Of all of the media calls I received during my tenure as general secretary of ASCL one topic kept coming up over and over again - namely that of term time holidays. Because so many viewers, listeners and readers are parents, broadcasters and newspapers have been keen to cover it even though it is, or has been until now, a much smaller problem then this coverage would imply. Now with the high court judgement finding in favour of Mr Platt whose fine was overturned it is a top story again.
So what is the issue?
High levels of attendance often correlate with high-performance. There is no question about the link between attendance and people performance. Common sense would tell us that pupils who miss significant amounts of schooling are likely to fall behind unless a great deal of compensatory support is available. Every teacher knows that the absence of different pupils from lessons impacts on the continuity of teaching and the availability of the teacher to provide individual attention to pupils. Children may be absent for very good and understandable reasons but these are small numbers and relatively infrequent.
Schools have gone to great lengths to incentivise and reward good attendance. They also put in place effective support for pupils who miss school due to illness, family bereavement etc.
Schools do have a degree of discretion. They are allowed to authorise absence in ‘exceptional circumstances’. It is up to headteachers to define these and most have little difficulty in doing so. This enables sensible decisions to be made when a request comes into school most of the time. Nevertheless two things undermine this:
a small number of parents whose actions seriously undermine the capacity of the school to do the best for their children and who do not help their own children to succeed. They do not provide boundaries, often condone poor behaviour taking up a great deal of school leaders’ time and frequently take their children out of school without good reason. These parents are the first to make a fuss when the holiday is refused and will see this judgement as carte blanche to carry on taking their children out.
accountability and coercive policy. Schools have been required to chase 95% attendance targets and headteachers are in the firing line when performance falls short. The government has chosen to use a coercive approach to deal with parents who take their children out of school and schools which do not meet targets. We all know that such approaches lead, at best to compliance but rarely to ownership and commitment and we all know that they often have unintended consequences such as the growth of fining to very high levels in some parts of the country and punishment of some parents who are actually highly supportive of their children’s schools.
School terms are only for 190 days of the year. Two questions need to be asked.
Why is this a problem in Britain when it is not an issue elsewhere. I once asked a teacher in France whether many children miss school for family holiday. She was utterly mystified and could not imagine this happening.
Why it is that the thirteen weeks of school holidays and bank holidays are inadequate for more than a small minority of people to be able to arrange holidays?
So there are three issues to address.
The government needs to recognise that current policy combined with the heavy handed use of accountability is a blunt instrument and change the law appropriately.
They need to trust schools to work with parents to promote good attendance.
As a society we need to decide what we want from our education system. If we believe that all children should receive a great education in school our society needs a culture which values that and supports teachers 100%. That might involve forgoing the right to the odd cheap foreign holiday.
I would urge Mr Platt and the campaigners to think very carefully about the messages they are sending out. If they want some suggestions about the really important things they could campaign for to improve the life chances of their and other people’s children further I suspect that many teachers will join me to provide suggestions.
With the backdrop of the arguments about primary SATs there is currently much lively discussion in the Twittersphere. One such conversation was initiated by a blog published by Daisy Christodoulou which argued that testing is more reliable and valid and less biased than teacher assessment.
In the same way as the knowledge versus skills debate has often led to an unhelpfully polarised either/or discourse when it is plainly obvious that both are important elements of any curriculum there is a real risk of a similarly polarised discussion about teacher assessment versus testing. It would be as ridiculous to suggest that there was no place for examinations as it is to suggest that there is no place for teacher assessment.
Many moons ago I completed a PGCE at Southampton University. In stark contrast to what is often said about this approach to initial teacher education my course included an intensive period of training and drilling in the methodology of teaching and assessing my subject which was then applied (and rigorously assessed) in the classroom.
Although at the end of a one year course we were by no means experts in what I have always thought is probably the highest order set of professional skills and knowledge for teachers, we did have a basic grounding and were in a strong position to continue our education in this field as I did post qualification.
So what were we taught?
First, that assessment follows but does not drive the curriculum. It is there to inform us whether young people have achieved the learning outcomes we sought to teach.
Second, we learnt about the various techniques of assessment. We explored a wide range of strategies ranging from straight recall of memorised knowledge (very important in modern languages – how else do you master vocabulary or adjective endings?), to different types of closed/ open and multiple choice questions, cloze exercises, information gap tasks and of course summative or synoptic tests. We also discussed the advantages and shortcomings of all of these and practised designing them.
Third, we learnt that formative, summative and diagnostic assessment is an integral part of curriculum planning.
We were left with the strong message that we had just embarked on what needed much more study and practice as we began our careers as qualified teachers.
I believe that 2 things need to happen if we are to avoid a polarised debate:
All teachers must be educated in these professional matters at the beginning of their careers. I still come across too many cases where unqualified teachers who may well have a first class knowledge of their subject discipline are dropped into the classroom with this. We need a national curriculum for ITE which is covered whatever route is followed. Teachers need access to academic research and further study on assessment.
The purposes of assessment need to be clear and focused. The job of teachers is about enabling every student to achieve the best possible learning outcomes. Accountability measures are there to assess the extent to which that has happened at the end of the learning process not to drive the content of a curriculum plan. At present high stakes accountability has perverted and distorted their purpose and value.
The teaching profession must be empowered to take back control of this professional work and the government needs to back off. The schools Minister’s recent speech to a ‘curriculum summit’ organised by ASCL was entitled ‘the importance of the curriculum’ yet it homed in on testing and examinations from the second paragraph onwards and focused almost entirely on academic learning. If examination specifications are the basis of the curriculum plan and the only means of assessment it will be incredibly narrow.
This is a vitally important debate. Rather than polarising it into yet another set of either-or confrontation between those labelled as progressives or traditionalists our profession needs a mature discussion. If there ever was a case for a professional body to encourage such discourse it is about this subject.
So the qualifications goalposts are moving again. There have been two unrelated announcements during the last week which conflict sharply with the Government’s stated policy of ‘Excellence for All’ and have the potential to add further confusion and distraction to schools which are desperately trying to do their very best for the young people in their care.
First , it would seem that the worthiness of some qualifications on the list approved by DFE and in one case an internationally recognised one has been called into question by the regulator. The reason for this investigation has nothing to do with knowledge or skills those achieving these qualifications might have demonstrated by passing the exam but instead relates to the amount of direct teaching candidates have received in preparation for the test.
At this stage I must pause to allow readers to take this in…… Isn’t that teaching to the test which has been so heavily criticised by the same regulator? And where does this leave the accreditation of prior learning, a widely accepted aspect of many respected qualifications. Does it for example mean that when I learnt the violin as a child I would not have been allowed to take my grade exams unless I had had a set amount of teaching rather than taking the test when I was ready? Does it mean that I should have been required to attend a further course before taking the Final Diploma of the Institute of Linguists even though I had a degree in German and was able to gain that valuable professional qualification without doing so?
One qualification under scrutiny is in The European Computer Driving Licence – an internationally recognised qualification which the government’s own National Careers Service strongly recommends and indeed says n its website: ‘if you have passed ECDL, employers know you have the skills to carry out the main tasks on a computer…….And it looks great on your CV.’ The same website continues ‘If you’re confident you already have the skills needed for the ECDL, you don’t need to undertake any training. You can just sit the test at an approved centre‘. What could possibly be wrong with equipping young people with such a valuable qualification which demonstrates competences they have developed throughout their schooling and which are needed in almost every job?
The second was an announcement by Minister Nick Boles threatening penalties to schools which enter pupils for A-levels from which they subsequently drop out. For a number of years I have been anything but a lone voice in arguing the case for all young people to have access to impartial careers advice from trained professionals. Whilst it is to be welcomed that the government is now investing heavily in promoting links with employers and providing enterprise advisers to assist schools, funding for careers advisors was withdrawn. The responsibility to make up for the shortfall was passed to schools leaving many high and dry.
The government has also rightly highlighted the fact that there are parts of the country when very few young people gain access to A-levels or University. It has made it clear that it will be using the accountability system and Ofsted inspections to focus on this.
So on the one hand schools must increase the number of young people taking A-levels and on the other hand if some don’t make the grade schools will be penalized. Schools are expected to advise young people about the full range of qualifications but in many parts of the country have enormous difficulty accessing impartial information. Meanwhile the accountability system focuses largely on academic qualifications with a much lower emphasis on vocational ones.
We need to be absolutely clear about the impact of these kinds of announcements drip fed to schools.
Many young people rely totally on the support given to them by their schools to enable them to access successful careers. In providing such support schools need to have the freedom to decide what is the best curriculum for them and to help them to access those qualifications which will best support them to that end. There is no argument that these will include a strong academic grounding but that is not enough for everyone.
Young people need to know about all of the career options open to them. By providing high-quality guidance combined with careers education and access to a range of employers who can provide them with first hand knowledge of the world of work we can break the cycle of low aspiration and ambition which has held back so many young people for generations.Threats of the kind made by Minister Boles will strongly incentivise schools to be highly selective in admission to A-level courses and advise many people to take a comfortable option which does not necessarily unleash their full potential. This could be immensely damaging to the improvement of social mobility as well as this country’s international standing in educational performance.
Policy about qualifications is in a complete mess. Employers and providers of higher and further education need qualifications to provide evidence of the learning outcomes candidates have achieved. Statements from official sources which undermine those the government itself has recognised leave employers confused and disenfranchised from the education system.
In his recently published book ‘Coalition’ former schools minster David Laws eloquently describes Michael Gove’s surprise announcement in 2012 to bring back O Levels and CSE which was thankfully kicked into touch. Is perhaps the not so hidden agenda here to return to the days of norm referencing when qualifications were gatekeepers rather than the key to life chances?
The Secretary of State’s speech of 20th April described the freedoms the government attributes to academy status. Are they really new or has there been a loss of policy memory?
As a school leader I had extensive experience of autonomy and know its power. The most momentous period of my career coincided with my appointment into a Senior Leadership Team. Two major structural changes took place during that period in the late 80s and early 90s.
The first was the delegation of funding under ‘Local Management of Schools’. That was without doubt transformational. Instead of having to go cap in hand to the local authority for every single piece of resourcing or low level decision schools suddenly had the freedom to innovate, to allocate staffing to those innovations, to try things out to get better results and to make long term plans. Schools were able to shape their own destiny to an unprecedented extent.
The logical extension of this was Grant Maintained Status (GMS). As Deputy Head in a GM school I remember the transformation we brought about in our school.
This set of freedoms brought a great deal of new responsibilities and regulatory requirements. Then there was the need to plan strategically – school development plans were a new idea- the arrival of a new, rigorous accountability including Ofsted inspections and performance tables. Safeguards were in place in the form of a strict audit regime and entitlement curriculum for all schools.
We used the substantial additional resourcing provided to comply with these additional responsibilities , taking advantage of the detailed guidance and briefing provided by the government of the time to ensure that we truly understood the new responsibilities and strict audit regime. This ensured that we complied with the plethora of requirements that the Local Authority had formerly worried about.
Importantly the resourcing ensured that we had the capacity to use these new freedoms to the benefit of our students. As curriculum deputy I was able to allocate time – that most valuable resource- to teachers to innovate and develop our curriculum. We worked in partnership with a consortium of schools sharing best practice and giving our staff (including me) access to high quality professional learning working in partnership with higher education institutions. Outcomes for our students were transformed – a fact that was recognised in our first Ofsted inspection.
We were also able to transform the learning environment and the working conditions for our staff. We introduced an enhanced appraisal system which rewarded excellent performance long before this was a requirement. All of this put us in a strong position to recruit the best staff.
The local authority – an enlightened and forward thinking one- adapted to this new policy context and ensured that the services it offered provided value for money and were of a quality which made us want to purchase them. They were part of the solution , not part of the problem. Passing control over procurement decisions to schools made all the difference.
In my book that was a golden age.
After those days I had headships of both LA maintained and Foundation Schools. I have worked within a range of local authorities one excellent, some good, some awful. When working in the latter the autonomy we had still enabled us to hold on to our educational vision. However, they were definitely part of the problem and certainly needed to be reformed at the very least along the lines of the better ones.
All of the freedoms described above are those which have been promised under academy status and which Nicky Morgan emphasised in her speech of 20th April. I would contend that most of them already exist in the vast majority of schools.
However, there is one big difference between becoming an academy for sound educational reasons and doing so because this has been imposed from outside. In the schools where I worked decisions made to take on additional responsibility and accountability were considered carefully by senior leaders and governors in consultation with the staff. The capacity of the school to manage these responsibilities without undermining our core purpose was a key factor. We would never have taken them on if, for one minute, we had felt that it did not align with the clearly articulated vision we had for our school to the benefit of our students. We certainly would not have wanted to become part of a trust which had an incompatible one.
In spite of my wholehearted support for school autonomy I worry about schools rushing into academy status without the capacity to manage it. At best this will be a constraint. At worst it will be a major distraction for schools which are serving their students perfectly well.
If the government is genuinely committed to letting schools be in control of their destiny then let us hope that it will prove that by leaving these vitally important decisions to them.
Read the blog
I have written to coincide with the launch of the Smarter Spaces campaign at which I am giving a keynote.
Read my latest blog posted on the National Education Trust website https://nationaleducationtrustblog.wordpress.com/2016/03/13/moral-imperatives-for-our-schooling-system-by-brian-lightman/
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