Is it worth going to university?

Twenty or so years ago a university education would have guaranteed you a well paid job. People with degrees were rare and so having a degree level qualification to your name would make you stand out at the very least and get your foot in through the door.

Fast forward to 2021 and the landscape is very different.

A paper by Universities UK  titled ‘Patterns and Trends in UK Higher Education’ published in 2018 shows the growing number of University students since 2009 (see chart below).  

I do not think it is a bad thing that these numbers are growing, some of this is down to the great work put in by universities to reach out to a broader audience of students and encourage them to attend university where they may not have traditionally considered it. Young people who are the first in their families to go to university. I myself, was one of these people.

Yet, with more recent figures claiming that half of all 18 year olds go to university and as the scarcity of people walking around with degrees is reduces, it begs the question, is it worth it?  Considering that they may not make you stand out any more it is a valid question. Add to that the growing costs of tuition fees, housing etc.. and alternatives to university being pushed by the government, are students better off opting for alternatives?

I find myself having this discussion with my A Level students each year. May of them come in with a mindset that University degrees are more valuable than an apprenticeship and it’s only when we dig deeper that they see the value in apprenticeships rather than dated ideas about them.

So is it worth going to university?

There are a number of ways we can answer the question.

One is to look at the earning potential of degree courses, if students are completing a degree, what they will gain out of it financially.

The government published a a fascinating paper on this in November 2018 called ‘The impact of undergraduate degrees on early-career earnings.’ In it they highlight:

“Not all degrees are the same, and subject choice appears to be a very important determinant of returns. For men, studying creative arts, English or philosophy actually result in lower earnings on average at age 29 than people with similar background characteristics who did not go to HE at all. By contrast, studying medicine or economics appears to increase earnings by more than 20%. For women, there are no subjects that have negative average returns, and studying economics or medicine increases their age 29 earnings by around 60%.”

I would encourage anyone interested in this area to read the whole paper, particularly to highlight the difference in pre HE characteristics e.g. higher attainment and background which also has an impact on earnings.

In December 2019 FE news published the highest and lowest earning degrees in the UK 5 years after graduating.

The highest earning degrees were:

Lowest earning degrees were:  

I think the above also raises questions about how we value different career choices in our society and in our markets. But should we base going to university on its financial benefits alone? Personally I don’t think so.

We know our young people don’t just complete degrees for earning potential. Many pursue subjects that they have a passion for or that lead them to careers they aspire to be in. Unfortunately, there is no data to show this (unless you are looking for satisfaction results by institution rather than degree level).

With a growing emphasis on degree level apprenticeships and the new T Levels however we do need to question whether students would be getting an equally valuable experience out of these rather than a degree. Again with many of them being so new data is hard to find to answer this question.

The Incomes Data Research Centre published some interesting research about the starting hourly rate of degrees vs apprenticeships in July 2019 and compared it to National Minimum Wage. Their findings are summarised below:

However, they did note:

“Despite the attractive pay on offer for apprentices, the study has found that graduates are more likely than apprentices to complete their training in full, possibly due to the development opportunities and status offered by such programmes, suggesting that recruits to graduate programmes perhaps have greater longevity with the same employer. Whether this changes as the number of degree-apprentices increases remains to be seen.”

So the conclusion?

This isn’t an easy question to answer. Higher education is about more than just earning potential (although that is important for our young people) and much of the softer data doesn’t exist. Whether students pick degrees or apprentices depends on how well they understand themselves and those around them understand them and can advise them.

I’m pleased to say I have seen some of my phenomenal students go to the most prestigious universities, others be the first ones to complete university degrees in their families and yet others complete apprenticeships at companies such as Rolls Royce, Google and KPMG. Each one chose their path based on what they felt was important to them in terms of style of learning, exposure to industry, lifestyle, location and many more factors. I was privileged to help them navigate through these complex questions. I was surprised how many came in with their parents with negative connotations towards apprenticeships and a preference for degrees and changed their minds once they recognised what alternatives to traditional degrees could offer.

Although I can’t offer a single response to the question I can for certain say that the conversation around this needs to continue with our young people and their parents for them to make the right decisions for themselves. 

Some sources of information mentioned above:

https://www.incomesdataresearch.co.uk/resources/press-releases/pay-for-degree-apprentices-rises-more-rapidly-than-that-for-traditional-graduates-press

https://www.fenews.co.uk/press-releases/39718-ucas-deadline-the-highest-and-lowest-earning-degrees-revealed

https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/facts-and-stats/data-and-analysis/Documents/patterns-and-trends-in-uk-higher-education-2018.pdf

When we get back, the principles of good teaching remain the same.

The panic is starting, I can hear it in the twitter sphere and in clubhouse rooms. The impact of lockdown on student learning and what we need to do to correct it. When what we need is more of what we said we would always do.

The need is too great. To come up with a fancy strategy to overcome a challenge. But the thing is the challenges were always great in teaching. It’s why we joined the profession. To work against the odds and give our students the best possible foundations for their springboard into life. The world has changed, that doesn’t mean that your teaching radically has to.

What I believe our students need when we get back are two key things

  • Routines
  • Focus on learning in the classroom – through a few strategies that you already know about

Don’t panic let’s just focus on good teaching practice.

The principles of good teaching still apply. We need routine, variation, spacing and interleaving. Let’s look at what these might look like when we return.

Routine: There’s no doubt about it our young people will come back having stuck to their normal routines at varying levels, they’ll need us to redraw the lines, explicitly reteach what is and isn’t acceptable, what we will and will not tolerate. What a strong classroom culture looks and feels like and their role in making that a reality as quickly as possible. The key here is to be explicit in our reteaching of routines.

Variation: Just like you, our students have spent a lot of time in front of a screen staring at information you may have presented. Perhaps you got fancy with breakouts and let them discuss things in small groups. But what they really crave is variety and nows the time to try it. Team work, getting them to build on each others’ answers, group discussions to really explore their thoughts with someone other than their cat! How can you switch things up so you don’t rely on a computer screen for your lessons when you get back?

Spacing: It’ll be tempting to reteach and test quickly, but learning requires forgetting. And not just forgetting once. So when planning recall don’t just recall what the students have learnt during the lockdown period but go further back like you normally would to last year and when they were in the classroom.

Interleaving:Yes it’s tempting to revisit what students have learnt at home however as stated above learning requires forgetting. There’s no reason you can’t move forward with the curriculum and put aside small chunks of time each week to revisit previous topics. Even better link them to what the students are learning now and going forward. We learn in stories and the more hooks you can provide to what they know the easier it is for them to remember new information.

None of this is rocket science. None of this is new. You can do this. You have done this. But we need to be brave and stick to what we know works and keep things simple in a time when it will be tempting to recreate the wheel.

What are schools for?

And are we expecting too much from them?

I recently joined Clubhouse the new online social platform which focuses on audio. Essentially it allows you to go into ‘rooms’ hosted by others members to discuss various topics. One such room asked the question ‘Do our schools prepare our children for success?’ and that stopped me in my tracks is that the bar now? Are we being held solely responsible for the future successes of young people? And what do we mean by success? This then led me to ask the question ‘What are schools for?’ Much like the age old debate about the role of the state we find boundaries shifting.

It takes a village – but that village has got a lot smaller.

You may have heard the saying it takes a village to raise a child and that was all fine and well when we lived in tight knit communities where people shared childcare. But now in 2021 the majority of care is given by schools and immediate family. Over time more and more is added to the curriculum to often teach children many of the things they may have learnt in communities, through mentors, peers and role models.

The question is ‘Have we spread ourselves too thin?’ And whilst the government cannot control homes is it over inflating the responsibilities placed on schools because it can? And does that set us up for a fall?

Do we even know what the role of schools is anymore?

Nick Gibb attempted to answer this question in 2015 when addressing the Education Reform Summit. He argued that the purpose was, well broken down into 3 purposes.

Namely these are:

Economic – to ensure our young people have the skills and knowledge to succeed in a demanding economy through an effective and rigorous curriculum. In his speech he focused on Maths and literacy in particular.

Culture – Here he makes the sensible argument that we need to teach young people the basic tenets of the curriculum for them to engage in culture – for instance grasping the language to enjoy poetry and set free our imagination. But then things get a bit fuzzy as he quotes Matthew Arnold and making ‘all men live in an atmosphere of sweetness and light’ before talking about how much the arts have been invested in and the need to break down class barriers.

Preparation for adult life – here he talks about character education and draws on case studies from the KIPP schools in the USA who no doubt do incredible work.

To summarise he argues that schools have ‘Three purposes – empowering young people to succeed in the economy, participate in culture, and leave school prepared for adult life’ – and argues that these have consistently guided the programme of reform by the government.

Let’s take each one of these in turn:

Economic – this is probably the one where most school staff feel most comfortable so I’m not going to discuss it in any great length because this is not a blog post about the curriculum. But at a basic level we all agree that a rigorous curriculum that allows our students to participate in the economy and be positive citizens in it, is something we can all get behind.

Culture – What worries me here is that he seems fine with the assumption that a solid education will allow students to break class barriers. We all know that education can play a huge part but it is not the only factor. For instance I can try and break down class barriers as much as I like by educating students but if mass unemployment is still the norm for parents these class barriers will remain because the economic conditions of many of these young people will not allow them to prosper. Also if we have such a commitment to the arts why are they not core elements of Progress 8 like science English and maths?

Preparation for adult life

There is now very clear evidence that schools can make a significant contribution to their pupils’ achievement by finding opportunities to instil key character traits, including persistence, grit, optimism and curiosity.

I have no doubt the above is true. But I also have no doubt that the home and the character showcased by parents and role models at home play a huge part in students future opportunities. And we can teach these in school but what students need is the ability to practice them in the real world.

Far too often I read reports about the skills young people lack to make them employable. Quite often the feedback is from middle ages business owners  harking on about how the youth of today don’t have what it takes to be employed and they have forgotten what they were like as kids. Its natural, I’m sure you’ve heard your parents say how much better life was 50 or so years ago, yet none of us want to go back there. I have a friend that lives in Yorkshire and was, probably foolishly discussing Brexit with an elderly lady in her 80’s. She like many other people voted for Brexit because she wanted to go back to the good old days. When asked when this was she said the early 80’s. ‘You sure?’ asked my friend, ‘you wanna go back to the miners strikes when we experienced mass unemployment and families struggled to feed their young?’ She then proceeded to hit him with her handbag and told him to stop being so clever. The point I’m trying to make is it is a story as old as time that older generations think that youths of the time are less capable then they were. My experience shows me something completely different. I see young people able to navigate comples social relationships, online and offline, caring about the planet, open minded. What these kids lack is experience in the workplace to put these abilities to use and a chance. Let me ask you would you hire yourself at 16? Or even 18? I asked my husband this question two days ago and his honest response was ‘I don’t think I would have hired me at 22.’ My husband who often manages placement students in their second year of university has to teach them how to write emails, not because schools haven’t taught them how to construct emails but because knowledge without context doesn’t work. They have to know how to address different people in their organisation and that happens in the workplace not in school.

My worry is each time one of these reports come out, education ministers start cracking the whip promising to make qualifications harder, kids more ready for work through a corrected PSHE curriculum. I’m not saying we shouldn’t promote character in the curriculum. I’m saying it can’t sink in with the adjoining help of the community.

So given the above can schools ever fulfil their purpose particularly if the onus is placed on them wholly? My answer is no. We’ve all become too accustomed to pointing the finger at schools rather than acting like a village with schools, parents, local business and the government acting together to form an empowering tribe for our young people.

It takes a village.

Myths about teaching and education I wish I could eradicate

Teachers have 12 (or more) weeks of holidays a year

Lets start with this one as it’s the reason I’m most often told I’m lucky to be working in education. So say you work in an office, you’re entitled to about 4 weeks right? Most teachers, and certainly if they are senior leaders, would give their right arm to be able to have 4 weeks off. How could that be you may ask? Here’s the break down. I appreciate that on the surface it can look like we have 12 weeks off a year (5 summer, 2 Christmas – one of which most people would get if they were not in retail. 3 one week half term breaks, 2 weeks for Easter). We had 8 bank holidays entitled to all so let’s take off a week and a half with that taking us down to 9.5 weeks. Most teachers also work for at least half a day each weekend. If a teacher is teaching full time the chances are they will be teaching 22 out of 25 periods. Most schools will want some sort of assessment done every two weeks these range between quick tests and longer exam papers. Many secondary school teachers will have between 11 – 17 groups so you can imagine that 3 hours isn’t going to cover the marking required, thus the weekend. Many primary teachers are swamped with lesson preparation too. Lets assume out of 52 Saturdays a teacher works 14 thats 2 weeks taken right there so we are down to 7.5. Then there is the revision sessions over Easter, the trial exam marking over Christmas, the planning of new specs to meet new curriculum requirements and the general updating of resources over summer and I’d say we can whittle it down to 4 weeks like everyone else. (Most would argue it’s lower, certainly for senior leaders who plan for the forthcoming year it can be). Now here’s the thing, it could be 5 it could be 6 or 3. but there are not many professions that require you to be around 30 people all the time. Yes ALL the time. Whereas most professions will enjoy a lunch, or coffee break teaching staff very rarely do get those moments of quiet, they’re usually on duty, helping kids with things they didn’t understand etc..so the break, for their sanity is much needed. Having an off day, as my husband highlighted in any other profession he can hide behind the screen and just take 15 minutes to gather his thoughts, not in teaching you don’t. We need the down time.

Teachers do not work 9am-3pm

This one really amazes me, because it’s often said by people who drop their children off to school at 7.30am and want them to do after school club till 5pm. Who do they think is watching their children?

Your child is different at school then they are at home

You know that one friend that you always have fun and get into trouble with? Yeah your child has one of them too and the chances are they are that kid for someone else. That’s ok. We are not expecting them to be perfect. But what we are expecting is when we call to say they have stepped out of line you believe us rather than saying ‘My little Jimmy would never do/say that.’ Because little Jimmy did, believe me.

School is not 5 hours of listening to a teacher speaking at your child

This ones in response to parents complaining that we cannot provide round the clock live lessons. When students are at school they are not spoken at from the front for every moment of the lesson. Quite often we have to give them the opportunity to apply what they have learnt or at least what we have been talking to them about and they do that in silence through some independent work. It’s important that they get the same at home during lockdown.

Schools did not close during COVID and teachers have not had a holiday

The children of key workers were still coming in, teachers were changing all of their lessons to make them adequate for online provision. Navigating online assessment methods, cheering up tutees who miss school and their friends as well as trying to teach their own children.

Children have a great imagination

This is in response to twitter feedback. Apparently, they’re too busy playing video games? Having played a fair few they require a lot of imagination too! The problem is they can’t often articulate their imagination or think no one will care.

We cannot tell you 4 years before your child’s GCSE’s what they will get

Sorry, we’d love that kind of certainty, erm actually we wouldn’t, I’d hate to be judged on my actions and performance from four years ago wouldn’t you? Yeah think that through. I’ll happily talk to you about effort and participation. But I cannot guarantee a grade years in advance. Even in Year 10 I’ve seen so many turn things around, but it all comes down to participation and effort. So if you want to help ask your child what questions they asked during the day, when seated at the dinner table, not how they did in a test.

Teenagers are not stroppy and clueless

Honestly they are the funniest, most caring, sensitive and bright young people I’ve ever seen. Most of them are just trying to figure life out (aren’t we all!) Seriously, these kids are going to change the world and they’ll likely do a better job than the abysmal one we have. And ok sometimes they are stroppy and clueless but aren’t we all?!

Exams are easier than they used to be

Another confusing one, because this is often said by the same people who can’t help their kids with their primary school work. I’m not sure I could to be honest! I’ve seen the primary curriculum and I teach the kids when they start with us in year 7 and they are amazing! Having planned, replanned and replanned again GCSE and A Level curriculums over the years I can tell you they are getting tougher, the content more intense and the requirements for them to think outside the box and apply their own thinking greater.

What’s the point of all of this?

I’m not asking for sympathy, a pat on the back or a national monument erected in my honour (although that would be pretty cool) and I’m sure no other teacher is either. But a little bit of respect when we are spoken of would be really nice.

*Please note a lot of my references refer to secondary provision. My primary colleagues are often working with fewer resources which means longer hours and are absolute champs. However, I can only speak from my perspective.

Online teaching – here’s what I’ve learnt

Ok so none of us have trained in it but here we are, with a third lockdown, teaching from home for the second time.

The below are some thoughts on what I’ve learnt whilst teaching online in some of the areas that teachers tend to find most challenging, such as managing the chat! I’ve also included a link to a PP that I shared with all staff at our school should it be helpful for anyone leading CPD.

Before the lesson

The lobby – If you’re using Microsoft Teams or Zoom you can ensure students enter a lobby before they can enter the lesson. Switch this functionality on as it can be an easy way for you to do the register.

Permissions – depending on the system you use you can easily set the permissions so you are the only presenter so the only one with rights to mute/unmute, present etc.. to avoid kids pulling pranks on each other.

Recall – Make sure you have some recall questions which will help you deal with students who enter the online lesson at different times

Your slides – If using slides be explicit about which bits you want them to write down and when they should just be listening. You might do this through using a colour for text they must get down. I just tend to put ‘Write’ in the heading so they always know. Remember students don’t have the non verbal cues they are used to in a physical lesson so are less clear about what you want them to do.

At the start of the lesson

Set the ground rules – ‘You must only use the chat when I ask you a question and ask you to use it and/or when I say your name and ask you to input your answer.’ Students will want to socialise, this is normal and you build this in every now and again but you decide when.

Make behaviour expectations clear – ‘I’m expecting you all to be focused, I know this is new but we can do it’

Tell them what they need – ‘You should have a pen and paper to hand.’ Again those non verbal cues are not there so they can’t see others get their books and pens out so they may not have them to hand (you know the ones who are always the last ones to get their books out!)

What’s the journey? – Tell them where you expect to get to by the end of the leson – ‘Today we need to cover three key things…’ this then gives you a reference point throughout the lesson (‘right we’ve covered A and B you’re doing great now let’s look at C). This helps your lesson have a sense of pace.

Tell them you’re happy to see them! Even if it’s online. They may not see you for much of the lesson if you’re sharing slides so those non verbal cues that make them feel welcome are not there. So start the lesson telling them how happy you are to be able to virtually teach them (even if you’re not!;))

During the Lesson

Cold call – earlier this year we moved away from hands up to cold calling and are implementing this in our online lessons too. It ensures all students are listening and they can respond in the chat or by unmuting their mics.

Explicit instruction – are you being clear about what they should be doing during the lesson? Telling them when they should be listening and when they should be writing is critical.

Change things up – I tend to switch to video, showing my face when I want to explain something to them to break up the slides.

It’s ok to expect periods of silence – Is it just me that gets weirded out by the silence online? I know I’ve just asked them to write but it’s strange when I can’t see them do it.

Use the opportunity for live modelling – they can watch you type up sample answers and then discuss them.

At the end of the lesson

Summarise key learning points from the lesson so they can see how far they have come on the journey you identified at the start.

Run a true or false quiz – Just like the kids, we don’t have physical cues either. We can’t spot the kid with the confused face or glazed over eyes so build in some check points. (it can be something like 3 questions and asking them to put a T or F in the chat). This can help you check understanding.

Managing the chat

This is where most of my teachers get a bit flustered – kids making comments during lessons, nothing wrong but they can be distracting when you’re trying to present at the same time. Here’s some of the ways we are managing that:

  • Cold call – means only one child is responding at any one time
  • Polls – a clearer and quicker way of gauging understanding
  • True or false/Yes or No Qs – Requiring students to put a simple T/F/Y/N in the chat area
  • Being clear at the start of every lesson they are for work related comments only

Finally, go easy on yourself. You are modelling that learning can be challenging and that is ok. We won’t always get it right, but we strive to keep getting better and isn’t that all we want from our kids. So why are we hard on ourselves to get it perfect?

If you’d like, I’ve shared the slides I have gone through with staff in a staff briefing here. Please feel free to download and adapt.

Building a self reflective staff body

It’s New Year’s Eve and needless to say many people are reflecting on their previous year. It has given us a lot to think about. Maybe you are setting goals for the forthcoming year or maybe you just don’t do that. Either way reflection is on a lot of people’s minds.

I’ve been stressing the importance of being reflective practitioners a lot in school over the past two years and to stop it becoming a new buzz word or just something people say to appease me I’ve learnt a lot on my journey to embedding the practice. We have by no way got it spot on, but we are evolving and seeing it more as part of our role as professionals to consistently self evaluate. Below are some of the things we have tried:

Build in time – Time is the most sought after and precious thing you can give a teacher. If you are expecting staff to self reflect, you have to build in the time. Here’s some examples of how we did it.None of them are perfect but we’re giving them a go!

Build it into the 1265 – We reduced the number of twilights we have each year but extended the time to build in reflection and action time. For instance asking staff to record part of their lesson, reflect, cover the topic of the twilight session and then replan a lesson whilst they are with us using what we have discuused.

Building in time through conversations – Any lesson visit or observation feedback (we don’t really tend to do these) must must must build in time for the teacher to reflect on the lesson. The number of times I have seen members of staff in a rush to give feedback. You wouldn’t just give a monologue of knowledge in your lessons and then call it learnig would you?

Building in faculty time – I honestly think this is the best time to reflect, with peers who teach a similar subject. Often teachers will share lessons and conversations on how they have worked with different groups and why, and ow they an e amended are golden.

Using lesson study – We have been using lesson study for 4 years now and I would say it’s finally at the stage where we are happy and confident with the process (despite covid). If you want lesson study to be effective it has to be self reflective, again this is built into our school meetings timetable.

Use line management – Each year our staff go through the teaching standards with their line manager and what they would like to focus on as an area of development, this is then built in with lesson study and discussed regularly.

There is a lot in a name and it has to mean something – This year we switched faculty reviews to self-evaluation cycles.

Practically this meant we expected Heads of Departments and Faculties to take ownership, to reflect on what they felt their departments were doing well and where they needed more collaboration, guidance or to see how other schools do things. As a leadership team we would then help them, this would also mean asking other schools for help or moderation. We also discuss the development of every member of staff and lesson study. All book looks are done with departments, so all feedback is transparent.

Creating a safe space – None of this works if you don’t have trust and safety

Maslow said it years ago, our primary need is to feel safe. Creating a safe space often involves some key tenets, some of the ones I tend to use are:

Praise – praise your staff every opportunity you get. Don’t forget the quiet ones who often get overlooked but actually keep the school moving forward. In fact if you can encourage staff to praise and thank each other! We started something called I heard a Wispa this year where staff thank each other in the weekly bulletin and the recipient gets a Wispa bar in their pigeon hole.

Honesty – Whether it’s bad or good, difficult to deliver or not, speak the truth with kindness.

Show your truth – I make mistakes all the time, everyone does, on Inset day this year I shared a story of the most horrific lesson observation I ever had, I cannot tell you how many people came up to me afterwards laughing and sharing some of their fears/stories. This isn’t about listing your faults so you come across as incompetent, it’s about using your examples carefully to build trust. I used the example to emphasise the value of self evaluation and value of lesson visits as opposed to observations, because no one should be judged on a random 15 minutes (especially not after a wet lunchtime! Speaking from experience here ;))

Showing everyone what is looks like

This has probably been the biggest game changer for me this year. It has been lovely to have some wonderful people join our T&L group and they agreed to be filmed for 5 minutes and then self reflect on their lesson in staff briefings. This has been wonderful and sparked conversations between staff about activities, sharing resources, sharing when things haven’t worked, asking each other for advice. And that’s what self reflection is isn’t it? Knowing that none of us have all the answers but teaching is just one possibility after the next and being flexible enough to try things that are beyond our comfort zone.

Self reflection doesn’t happen by accident. If you are goal setting today or tomorrow the chances are you’ll get yourself some paper or your laptop, make a brew and find somewhere quiet to do it. So in order to help our staff become self reflective practitioners we must create the right conditions too.

Looking back, looking forward

I’m sitting here writing this whilst willing for the end of the term, because like many in the education profession I feel like this has been a never ending term. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that our summer was taken up planning for reopening, working on the 19th version of that darn risk assessment and wondering how staff and students were going to acclimatise to this new way of teaching in learning. No a full term in I’m reflecting back and thinking, I should have had more faith.

Key things I would tell myself if I could go back in time to when I was preparing for school to reopen post lockdown:

Staff will take things in their stride. Yes some will complain and they have every right to, but on the whole everyone wants to do the right thing by the students, therefore they will take change in their stride.

People will amaze you. Trust me.

Kids are flexible and they adapt fast. Just be clear about what you want from them and hold them to it.

Repetition is key. Your problem won’t be that students and staff won’t follow the rules. Your problem will be the number of changes you are trying to implement. So repetition is key here. When you think you have repeated instructions until you are blue in the face, repeat them again. People are not rude or malicious, they are tired and overwhelmed and they don’t mind you giving them direction.

When we talk about what kids missed we are talking about more than education. We are talking about social affirmation from friends. The ability to communicate effectively. We are going to have to address all of this.

Students are desperate to get back to school. I knew this as I drove around the city delivering home learning packs, but it really became apparent to me once the students had all returned. Over this term the dread that they may be sent home for two weeks has kept them extra cautious and following rules.

There will be things you will want to keep from this new way of working. Staggered breaks. Tutor times in year blocks. Online parents evenings. Online tools as a whole. Closing the building for deep cleaning which means staff have to go home earlier. Online open days. Online meetings. There is so much we have learnt from our new routines that we will definitely be keeping some after this is all over.

Your community will be stronger. Parents will see how hard everyone is working and rally around you if you are transparent and clear with them. Of course some won’t, but the majority will, keep perspective.

You will need hand cream. I don’t need to explain the impact of copious amounts of anti bacterial gel do I?

Invest in layers. Your classrooms will be permanently cold. Your office will be permanently cold. In fact cold will become your new state of being. Layer up.

You’ll be surprised how much students remember. They know more than you think although they may struggle to articulate it.

Don’t fill gaps tell a story. Linked to the above. Most students will have accessed some learning and remember things than you think, they just haven’t had to recall them and articulate them so help them fill any gaps and articulate their thoughts by telling the curriculum story built into your curriculum.

Questioning skills will go through the roof. Your staff will want to know what the kids know, how they have reached conclusions, what they remember and questioning will go through the roof. Some will need help to take it deeper but they will be eager.

What better time to embed retrieval!

Scrap unnecessary meetings. For life.

What would your reflection be?

Motivating our students in a Covid world

There is a lot of talk about Motivation amongst students and the level of motivation our students have post isolation. Peps McCrea’s new book also covers it and quite frankly it couldn’t have come at a better time!

Motivation is something our Trust and thus our schools looked at as part of of Inset Days this year. We were aware that students would likely return with mixed levels of motivation, some would no doubt return with a new found enthusiasm for school having been at home for so long but it was likely many would be nervous and all would be out of a routine. Luckily our journey of looking at Motivation was kicked off by Caroline Spalding last year who presented at our INSET, and was magnificent.

Below are some of the decisions we debated with, and made, in order to work on building our students’ motivation. Much of these are based on the 5 levers Peps McCrea and Caroline Spalding discuss in their talk with the AMbition Institute here when talking about ‘levers’:

Routine is everythingSam Strickland talks about routine a lot and I agree with him. This is all I looked for in the first 4 weeks both for student safety and mental health, were teachers establishing routines and expecting them from our students? Were staff and students building rapport with one another again? How could we facilitate this? Were our kids and teacher happy and safe? As suggested by Maslows hierarchy of needs safety forms the foundation of motivation.

Happy students are inspired and motivated by happy teachers – Sometimes we forget happy motivated students are inspired by happy motivated teachers. I am in awe of our staff, who have managed to keep upbeat even though they are running between lessons and acclimatising to a new way of work. It is every senior leaders job to get anything that stops this from happening out of their way. Whilst you’re at it tell them how much you are inspired by them regularly too!

No immediate testing upon return – I understand it is tempting to try and find out as soon as possible what our students picked up and didn’t through their online learning or home learning packs over lockdown/isolation but lots of tough testing is no way to welcome the students back and settle them into school life. Also what’s the point of the testing? Is it just to find out what they know in which case there are plenty of alternatives and some are listed below. If it’s to see how they write what they know, well the chances are if your students are isolating they haven’t seen as much modelling as we would like or been in routines, so you are better off waiting a little while before that happens.

Retrieval – every single lesson. This doesn’t have to be a test it can be a simple ‘Gimme 5’ or ‘When I say X what comes to mind’ kind of activity. Reward students for what they know and remember. Make them feel empowered. Then get challenging them.

Balanced reassurance – Some of our students may come back to school after isolation with an ‘it’s all gone down the drain’ mindset, feeling things are out of their control and they’ll never get to where they need to be. We have made a conscious effort of telling our students that as long as they take care of the effort teaching staff will take care of the content and exam practice. It’s a deal we have made with them. And we keep reminding them of it.

Praise success and effort – Whether it’s with achievement points, stars, emails home we’ve made an added effort to praise effort as part of our deal with students (see above). The old saying, ‘catch em doing good’ isn’t a throwaway comment.

The rhythm of the curriculum and particularly assessment – We’ve ensured our assessment includes lots of light touch/low stakes testing as well as more rigorous assessment, alternating students between things they can be successful at easily and then struggle. If you want to know more about this David Didau explores this in his book ‘Making Kids Celeverer’ and here in his blog

Classroom modelling – this has taken centre this year. Essentially we follow the ‘I do, We do, You do’ method. The teacher models first, then a class attempt or group attempt is put together and showcased before students are asked to complete any assessment questions themselves. Another reason why we shouldn’t be rushing to complete assessments post isolation so that this method can be embedded.

Think about those who have a history of underperforming – how are you going to make any quiz/assessment accessible to them to get them to taste success. Can you link it to an action or an effort they have made to motivate them to make more.

Have we absolutely nailed it? Of course not and I would say we are embedding many of these practices with a backdrop of COVID uncertainty and groups going home to isolate. But our students have proved to be resilient and appreciative of the efforts that are being made day in day out by our staff. There is a heap of things that we are trying to wrestle with, such as hybrid learning but at the centre of all of this is the question ‘Can we take our students on this journey with us’ and the ways to do that has to be at the centre of all of our minds.

Classroom Modelling

One of our areas of focus is around classroom modelling this year. There is no doubt that even if students have gone above and beyond to engage with the work set online during lockdown, one thing they have not had as much access to is classroom modelling. The below is not an exhaustive list but just a few strategies we have decided on focus on.

  1. Joint Essays – Teacher constructs essay using student answers on the board or using visualiser.
Advantages Challenges
Can be very effective in demonstrating structure Can be overwhelming for students who are trying to listen, write and help construct an answer at the same time
Involves students and their opinions in your answer Can be passive – students just copy the answer from the board
Demonstrates how you choose between possible answers – how do you decide which answer/quote etc.. is the best one? Students can think there is only one perfect answer and that is the one you have written on the board which they try to memorise

Requirements

Must talk through thinking – why are you going with the argument you are making in your written response? Why have you decided to put your argument together in this order?

Do one thing at a time – Talk or write – so students know if they should be listening or writing

Be crystal clear about your expectations. Will you allow students to simply contribute orally when they so choose, or is there a simple protocol, like putting their hands up.

Questioning: pre-plan who you will question in readiness.

Get ongoing feedback on the model. Ask: Is this good enough? Can we do better? Have we used the best vocabulary we can?

Explain this is only one answer – in several subjects other approaches may have worked so it’s the skill of making a persuasive argument that is getting you the mark.

Make sure they understand the standard you are working to. What is the mark scheme looking for? What are they working towards?

Variations

Using technology – If in an IT room you can use software such as One Drive to collaborate in small groups to construct an answer.

Small groups feed in – You can start an essay off and get small groups to collaborate an answer. Give them different colour felts/pens so you can see who has contributed what. Then bring the answers together on the board to ensure students are not passive.

2. Pre prepared Model Answers

Advantages Challenges
Great to show students what they are working towards Can make some students nervous if very far from what they are producing
Allows you to pick apart an answer and discuss what its strengths and weaknesses are in a class. Can be passive – students just copy to keep the answer to memorise
You may even want to show marking so what would be rewarded in the answer to provide clarity Students can think there is only one perfect answer and that is the one you have written on the board which they try to memorise
Good way to show common misconceptions/mistakes and then correct  

Requirements

Questioning: pre-plan who you will question in readiness. What will you get them to pick apart in the answer? Or explain? How will you get them to analyse it?

Explain this is only one answer – in several subjects other approaches may have worked so it’s the skill of making a persuasive argument that is getting you the mark.

Make sure they understand the standard you are working to. What is the mark scheme looking for? What are they working towards?

Variations

Comparative judgements – Ask students to complete/plan their own answer to a question. Give students 3-4 other answers to rank and then explain why they have ranked them in this way. What would they improve? Why?

Marking of an answer as a group on the board they have to tell you what you should and should not award according to marking criteria.

3. Oral arguments

Advantages Challenges
Helps students think through their answers before they try and write them down – helps them process Ensuring that those not speaking are still active in the learning
Helps you correct any misconceptions live Ensuring that students walk away with some written notes and don’t forget what has been discussed
Allows you to lift vocabulary (Say it better) before they write things down. Harder to keep track of verbal answer sometimes if get lost in discussion so may need to log on the board
Allows several opinions to be heard so students can reach an informed decision  
Lends itself to excellent questioning e.g. How many of you agree? Who can build on that further? What example should we use to demonstrate that point?  
Allows students to demonstrate their thinking to others  

Variations:

Pass it on: Students verbalise answers then write down and pass it on – next student has to build and etc.. then can write a full response.

Debates: Split class in two – Ask students to make opposing arguments

Statements: Make an extreme statement and then ask them to counteract it with what they have learnt orally to start with and then write down.

Please note: for any of these strategies two things are critical. Trust and respect between all participants and a clear success criteria

Assessment Models – Knowledge, Practice and Perfection – a fine balance

Assessment, formative and summative is a critical part of every teachers practice. However, in order to be effective, the balance between knowledge recall, practice and perfection is imperative.

I’ve been in schools where practice has been weighted so heavily that students complete mock exam after mock exam without a breather for reflection and establishing where they are and thus have the sinking feeling of getting nowhere.

I’ve been in schools where the pursuit of perfection has meant the stakes are so high that some students feel paralysed.  

As for Kknowledge organisers, I’ve seen them used poorly and well, used for recall of critical information and robotic memorisation. Recently I saw a post from @MathsMrH questioning their validity altogether and he has a point, depending on what you were expecting out of them in the first place.

None of these practices in themselves are good or bad, but the sweet spot is the balance between them, ensuring all involved are clear of their purpose and building in time for reflection.  I don’t for a moment believe that teaching practitioners throw assessments at students without purpose. I can confess however, that after a while assessment models with tests at certain times of the year, with certain questions, being done because they’ve always been done, can lose their purpose. We do them because we do them, the discussion around why and what we do with them disappears or at least becomes less prominent.

So, it is with this in mind that I’ll be looking again at our assessment structure with the middle leaders in the forthcoming year.

Reading Making Kids Cleverer by David Didau has provided the narrative with which I hope to enter the discussions about assessment. In the book he emphasises the importance of how we practice being more important than an abstract number of hours we dedicate to the practice. He even questions deliberate practice (I know I found this a bitter pill to swallow too) but its less of a criticism of the technique more the conditions it needs. He also stresses the two hallmarks of expertise (a) automacity and (b) and the ability to see the deep structure of problems.

This year our middle leaders have spent a lot of time working to develop their curriculum, getting clear about the themes in their curriculum and the student journey. It is time to give the same attention to the assessment model. Of course, this was discussed during the curriculum design but we haven’t got it nailed. Much of what we will be discussing will be around:

Purpose of each assessment

Automacity – Knowledge recall

How have we provided the knowledge (we have knowledge organisers, but how have we explicitly told the students to use them and are they the best they can be?)

How often are we doing low stakes testing?

How are we picking/prioritisng the knowledge being testing

How are we correcting misconceptions in knowledge?

Are students aware of what powerful knowledge in their subject is?

Deep learning of the structure of problems – Problem solving using the knowledge and forming opinions

  • How have we modelled this for the students?
  • When did we model it?
  • How often?
  • Have they experienced success?

Timing

How are we timetabling for spaced practice?

Reflection

Where have we built in time for reflection? Is there enough?

Hinge concepts

How often are we explicitly talking to students about hinge concepts and checking their understanding?

Procedural Knowledge

The above really focuses on Subject specific knowledge. Procedural knowledge, which focuses on how we use the subject specific knowledge is another area we are looking at, in particular modelling. I had the privilege of seeing a ResearchED Northants session with the wonderful @SaysMiss and this sparked my obsession with this area.

Across which subjects can we adopt a similar approach to modelling?

Many of our students use 4 or 5 acronyms in a day to use as a template for writing essays. Where can these be minimized or duplicated?

It’s important that both subject specific and procedural knowledge get time, but as highlighted by Didau, we must recognize that the latter can’t happen without the former in place. Therefore, when looking at our assessment model the weighting of the type of assessment during the year should change.

Essentially, I want the assessment structure to support students to answer the ‘Big questions’ in their subject. Not exam questions. But the big philosophical questions and fall in love with their subjects. For history in the Cold War unit that may mean thinking about whether it is inevitable that Russia and America will be at odds with each other due to their ideologies, for Geography it may mean considering whether Population patterns will always be cyclical. The aim of assessment is to support this development as much as possible through knowledge recall and then procedural knowledge. I’ve included a diagram below to demonstrate this.

There really is heaps I could talk about from the book, at one point I had to stop myself from quoting huge chunks. So you should really go ahead and just read it.

I hope the above sparks some discussions in your own schools about the assessment models being used. I’d love to hear about your own models and how you came about them.