Dear Santa… I’m writing again for Christmas 2017.

Dear Santa,

You may recall that I wrote to you last year with my wish list of educational gifts. I’m writing again this year with an update, even though some of my year 10 class tell me you don’t exist (don’t worry’ they’ll grow out of it).

You’ll notice that many of the things I asked for last year are still on my list. I’m not saying it’s your fault I didn’t get them last year and perhaps you think I wasn’t fully appreciative of the fidget spinners you left instead, but if you could see your way to one or two of these it would be really helpful.

A 25th Hour. I know you must be able to manipulate time, how else do you deliver all those presents in one night? All I’m asking is for 60 more minutes each day to help me fit it all in. I’ve tried to get the better of email, I’ve tried to plan for tomorrow, to plan for peak times, and do workload impact assessments, but it’s no good: there just aren’t enough hours in the day!

Invisible goal posts. Many children respond well to sporting analogies and I’d like a way to help explain how the new GCSE grades work. We could play a match where we know that there are goalposts, but aren’t allowed to know exactly where they are. Players can take shots at the end of the field and then, after the final whistle has blown, we can reveal where the goalposts were (adjusting them to allow only a few player’s attempts to count) and only then reveal the final score. If that isn’t possible, may I have the game I hear some schools are playing called ‘invent the goalposts’ where they just make them up. They’re not real, but they offer the illusion of comfort. Failing that, how about a unicorn?

A new Progress 8 coefficient. Yes, I know I get a brand new one each year, but it just doesn’t seem to be working properly. What I’d really like is a progress measure that measures progress and doesn’t get caught up in whether a school has got enough pupils doing particular qualifications.

A basket. Last year I asked for a bucket, but since then baskets seem to be the in thing, and it seems that in English schools nowadays, everyone has to have their baskets (or buckets) full. The trouble is, I can’t seem to find one I want. It’s called the ‘Really useful qualifications that help individual students fulfil their career aspirations, progress in life and become productive, responsible citizens within an egalitarian compassionate society‘ basket of qualifications. If you could help with my search for this, that would be fantastic.

An understanding of the delegated SEND budget. Sorry, but I still don’t get this. I have tried to understand how this funding works, but however hard I think about it, it doesn’t seem to make sense. The bible was of some help: Jesus apparently fed 5000 people with a few loaves and fishes. This seems to equate closely to the funding model, but even in this example there is no explanation of what to do when more people turn up, undergo a lengthy assessment process, have their needs identified in an EHCP, and then the school receives additional funding of… well, nothing.

A self-help guide to being a better teacher. I really need this because there just isn’t anyone who has advice on this. Literally whole minutes can go by with complete silence from the DFE, Ofsted, Ofqual, external advisors, politicians of every hue, think tanks, pressure groups, parents, pundits in the media, taxi drivers, and the lady behind me in the queue in Sainsbury’s telling me how to do my job better.

A ticket to Shanghai. I’ve been hearing a lot about how well pupils do in Shanghai, particularly in maths, so I’d like to take a trip there. Hopefully I’ll be able to bring back some useful things: some resources and teaching methods yes, but also generous non contact time, a millennia-old appreciation of the value of learning, consistently high parental engagement, and an ingrained universal cultural respect for the status of teachers, which also make up the full package.

Mousetrap. You know, the board game with lots of plastic bits that my Mum said would only get lost. This maybe doesn’t have much to do with education, but I put it on my Christmas list each Year through the 1970s. Thought I’d give it another go.

Thanks Santa, I’ll leave a mince pie, a nip of single malt, and a carrot for Rudolf by the fireplace as usual.

Merry Christmas,

Rodger

What’s on your list to Santa?

Picture credit: www.freepik.com

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Top of the agenda

A while ago I wrote a post, inspired by one by Stephen Tierney, about focussing daily on the things that really make a difference in school: Down to brass tacks.

That was about the day-to-day interactions that make the most difference. In this post I’m considering strategic priorities for school improvement. One of the features of working at a school which is in Special Measures is how many people come to visit us. Each one has some advice on defining our priorities. The trouble is that each one believes that their area of interest is the most important.

“Safeguarding definitely has to be at the top of your agenda. It’s absolutely imperative that children should be safe and feel safe.” No argument there.

“It’s the basics really. Literacy & numeracy; English & maths. They are the foundation of the whole curriculum. It’s crucially important that they are at the top of your agenda.” Well, quite.

“You’re a Catholic school. It’s obvious that Catholic Life should be at the very top of every agenda. After all, it’s what defines this school as distinctive.” Amen to that.

“You need to ensure that the Pupil Premium is your key priority. Look at your data. You have a high proportion of disadvantaged students: closing the gap is the key to school improvement.” The numbers are irrefutable.

“Attendance has got to be your top priority; if children aren’t in school, they aren’t learning.” Absolutely, that’s a given.

And so on. Each of these, say our visitors, must be at the top of our agenda. The trouble is, they’re not wrong. All of these factors are important to the success of students and to our journey of school improvement, but how can they all be at the top of the list? 

The fact is, we have to keep all those plates spinning at the same time, and support colleagues who are keeping their own plates spinning. The real issue isn’t so much what to put at the top of the agenda but how to coordinate a coherent approach to developing all these interlinked aspects of an effective school. In my opinion, this involves two parallel elements:

  1. refining the most important aspects of each area so that, at any point, our efforts are focussed on a few things that make the most difference.
  2. Planning across the areas of focus so that the thinking and actions of staff members are directed efficiently, so that actions in one area support those in others.

An example of this approach is our school Pupil Premium strategy for 2017-18. In a departure from the previous format, 28 separate strands have been reduced to six areas:

  • language and communication skills in Early Years & KS1; 
  • behaviour for learning; 
  • attendance; 
  • literacy, with a focus on KS3; 
  • numeracy, especially with respect to being prepared for the new KS4 curriculum; and 
  • lack of home access to resources, study support and cultural experiences.

The previous structure was unwieldy, difficult to coordinate and hard to monitor and evaluate effectively. The consolidation into just six strands (with behaviour and attendance as priorities in both primary and secondary phases) allows us to concentrate our work on those areas which we have identified as the greatest inhibitors to the progress of disadvantaged students.

Each of these areas also interlinks with other school improvement priorities, so that initiatives will work more efficiently, complementing each other and maximising the effective use of time an resources. For example, the focus on literacy in the Pupil Premium strategy sits within our values, is based on evidence-based evaluation, builds on previous whole school work, draws on expertise from the primary phase, and utilises resources developed within our inclusion department.

The next step I’m working on is to build in the milestones for each area to create a monitoring, evaluating and reporting map across the school year. This will enable better tracking of our progress, and better reporting SLT, governors, and all our visitors. I hope that this revised approach will help us keep all the plates spinning at once by integrating our different priorities. 

As always, constructive comments and suggestions are always welcome. Click the links to read my other posts about Pupil Premium and Reducing Workload.

What I won’t be doing this holiday.

Inspired by Amjad Ali’s post I will not be doing… . here are some things I won’t be doing in the half-term break.

  1. Wearing a watch. Just for a week, time isn’t the boss of me.
  2. Hearing the phrase ‘roger, Rodger’ over a walkie-talkie (I sometimes think of changing my surname to ‘Over’).
  3. Missing lunch. That may add a bit to my waistline, but I can’t believe that the ‘run off my feet: no time to eat’ diet is actually good for me.
  4. Wearing grooves in the A418 driving back and forth to Oxford. I barely have to steer anymore.
  5. Wearing a lanyard telling people who I am.
  6. Shaving. I know, I’m such a slob. But my face enjoys the rest.
  7. Wearing a natty fluorescent tabard  between 11.10am and 11.35am.
  8. Doing anything strategic.
  9. Responding to bells.
  10. Wasting my Netflix subscription. On which note…bye!

    Holidays and Health

    Image: pixabay

    I have written a number of posts about things teachers can do to stay well in the face of the demands of the job (which you can find in these posts about wellbeing), but I haven’t previously considered school holidays. 

    Are school holidays good for our health?OK, that might seem like a daft question! Like most teachers, I believe that school holidays are good for my health. Much as I love teaching, they are a chance to relax, recharge and spend time with friends and family. That’s got to be good for me.

    This year, thanks to a Christmas present of an fitness tracker, I have been able to look at some quantitative evidence to back up my subjective feeling.  One of the things it measures is resting heart rate. Generally, the lower our resting heart rate the better (although clearly zero isn’t something to aim for). I have quite a slow heart beat. I’d like to claim that this is because of a rigorous athletic regime, but it is in fact something I’ve been fortunate to inherit.

    “It seems to have taken all six weeks of the Summer break for my resting heart rate to recover.”

    This graph shows my average resting heart rate from the start of 2017 to the last week of the school Summer holiday.

    As you can see, we weren’t long into the spring term before my resting heart rate rose, and it stayed high for the rest of the academic year. What interests me though is that it seems to have taken all six weeks of the Summer break for my resting heart rate to come down to the point it was at the start of the year. I did try to get all the school work I needed to do completed in the first two weeks of the holiday, but the recovery seems to start pretty much from the end of term. 

    The graph also seems to indicate dips in testing heart rate for half term breaks in spring and Summer, and for the Easter holiday at the start of April, but it doesn’t recover to the original 52bpm it was in January. My heart, it seems, needs those six weeks!

    I appreciate that a study of one person doesn’t mean much in the wider scheme of things, but doctors agree that it is worth each of us keeping an eye on our resting heart rate. This is because several studies, including this one by Nauman et al (2011) of over 29,000 participants, show that increases over time are a significant risk indicator for coronary heart disease. It occurs to me that many teachers now wear fitness trackers (if my own school is any indication) and it would be possible to collate data from these devices. You don’t need one of course: you can measure your resting heart rate by taking your pulse at the same time each day, ideally just before you get up in the morning.

    Heart rate and Ofsted? Just for a bit of fun, see if you can tell when Ofsted were in, just by looking at the graph. If you give me your guess as a comment below, I’ll tell you if you’re right!

    New Specification A Levels – Waiting for the First Results

    This post was originally written the week before the 2017 A Level exam results were released (hence the reference to 17th August on the image). I then updated it with the postscript once the results were published. I also re-posted my post on UCAS clearing.

    I teach psychology (among other things) and last year I wrote about the Summer 2016 AS exams which were then the first test of the new specification, my teaching of it and interpretation of the assessment criteria. You can read that post here.
      

    This year we’re waiting for the first results for the full two-year Advanced Level exams. While we had a good experience with AS, all those concerns about the first run-through of a Specification are still in my mind as I wait for the Advanced psychology results: 

    1. How will my students perform in the actual exams as opposed to our own assessments based on specimen materials?
    2. Will performance nationally vary widely from the usual norm, with a large consequent adjustment of grade boundaries (either up or down)?

      

    1. Performance in the actual exams

    One of the reasons I opted for the AQA specification was the support this board offered for the new specification including sample assessments, Mark schemes and commentaries. The last time the specification changed the actual exam papers had contained some questions very different in style from the somewhat sparse sample papers. Support from AQA in advance was much better this time, there hadn’t been the same differences in the AS papers, nor were they in the A Level exams this Summer.

    There were quite a few widely-reported errors in exams this season, and more recent reporting of the possible impact on students, for example this article from The Guardian on ‘the stress of sitting new untested exams’. Whether or not there were more mistakes than usual, this publicity does seem to have shaken the confidence of many students in the exams process itself.  

    Although there were no errors in AQA psychology papers, one thing my students did have to contend with was errors in their brand new text books, particularly first print runs of first editions. I’ve seen this before when publishers rush to get texts out for new specifications. There are often mislabelled images, errors in tables, or inaccuracies in the indexing (i.e. mistakes arising in the production of pages, rather than the authors’ text) but this time there seemed to be several factual errors. Much as it gives my ego a boost to be able to show through reference to primary sources that I was right and the textbook was in error, it doesn’t help students (except perhaps to question everything) and shakes their confidence in their reference materials.

      

    2. Will performance vary nationally with unpredicable consequences?

    This is a question we will only be able to answer when the results are out. As I wrote in by post about the AS results, such probes have occurred in the past when new specifications have changed, most notably in 2011 (DFE, 2012). This did not seem to be the case for the 2016 AS exams, although more A grades were awarded in psychology. Hopefully this is an indication that Ofqual are on the ball and ensuring a smooth transition between specifications so that students sitting the first year of a new exam will not be penalised.

    Nevertheless, whatever the speculation, it’s the actual results that matter. So, like my year 13 students, I’ll be awaiting the A level results a little more nervously than usual this year. I’ll also be hoping that their results, and everyone else’s, will be a true indication of each student’s performance.

      
    Postscript – 18th August 2017

    It’s seems that now the results are available that there was not wide variation nationally compared with the 2016 results (see this Ofqual infographic), although the media made much of the fact that more boys than girls received top grades.  A* and A grades for the new A levels were slightly down on 2016, with Ofqual stating the changes reflected differences in prior attainment. The proportion of top grades in (unreformed) languages increased as had been previously agreed to counter skewing of results by native speakers. I find it interesting that Ofquals analysis focussed on the top grades.

    As for psychology, the proportion of A*/A grades fell 0.3% to 18.8%. There weren’t any shocks as far as the results of my own students went, although a couple did a bit better than I predicted and a couple missed out on a grade. It’s a small number to draw valid conclusions from, but if there was a theme, I think it was that those who worked hard did well, irrespective of their starting point, which must be a good thing.

    Lessons from a Ransomware Attack

    This isn’t my usual kind of blog. It’s about how our school responded to a ransomware attack and what we learned. As it turns out, not everyone talks about this so malware attacks on schools may be more of a problem than many of us realise. 

    We first noticed attack on The morning of 17th July when we found that several documents on our fileserver were encypted. It seemed at first that only some files on one server were affected, then it became apparent that files on another were also encrypted. We decided to shut down all our servers to halt any spread of an infection. This of course meant that the school had no ICT facility: teachers had no acesss to lesson resources, and there was no access to our information management system.

    Our excellent ICT team identified the ramsomware as ‘.Aleta’ and discovered that the infection had occurred at around 6.30am on the previous Saturday, 15th July on a server used by all the schools in our academy group, despite our use of security software. The finance serWe later learned from the police that this type of malware is most frequently spread by remote desktop access protocols.  Our ICT team worked all that day and the next to wipe the system clean and restore files from a full backup made on Friday 14th July. As a result we were only without ICT for a day, although some facilities were only restored on the second day. 

    We warned the schools in our Multi-Academy Company and other local schools. We weren’t using email, so we did it the old fashioned way, by phone. It was quite hard to talk to a human being at some schools!  We reported the incident to Thames Valley Police who also urged us to report it to Action Fraud, who coordinate with the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau. In reporting this attack, I learned from the police that not everyone does so, or chooses to report the details to Action Fraud. I can only speculate as to why this is – perhaps they don’t want adverse publicity, or to indicate that there may have been a vulnerability in their systems. Presumably a proportion of victims pay, or why would such attacks continue?  It seemed to us that adding our small piece of the jigsaw to the database of such attacks was the only way we could help tackle them. Action Fraud told me that the perpetrators would undoubtedly be based overseas and there was little chance of bringing them to justice in the short term, but thanked us because every piece of additional information helps build a picture of this type of criminal activity, providing insights into how to counter it. Reporting the details of the crime also enabled the police to give us specific advice on how to deal with it. We didn’t need this help because we had a recent backup we could use to restore our system, but the police do have a database which can be used to decrypt many files affected by such attacks.

    We did not contact the authors of the malware and we certainly didn’t pay a ransom, nor would we. Quite apart from the obvious moral argument about paying criminals and so helping fund and encourage their further activities, to do so seemed foolish in the extreme, We didn’t open any of the ‘ransom’ files placed on our network, but found screenshots of the instructions they contained on the internet. We weren’t asked for a specific amount but told that the fee, in bitcoin, would depend on how soon we responded. In exchange for payment, we would be sent a file to unlock the encrypted files. Deliberately launching an executable file sent by criminals didn’t sound like a good idea!

      

    Lessons we learned

    1. This is what a critical incident plan is for! It’s essential to have a plan in place to cover the network going down – for example hard copy contact details for pupils, so you can contact home, and of the timetable so you know where everyone should be. Think about how often you access school information on a computer – how would you get that same information without a network?
    2. It pays to back up your network. For our school, a regular backup protocol meant that we could restore our systems and suffered only minimal loss of data. For teachers, the message is to also back up your own files, and keep the copy away from the network and the school premises. We all know this, but do we all do it?
    3. Remote access is used by many schools and can be a real help to staff. Remote Desktop Protocols are a known chink in the armour of network security, however, so how confident are you that you are protected? It’s worth checking.
    4. If it happens, it’s really worth reporting it. It helps tackle this kind of fraud, assists others, and also allows you to access help and support.
    5. We were fortunate in having a team with the expertise to deal with this situation. Are your IT team prepared? Is there any training you need to provide?

    I hope that this doesn’t happen to your school and there’s no reason to think schools are particularly being targeted (who would think schools have money?!). It’s best to be prepared though, so I also hope this account of our experience will help others. I’d be interested to hear from other schools who have had similar experiences.

      Action Fraud can be contacted on 0300 123 2040 or via their website www.actionfraud.police.uk which also has a wealth of up to date information on Fraud and cybercrime.

      Top Ten Tips for Parents and Carers on  Helping with Homework

      In the feedback we got from a recent survey of parents and caters we had the question ‘how do I help my kids with homework when it’s above my level?

      It’s a question parents often ask when their children move up to secondary school. Homework may become a more prominent part of school life and aspects the curriculum will have changed (several times!) since parents were at school themselves. We don’t of course want parents to do the homework for their children, but looking around at websites offering help to families, some of the advice seemed a bit too generic.

      I wrote this piece for our school bulletin. If you feel it’s useful, Please feel free to use and adapt as you wish. The first point refers to Show My Homework which we use to set tasks. Parents can monitor it using the website or app.
       

       

      How do I help with homework?

      This is a question parents often ask when their children move to secondary school. Here are our top ten tips on how you can support your child:

      1. Keep track of homework at http://www.showmyhomework.co.uk or by downloading the app. You can see what tasks have been set, when deadlines are and when your child has submitted it.

      2. Help your child organise their time: keep an eye on deadlines and encourage them space work out, rather than leaving it to the last minute.

      3. Make sure they have space and somewhere quiet to work. If that’s difficult at home, our library is open before and after school each day.

      4. Make sure they have the right equipment to tackle a range of tasks: pens, pencils, ruler, sharpener, eraser, coloured pencils or pens, scissors, glue stick, protractor, drawing compasses, calculator, and a dictionary. If money is tight, contact school: we can often help.

      5. Limit distractions – no screens or TV. Check that any online research is directed at the task. Some people feel that music helps them to work, but there is good evidence that it can impair performance.

      6. Take an interest in what your children are studying and the homework they are doing. Talk with them about school, and encourage them to try their best, and ask them to share the feedback they get from teachers.

      7. Insist on the basics of good presentation: titles underlined, work dated, neat, legible handwriting, answers in full sentences, good punctuation and spelling.

      8. Encourage regular reading: well-read students develop better communication skills and knowledge across a range of subjects. Reading should form a part of homework each day.

      9. Ensure that your child acknowledges sources of information. From year 7 they should list the books or websites they have used. This good habit will help avoid plagiarism later and make the move to formal referencing of work easier.

      10. Encourage reflection, resourcefulness,  and resilience. If  your child has difficulty with a question or exercise, ask what they have already learned that could help them. Prompt them to use resources like a dictionary, for help. If they are still unable to complete a task, please write a note to the teacher in your child’s planner. When work is returned, help them learn from the feedback their teacher has given and apply this next time. Learning from mistakes is a valuable part of both class work and homework.

       
      I hope others find this helpful. I’d be interested in examples from other schools, or suggestions for advice I could add.

      Image: pixabay