In recent weeks, I’ve been thinking about the huge imbalance between the time and effort we spend identifying issues relative to the time and effort we spend doing something to address them. There are two main areas where this imbalance comes into play: assessment data and ‘referrals’.
Here’s a thought experiment (One I’ve used before): Your entire data system at school is wiped out and your mark book is accidentally burned in a fire. How upset are you?
The fact is that most teachers could zip through their class list in a few minutes re-creating an assessment profile and cause-for-concern list. We know what the issues are. Usually, when the data system spews out the RED flags of concern, it is absolutely no surprise. Occasionally, of course, something unexpected pops up but mainly, we already know because of the richness of our interactions with our students.
The challenge we face is to answer ‘Now What?’. What are we going to do about it? The menu of options is usually pretty obvious, no-nonsense stuff. There are things we can do to address motivation, attitudes to learning, organisation, parental involvement. There are things we can do to support access to the resources, to reinforce key learning points, to enforce work completion and improvement, to increase the level of challenge or provide more targeted practice in areas of difficulty.
How many data drops do you need to support the identification process? Deciding what to do for which student is where we need to spend our time. And it doesn’t matter to John or Abdi if they are a white working class boy or a Somali EAL student on Pupil Premium. They are just John and Abdi; students who need some extra help. Let’s just get on with it.
‘Referral’ can often be another merry-go-round that I find can turn into a vortex of inaction. Concerns about a child can swirl around, feed into a meeting with way too many staff around a table, lead to a referral to an Educational Psychologist or CAMHS practitioner – or some other agency – and, several weeks later, a six page report appears with the big answer: James needs to work in small groups, sit at the front and be given work in small chunks. No kidding?! Again, the time and energy at the front end can dwarf the final product – the actions that actually support the child. And, in waiting for the voice of authority, the big diagnosis, we’ve been paralysed into inaction, wasting precious time.
Of course, some students have very specific needs that need to be identified. A good ECHP is helpful; it’s not merely a bureaucratic exercise. I am not suggesting that clinical and ed. psych work are not important. I am saying that, far too often, the whole referral process and report generation is far, far too long-winded and unwieldy relative to the actions that follow. And there are too many people who think that it is for other people to actually do the doing; at some point, we need actions that directly support a child to learn and it’s a common mistake to confuse talking about actions with the actions themselves.
We need to re-think this whole culture and cut to the chase more often. Let’s go lean on data, lean on meetings and use our common sense to generate a menu of practical interventions that are meaningful and deliverable. Let’s keep it simple and resolve to see through the interventions we’ve planned to the point we’re actually making an impact.