“We love great teaching, we aspire to excellence in classrooms, we want the very best practice, but we also want the best outcomes and unfortunately it is not sufficient to say that one leads automatically to the other. For us it is not either great teaching or thorough preparation for examinations but both the one and the other.” Sir John Rowling, Chair, PiXL, PiXLis March 2016
On Tuesday I attended a PiXL meeting for the first time. This followed an invitation that arose after I’d expressed concern about PiXL’s support for mass entry for the ECDL – see the comments in this post. Many of my colleagues in Essex were PiXL converts and it was interesting to see a lot of them at this gathering; the home of arch-pragmatism and no-nonsense realism.
Billed as a meeting, it felt more like a convention or a rally with 1500+ followers packed into the Westminster Central Hall, upstairs and downstairs. Sir John gave a big forceful message: it was all about collaboration and collective power; he gave a fairly strong pitch for reasons to join pixledge – the why start on your own when you could join a 450 strong network of schools who’ve already signed up? I like the look of PiXLEdge; it delivers the PDP element of the National Bacc model I’ve been promoting and I’m impressed that it has taken off so well. All schools should have something like it – so why not just join it? A message that made sense to me. Sir John described the first gathering of 22 Heads in 2003 and how they’d never imagined reaching the scale PiXL has grown to. It’s a remarkable story. PiXL schools are no longer members of a niche club. According to one speaker, they are the biggest educational organisation in the UK – and perhaps even the world. Strong, the PiXL message is. If you create demand for something people need and want, they will come. (College of Teachers take note!)
The introduction had a Billy Graham quality to it – but then I’m someone who leaves a shop if a sales assistant tries to help me. To be fair, preaching to the converted is standard issue for any members’ club – affirmation is important and certainly Sir John’s people were happy to be there; he’s regarded as a bit of a legend. In any case, the evangelical tone changed swiftly after the intro. Within 15 minutes, we are into an hour-long stretch of direct, practical, no-nonsense info geared towards securing success within the mechanics of the system. I found the pragmatic geekiness of it refreshing – and in sharp contrast to the first couple of hours of the ASCL conference where I was underwhelmed by the non-specific urgings to join the march towards a school-led system and become a heart-leader.
Here’s a flavour of what I wrote in my notes:
P8 strategy: We need to do better than other people – that was pretty much a direct message. It’s a contest. The boost for getting top grades is huge. Our interventions should focus there; at least we need to recognise a leap from C to B or B to A counts for more than a D to C conversion. The reminder that points for a C go down in 2017 was depressing but also a reality check. What a big old mess P8 is, I thought. How did we get to this? But still, a big C/D borderline cohort like I’ve got presents a challenge in the P8 stakes so it’s no use putting our heads in the sand. I was listening.
A repeated PiXL refrain is about diagnosis and therapy. Their tools help with both and the consensus is that this is the great value of joining up – to gain access to the resources. Huddle, the online repository of goodies, is referred to continually.
On Science, a big play was made for ‘walking talking marks’ – resources that deliver narrated mark schemes to help teachers and students see what examiners are looking for. We were reminded that science controlled assessment counts 25% and this is the biggest element within our control. So best control it! There was an advert for another diagnostic test tool; booster packs, therapy resources; a reminder to set up the right intervention groups.
I learned about the PiXL RSL. A ‘raising standards leader’ which is a key role in member schools. The speaker suggested that the RSL often had a close link with Heads of maths and English but often had more problematic links with Heads of science; conversations often muddied by issues of curriculum complexity rather than performance and attainment. The message was: go in tomorrow and talk to your Head of science. The immediacy was striking. You never go to conferences were people say ‘do this tomorrow’; PiXL is very focused on the micro – the gritty stuff.
The Maths speaker promoted the PiXL maths app. It is used in 1000 schools. It has a gap analysis tool; provides feed forward tests; a tracking board showing where students are. There is positive feedback from students. It sounds worth a try for sure.
Chris Edwards gave a speedy round-up of some general tips: the idea of a pre-mortem to pre-empt problems in the exam run-up; eliciting confidential feedback from students about their learning: ‘I wish my teacher knew…..’ which had yielded some interesting insights. He suggested that getting students to be familiar with the exam hall was useful (with a 360 camera!) and using an image of the exam hall wall as a backdrop for visualisation techniques in class?! I couldn’t tell if this was entirely serious. He promoted the well-known PiXL favourite, the walking talking mock, especially the day before the maths exam; getting parents to write encouraging letters to their children; giving out free water and fruit – from Sainsburys? – on exam days; the importance of a positivity on exam days. There was a plug for an app called My Teenmind and for the role of his school’s Well-being centre to provide a space to tackle anxiety disorders. Nice idea; I’m taking that one on.
Phil Stock was there. To me, Phil would lend credibility and rigour to any club so I was pleased to see him. He offered five strategies to improve independent study: Quizzing; Spacing; Elaboration; Chunking (learning as jigsaw pieces that link) and Metacognitive strategies. At his school their recommended strategies have focused on where to study; what order to study in; how to study; checking progress – how am I getting on – and the need to focus on weaknesses. It all made sense to me; I liked how explicit they had been with students about the study process.
The first half was wrapped up with a talk from 2008 Beijing Olympic 100m finalist Jeanette Kwakye who talked about peaking at the right time and the need for coaches to give positive reinforcement an not to pass on the pressure. Then a Year 10 pianist played an extraordinary piece of music – it was astoundingly good.
So, at the break, I was feeling very upbeat. I’d picked up some ideas; I could see that our exam preparation process could well be supported by a raft of additional strategies that would help our students to be ready to do their best on the day. I thought – I’m in. This is all really helpful; sign me up.
But the second half was a bit different….
To begin with we were told about PiXL classrooms – to be launched at a meeting in May. The idea is that PiXL is going beyond the exam machinery into actual lessons. The goal is to develop practical resources for teachers, looking through the lens of reducing workload. Sounds like a natural extension of PiXL thinking. I can see PiXL prefixes mushrooming in coming years – as the strength of the branding weaves its way across the system.
And then my heart started to sink. I have no wish to disparage this hugely popular organisation or the people who love it; I’m just reporting my feelings about this particular aspect of the message. It could be me that’s got it all wrong:
There was a section on Progress 8 buckets and the things schools can do to maximise scores; I found it disturbing and depressing; like we’re all trapped in a machine that’s out of control. It seems to be an explicit PiXL goal to maximise P8 for the school’s benefit – pretty much by whatever means necessary – and I found myself feeling increasingly saddened that we’re in a state where this thinking holds sway on such a big scale. In Bucket 1, for Maths, the main tip was that for students doing Edexcel looking at Grades U-E, it’s better to switch to the Level 1/2 Certificate because of greater stability with grade boundaries? Tactics! Here we had the first bit of direct system-playing; something I thought we were getting away from. For English, the key assumption was that PiXL-savvy schools would be doing the CIE English – one last year of Speaking and Listening so make the most of it. The message was to re-do the S&L one final time now before the window closes in April. (or something). All the reasons that OfQual took S&L out were being reinforced here as far as I could see. My feeling was – thank goodness this is nearly over so we’ve got a level playing field next year.
Then there was a section on Bucket 3 tactics. Schools could offer AS creative writing from AQA . The speaker suggested she’d got good grades worth decent Bucket 3 points in minimal hours. She was celebrating how many points were given for work of quality that ‘doesn’t blow your socks off’ in a class taught in one hour per fortnight. The theory is that, if it counts in the system, it counts – regardless of the learning experience. I’m struggling to believe our system gives value to a course that can be taught in an hour a fortnight on a par with a whole GCSE like History or Economics. How much educational value do those AS qualifications really have versus their Progress 8 value? It feels wrong on principle. But hey, it if counts? I find this depressing; that we’re playing for advantage against each other, amassing credit from an arbitrary algorithm that defines success. My acid test would be this: If the P8 points were taken away, would you still offer the course? But that’s not the spirit here. Or, I guess, the reality.
There were more suggestions: the English for ESOL GCSE (which neatly doesn’t have clashing codes with actual English); the ECDL (which neatly doesn’t clash codes with ICT GCSEs); the TCL grade 6 Rock and Pop (which is great because there’s no prerequisite theory exam – i.e. it’s quite easy); and AS Use of Maths. Another speaker suggested whole-cohort entry for these qualifications was the way to go instead of messing about with small intervention groups. They had modelled whole cohort entry for ECDL and Use of Maths and found their P8 would go up by 0.3. It’s a big win – if that is the main prize. The DFE 2018 document on technical qualifications has a list of other qualifications schools could try. At some point a speaker actually said something like “this is not gaming; this is not cheating” which made me think that either they were fed up having to defend it or, possibly, deep down, they feared it might be. Either way, it made me feel uneasy.
I’ll get grief for this but, I don’t think we should be choosing qualifications based on their impact on whole-school measures, looking for advantage in the system. Is ECDL worth having? I’m sure it is in its own right. But is it equivalent to taking Physics, History, Art or French GCSE? The fact you can prep for it in three days suggests not. But if it counts it counts, right? When a huge number of schools are going down this path, it feels that the whole system is being distorted and that can’t be healthy. How many schools would run ECDL if the P8 points were zero but still counted for the students? It feels like just another round of equivalence loop-holes waiting to be exposed and shut-down. I’d rather not be part of it – but, at the same time, I don’t know for sure that we can afford not to be; we should not be put in that position. We all need to remember that P8 is not a measure of school effectiveness or the quality of education our students receive.
Before I left I heard a few more words about Maths – how you could increase your pass rate by 10% in 10 weeks by following the weekly plan. Week 1, make a plan; Week 2, re-do your sets; Week 3…… Week 9, launch your ‘7 days to go’ plan…. and so on. PiXL has turned exam prep into a military operation. That I can live with; it makes sense – students need to be ready to do themselves justice. I’m up for all of that. But, please, do we have to distort the system itself just to gain advantage against each other in this contest? It won’t last. Surely, it can’t.
Anyway – because the first half was all sensible stuff, we’ve got the forms and we’re joining. £3k? Probably well worth it and we’ll soon find out. It seems to me that, however grand our wider vision is, this machinery is now too big to ignore. The rules of the game are bigger than we are so we’ll have to play by them. It doesn’t mean we have to like it.