RAISING THE BAR
From my perspective, a number of recent discussions and policy initiatives have missed the target when it comes to tackling the issue of educational under-performance in our schools. Even where I agree with the diagnosis, the prescribed medicine doesn’t seem to match. At classroom level, where it counts, there are a number of reasons why ‘raising the bar’ might appear to be required in some lessons in some schools:
The curriculum standards are too limiting: this could be the curriculum framework determined by an exam board or the National Curriculum. I find the ‘dumbing down’ argument extremely simplistic and partial but there are certainly situations where we could be raising the bar. As an example, when I worked in Jakarta, the top maths students in Y6 took the KS3 SATs paper and many scored L7. We think it’s bold to have a L6 paper but this material could be embedded earlier. My Y6 son’s teacher is excellent but he’s only had some L6 sessions recently, almost as special treats. At KEGS we’ve found the AQA iGCSE Certificates in the sciences significantly more challenging and interesting than the GCSEs we ran before: more maths, less fluff. The bar has been raised. However, note, it’s only the top end that experience this issue in some areas. For the majority of students the NC does not limit them at all and harder exams will just be harder.
The ‘enacted’ curriculum is too limiting (to borrow from Joe Kirby via Michael Gove) : this might be a shallow interpretation of a text or topic or a mis-judgement about age-relevance. Here are some bad examples I’ve witnessed: Y11 BTEC Science students copying out the electromagnetic spectrum from a text-book into their folders and getting ‘signed off’ on their assignment sheets for ‘completing research’ without understanding anything they’d written; Y11 IT students writing single word descriptions of key website features, watching an IWB, sitting at desks with scraps of paper. In both cases the syllabus authors had rather more in mind! (Mr Gove’s Mr Men History lesson was rocket science compared to this…and, yes, it isn’t very convincing to base an argument on unrepresentative oddities; I think my mundane examples are more prevalent.)
The pedagogy is inadequate; teaching methods are leaving too many students behind or not providing sufficient challenge for others. The teacher may not know their subject, may be pitching the work too low or they may not have the skills to engage the students in the learning process. (Let’s be clear: engagement IS a pre-requisite for any learning; it IS part of a teacher’s responsibility to engage their students but that does not mean providing ‘edutainment’ or enforcing a crude ‘shut up and listen’ culture. )
Aspirations and expectations are too low: this might be on the part of the students who do not bring the level of commitment to their own learning that other more aspirational students do and continually fall short. They may have low self-esteem, a negative view of their employment prospects and live a life of low ‘cultural capital’; they may just be switched off in general. It might also be the teacher who settles for too little every step of the way..inch by inch allowing students to slip below the trajectory that they are capable of following. In scenarios like this, the teacher might be projecting their own academic limitations and insecurities onto their students….portraying maths as hard or accepting a crummy cut and paste paragraph with pictures when they could have written something with real depth. It could be institutionalised mediocrity that no-one even notices. For example, at KEGS, students get tons of homework from day one, they are pushed hard each day and teachers are very demanding; students of the same ability at other schools I know are never ever pushed as hard; the expectations are lower.
Students’ basic literacy skills are insufficient to succeed with the work they are set: too many kids leave primary school with very low literacy. This is not a case of failing to recognise a noun phrase or a subordinate clause; I mean they can’t read confidently or fully understand what they’re reading, don’t read for pleasure and very often have sophisticated masking and avoidance strategies to compensate.
Behaviour is poor. Sometimes it isn’t the teacher’s fault at all but sometimes it really is. Failure to tackle persistent low-level disengaged disruption is one of the silent killers of achievement…it’s rarely about wild hoodlums wreaking havoc.
Without being unduly negative about the system as a whole, all of these things are real enough. Too many lessons for too many students across the country are like this. So, clearly we need to turn things around. We need to raise the bar. But how do we do this? Firstly, let me rule out some policy contenders.
It’s not about the National Curriculum content... To me, this discussion is often deckchairs-on-the-Titanic, fiddling-while-Rome-burns territory. We can debate the content of course; we all have our pet loves and hates in our subjects. However equating ‘raising the bar’ with an imposing a particular view of the core curriculum or a specific definition of a ‘good education’ is mistaken; the idea that the new NC somehow represents a ‘return to a knowledge-based curriculum’ is a false claim. As if the current curriculum isn’t packed with things to learn….
It’s not about which books we read at school:
I studied My Family and Other Animals and The Woman in White for O’Level…. and the Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus – short stories. We did Henry IV Part 1 which we enjoyed… although the only quotes we learned were the fillers such as ‘We shall sup tonight at Eastcheap’. It was an odd collection; I’d have killed for a bit of Of Mice and Men….but we were taught a range of texts well and we enjoyed doing it. Of course some books are more challenging to read than others but I’d still argue that whilst the potential depth of learning might differ, the bar is not necessarily raised merely by being prescriptive about text selection; similarly ‘engagement’ is not a dirty word. (Tricia Kelleher’s post is excellent on this).
It’s not about which approach to History we take:
There is an interesting debate to be had about the most effective balance between depth study of a point in history and the need for a broad overview across centuries. Robert Tombs’ view is that we don’t give enough coverage over time so the depth studies become incoherent. It is true that the current vogue in history exams is to give analysis and source evaluation very high status over recalling historical narrative. How far do we go in evaluating the merits of the Churchill-Harris area bombing of Dresden? What exactly does anyone need to know about the Siege of Drogheda? My history O Level was based on the Industrial Revolution 1750 – 1900. I never studied Hitler, Stalin or Vietnam but I’m up on Blind Jack of Knaresborough, the great C18th road builder and Arkwright’s spinning jenny and, in doing so, learned some skills I’ve used since to learn about other eras. Isn’t that more important? These are debates for historians and history teachers and no doubt every Secretary of State will have their own bias. But is this raising the bar? No, it isn’t.
It’s not about formal grammar,
I don’t have an issue with learning this stuff. It’s arguably useful for writing – although I must confess that I have never really understood or needed to think about subject/object/past participle and so on. My son finds these questions quite easy.. he thought this was in the English SATs anyway. BUT, let’s not be under the illusion that the SPAG tests are going to raise standards of literacy in general. Michael Rosen makes good sense on this and I find the way he is pilloried by Michael Gove and others rather distasteful. He makes a good case that warrants serious consideration and it is all too easily sniped away at, reducing the debate to Grammar Good vs Grammar Bad. As with other issues – if the bar is already too high, making it higher doesn’t help you; this only benefits those who are already succeeding. There is risk that this provides a veneer of rigour for the few, without doing anything for the many.
It’s not about trendy progressive teaching techniques either. I’ve watched hundreds and hundreds of lessons in many different contexts. Amongst the many joys, I’ve seen some truly awful lessons. However, almost none of these were bad because the teacher was doing something too trendy and progressive. I’ve seen a lot of deadly one-way traffic teacher droning; I’ve seen some terrible attempts to explain concepts; I’ve seen a lot of noisy and chaotic discussion or practical activity which a teacher was trying to talk over…. To me, attributing low standards to a caricature of progressive teaching methods is missing by a mile.
It’s not about teachers needing financial incentives to buck their ideas up...None of the weaker teachers I’ve ever known would have been better if they were paid differently. It’s that simple. I’ve written on the whole PRP issue here. Wrong diagnosis; wrong solution.
Raising the bar is primarily a question of effective pedagogy. Within that one word ‘pedagogy’ I would pack in everything we do in the classroom: explaining, asking questions, giving feedback and maintaining a strongly positive work ethic. Almost all the issues that there are around low standards, where the bar needs to be raised, stem from here, including the ‘enacted curriculum’, the setting of appropriately challenging goals and the development of the basic tools for learning: reading and writing.
So, educational bar-raising is fundamentally about improving how teachers teach and worrying less about what the curriculum has in it. This should suggest a colossal nationwide investment in training, in continuing professional development and in developing effective leadership of CPD in schools. We’re largely getting on with that ourselves at the moment but at times it is hard. We need a major culture shift away from defensive barriers to teacher observation towards repeated and sustained dialogue around improving practice openly and directly. (I’ve never known a great school where teachers were resistant to observations.) The movement to set up a Royal College of Teaching is promising and CPD is moving up the agenda.. but there is a long way to go, with no extra money to pay for it. Recently I’ve had to consider whether £1000 was too much to spend on joining a fabulous looking CPD network… it’s peanuts; but peanuts that schools don’t have. And, as I’ve said elsewhere, we don’t need PRP to tackle underperformance; we already have robust capability procedures and we shouldn’t mess around tolerating mediocrity.
There are other issues: Raising the bar is about giving ALL students progression pathways that build on success and put them ‘in line of sight of work’ (a phrase I heard recently that made immediate sense.) This area has been a dog’s breakfast with an increasingly fragmented system. Hopefully the Headteachers’ Roundtable model, with the support of others like Whole Education and colleagues in FE and HE, will help to direct policy makers in a more sensible direction. Hopefully… if they listen. Certainly there is a need for a general breadth of curriculum across and within subjects but the specifics of that are less critical than the quality of delivery of each component and the coherence of the whole framework.
Raising the bar is also about enabling more children to build up to reaching it….To me this suggests intensive support for literacy intervention at KS1 and KS2. Why are we not talking more about this? I’d argue for giving every penny of pupil premium money to primary schools to ensure literacy levels are tackled. We need a ‘what ever it takes’ approach to this, working with families around support for learning, support for reading and raising aspirations. We need to get in early to stop those gaps from emerging as I argue in my ‘The Gap isn’t getting any narrower’ post. Parenting for Learning? SureStart with an educational focus? This is how to raise the bar for those at the lower end of the attainment ladder in a fundamental manner.
Finally, we also need an accountability system that we can trust. Michael Gove is excited by schools teaching 19th Century novels instead of the ubiquitous Of Mice and Men… but he shows no awareness of just how deep the risk-averse culture has become – one that the accountability system is fuelling where there is almost no incentive to deviate from a tried and tested text backed with tons of resources. I’d actually welcome an aspect of the accountability system that required schools to detail their curriculum offer. Let schools make a case for their choices… and let the outcomes do the talking.