EU Referendum Result: My Prediction

img_3919I thought I’d give my prediction for the outcome of today’s referendum.

It’s looked pretty tight over the couple of weeks, but as is often the case, I think there will be more distance between the two sides than the media would have us believe.

The status quo tends to have the advantage in elections, since it is easier to stick with what we know than to vote for change, and the unknown.

However, traditionally the opposition in any election tends to have a slight advantage if the weather is miserable; things can seem pretty bleak, and, in such circumstances, maybe change is a good thing. And the weather today has been pretty appalling.

I think that, as my History teacher always used to tell me, that “in the cold, heart light of day, people vote for what they know.”

I suspect, therefore, that ‘Bremain’ has this one in the bag.

And my prediction of the result?



Of course, anyone who suggests that they know the outcome of any election is a fool.


Could today be the death of democracy?


It might seem strange to pose this question on the day of a referendum, surely the most democratic mechanism we could possibly have in our country. But let me explain my own personal situation.

I have been a life long Conservative voter. I have played a significant role in several General Election campaigns, both locally and nationally. I have stood for the Conservatives in local elections. I am a Tory through and through.

But I am also a Europhile.

I accept that the European Union is not perfect, but I believe that Great Britain is made greater by our membership of the EU.

I am proud to be a European and love the freedom I have to go anywhere, live anywhere, work anywhere within our great continent.

And if Britain votes to leave the EU today, I’m not sure how I could ever forgive the Conservative Party for bringing this upon our country. I’m not sure how I could ever respect David Cameron for promising a referendum that I don’t believe he wanted simply to win a few extra votes in the last General Election. I certainly have lost all respect I ever had for Boris Johnson (whom I staunchly defended to friends whilst he was Mayor of London). I feel betrayed by Michael Gove (whom I defended in the face of violent physical threats from militant teaching union members).

I’m not sure how I could ever bring myself to vote for the party I love if Britain votes for Brexit today. A party who will have casually thrown away our membership of one of the greatest supranational organisations in the world.

I would, however, find myself in the same position as moderate Labour supporters who find themselves pondering how they could vote for a party led by the hard line left winger Jeremy Corbyn.

I would find myself in the same position as Liberal Democrats who still resent Nick Clegg going into coalition with the Conservatives, seemingly willingly discarding some of their key principles for a taste of power.

I can’t be the only Conservative Europhile who feels this way.

So how would these people vote if there was a General Election tomorrow? Who knows.

Who would I vote for (a) if Britain votes Brexit and (b) if there was a General Election tomorrow? I have no idea.

What happens to British democracy when the political parties’ core supporters feel unable to support their parties? When the activists can’t bring themselves to campaign for their parties? That’s the great unknown.

But it doesn’t look good for democracy.

Evangelicals and Liturgy

Salisbury Cathedral
Salisbury Cathedral

Last week, whilst in Salisbury, I attended choral evensong at the cathedral. Such a service is not traditionally where I would be found; as a Bible-believing, evangelical Anglican I place great importance on the faithful teaching of the Word. Consequently, I usually attend services that would generally be described as somewhat ‘lower’, with more emphasis on funkier worship songs, and a lengthy, expository sermon.

Over the last few years, however, as I have got older, I have found myself drawn more and more to traditional, liturgy-heavy services. Whilst at the service in Salisbury, I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to sit in silence, let the music and spoken word flow over me, and reflect on the words of the liturgy. The whole experience was both refreshing and spiritually uplifting.

In the light of this, I was interested to read this post (from July 2013) on which suggests that, in America at least, many young Christians are leaving ‘low Protestant’ churches and moving over to Catholic or high Protestant churches. The writer suggests that this might be because the experience seems dated, perhaps associated with their parents. She also quotes Andrea Palpant Dilley who says that liturgy reminds her that she is “part of an institution much larger and older than myself.”

One paragraph is worth quoting in full:

The kids who leave evangelical Protestantism are looking for something the world can’t give them. The world can give them hotter jeans, better coffee, bands, speakers, and book clubs than a congregation can. What it can’t give them is theology; membership in a group that transcends time, place and race; a historic rootedness; something greater than themselves; ordained men who will be spiritual leaders and not merely listeners and buddies and story-tellers. What the kids leaving generic evangelicalism seem to want is something the world can never give them–a holy Father who demands reverence, a Saviour who requires careful worship, and a Spirit who must be obeyed. They are looking for true, deep, intellectually robust spirituality in their parents’ churches and not finding it.

I happened to write a piece for Crossring yesterday (published today) on Matthew 5:13, a verse during the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus states:

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”

In my reflection, I stated:

Jesus warns his followers of the importance of maintaining their distinctiveness. Christians must not seek to conform to the world or to limit their Christian-ness around their friends and colleagues. We must be wary of ‘making Christianity more relevant’ to the world of today.

Now, I’m not for one minute suggesting that ‘generic evangelicalism’ is in any way an example of the Church losing its saltiness – my own faith has been bolstered, and indeed continues to be bolstered – through the ministries of many evangelical churches – but I think such churches do need from time to time to reappraise their strategy. Perhaps by conforming too much to the prevalent culture of the day – singing led by big, guitar based bands, lattes after the service, and a dress down culture in which anything goes – churches might be losing some of their distinctiveness. Perhaps, by stepping away from the liturgical tradition of the Church, which stretches back hundreds of years, as well as from the sense of shared experience across the generations, the Church may in fact be taking people away from the opportunity to meet with Christ in commune with other Christians.

I’ll give the final word to my good friend, Phill, who mentioned in a comment on Facebook:

I wonder if liturgical services invite participation and reflection, whereas ‘generic evangelical’ churches tend to have a service more as performance?

What does Easter mean to you?

ishtarToday it is Easter Sunday. I wonder what that means to you? For many millions of people Easter is about chocolate, about bunnies and the Asda Chick (you’re better off with Asda). But actually, you’re not better off with the Asda Chick at all. You’re better off with the Christian message of hope that Easter brings.

The myth of Ishtar

This year there has been an attempt to undermine the Christian festival of Easter with a Facebook meme. You’ve probably seen this posted to the Facebook profiles of some of your friends. As is so often the case, however, there is very little truth in this particular meme. Easter, we are told, “was originally the celebration of Ishtar, the Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of fertility and sex. This is a somewhat dodgy assertion, since the name ‘Easter’ has no connection at all with Ishtar, other than sounding vaguely similar. The name Easter (which is peculiar to the English language) probably comes from ‘Eostre’,who was apparently an Anglo Saxon goddess. I say apparently because there is almost no evidence at all to support this idea. The only reference we have to Eostre is to be found in the writing of the English monk Bede, who writing in the eighth century, commented that during Eosturmonap (the month of April), pagan Anglo Saxons had held feasts in Eostre’s honour, but that this tradition had been replaced by a Christian celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.

So it is not a certainty that anyone, Pagan or otherwise, believed in Eostre. It is therefore not the case that a pagan celebration was “changed to represent Easter.” The only connection between the possible pagan festivities and the Christian festival is the timing. It just so happened that in England Christians celebrated Christ’s death and resurrection in a month that retained a pagan name. (Much like, for example, July is named after Julius Caesar, but that doesn’t mean that we celebrate the successes of the legendary Roman during this month).

Constantine and Easter

Constantine is also referred to in this Facebook meme. Apparently after “he decided to Christianise the Empire, Easter was changed to represent Jesus.” This is just plain wrong. Firstly it is unlikely that Constantine, would have known much about Eosturmonap (despite the rather dodgy belief of some that he was born in England), since the name of the month in which the English celebrated the death and resurrection of Jesus was not used widely beyond these shores. Constantine would probably have known the Christian festival by the name Latin name, Pascha. It is also unlikely that he would have had any knowledge of the possible Anglo Saxon goddess Eostre from which the name of the month derives. The idea, therefore, that Constantine sought to change a pagan festival “to represent Jesus” has little truth. What is true is that at the Council of Nicaea, which he summoned in 325, two rules were laid down regarding Easter. The first established the date of the Christian festival independently of the Jewish calendar, which had previously been used by Christians to set the date. The second tried to establish worldwide uniformity of the date, so that Christians all celebrated the date on the same year. These were certainly not about “changing Easter to represent Jesus.”

The roots of Easter

Apparently, at its roots, Easter “is all about celebrating fertility and sex.” Now if that’s how you want to celebrate Easter, be my guest. Don’t think for one minute, though, that you are continuing some ancient tradition. The roots of the Easter festival of today (which perhaps be would be better off referring to by the Latin, Pascha, to avoid confusion), lie in a deserted garden in Jerusalem. In this garden there was a tomb. Jesus, having been crucified and killed on Good Friday was buried in this tomb. Three days later, some of Jesus’ female followers visited the tomb to embalm his body, only to discover that it was not there. In their shock, an angel appeared to the women and told them “do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said.”

Jesus, having died, rose again, smashing through death and defeating it. Death could not hold him in the ground. Death was not the end. Death was only the beginning. In the same way, for those who follow Jesus, death is not the end but the beginning. Just as Jesus was raised to life by the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit will raise to new life all of Jesus’ followers after their bodily deaths.

This is the true root of Easter, that thanks to Jesus death cannot hold us. We do not need to fear death because Christ has defeated it for us.

And today, you’re not better off with Asda. You’re better off with Jesus.

Introducing my new book, “The Shepherd God”

christ-the-redeemer-statue-rio-de-janeiroI am pleased to introduce my latest book, The Shepherd God: Finding Peace, Worth and Purpose in a Busy World. The product of four years of hard work, prayer and reflection, this book is an extended reflection on Psalm 23, “The Lord is My Shepherd.”

I began writing this book after experiencing God whilst walking in the rain on Reigate Hill. For several months I had been suffering from acute depression but one day I was brought to my knees by the words of the Beth and Matt Redman song, “You Never Let Go.” This powerful song led me to open my Bible at Psalm 23. God spoke to me through the words of that incredible Psalm and reassured me that he was with me and that he would remain with me through all the highs and lows of my life. Sitting in the rain on Reigate Hill I began what would amount to several months of careful and continued reading of and reflection on the words of the Psalmist as I sought to make sense of the words of an ancient shepherd and tried to apply them to my own life.

What I uncovered was a wealth of Biblical advice and guidance that pointed me firmly towards Jesus as the embodiment of the shepherd that David describes in his Psalm. As I picked David’s words apart and prayed over them I realised more than ever before that if we want peace to be restored in our lives, if we wish to have a sense of worth, and if we want to uncover the purpose of our existence we need to turn to Christ and join with David, the shepherd, in saying, “The Lord is My Shepherd.”

“The Shepherd God,” my third book, is radically different to my previous writing projects but I believe that it is the most important. I am excited to finally bring this book to the book-buying public and hope that you will be just as challenged by the words of this seemingly irrelevant shepherd as I was.
In the book I work carefully through the Psalm, using a wealth of scriptural quotes to uncover the true meaning of David’s words and to uncover the application of this ancient text in the twenty-first century. Each chapter concludes with a number of questions and a suggested prayer, making this book suitable for both personal reflection and for group study.

“The Shepherd God” is due for publication soon, and will be available both as an ebook and a paperback. Check back soon for more details or follow me on Twitter to be kept fully informed.

Rethinking Homework: Too Close To Home?

2-1This week’s TES has a very interesting article on homework. This is an issue that I have been giving a great deal of thought recently, not least because I have spent the last few weeks struggling to keep up with an enormous pile of exercise books to mark. Is there a better way to ‘do’ homework? Almost certainly. Is it clear what that is? No, definitely not.

The TES article kicks off by saying that the French president, François Hollande, has declared an end to homework in France’s primary schools, and asks if it is time that we in the UK did the same thing.

According to the article, there is plenty of opposition to the concept of homework, not least from the charity Parents Outloud who believe that homework can lead to rebellion and burnout. Parents Outloud’s director, Margaret Morrissey, believes that children “spend all day at school five days a week and that should be sufficient.”

The article also highlights the concern that homework

ingrains social inequalities between pupils; clever, motivated children in higher sets or at better schools tend to be given more homework, while less able, less motivated pupils are given less. The result is a widening of the attainment gap. More advantaged children are also more likely to have a quiet place to study at home, with access to the internet, again giving them the chance to pull ahead.

What is perhaps surprising is that the evidence that supports the argument for homework is not as convincing as it might be. Professor Susan Hallam, of the Institute of Education, believes that research shows a “positive but low” correlation between doing homework and improved attainment, whilst being quick to point out that improved attainment might also be caused by other factors.

Meanwhile, Sir Robin Bosher, a former primary head and now primary director for the Harris Federation of academies, is quoted on the benefits of homework:

It’s all about feedback and the role it has in building a relationship between the pupil and the teacher. When you achieve something independently in your own time, the feedback you get from the teacher has a higher value. The acknowledgement from the teacher can raise your self-esteem.

Towards the end of the TES article, they point out that

many educationalists have indicated that technology might be quietly transforming the type of work that is set and the willingness of pupils to complete work at home. It may also relieve teachers of marking whilst still allowing them to analyse how well their pupils are doing.

All in all, the article is most thought provoking and well worth a read.

More on my personal struggles with the idea of homework in a future blogpost, but in the meantime please do share your thoughts below.

The Importance of Teaching: OFSTED’s view

Michael WilshawOn Saturday I was lucky enough to be able to attend the inaugural London Festival of Education. Whilst there, I attended a talk by Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector of Schools, entitled, “The Importance of Teaching: OFSTED’s View.” Since this is such a crucial issue for teachers in the UK, I have transcribed Wilshaw’s talk and posted it below:
It’s great to be here, to be invited to this Festival of Education, the first one, invited by the Institute and by Chris, and I hear it’s gone extremely well.

I’m also pleased to be here because I am a London teacher, or was a London teacher as you know, a teacher for over forty years in London, both north and south London before I got this really easy job as new Chief Inspector at OFTSED, and I thoroughly enjoyed my life as a teacher and as a head.

If somebody had said to me way back in the 60s and 70s when I started teaching that London would be achieving what it is achieving now I wouldn’t have believed it. I think there are two messages behind that.

One is that if somebody ever says, and it will be said up and down the country, this can’t be done here, it’s impossible to achieve here, we’ve got these sorts of children here, or the political difficulties are such here, don’t believe them, because it can happen, because those same sort of things were said about London when I started teaching, were said about Hackney, certainly, when I moved there ten, eleven years ago. It can be done. And that is why it’s so important that people are optimistic about the future of our education service and are determined to do what is being done day in and day out in London.

The second message that I’ve got is that if we’re going to move towards a world-class education system, and that’s what everyone in this room here wants, then we’ve got to make sure that what’s happening in London should be happening elsewhere, and there isn’t such a great variation between different parts of the country, which is staggering, and which other countries are dealing with much better than we are.

Chris mentioned the annual report which is going to come out in ten days. I can’t reveal the details of that but it will have a much more regional focus than ever before and I do urge you to read it, take it to your bed and read it for bedtime reading, look at the web tool, it’s going to be a very sophisticated web tool attached to the report this time round where you can see what’s happening in different parts of the country and draw the comparisons between London and other paths of the country.

It’s happened here in London because of good teachers and good teaching; that’s what’s happened – good teachers, good teaching, led by good people. And there are lots of things I can say about teaching and the quality of teaching but I just want to focus on one and draw some conclusions from it, and that is that good teaching is inextricably linked to good leadership. Good teaching is linked to good leadership. I’ve rarely been into a school where the leadership is lousy and seen people working collectively together.

I want to give you just a small anecdote from my own experience on this where a dozen or so years ago I was seconded to a special measures school, a very badly failing school in east London. Before I went in, the DCS at the time, the Director of Children’s Services, said you need to know, this is a very, very badly failing school. Everything is going wrong that you could possibly imagine can go wrong is going wrong in this school. We’re really worried about it, in fact we’re thinking of closing it. So armed with that information, I went to visit the school and see it for the first time, met as usual by the caretaker, the sort of caretaker that mentions, ‘what on earth are you doing here mate? This is just too tough to turn around,’ that sort of negativity I’ve just mentioned, ‘even the Alsatians go around in pairs here’.

Anyway, when I started there, expecting the worst, I was pleasantly surprised. It wasn’t as bad as it was painted. There were a significant number of teachers, in fact most of the teachers, there were a few that weren’t of course, most of the teachers were incredibly committed to the children of that school – arrived at the school early, left late, and were doing their very, very best.

The problem wasn’t one of those teachers, but it was leadership. Leadership of that school, not just the Head and the Senior Team, weren’t pulling things together, weren’t recognising what was happening in the school, didn’t identify those really good staff, didn’t support them, and didn’t certainly promote them in the way that they should have been. They allowed, because the culture was so rotten in the school, a small number of really challenging children, very badly behaved children, to rule the roost. Consequently, those who had been pulled into that behaviour to be disruptive in class and be rude and abusive to teachers were being pulled in who normally wouldn’t be pulled in. So the culture was wrong, and the culture was wrong because the leaders did not, did not lead on culture. And that’s at the heart of what I’m going to say, which is that you can’t divorce teaching from the culture of the school, and the culture is determined by leadership.

The best leaders – and I hope lots of people, good teachers, outstanding teachers, in the school want to be leaders of our schools – the best leaders understand that you can only improve teaching if you combine a strong vision, what you want to see in the classroom, with a common sense and pragmatic approach to school organisation. In other words, no amount of abstract theorising on pedagogy and the importance of teaching will count for much unless leaders focus on what is necessary to create the conditions in which great teaching can take place.

They must ensure that schools are orderly places where children respect each other and authority and staff.

Places where newly qualified teachers and those in the early years of the profession feel protected nurtured and encouraged to remain in teaching.

If schools do not have professional tutors they should get them. I’m always amazed when I go to schools – particularly secondary schools – and ask newly qualified teachers, ‘who is the person looking after you on a daily basis?’ and that person isn’t easily identified.

Places where the average teacher, not necessarily the outstanding high performer, can do reasonably well.

Places where there is sufficient attention to policy and procedure – and detail – so that everyone understands how the school works.

And places where communication to everyone – including people working in the kitchens – is good, and they feel valued and part of the school.

Good leaders running good schools understand all this, and there are many of them in London. They know that getting all those things right matters, so that they can focus on the most important task of any leader, which is leading on teaching and learning.

Good leaders are passionate about the quality of teaching because they know it is an absolute prerequisite to raising standards. They demonstrate this passion in their own classroom practice if they happen to teach. In the power of their assemblies, when they’re on show in front of the whole school community. The best heads that I’ve worked with – and I’ve been fortunate in working with lots of good heads – took assemblies really, really importantly – they saw it as an important part of the school day, and if they were taking an assembly, they’d put a lot of time and effort into it because they were on show to the rest of the school community, not just the children but also the staff to show that they were good teachers as well.

And in their commitment to professional development – not just on one or two training days in the year, but consistently, throughout the teaching week and the year.

Good leaders foster an open door culture, where teachers are comfortable to be observed and to observe others.

Where good practice is discussed and disseminated and where performance management is seen as a positive rather than as a negative.

Good leaders recognise and reward good teaching. They celebrate it at every turn, and promote those who model good practice, no matter how young they are – this isn’t about long service, this is recognising good people and promoting them in the school and seeing them as role models for the rest.

But they’re also people, they’re also leaders, who don’t shy away from challenging underperformance in the classroom. We know what the research says. I’m sure you’ve heard it throughout today, on the progress levels of children taught by a good teacher as opposed to a poor one. The difference is equivalent to a whole year’s learning. We know what the Sutton Trust says about the impact we would have on our international league position if the ten per cent of the lowest performing teachers were brought up to the average.

Our new inspection framework recognises the importance of leadership in teaching, and that is why inspectors will comment in every report – and I will throw it back if I don’t see it – comment in every report on whether the leaders have a sense of what’s going on in the classroom, and whether they’re taking professional development and performance management as seriously as they should.

As you know, inspectors will be scrutinising less paperwork and spending much more time in lessons than ever before. But they will do so without a preconceived view of what makes a good lesson.

Let me emphasise again to anyone who hasn’t heard this from me or from anyone else in OFSTED. OFSTED does not have a preferred style of teaching, does not have a preferred style of teaching. Inspectors will simply judge teaching on whether children are engaged, focused, learning, and making progress, and in the best and most outstanding lessons, being inspired by the person in front of them.

We don’t want to see lessons that are too crowded, too frenetic, and with too many activities designed simply to impress the inspector. And if that’s happened in the past, it’s wrong. We simply want to see teaching that embeds learning. Ultimately that is what matters.

Indeed, our recent Improving English forum report found a disturbing lack of extended reading and writing in English lessons, because too many teachers thought that they had to plan lessons that focused on activity rather than learning, so if teachers are going through with the class a Shakespeare text, that’s absolutely fine, and do nothing else, that’s fine. If a teacher on a wet Friday afternoon is doing a fairly boring lesson on quadratic equations but the children are learning, that’s fine as well.

So let me be very clear: our judgement on teaching will be predicated on the quality of learning and the progress that students are making. I want to emphasise this because too often I hear that OFTSED adopts a tick box, formulaic approach to lesson observation. If this has been the case before it certainly won’t be now.

Good leaders recognise that while the different methods and orthodoxies slip in and out of fashion, the qualities that help, and make excellent teachers never change. They are timeless and universal.

You’ll recognise the most important ones – an understanding that planning is important to a good lesson, but only as a framework in which the teacher can adapt to the changing dynamics of the classroom and the different needs of the children.

The ability to reflect and critically evaluate performance at the end of the lesson and at the end of the school day.

The ability to differentiate teaching styles and resources for children’s different aptitudes and abilities.
The capacity, no matter how long in teaching, to learn from others and be receptive to advice and training.

And above all an unyielding commitment – an unyielding commitment – to help every child reach their full potential.

I’m sure all you here recognise those qualities and think of many more. OFSTED will certainly recognise and give credit to staff who demonstrate these qualities when they are observed in an inspection. Not all of them, but hopefully most of them.

As I’ve said many times and I say again today, teaching at its best is a most noble and honourable profession. As Chief Inspector, I’m determined that OFSTED recognises successful teaching and those leaders who make that teaching possible.

I’m also determined that OFSTED should support those heads and leaders in schools that are less than good, particularly in this new category of ‘requires improvement’. Heads that are doing their level best in sometimes challenging circumstances to pull a school forward by focusing on what really matters. We will highlight very clearly in our inspection report on the first page and also in the section on leadership and management that these leaders are doing a great job and that the future of the school looks much brighter because the leadership is grasping the nettle. Inspectors will also be asking more searching questions of the governing boards of these schools to ensure they understand the challenges facing the head teacher and are providing the right level of professional, personal, and often emotional support.

Finally, I make no apologies for raising the bar by insisting that all schools should be good schools, and that good is the only acceptable provision for our children and young people and learners in this country. That’s what children deserve, that’s what parents want, and of course teachers want to work in good schools or schools that have the ambition to be good. That’s what teachers want.

We have a great chance of radically improving our school system because – and I’m sure if there head teachers in this room now they’ll agree with this – because we’ve got better people coming into teaching than ever before. That was always my experience over the last ten years. But the big challenge is to hold onto them. Retention is even more important than recruitment.

That’s why its so important that teacher training institutions are good, and we’ll be much more rigorous in our inspection framework of how good these places are, that assessment is good and that teaching is good. I’m not sure they’re always as good as sometimes they’ve been painted. We’ll be looking at that very carefully.

And that trainees are placed in good schools for their teaching practice, and most importantly they get their first job in a good school where they see good practice on a daily basis.

Given the demographics of our profession, with up to forty per cent of head teachers retiring within the next five years, it is vitally important that these young, talented and committed people stay in teaching and move into leadership positions more quickly, and do what I’ve just seen to be describing: creating good schools, with the right culture, which support great teaching and learning.
Thanks to Keven Bartle (@kevbartle) for making a recording of this talk available.

Rethinking Assessment: Closing the Gap

teacher-marking_1455046cThere’s been a great deal of discussion in my school recently about the kind of feedback that teachers should provide to pupils when marking written work. The debate continues to rage between those who believe that pupils should not, under any circumstances, be given a mark for completed work, just a comment, and those who think that a mark should be given at all costs. I’m stuck somewhere between those two posts at present; I can see the argument that if a mark is provided, pupils will skip over the teacher’s written feedback quickly and not pay attention to it, but I also think that when completing examination-style work, a mark is vital.

I do wonder, however, whether the feedback that we teachers provide our pupils with is always as useful as it could be. What is the value of a comment such as “Good!” or “Excellent!” if it does not also provide some suggestion as to how a pupil can progress further? And if a constructive comment is provided, such as “make sure you start each paragraph of your essay starting with a clear point,” how do we know that our pupils actually understand what we mean and will heed this advice and act on in next time they complete a written task?

Last year, I created a “History Progress Sheet” in an attempt to ensure my pupils digested the feedback I provide when I mark their work. In this table they record the date, the title of the piece of work, their mark, a summary of my comment, and a short personal reflection (one or two sentences) about how they can improve their work in future. This has generally proven to be very useful indeed; it compels my pupils to read my comment and to provide a response to it. Over time, it provides pupils (and me) with a quick and easy to read guide to the progress they’re making. Each time I set a piece of work, my pupils are asked to look back over their progress sheet and to try to take on board previous comments when completing their new task.

Of course, this is all well and good in theory. Unfortunately, as with many of these initiatives teachers develop, in the day-to-day busyness of the classroom, it can sometimes be forgotten. My school has lessons of just thirty five minutes, and by the time pupils have arrived five minutes late to the lesson, I’ve got them settled and focused and distributed exercise books, I can sometimes feel pressurised to get on with the main body of the lesson, not least because we have a lot of content to cover.

I’ve been challenged to think more carefully about my written feedback to pupils by this post on Tom Sherrington’s excellent website that I have recently discovered via Twitter. In this post Tom describes a visit to Saffron Walden County High School to observe their approach to marking and feedback. Saffron Walden call this, ‘closing the gap’. This simply means that pupils are required to act on the feedback that they have been given by their teachers. Teacher comments are often shorter but pupils have to address issues raised by feedback straight away. In humanities subject like my own, this involved redrafting work to take account of feedback.

Now, this is nothing new, and I’m sure that many of us often ask our pupils to redraft work if we feel that it is unsatisfactory or particularly weak. What does strike me as quite revolutionary, however, is embedding this notion of ‘closing the gap’ so wholeheartedly into assessment policy. Redrafting is not something reserved for those who have not invested sufficient time or have somehow failed; redrafting is something that is routinely done, by all pupils, in order to raise standards.

‘Closing the gap’ seems to be an excellent exercise and I have no doubt could radically improve the quality of children’s work. It also ensures that pupils read teachers’ written feedback on their work – and indeed, that teachers are required to write useful, constructive comments that direct a pupil how they can improve their work.

Since reading Tom’s post, I have been giving serious consideration to how I can incorporate ‘close the gap’ into my own assessment strategy. In order for this to happen, it is clear that some ‘content coverage’ time will be lost, which, in a subject such as history, could potentially be a real issue. I am convinced, however, that time invested in ‘closing the gap’ will be far from wasted; indeed, providing pupils with the opportunity to critically reflect on their own work and to respond constructively to teacher feedback seems like an excellent way to promote their learning. I would far rather that my pupils learnt a little less content but had a mastery of the skills required to write an essay and complete source work exercises.

I wonder if my Head of Department will agree…

Rethinking Assessment: Essay Self Assessment

3773861315_5200510f5b_oHow do we use assessment to improve the quality of our pupils’ work? This is one of those questions that is often at the forefront of teachers’ minds. There can be nothing more discouraging than spending a lesson going through in detail how to complete a piece of work well, only for our students to hand in assignments that fall short of the standard we had hoped for. Sometimes it can seem that our pupils are simply ignoring our advice. It can be very exasperating for us, as teachers, and I have no doubt that it can be similarly exasperating for our pupils, many of whom no doubt believed that they had submitted a high quality piece of work.

So what is the answer to this quandary?

I’ve been thinking about assessment for some time, and have tried in recent weeks to develop new and improved mechanisms for providing meaningful feedback to my pupils. I’ve produced “assessment tracking sheets” for my pupils, have overhauled the system of marks that I use, and tried to further develop my use of self- and peer-assessment. I’ve felt that this has all been a move in the right direction, and have had useful conversations with my pupils as a consequence (even if there is still a tendency amongst some to regard peer-assessment as an excuse for me not to mark their books)!

I still did not feel, however, that I was getting close to my goal of using assessment to significantly bolster pupil performance. Sticking a mark scheme in front of a pupil and asking them to mark their neighbour’s work produced somewhat erratic results, and also ate up a great deal of lesson time. Whilst the school’s senior management believed such an exercise was a tremendous example of “Assessment for Learning,” in my view it was fundamentally flawed, since whilst some pupils found it a useful exercise, I was not convinced that it was leading to a great deal of learning.

I was particularly inspired last week, however, by a blog post I read by Miles MacFarlane. In this post he summed up the assessment philosophy in his own school in the statement:

Efficacious learners honestly reflect, self-evaluate, and assess their own work against criteria they understand. They are independent and reflect meaningfully on both their content mastery and their skills as learners.

One particular element of the assessment cycle at Miles’ school particularly caught my attention. Miles says that before completing a task, students and their teachers

Explore the characteristics of exemplary models of the product they are creating. These characteristics form the criteria by which they will assess their own work.

Miles continues:

Throughout an activity, students consult the criteria to see whether their product meets the requirements. They are also encouraged to add value by going beyond the criteria. Before submitting their completed work, students self-assess against the criteria and reflect on their learning processes and strategies. Teachers respond to student assessments providing feedback on both the product and their learning strategies.

Spurred on by this post, I have created a self-assessment proforma for essay writing that I am trialling with one class at the moment. This proforma provides a checklist of the key elements of an outstanding essay, broken down into the key components, (introduction, main body, conclusion and general points.) This checklist is intended to reinforce what is required of a good essay in a simple, straightforward way that can be easily understood by my pupils. The intention is that once they have finished writing their essay, they tick the box indicating that they have included each of these elements in their essay. If pupils are able to tick all the boxes, then they should be reasonably confident that their work is of a high standard. If they are unable to, then they are advised to edit and amend their work so that they are able to complete the checklist more fully.

Also on the self-assessment proforma is a copy of the mark scheme issued by the examination board for essay work. Pupils are asked to read through this scheme and to grade their essay accordingly, before commenting on why they have given their essay this mark, and what they would do differently next time in order to produce an even better essay.

This is the first time I have used this particular proforma, and I have yet to see how well my pupils are able to use it. I am looking forward, however, to marking their essays and reviewing their self-assessment. If it works then I am confident that it will lead to a much greater understanding amongst my pupils about what makes a good essay, and enable them to dramatically improve the quality of their own work. If this, or a similar tool, is used regularly, then hopefully I will see a sustained improvement in the quality of all of my pupils’ work.

Have you developed any assessment tools that have enabled you to promote and develop the learning of your pupils? Please do share them below!

OFSTED: What does a good teacher look like?

RETRANSMITTED ADDING 0930 TIME TO EMBARGO. Embargoed to 0930 Thursday February 9. Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw during a visit to Fairlawn Primary School, in Honor Oak, south east London. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Wednesday February 8, 2012. Photo credit should read: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

Most teachers live in fear of OFSTED, and with an inspection imminent in my school, I can readily identify with that feeling at the moment! I was reassured, therefore, to read this blog post recently which reports the answer Michael Wilshaw, the Head of OFSTED, gave when asked to describe a good teacher.

Wilshaw commented two teachers in his previous school were successful,

because they developed a style of teaching with which they were comfortable, not complacent… and which they knew worked. It worked because children really enjoyed their lessons; were engaged; were focused; learnt a great deal and made real progress.

He went on to say,

For me a good lesson is about what works… So this is a plea, this evening, for pragmatism not ideology in the way we judge the quality of teaching.

We should be wary of too much prescription. In my experience a formulaic approach pushed out by a school or rigidly prescribed in an inspection evaluation schedule traps too many teachers into a stultifying and stifling mould which doesn’t demand that they use their imagination, initiative and common sense. Too much direction is as bad as too little.

Wilshaw then made five points about being a good teacher:

  1. Planning is everything, but at the same time lesson planning should be a framework to give flexibility, not a rigid plan to be adhered to at all costs;
  2. Teachers need to be reflective. Plans should be adapted when things don’t go well, and amended after the lesson. Teachers should talk a lot about their teaching to others, should be willing to go into other teachers’ classrooms, and be willing for their colleagues to come into theirs;
  3. Teachers should be perceptive, and understand the dynamics of a classroom. They should be highly interventionist and know how to dictate the pace of a lesson;
  4. Teachers should understand that nothing is taught unless it is learned. Success should be measured on whether children are learning and making progress;
  5. Teachers should be resilient people who are able to withstand the slings and arrows and occasional paper dart unflinchingly. The best teachers should make sure children know who is in charge and responsible for setting the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.

Wilshaw also described what OFSTED do not want to see:

We do not want to see teaching simply designed to impress the inspectors. We don’t want to see lessons which are more about classroom entertainment and promoting the personality of the teacher than embedding children’s learning in a meaningful way.

I don’t know about you, but I find that extremely reassuring!

What do you think of Wilshaw’s comments? Do share your thoughts below!