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New Term, New Opportunities

And so the school summer holidays reach their tipping point: heads return to their offices in readiness for the examination results and the ubiquitous Back to School signs appear in all retail outlets. The countdown begins and late summer distractions are welcome before the onset of the new year’s anxieties and opportunities hold sway.

Notwithstanding the limitations on their budgets, there are probably more opportunities for schools, this year, than there have been recently. The new Ofsted Inspection Framework that comes into play in September signals a fresh focus and more freedom for schools to show that they are on a trajectory of long-term, sustainable improvement and are the architects of their own destiny.

Lessons will no longer be graded, and greater attention will be paid to each school’s own data. This is to be welcomed: for too long improvements in learning and teaching have been hamstrung by an obsession with classroom observation as a graded, monitorial necessity rather than a professional developmental entitlement. Teachers freeze when they are called to account for themselves by having their classroom practice observed; their relationships with young people become forced and their approaches become predictably cloned: second-guessing the preferences of inspectors rather than responding genuinely to the needs of particular students. If I were still teaching, I would want other professionals to visit my lessons and help me understand and refine my teaching in order to find ways to continuously improve what I am offering to young people. Professional discourse is an essential characteristic of successful schools – simplistic grading of lessons does nothing to encourage teachers to see beyond the received wisdom of what makes lessons outstanding. It does not help them know how to improve. The creative business of teaching has never been that formulaic and should not have been allowed to become so.

As teachers, we are aiming to do more for our students than provide them with the best possible examination results. In fact, the idea that we are providing those results implies that students do not need to take as much responsibility for their learning as their future lives will require. Our job is to ensure that students are equipped with those flexible learning habits that they will need in the uncertain future into which they are moving. This chimes neatly with the current government’s commitment to character-led education, providing another significant opportunity if taken in the context of the new Ofsted framework.

Inspectors are keen to acknowledge schools’ own data about progress and improvement. All schools that are worth their salt are adept at interrogating performance data and taking specific action in response to under-performance by individuals or groups. What then is the compelling other data? My view is that schools should begin to focus more on the process data about how students are as learners, and to look hard at the learning habits that they are developing through their experiences in classrooms and around the schools as a whole. This has been woefully ignored in recent years – it is far simpler to measure that which is easily measurable and to assume that the educational outcomes can – and should – only be gauged through examinable outcome data. Life and education is more complex than that. What I’ve discovered over the past decade and more is that it’s perfectly possible to measure the immeasurable without falling into the trap of providing meaningless grades. Our assessment procedures should be wide-ranging and seek to gauge learning habits – those qualities, traits and attributes that do not lend themselves to simplistic measures. I couldn’t agree more with the recent Demos report’s observations in this area:

Many stakeholders in our workshops emphasised the importance of gathering evidence that related to students’ character development, which could be reviewed by Ofsted. A multi-criteria approach to measuring character development would blend qualitative and quantitative measures… In other words, character development in schools should not be reduced to a box ticking exercise.

At Building Learning Power we have developed a way of gathering data about learning that gauges students’ emotional, cognitive, social and strategic habits. I visit about 400 secondary classrooms every year – never as the inspector, I’ve done enough of that, but as a critical friend or coach. Invariably, I am there by invitation in schools that are committed to a mature and open debate about learning. I’m interested – like all the hundreds of teachers with whom I’ve worked – in how students are learning and what opportunities they are being given to develop and progress those habits that they will need across the curriculum and in their lives beyond school. More important than the data collection are the coaching conversations that this fuels, as teachers look hard at their practice and identify missed opportunities and changes they can make that will ensure that their students are engaged with learning, understand themselves as learners, make useful choices about how best to learn, and are able to carry these competencies with them into other contexts.

Great schools keep learning under review as part of their professional commitment to sustained improvement. I pass on to schools the observation tools that we at Building Learning Power have developed, so that they can use them to guide their own agenda independent of me. Such schools do not wait for an external monitoring visit or rely on internal checks, they encourage all teachers to be the kinds of reflective practitioners that the system has so far inhibited.

So, there are two great opportunities at the start of the new school year:

  • respond proactively to the Ofsted agenda and learn to gather the kind of data that shows that students are making real progress as learners;
  • use the current commitment to character based learning as a way of refocusing your school’s vision and goals.

Enjoy the rest of your holiday and the opportunities that lie ahead.

– Graham Powell, Principal Cosultant

Read the Demos report here:

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