Top Ten Signs that We’re Back to School

Has ‘Back to School’ come as a bit of a shock? Here are my top ten signs that the lovely long Summer holiday is over and that the new school year has started. How many have happened to you?

  1. You breathe out a sigh of relief that the waistband of your work clothes still fits – and a button pops off.
  2. When you finally find your lanyard again you realise that the age gap between your staff ID photo and reality is now pushing the bounds of credulity.
  3. As a result of the ‘Summer IT Upgrade‘ your computer crashes when you try to log in (after finally remembering what your password was).
  4. When you do succeed in logging in, you find there are now 247 emails in your inbox.
  5. During the start of term INSET day you find that at least a dozen new educational acronyms (NEAs) have been invented since the end of last term.
  6. On the first day that the pupils return someone asks ‘Sir?’ / ‘Miss?’ And for a moment you wonder who they’re talking to.
  7. The bells, the bells! Your life becomes Pavlovian again.
  8. You scald yourself with your coffee, no longer having the luxury of time to let it cool down.
  9. You spend the latter half of the morning with your legs crossed because you can no longer just pop to the loo when you need to.
  10. After your first busy day, you realise with a sigh that you have to get up at THAT TIME again tomorrow… and tomorrow…

So, how many did you score out of ten at the start of this term?! Anything I missed? What would you put in your top ten?

Remember, though, what we do makes a real difference to the children we teach. And just think: some people have jobs where they actually have time to be bored!

If things are getting a bit much, you might want to have a look at my post on Workable Wellbeing.

New Specification AS – Waiting for Results Day

I originally wrote this a few days before the 2016 AS and A Level results came out. I added the postscript after the dust had settled on results day.

I teach psychology, one on the new AS specifications taught from September 2015. This Summer’s AS exams were the first test of the new specification, my teaching of it and interpretation of the assessment criteria. That adds a little spice to the wait for results day, for teachers as well as students!

We opted for the AQA specification, and had done the AQA A specification previously. There was really good support for the new specification from this exam board and a wealth of sample assessments, Mark schemes and commentaries. The last time the specification changed, there were considerable differences in the style of some questions from the sample materials, but this wasn’t the case this time round. I’m aware, however that odd things can happen in the first year of a new exam and research commissioned by the DFE shows that the grade distributions can plateau or fall when specifications change, as for A levels in 2010 and GCSEs in 2011 (DFE RB203, March 2012). It’s this knowledge that means that, irrespective of how long I’ve been teaching, how much I prepared for the new course, how well the students performed in internal assessments or PPEs, I can’t be as sure of how they will do in the actual exams as I was the year before.

I was pleased to see that Ofqual are also aware of the issues surrounding assessment of the new qualifications and say they have taken steps to ensure standardisation across the transition, so that students examined in the first year of a new course are not penalised. They also plan to publish their analysis of the results on AS results day (you can read the Ofqual blog post on setting standards for new AS qualifications here). I haven’t been impressed with some strategies used to ‘maintain standards’ especially moving grade boundaries (as you can read in my post Beating the Bounds from last year), but I’m hoping that this move to be ahead of the curve and transparent with a prompt statistical analysis is a positive one.

So, like my students, I’ll be awaiting the results a little nervously this year – probably good for me to feel a little of what it’s like in their shoes, but I’m hoping that lessons have been from the introduction of new assessments in the past, so results will be a true indication of students’ performance.

Postscript 18/8/17

The results are now all in, I now now how my own students did in their exams and Ofqual have published their promised analysis (read it here).

Nationally, the picture seems fairly stable with a 1% increase for A grades at AS continuing a trend (although only 0.2% for psychology). In general Ofqual say the outcomes for the new AS exams were similar to those taken by 17 year olds last year.

As for my own students, much the same story. There was a slightly positive VA versus forecasts overall, so I didn’t need to worry and will have a keen bunch to embark on the first run of ‘A level Year 2’ (we decided to enter everyone for AS this time round).

I hope your experiences with the A Level & BTEC were similarly positive.

Why do education books cost so much? 

This post is a bit different, just a question: why do books on education cost so much? I’m not moaning (although I am bemoaning the fact that I just can’t afford to read all the great books out there), I just want to know the answer. I can’t make the figures add up and there doesn’t seem to be any hard information available.

I won’t name publishers, authors or titles, but there are a few recently published books I’d like to read at the moment. If you’re a teacher using social media you’ll have heard of them. They are all under 200 pages – that’s a slim volume – and apart from the cover utilise no colour printing. Each is currently priced from £16.99 to £24.99. For that same money you could get a newly published hardback novel or an all-singing, all-dancing, exam board endorsed, full colour A level textbook complete with a supporting website and possibly an app.

So why so much? I don’t begrudge anyone their fair due – authors, editors, printers, binders, retailers and publishers all deserve their cut, and I appreciate that the physical print publishing industry is having a tough time. I have, however, found it difficult to find break-downs of costs.

Zachary Crockett used his experiences working in the publishing of HE textbooks in the US to produce this breakdown in his 2013 article Why are textbooks so expensive?:

  • 5% Production costs
  • 15% Author Royalties 
  • 32% Editorial costs 
  • 15% Marketing
  • 1% Shipping
  • 22% Profit

Of course taxes will be levied on the profit and there will be other costs such as depreciation. Nevertheless, this gives us an idea of the breakdown of the wholesale price. Retailers have their own costs and profit margin so will add around 25% mark-up on the wholesale price.

I understand that books aimed at teachers are aimed at a specialised small market (although there are nearly half a million of us in the UK),  so overheads can’t be spread across large volume sales, but actual production costs are a small part of the total price, and surely editorial input is proportional to the length off a book. Presumably a slim 160 page volume requires less input than a 450 page novel? Surely the marketing budget will be proportional to the size of the market? Usually I hear about new books because someone tweets about them – often the author.

So, how do the costs work? Where does the money go? Why are education books so expensive? I’d really like to know, because if they were cheaper I’d be buying two or three of those I mentioned, rather than deciding on just one.

Seymour Papert: Computing and Creativity

Seymour Papert, mathematician, computer scientist and educational philosopher died on 31st July, aged 88. He was a passionate advocate for computing in education, not because he thought technology could provide useful teaching tools, but believed programming could unleash the creativity of children. 

Born in South Africa, Papert studied mathematics, going on to gain a PhD at Cambridge, and then to work with Jean Piaget in Geneva. He later drew on Piaget’s ideas while developing the Logo programming language and its associated floor ‘turtle’ at MIT. His aim was a simple programming language which nevertheless included the versatility to solve complex problems. The experience of Logo for many children in the 80s & 90s will have been using a physical or screen turtle to draw geometrical shapes. Papert saw this as important, giving children a way of exploring geometrical & mathematical concepts, but he  only intended this as the start. Logo was conceived to put the child in charge of this exploration; connecting the abstract to the concrete, learning creative problem solving, and gaining mastery of new technology as active developers, rather than just passive users. Sadly for many children in the UK their experience of Logo may not have gone much beyond following instructions on a worksheet to draw shapes on a screen, the antithesis of what Papert intended. For those, however, who were allowed to explore logo further, or it’s commercial inceptions such as Lego Mindstorms, a world of possibilities opened up.

Logo may no longer be the first programming language of choice in schools, but several versions are still popular and the derivative NetLogo modelling tool is still going strong. The principles (and particularly turtle graphics coding commands) live on in tools such as Scratch and text-based languages like Python. I have recently taught some computing at KS4 after a break from the subject of ten years. I’m pleased to see students captivated by the the ability that coding gives them to take charge of a task and create imaginative (and often elegant) solutions. When I look at the youngest pupils in our all-through school embarking on their journey into computing, I can only wonder at what they will be achieving the next ten years. I think we need to understand that, while we teachers may be the facilitators, it will be them taking us there, not the other way around. I believe a curriculum and pedagogy based on creative exploration would be a legacy of which Seymour Papert would approve. 

As ever, I welcome constructive comments. If you want to read more about Papert’s contribution to computing and creativity in schools, I recommend this excellent article Papert, Turtles and Creativity written in 2015 by Miles Berry. 

NetLogo is a programming language developed by Uri Wilensky at Northwestern University and is available here.

Lego MINDSTORMS is a trademark of the Lego Group.

Python is an educational programming language produced by the Python Software Foundation.

Scratch is a free first programming tool developed by the MIT Media Lab and is available here.

Image created using Logo interpreter by Joshua Bell.


And now for something completely different

We spent last week at school doing things that were completely different. We do this every year, using gained time from years 11 & 13, and year 10 being on work experience to suspend the timetable for years 7, 8 & 9 so we can challenge ourselves to work in different ways, try something new, combine knowledge and skills from different areas and hone our skills.

This year we had trips to Germany and France, we put on Macbeth in a day, we fought to survive on Mars like Mark Watney, built a WWI museum to commemorate the Centenary of the battle of the Somme, painted portraits, then designed and made frames for them, sang our hearts out, pitched products to dragons, ran year quizzes entirely composed of student questions, hosted a fantastic art show will all years represented (Y7 Terracotta Army in photo) and held a brilliant sports day, the best one ever (although I tend to say that every year). We may not be able to do it again.

Why not? One reason is that Year 10 work experience looks increasingly untenable. There are now whole fields such as healthcare where you need to be over 16 to get a placement. Work experience at KS4 is based on an idea of leaving education at 16 which is no longer true. Maybe this is a local issue, but it seems to be harder than ever to get quality placements – and we appreciate all the employers who do provide them – and more expensive to complete the process. This year more placements seemed to fall through at the last minute, sometimes because of the employer, sometimes because of the student or their family. We are thinking of moving it to year 12. They would be over 16, more likely to have a career in mind, and we could link it to their A Level / BTEC subjects. This change would make our alternative week more difficult, but we would still have some released time and could probably adapt.

The second problem is workload. Traditionally the people organising the week have to spend the next one lying in a darkened room. We made changes last year to ease the load, and this year to distribute leadership to year teams and clusters of subjects. My colleagues were their usual brilliant, enthusiastic creative selves, but they are also tired. As well as the ‘usual’ of improving standards, we have all worked hard to help disadvantaged pupils make better progress, introduce our new KS3 assessment model, we have had new GCSEs to learn, plan and implement, and the same for post-16 qualifications. Meeting the challenge of these changes will continue over the next few years. It’s a simple fact that something has to give.

The third factor is attendance. Last year our attendance fell dramatically during this week. We took steps to counteract this, flagging it, simplifying the programme, explaining it and, to be blunt removing some elements that were less aligned with the core aims. At the start of the week this seemed to have worked; attendance was 3% on same period the previous year. I looked at the figures for Friday in despair, however. They dragged the week to worse than the year before. We had to close partially because of the strike on Tuesday. We had been expecting Eid on Wednesday & Thursday, we know the proportion of students who will be celebrating. The attendance codes that concern me aren’t ‘Y’ or ‘R’ but ‘I’ and ‘N’. I know the jump in ‘I’ isn’t all illness, and the number of as-yet-unexplained absences on sports day was just dispiriting. It was a joyous event. The triumphs, large and small, the enthusiasm, the encouragement & support, the achievements, the enjoyment, ‘This Girl Can’ ambassadors proudly wearing their pink t-shirts, the camera dearie, the celebration of community – all of it lifted the heart. I’d really like any help readers can give about how to engage those families who think that all that is just pointless and not worth their children coming to school. My point here, however, is we just can’t afford a drop in attendance like this. We’re RI and while our last HMI letter was very positive, attendance remains a key issue.

I know that we created memories last week that will stay with students for the rest of their lives, helping form the ‘what’s left when we’ve forgotten all we learned’, but I wonder for how much longer we can afford to step away from the timetable and do something completely different given the constraints we face.

Values, Democracy and the EU Referendum

Like many educators in the UK, I found myself disconcerted by the demographics of the vote. The first news article I read about the result, pointed out that the single best indicator of voting choice was level of education. It was also apparent that young and old had voted very differently. Roughly three quarters of young voters supported remain, about the same proportion of over-65s voted to leave.

My school has done a lot of work on democracy this year. We encouraged students sixteen and older to register to vote in the spring. The council hosted events on the importance of local and national representation and kindly lent us actual voting booths, ballot boxes and polling station signage for a school mock election. 

I heard more spontaneous political and economic discussion between students on Friday than in the last twenty years put together.

This clearly had an impact on our sixth form students in particular because they were keen to run a school EU referendum. They did this with style and professionalism. Unlike the mock election. There was no campaigning but they hosted a debate (which frankly was better informed that most of actual national campaigns) and ran the election. Tutors also used materials derived from the booklet from the Electoral Commission that was sent to homes. We asked students to think about the following questions surrounding the claims made by the two campaigns:

  • What do you know already about the European Union? What do you need to find out? 
  • Each side (Leave / Remain) makes claims about the advantages of either leaving the EU or remaining in the EU. What is the evidence for their claims? 
  • Many of the claims made by each side (Leave / Remain) have been contested. How could you find out if a claim is reliable?  
  • The Remain campaign says the NHS is better protected if we stay in the EU. The Leave campaign says the NHS will be better off if we leave the EU. What sources of evidence could you use to decide which side might be right? 

There was considerable excitement on 23rd June, with voting taking place throughout the day. The results gave a large majority vote to remain in the European Union:

  • Remain 73%
  • Leave 26%

As we all know, this wasn’t how the national vote turned out, but it mirrored how young people voted nationally, and this certainly wasn’t the end of the referendum as far as our students were concerned; Friday 24th June turned out to be an extraordinary day. The first thing the Principal said to me that morning was about a conversation she’d heard two year 7 students having. “52%” said one “you can hardly call that a mandate!” Not the average 12 year old conversation.

This theme continued throughout the day. I heard more spontaneous political and economic discussion between students on Friday than in the last twenty years put together. A year 9 student informed me that the prime minister had resigned. A year 10 student asked me if I had seen the stock exchange figures, then showed me a graph on his phone. Another asked me if I was worried about my pension! (I am: have you looked at the AVC fund?). Break and lunchtime was full of discussion about the consequences of leaving the EU. The most frequent question was much broader, though. As several year 12 students put it “Why have they thrown our future away?” Who are “they”? The students have seen the statistics too. Their view is quite clearly that pensioners have made a decision that the young didn’t want but will have to live with. 

I voted remain. I am very disappointed with the result and extremely concerned about the future, but I know that it’s likely that a deal will be brokered with Europe. The divisions in our nation concern me even more – economic, geographic, educational and age. I believe that however we voted as individuals, we all need to work to overcome these. One thing I am sure of: the quality of discussion I and my colleagues witnessed among students was truly inspiring. Sixteen year olds deserve the vote.

I’m interested in the results of school mock EU referendums. Those I have heard about so far all had at least 70% of students voting remain, but so far these have all been Oxfordshire schools, so from an area that voted remain. I’d appreciate it if teachers could let me know their school results. I always welcome constructive comments, whether you agree with me or not.

Workable Wellbeing 2: more ideas inspired by #SLTchat

My first ‘Workable Wellbeing’ post was inspired by the @SLTchat discussion on 6/9/15 and updated a month later to mark World Mental Health Day. You can read it here.

This latest post was inspired by the lively #SLTchat on wellbeing held on 2/5/16 hosted by @ottleyoconnor. Several ideas I included in the first post featured again. Considering timing throughout the school year was mentioned by @ictlinks, using mindfulness courses with staff was brought up by @chrisedwardsuk, and cake featured prominently once again, with @pickleholic tweeting about ‘treat Friday’ where staff sign up to share their bakes.

My contribution about giving ‘I liked this’ cards to colleagues visited during learning walks received a lot of interest. Many contributors pointed out that it’s the simple things that can make all the difference, including thank-yous. My mention of staff dressing up for ‘Back to the Future’ Day last October seemed to capture the imagination of many and @Ed_Tmprince commented on the Easter egg hunt she puts on for her colleagues. I was interested in the Danish concept of Hygge described by @Graham_IRISC – a blend of warmth/comfort/belonging and how certain individuals in an organisation seem to generate it. I must add it to my list of Positive Phrases for which there is no direct English translation.

I was also struck the tweet by @MagnaCartaHead about the role of partnership working, something I had not considered at all in my original post. I know that I and other school leaders in the Oxford East Partnership find it a useful support network. We regularly share good news and challenges, and specific work like the recent moderation of Year 2 and Year 6 writing was particularly useful to all who took part. We have had several conversations about the role of wellbeing on recruiting and retaining staff and we all include membership of this supportive partnership in our recruitment advertising.

#SLTchat is itself a kind of partnership and those 30 minutes each Sunday evening certainly improve my sense of wellbeing and set me up for the week ahead. 

I’ve written a few posts now on wellbeing and worlkload and I’m thinking of how I can draw all these together, perhaps as a post on how school leaders can model behaviour that values work-life balance – something mentioned by several contributors to the #SLTchat discussion. Any comments or suggestions you may have would be very helpful.