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Curriculum, Leadership

The Don’t Do Decisions of Teaching and Leading

More often than not we are judged as leaders by the things we do.  It is understandable that a decision not to do something goes unseen but the don’t do decisions” are as critical as or possibly even more so than the “do decisions”.  The same is true of learning in the class room and always has been.  Should you stick or twist? 

Photo Credit: z Q via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: z Q via Flickr cc

Last week I spent the best part of three days sat alongside the Head teacher at St. Mary’s and various senior leaders discussing the mock examination results for Y11, 12 and 13 and what next with Heads of Department.  It was overwhelmingly a positive experience largely because the middle leaders and their departments were all over the issues like the proverbial rash.  We questioned, probed and prompted, whether the mock results were quite pleasing or a bit disappointing, there was always a coherent and sensible plan for moving forward over the next six weeks.  That’s all the time there is.

Whilst I wonder to what extent worry was etched on my face; I now have three results days a year: SATs, A-levels and GCSE, there is very little sense in panicking everyone at this stage of the year and all running around like demented fools.  It certainly won’t help the teachers and is unlikely to help the pupils either.  Using the current grade methodology we have implemented over the past few years we look to be in slightly better position this year in terms of attainment.  With a statistically weaker cohort the Progress 8 score could improve yet again this Summer.  A few months of hard work and focussed revision by the pupils, supported by the staff, good performance on the day and keeping our fingers crossed will hopefully see a lot of smiling faces on results day.

The focus in a lot of the meetings was on further raising the attainment of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and maybe surprisingly discussing Key Stage 3.  If we are to become less demented at this time of the year, we are still intervening too much and too late, then we need to secure learning earlier.

It’s so hard to make the “don’t do decision” even when common sense cries out for it.  Interventions are a way of life despite yielding a diminishing return.  You rapidly reach the point were more isn’t better they aren’t having an impact; they just provide a comfort blanket of doing something.  The only sustainable intervention happens in class rooms everyday over twelve years in school.

The Class Room Don’t Do Decisions

Photo Credit: Sr. X via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Sr. X via Flickr cc

In a subject that is so rich and diverse what do you leave out?  You cannot fit everything that has been thought or said or done into the limited lessons available.  In an overloaded curriculum or syllabus how do you cover everything?  What do you do if pupils don’t understand something but time to complete everything is running out?  The latter becomes compounded for the teacher as invariably some pupils do and others don’t understand.

With increasing curriculum demands being made through SATs and external examinations at the end of Years 2, 6, 11 and 13 this challenge is becoming very real.  Some of the increased demand is welcome but take it too far and greater challenge actually becomes an inappropriate curriculum.  At what point would you determine that the expected standards has been met and look to advance pupils to work that many might not cover until next year?  Progress has become an inexorable expectation in our education system.  Making the next sub-level or grade was the measure of the good teacher, progress in the twenty minute lesson observation; speed and pace were everything but the new challenge is about depth and retaining the learning over time.  If or as this persists class rooms and teaching approaches will change; doing less better, focussing on the key concepts, building from a firm factual base and revisiting concepts a number of times leads to a different approach to teaching and learning.

Moving to the Progress Board

We’ve long had the obligatory “War Board” in the final year prior to pupils sitting their SATs or GCSEs.  This year Simon, Head teacher at St. Mary’s, and I looked over the who needs English or Maths or three others; it produces the Grade C Ceiling.  The exclusive nature of the 5+A*-CEM (or Level 4+ in Reading, Writing and Maths) performance indicators has created a focus in many schools which may well have transferred into some pupils’ mentality, “Once I’ve got my C then I’m done” This becomes reinforced, as many Sixth Forms have a 5+A*-CEM entry requirement plus some specific subjects requirement; a higher grade to study Mathematics A-level is common.

It was when we walked around to look at the reverse side that the conversation really got going; the results were presented based on Progress 8 scores.  The sub-groups were high, middle and low attainers on entry with stickers to identify the Pupil Premium and SEND pupils.  The comparison using this inclusive indicator – every pupil, every grade – is startling; for some pupils D becomes a massive, if not yet a totally acceptable, achievement and for others the grade C shows a lack of progress with a damning impact on the Progress 8 scores.  Similarly meeting the average 100 score on the new scaled Key Stage 2 measure could be a great achievement or none at all depending on the pupil’s starting point.

Photo Credit: Scott Smith via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Scott Smith via Flickr cc

This is why we are spending an increasing amount of time looking at the years leading up to the SATs and external examinations.  We have to set the curriculum at the appropriate level of challenge for each pupil; this is what we are now tracking against and is the flight path to future success.  Following first teaching we need to know whether pupils have got it or not; building in reteach time has challenged us significantly this year.  The temptation to rush on to the next thing, knowing that it makes no sense to move on if a child simply doesn’t understand, has been hard wired into many teachers’ thinking; coverage not mastery has been the goal.  We’ve committed to our slower and steadier approach.  The cumulative impact over the years, with any learning recovery required close to the point of first teaching, takes time but may stop another Summer Term of us being Intervention High.

Similarly with leadership at a school or Trust, there is so much more we need to do but we only have the time to do more things badly; we’re committed to enough.  The decision not to do something is one of the most powerful decisions you make as a leader and a teacher; it helps create the time and space to do a few things really well.

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