruin you. The next step is vital: listen to their criticisms. In their criticisms are all the clues you need about why your opinion is being rejected and why your solution, or perfect world, doesn’t yet exist. If people attack you personally, rather than arguing your ideas – point it out. “I understand you don’t like the fact that I’m from Widnes, but how does that affect my point about Ofsted/abortion/mars-bars-being-the-best-chocolate?” Alternatively, when the critcism is about your ideas – by goodness, leap on it! – enjoy it, think about it, play it out. And most of all be willing to revise your position if presented with compelling new information. Your aim should always be better understanding and less about being perfectly correct at every turn.

3. Unless you are being paid for blogging, remember that this is not a job,and you do not owe anyone anything – Some people who want to blog get weighed down thinking there are “rules” to obey. They believe that to “be a blogger” you must commit a certain amount of time. Or write with a certain quality. Or have something new to see. All of this is nonsense. If you can write, and you have opinions, you can blog. The fabulous thing about the internet is that it isn’t full and you can stuff your page full of terrible content if you wish. No-one can stop you. And, back to the feminism point, if anyone even mentions that your stuff is boring or not being read because you’re female, then remember…..

4. Don’t accept bullshit arguments about how “being a woman” stops you doing stuff or makes you suck at it  – Maybe being female is uniquely disadvantaging in the blogsphere. Maybe people read my stuff 50% less than if my name were Peter. But unless your gender is changing soon (which mine isn’t) then your only solution is to think “I’m a woman and I’m going to do it anyway”. After all, the internet is a big place and so I will end by saying this again: No-one can stop you from being a blogger other than youAnd if you do get things down on paper you never know who will appreciate that you did.

* Andrew Old wrote a useful piece arguing that there are actually lots of women education bloggers if you go looking for them. So if you want to debate that point, go read his blog. (Also, see comment below).

**I am aware that by writing this I might unleash some people who want to be blocked by me just because I haven’t dealt with abuse so far. Also, because I’ve talked about my being a woman I will have broken some purdah which I have thus far maintained and hence a torrent of insults will suddenly rain upon me making me wish I had never written this post. It’s a SIGH-some thought, and the iro
ny will kill me, but I’ll deal with it if I have to. Curiosity, remember?

Should teachers publish the test scores of their classes?

I am currently being forced to read shedloads of papers about “Total Quality Management” – both in engineering and in education. Much of it is soporific management speak. But every now and then something catches my eye.
Here’s today’s:

Having charts showing defect rates posted on the shop significantly predicted company improvement

Among a bunch of ideas about collaboration, and decision-making, and organizational value, it seems that something as simple as highlighting the current defect rate on an assembly line was significantly associated with an improvement in company effectiveness, income and customer satisfaction.
This caught my eye because my blog earlier this week on marking student work described how I stick students’ marks on the front of their folders. I also kept a “class average” score on the wall (well, it was on the front of the folder crate for each class) and that it was updated as we went throughout the year. I did this to keep us all focused on our aim of constant (even if slow) improvement.
Today, when I saw the article though, I wondered if we should also expect the same for teachers?
If I kept myself accountable to the students through our class-average wall, should teachers be expected to be airing their class results more often? Should they be published centrally? Should we be defending them regularly? I know that many schools already do this. Teachers are expected to hand in data, and explain where they are up to, and why. But I wondered how widespread it is? And whether it should be even more public? Shared across the whole staff? Shared with parents?
Given some of the management I have seen, this can be a panic-inducing thought. What if SLT try and stitch me up? Am I going to lose my job? Or what of the things we can’t control: “it wasn’t my fault, they put the six naughtiest year 10s in my class and gave me a triple lesson – how was I supposed to cope?”
Yet on the other hand I think that may be the very act of those conversations, about the fears that we have, about the fact that we have been fitted up with a triple lesson of challenging kids, is vital. Really, as professionals, we should expect someone to call us in on occasion and account for where we are at with our students’ progress. It only works if we have management who are willing to help, of course. If I say that I am struggling with the six Year 10s I need to know that someone is going to do something – move the students, send in cavalry, rejig the timetable – if all I get is sympathy and wide-eyes then we might as well not bother. But, if the information was there for everyone to see, everyone to defend, and everyone to ask for help this feels like it would be a good thing. After all, it would mean that a teacher could say “I told you months ago I was struggling with this class, in fact I published it on my wall!”

Still, I can also see reasons why it wouldn’t be useful (I suspect teacher stress would be the first people would suggest). Hence, DON’T WORRY, I’m not advocating for this as a national policy. More I am batting around the idea of asking teachers to be more open about information. To simply consider putting your class’s current levels/scores somewhere bold and loud, and keeping it up there as progress happens (or doesn’t). If we think transparency in politicians is helpful, surely we must also think it’s important for us to be truthful and hold ourselves accountable too?
But like I say…just a thought….

The Quick, The Weird, and The Thorough: How I Mark Student Work

Bit late on this month’s blogsync but better than never, right?…
Topic (last) month was: Marking With Impact. Having taught several subjects across KS3 – 5, my marking techniques have varied. Here are just three which I think had impact even if they’re not faultless.

The Quick

In my first year I taught 580 students per week. I taught each class of 30 once per week, and face an SLT-imposed minimum half-term marking policy. If I did what was expected, I would have needed to mark 96 books per week. Except, I had to wait for students to fill up their books first which meant that by half-term I had 580 books to mark. In a week.
Hence my TeachFirst tutor recommended the following for the sake of my sanity:

Speed Tip #1 – Draw this, or even better, get kids to draw it in advance ….

Smiley Face = one thing I liked
T = one target for next time
Do not write more than you need to [so, no “hi mohamed, this was a really good piece. i really liked that you”…. JUST STICK TO THE POINT…you can show the kids you care by your behaviour in the classroom]. Once the columns are filled, stick down a level/grade/score if you must.
Next time, make sure to look back at the target and state whether or not the student achieved it in the next piece of work. If you can, have it affect the mark. And stick with the target until it is achieved. [You can also add new targets, but don’t drop any until they have been met].

Speed Tip #2 – Print stickers for common “i likes” and targets

There are two ways to do this.
One, I would purchase customised target stickers from Sticker Factory with things like: “Add an example from the text to support your argument points” (non-fiction analysis) or “give two reasons why the study was valid/reliable” (psychology).
OR, if the work was more specific, I would type up targets, print them on a blank A4 Sticker Page, print, cut up and stick into books. (Cheaper than Sticker Factory, and more flexible). Even with the cutting it saved time because I type a lot quicker than I handwrite (and I used a mini-guillotine for cutting).
What was the impact? Speed. Pure speed. This got me through SLT requirements, my students got drip-fed regular feedback, parents found it easy to understand and the targets accumulated so students couldn’t ignore them. There are predictable downsides (e.g. it’s not massively thorough marking), but if speed is your concern this is where to start.

The Weird

By contrast, this marking technique was loooong but had HUGE impact on work quality.
When teaching Sociology AS I noticed my class needed more opportunity to ‘bat around’ difficult new concepts. Faced with new ‘-isms’  – e.g. functionalism, marxism, symbolic interactionism – students needed time to discuss what they are so they could assimilate with their prior knowledge and because the language can be a little tricky (so they often struggle with -ism vs. -ist, which takes a bit of practice to grasp).
Hence, I created homeworks where students responded to letters written by imaginary characters. Perhaps a sociologist, perhaps their cousin who was stuck on their schoolwork, perhaps a researcher interested in teen views on an issue. Because it is a letter, students were less afraid of just ‘attempting’ to put their ideas down – and I could vary up the formality depending on how comfortable I felt students were with the concept. [i.e. more comfortable, more formal].
But, more importantly, I didn’t mark the letters. I wrote responses back. IN CHARACTER:
zac cm letter
This did a few things. First, it made feedback non-threatening. Two, I could make it personalised to the student (as a big One Direction fan I can imagine that….). And three, it was fun! Students wanted to read their feedback and they really really wanted to respond. Students who were reluctant to do homework normally would continue back and forth several times until they understood a concept.
Obvious downside: It takes ages. The class had 18 people in it. A handful needed to go back and forth several times. Thankfully I am a speedy typer, so that helped.
Upside: Never have I known such engagement with a class in terms of feedback. Also, it rayoshowed them that I really cared enough to put in this much effort.
Overall impact: Really useful when you have older students, struggling with a particular topic, who need a bit of a boost and a bit of belief that you care about them. In those instances the impact is worth the effort. Use sparingly.

The Thorough 

In my last two years of teaching I mostly taught GCSE Citizenship and GCSE Humanities.
I had seven different classes who I usually saw twice a week. For those students I did this:
foldersAs you can see there is information about target grades, past grades, checked class work and homeworks, and cumulative targets. There was a sheet for each module and it was stuck on the FRONT OUTSIDE of folders (using the A4 sticker sheets, above). I was very clear with students it wasn’t there to embarrass them. It was there how we were all doing mattered, and we needed to be able to see it.
I explained that I was impressed with anyone improving. The grade didn’t matter, what I wanted to see was improvement. In return, I displayed average test scores for each class on the wall and explained that my aim was to see those averages going up. If those averages were sliding downwards then I knew I wasn’t doing my job right either.  [And when, inevitably, some classes were struggling I would talk with them about what I was doing to ensure they were all learning better].
I tried to keep feedback specific and encouraging. Students could also gain points for behaviour and homework. [There is a tiger sticker not pictured here that a student received as an extra boost – yeah, even at GCSE, they love them!].
Ultimately, This strategy isn’t just about marking. This was about creating an ethos of improvement, and making feedback central to that. Also, it wasn’t as time intensive as it looks. I typed the sheets in advance, and they were stuck on by students in lesson. I also found that because students were so focused in their work I could mark during lessons.
Overall impact: Again, it passes SLT requirements, parents like it, it makes record keeping easy,(students could take books home, but not the folder, so this meant I always had it to hand), and it gave us a clear focus for our studies. It’s not quick, but it did work well.