Over the past few weeks I’ve read many different blog posts on the topic of marking and its monitoring; there have been some really great posts in the blogosphere. This is a very live issue for us. The posts seem to be following a similar trend to the frenzy that led to Ofsted stating that they would no longer grade lessons which many schools duly followed.
I blogged a year or so ago about the tyranny of “you can tell so much from looking at books” and suggested that the statement should have been “you can only tell so much from looking at books.” Book or marking scrutiny and monitoring, with the consequences for teachers, has hopefully reached its peak in schools in the same way lesson grading did a few years ago.
When we choose to monitor something as school leaders we immediately raise its importance in the minds of teachers and consequently the time spent on it. The time committed to it increases still further as the outcome becomes high stake by being formally recorded, used in appraisal or for performance related pay. The higher the stakes the more focused everyone becomes on the issue sometimes to the exclusion of other important aspects of teaching. We may focus on what we can evidence or require evidence to be produced for our focus. The impact of this on workload for teachers has reached a critical point with far too many exhausted or simply deciding to leave the profession and get a life. Neither is good for pupils. Lesson observations, marking or feedback scrutinies, checking home learning has been set and marked, short, medium and long term planning requirements, collection of assessment data … plus many more I’m sure people could add have become all consuming. The list is too long and the time spent doing and monitoring is becoming disproportionate to the actual impact.
When you lay down the law in a tightly formulated policy, which then requires significant time and effort monitoring, the sentence for all people involved is many more hours added to their workload. I have lost count of the number of times I have asked staff what we could stop doing this year only to be met with no suggestion or idea. Possibly everything our teachers are doing is so important there is nothing we can drop (this is not true) or things have become so habitualised that it is difficult to imagine life without them or staff are just too tired to think straight. As leaders we regularly step forward and say what we think should be done. Maybe it’s time to step forward and this time take the lead on what won’t be done anymore?
Streamlining: The Important & Unique
The relative priority of individual teachers in terms of time spent planning, developing practice within the class room or giving feedback will vary, possibly considerably. Arguably as long a teacher doesn’t have a significant deficit in one area which undermines her/his overall quality of teaching these differences should matter less to senior leaders than they currently do. Are leaders losing sight of the big picture and attempting to micro monitor too many things of varying impact on actual outcomes?
Our quality of teaching judgements are triangulated through: a set of three lesson observations against criteria grouped into planning, practice and feedback which also involves a check/scrutiny of schemes of learning and books; a look at assessment data to check progress over time and an overall judgement. However, we also have monitoring of marking as a separate process and checking of pupils’ progress as part of our new data and feedback informed teaching & learning (DAFITAL) approach.
There is clearly overlap here, all of which adds to people’s workload, so one option would be to drop the “progress over time check” in the quality of teaching process as it is also covered, more comprehensively and frequently, in DAFITAL Meetings. Another overlap is the monitoring of marking and feedback which could be removed from the quality of teaching process or stopped as a separate process. If doing less better is our mantra then it should also be our practice.
Streamlining: The Collective & Personal
We’re not massive on monitoring planning; it appears in our quality of teaching process but not much elsewhere. Our focus is increasingly on the collaborative planning of schemes of learning and writing of common assessments including those at the beginning of topics to assess prior knowledge. There’s a long way to go before this will all be in place but since it is a collaborative process there seems little sense in actually monitoring it at an individual teacher level. If schemes of learning are not in place it is a subject or departmental issue not one to hold an individual teacher to account for. Creating differentiated learning programmes is a lot to ask an individual teacher to do; some would argue it’s actually unreasonable.
Listening to Professor Timothy Oates at the SSAT National Conference I was struck by the potential of “rich questions” as a possible collective alternative to attempting to monitor feedback in practical subjects; though I realise that I may just be swapping one bad idea for another. We’ve created an industry in evidence collection in some practical subjects including voice recordings, videos or pictures of work in development and potentially some unnecessary written tasks just to have something to feedback on. Would it be more beneficial for teachers in practical subjects to develop collectively rich feedback rubrics which help pupils to move towards increasingly sophisticated performance or products? The discussions in producing the rubrics will be the really beneficial part of the process but the written feedback rubric is all the evidence required by the department.
Streamlining: The Alternatives & Obsolete
Manga High I came across a few years ago but was reacquainted with last week at Michaela School who use it for all their home learning in Mathematics in Year 7 & 8. The efficiency of it in terms of one click to see who has completed what and to what standard means a class’ home learning is set, marked and gaps analysed in less than five minutes. A new one on me was Bedrock Learning which Alex, from our English Department, found and focuses on vocabulary development. Both are on-line adaptive programmes which can transform a teacher’s marking workload by reducing marking; the computer does it. We’re going to hopefully start trials with a number of classes over the next few months to measure the impact of both these programmes.
Is it also time to simply stop doing things? When looking at monitoring grids which elements are critically important to the pupils and their learning and what can go?
Trusted to Do What?
For monitoring and accountability to move to trust needs teachers and school leaders to be responsible within a culture of appropriate, honest and incisive feedback. The shift towards a low stakes feedback model instead of one that produces aggregated high stakes summative monitoring judgements is the journey being travelled by a number of schools. Some schools are already well ahead of the curve in terms of implementation, having not graded lessons for many years, whilst some of us have moved to it in the past year or two and others have stuck with grading lessons. There are applications and implications for other areas of monitoring within schools.
One of my questions is whether this move is a journey or a leap of faith? The journey scenario I’m using to suggest that there may be a set of preconditions, for example, results are good or Ofsted are not likely to condemn you or teacher quality is high before you reduce monitoring significantly. For teachers working in challenging schools they may have just seen the light at the end of the tunnel go out. There is a need for bravery if you decide it is a leap of faith type judgement where you just decide to trust and go for it.
The most difficult question is how will we ensure ourselves and others have been responsible? How will we know if the trust is well placed or has been abused? The monitoring of the quality of teaching, planning, home learning, class room practice and feedback sit within the academic dimension of a school’s work; is it reasonable to wait and simply measure their contribution to a group of pupils’ progress over time with end of year, SAT, GCSE or A-level performance? How would any outcomes based system deal with people at different stages in their career, should it? How accountable should an individual teacher be for the outcomes of pupils as they will have been taught by a number of teachers during their time at a school and other factors affect outcomes not just teaching? Would you change tack and monitor more if there were parental complaints? What about the limitations put on success in examinations at a national level; not all pupils are permitted to pass?
The cost of the profession being irresponsible was Ofsted who are now also part of the workload problem. Moving beyond a universal inspection service will require greater responsibility from the profession. Beyond the law and its monitoring we are hearing the prophetic voices who will eventually bring wisdom to the current madness.
Leading schools where children and young people are safe, happy & want to learn; parents want to send their children too and teachers want to work involves managing competing tensions. If anyone can help me make that step I’d appreciate it; not sure whether the issue is a lack of cognition or bravery.