Practical Science – It’s Place in the Whole School Curriculum

Ofqual and Practical Science
I recently went on a learning walk, taking in several year 11 science classes. About half were engaged in practical work. In my subsequent discussion with our Head of Science, we got talking about the decision by Ofqual to remove practicals from GCSE science assessment. His response was that his team “would keep on doing practicals, no matter what.” At the same time he expressed a concern that there were some secondary schools where less and less time was given to practicals.

In the media, it seems that there are opposing views on the Ofqual decision. Many scientific organisations have condemned the removal of practical assessment but it also seems clear that the majority of science teachers who responded to the consultation were in favour of it. What does this tell us about the place of science within the whole school curriculum?

What’s the point of doing science?
Please comment if you think I’m wrong here (or right!), but I think most science teachers love practical science but loathe ISAs. These assessments have undergone several iterations but are now generally regarded as cumbersome, overly long, formulaic and an organisational nightmare. It’s therefore unsurprising that few science teachers are mourning their demise. But the ISA is not the only way to assess practical skills, or students’ understanding of scientific investigation.

Science teachers such as Alom Shaha (writing in the Guardian here ) point to evidence that practicals may be largely ineffective in embedding knowledge. It’s certainly true that direct instruction works, but I believe carrying out practical research is essential if pupils are to understand what science is, as well as what scientists have done.

Objectivity, Replicability, and Paradigms
One way of summarising the key features of science is it’s attempt to be objective, the importance of replicability and the building of paradigms.

We cannot teach objectivity by showing students how to answer questions, but not how to ask them, by telling them about hypotheses or models, but not how to test them. Nor is it achieved by a reliance on the word of a teacher (however expert) or a text. Furthermore, it attempting to be objective, students learn that researchers themselves are variables that need to be taken into account.

Replicability is a cornerstone of science. Any research should be reported in a manner that allows others to verify its reliability be repeating it. Students should learn to both to verify what others have done, and design and report their own investigations in a way that can be replicated.

Science is not a static body of knowledge from the past, nor is it a set of hurdles that students must overcome before they can contribute themselves. It is an ongoing search for the truth that proposes explanations, then tests them by trying to knock them down, within overarching and continually developing paradigms. To learn science is to become an active part in this process.

More questions than answers
This leaves me with some questions about the place of science, and practical science, in the curriculum.

1. What are we seeking to achieve through practical science? This should drive the curriculum, not assessment.

2. What should be the balance of teaching practical skills and an understanding of scientific research?

3. How do our aims for science fit into our school values and what we aim for students to achieve at school overall?

Perhaps in the context of these questions, the Ofqual decision, whether we agree with it or not, can be seen as an opportunity. I welcome your comments.



Workload Planning for Peak Times

This is the second in a planned series of posts on tackling workload issues in schools, so teachers can focus on the most effective activities. Originally posted in February 2015, this post was updated in April 2015, and again in April 2016.

Planning for the Pressure Points 

One important way in which school leaders can reduce the workload of teaching staff is to recognise the times of the year when there are particularly high demands. One of these for UK secondary schools is the period in late Spring when we embark on the ‘final push’ and at the same time face the marking & moderation of coursework components. We have adopted a couple of strategies to help staff during this time.

1. Meetings Moratorium For several years we have held a moratorium on meetings for the two weeks after The Easter holiday, suspending the school meeting cycle (subject / pastoral / CPD) to assist colleagues in dealing with this seasonal workload. We also devolve a twilight INSET slot to subject teams in this period so they can share practice, honing and standardising their assessment skills.
2. SLT take on the Homework In 2014, we took the additional step of relieving colleagues of the requirement to set and mark KS3 homework. Instead the SLT set and marked a ‘TakeAway Homework’ menu (Thank you to @TeacherToolkit for that idea*) We used this as a student voice opportunity, so menu items included completing an online survey, writing to the head about an improvement to the school, and writing to me about what qualities a great teacher should have (I need all the help I can get!) We used the responses to inform the School improvement plan.

None of this makes the work go away, of course, but it does allow colleagues to concentrate on key tasks, by relieving some of the pressure on them at this time of year. Teachers have cited it as a helpful strategy in the annual staff wellbeing survey.  

April 2015 Update

This year we are repeating the moratorium on meetings, but have modified the take away homework for KS3 students. We have been revisiting our school values this year, so we have included a ‘starter’ on random acts of kindness and a ‘main course’ item which is a competition to design a poster around our school values of wisdom, integrity, justice and compassion. We are also having a push on extended writing, so another ‘main course’ is a writing competition. The inclusion of competition entries also reduces the marking load because the entries are initially screened for shortlisting rather than close-marked. We have of course retained the item most popular with parents last year – the ‘dessert’ on helping out at home!

April 2016 Update

This strategy was welcomed by colleagues last year, so we are repeated it again this year.

We used the same pattern of a meetings moratorium and devolved some INSET time to subject departments so they could use it when most appropriate to their planning. 

We also repeated the centralised takeaway homework for KS3 students. You can find it here. We stuck with extended writing opportunities. This was a great success last year and several pupils produced prize-winning entries in National writing competitions. Building on this, we have deliberately written poetry, short story writing and art tasks to meet entry requirements for competitions. We will also be comparing writing this year with that from last year as a way of assessing progress on this priority in our SIP.

We shifted the focus of our ‘values’ tasks to practical action to improve the school environment as our (Catholic school) community explores the message of Pope Francis’ letter Laudato Si’: Care for our Common Home. We’ll also be using this as a student voice opportunity, comparing answers with last year and also asking about our teaching and learning development areas for this year (feedback and DIRT, and Collaborative Learning).


Once again, adopting this strategy has helped alleviate the workload burden of colleagues at a ‘heavy’ time of year, and in a year when there is so much additional change in all areas. Even though Easter was much earlier this year, the two week period after the holiday still seems to have been the most beneficial time to do this.

I hope you found this post useful. I’m keen to hear any comments you have and I’d particularly like to hear other ideas on managing and reducing workload. 

*You can find more about takeaway homework on the Teacher Toolkit website

Making the Most of the Pupil Premium

Reviewing Pupil Premium
Last term I led the review of my school’s use of the Pupil Premium. As well as reviewing impact, we wanted to share a fuller analysis on our website. For readers outside the UK, the Pupil a Premium is funding intended to tackle the effects of income disadvantage. A third of our pupils received it last year. The total allocation was £267,000.
Previously, our published analysis consisted of a list of allocations with an indication of outcomes. I wanted to improve on this, not merely to meet statutory requirements but to show the rationale behind our plan, provide an accessible evaluation of impact, and show how this had informed our future planning.
The document went through several drafts and I’m indebted to my colleagues Steve Jones and Nick Rose (@nickjohnrose) at St Gregory’s for a key information and to Amjad Ali (@ASTsupportAAli) whose Pupil Premium analysis at Cheney School, Oxford was a help and inspiration.

Rationale for Allocation
We organise our allocation of the Pupil Premium into three areas: nurture, progress and aspiration.
Nurture covers everything we do to mitigate the effects of economic disadvantage so that students can engage fully with the curriculum. This includes various subsidies, providing breakfasts, clothing & equipment for vocational courses and specialist activities, and a contribution towards providing a family support worker.
Progress involves teaching strategies and specific interventions to enable pupils with low prior attainment to make more rapid progress. This includes whole school and departmental interventions, mentoring and learning support.
Aspiration includes provision that enriches the curriculum, extends opportunities and raises the breadth and extent of student aspirations. It includes clubs, instrumental loan and tuition, enhanced independent advice & guidance and university visits.

Impact Analysis
We have chosen a range of impact indicators including Good Learning Development in Early Years, end of key stage attainment and indicators in English & maths, KS2-4 VA and A2 VA. We also include numbers in education, employment and training post-16 and post-18. These form the basis of our planning & evaluation cycle. For each allocation, success criteria are established. These are subsequently used to RAG-rate impact, followed by a brief commentary on future actions which forms the basis of planning for the next year.

You can see our 2013-14 analysis on the St Gregory’s website here.

What have we learned?
The new format has helped parents and carers understand the importance of the Pupil Premium and the range of work it supports.
School Governors have found the new format helpful in understanding the relative impact of different interventions.
The approach to impact analysis in particular has highlighted some key points for school leaders including the areas where we need better data to inform our evaluation and the importance of raising our aspirations for disadvantaged students. In general it is clear that the most successful interventions are those that are very specific, with tightly defined success criteria, and are targeted towards particular identified needs.

Next Steps
We know that we aren’t there yet. We may not have the best mix of indicators and many will have to change with the introduction of assessment beyond levels, progress 8, etc.
To achieve better outcomes for disadvantaged students we need to work more with those students and their families to establish individual needs.
It is also becoming clear that there are a group of families just above the Pupil Premium threshold who have been hit hard by the current economic climate. The Premium is a fairly blunt tool and it’s important to use a range of other information in assessing need.

This is a work in progress and I’d appreciate any comments or advice readers may have to offer.

Why I Do What I Do – Remembering My Grandfather

One hundred years ago, on 7th January 1915 my grandfather Alexander Caseby enlisted in the Royal Field Artillery. He had left school (many of his teachers having already joined up to fight in the war) and got a job as postman. Every day he passed a recruitment poster at Leuchars Junction in Fife for ‘Kitchener’s 100,000’. Although not yet the required age of 19, he felt ‘haunted’ by this poster. On the third attempt, he enlisted in the New Year, just short of his 18th birthday by allowing a confusion between his birthdate of 19th January and his age to go uncorrected.

What has this to do with me being a teacher? I suppose it’s because I have a sense of legacy. I’m aware that previous generations had a much tougher life that I have had, with fewer options available to them. My grandfather spent his youth on the battlefields of Loos, ‘Wipers’ and The Somme being shot at and gassed. He came away with his life and a metal plate in his head. I spent mine having a fantastic time at university and came away with a degree in Zoology!

I know that I have benefitted from a good education and the choices it afforded me because previous generations were determined that their children would have opportunities they didn’t. They worked hard within families for the sake of their own children, but also collectively within society to build a state education system for every child. I know many teachers with a similar family experiences – I’ve worked in school leadership teams where most colleagues were the first generation in their family to go to university.

We know that this work isn’t finished. There are still far too many children in families living in poverty, or on the edge of it for whom education can be a ticket to better opportunities, but it’s a struggle. I feel proud that in teaching in one school, in one part of our country, I am part of a national network of dedicated professionals committed to a common cause. I’m also proud to be continuing a legacy passed on by previous generations.

This morning, 7th January 2015, I’ll be teaching A level psychology, helping my teenage students prepare for their mock exams next week, the next stepping-stone towards their goals and aspirations. I’ll also be thinking about my Grandad, the teenage Gunner 70412 Caseby, A. I’ll give thanks for family and remembering that the opportunities I had, and my students have, were hard-won by previous generations.


Quote of the Week – Inspiration for Monday Mornings

Each Monday over the past year I have put an educational ‘Quote of the Week’ up in the staff room. We refer to it in morning briefing and it stays up for the week. It seems to have been helpful: colleagues mention it, the quotes are sometimes reproduced around the school and I now get suggestions for ones we could use. I was pleased to find that several colleagues had mentioned being inspired by the quotes in our independent staff well-being survey.

A quote for each week
Here then are the quotes we’ve used over the past 38 weeks of the school year. I hope you find them helpful. I think they are all accurate and correctly attributed but please let me know if you spot any errors and I’ll correct them. I’d also love to hear suggestions of other inspiring educational quotes.

1. Those who know, do. Those that understand, teach.

2. The most valuable resource that teachers have is each other. Without collaboration our growth is limited to our own perspectives.
Robert John Meehan

3. Education is the movement from darkness to light
Alan Bloom

4. The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character: that is the goal of true education.
Martin Luther King

5. Faith and Reason are like two wings of the Human spirit by which it soars to the truth.
John Paul II

6. Teaching kids to count is fine, but teaching them what counts is best.
Bob Talber

7. Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is most important.
Bill Gates

8. It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.
Albert Einstein

9. What nobler employment than to instruct the rising generation?

10. Good teaching is more a giving of right questions than a giving of right answers.
Josef Albers

11. Education is a better guard of liberty than a standing army.
Edward Everett

12. Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.

13. Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it.
Malcolm X

14. A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.
Henry Adams

15. Walk with your feet on Earth but your heart in heaven.
St John Bosco

16. Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.

17. Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them become what they are capable of becoming.

18. It is not that I am so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer.
Albert Einstein

19. Curiosity is the very basis of education and if you tell me that ‘curiosity killed the cat’ I say only that the cat died nobly.
Arnold Edinborough

20. A key purpose of schools is to teach the futility of hate and the power of love.
Tony Benn

21. Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.
William Butler Yeats

22. Quand tu veux construire un bateau, ne commence pas par rassembler du bois, couper des planches et distribuer du travail, mais reveille au sein des hommes le desir de la mer grande et large.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

(If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.)

23. I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught.
Winston Churchill

24. The calling of the teacher. There is no craft more privileged. To awaken in another human being powers, dreams beyond one’s own; to induce in others a love for that which one loves; to make of one’s inward present their future; that is a threefold adventure like no other.
George Steiner

25. Only the educated are free.

26. Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.
Maya Angelou

27. Every kid is one caring adult away from being a success story
Josh Shipp

28. Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.

29. If kids come to us from strong, healthy functioning families, it makes our job easier. If they do not come to us from strong, healthy, functioning families, it makes our job more important.
Barbara Colorose

30. If you don’t stand up for something, you fall for anything.
Public Enemy (from Harder than you think I think this may be a quote from Malcolm X)

31. I would rather be an optimist and a fool than a pessimist and right!
Albert Einstein

32. No Matter what your ability is, effort is what ignites that ability and turns it into accomplishment
Carol Dweck

33. Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.
Nelson Mandela

34. Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.
Henry Ford

35. My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.
Maya Angelou

36. You can never be overdressed or overeducated.
Oscar Wilde

37. Teaching is the highest form of understanding.

38. Merry Christmas everybody!
Noddy Holder

Finally, here’s a few lined up for 2015:

Prejudices, it is well known, are most difficult to eradicate from the heart whose soil has never been loosened or fertilized by education; they grow there, firm as weeds among rocks.
Charlotte Bronte

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
Maya Angelou

For the best return on your money, pour your purse into your head.
Benjamin Franklin

What we want to see is the child in pursuit of knowledge, not knowledge in pursuit of the child.
George Bernard Shaw

Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.

Workload – a small step in the right direction

Inspired by #SLTchat
The #SLTchat discussion on workload on 7th December inspired me to think of ways to embed principles on limiting workload into practice. If you haven’t yet taken part, SLTchat is an excellent Twitter school leadership discussion forum each Sunday 8.00pm – 8.30pm (UK time). Do give it a go – you’ll pick up a wealth of ideas!

Among many others that evening, I had commented that teachers’ work should be directed towards things that make the greatest impact. If we adopt a new working practice it should replace something less effective, not merely add to the existing workload. I had also commented that the current problem was that teachers were having to plan new GCSE and A level courses while teaching current ones, and implement a new curriculum and assessment models while coping with the legacy of the old ones. This is because an externally-imposed timetable places speed of introduction over long-term effectiveness.

Nevertheless, while we may have limited ability to influence what is imposed externally, school leaders can still do our best to ensure our colleagues can devote their time and energy towards the things that make the greatest difference for pupils. One practical change I have initiated recently at St Gregory’s is to include a workload impact analysis in each policy change or new initiative.

Workload Impact
An example is shown below. As part of a programme to improve student behaviour and reduce fixed term exclusions, we want to improve communication of learning contracts agreed with students and their parents. This is a modification of an existing procedure, rather than wholesale change, but there are still workload implications:

Workload Implication Analysis

– Clarification of roles will assist workload management.
– Clarity of communication will reduce time spent following up incidents.
Push reporting will reduce need to search records
– Reinstatement meetings will be distributed more equitably among senior leaders.

– Additional details of learning contracts entered into SIMS record by PA to Vice Principal.
– Vice Principal to modify design of SIMS fixed term exclusion report.

In this case, while two members of staff have additional tasks, the overall benefits justify these (and will be experienced by these colleagues as well as others.

We have now adopted Inclusion of a workload impact analysis in all new proposals as a school policy. It’s only a small change, but it’s a practical way of turning an aspiration to manage workload into a concrete reality.

Lesson Observation Feedback

This was my first post, originally written in November 2014. Following a request, I added an update in April 2016. 

Lesson observation is a contentious topic. Is it unduly stressful? Should it be graded? Is it even valid? Recently,  I have been trying to give more effective observation feedback. This is in part prompted by Ofsted’s move not to give grades. I have also reflected on training I and colleagues received from Ofsted inspector Mary Myatt.

Observations are important and one part of the range of evidence informing us about the quality of teaching. I believe it’s most important role is developmental, as a tool to improve teaching rather than just measure it. I therefore tend to the view that giving a grade in feedback can distract from an effective pedagogic discussion. However, I think openness is important: is it right to form a judgement but not communicate it to the teacher? I believe the answer is that single observations are valid but do not in isolation have sufficient reliability to justify a grade. That reliability comes from cross-referencing a range of evidence. A grade can justifiably be attached to this evidence in its entirety.

However reliable an assessment of the quality of teaching is, it can’t of itself improve teaching. Feedback with the teacher has the power to achieve this. I have found training by Mary Myatt has helped improve feedback I give in the following ways.

1. Starting with an overview of evidence used to determine quality of teaching, that observation is only one element, although the one where we feel most under the spotlight.

2. Not using “I” other than in “I noticed…” So as not to give the impression that feedback is based merely on personal opinion.

3. Greater use of questions and take up time to encourage the teacher to reflect (e.g. What was the intended impact? What could have been done there?).

4. Providing more opportunities for comment / challenge from the teacher (e.g. Does that seem a reasonable commentary?)

The extent to which these changes will lead to sustained improvements in teaching remains to be seen,  but there are some positive indications:

– Feedback conversations so far do seem more focussed around pedagogy.

– There is a greater openness about observer effects. It is also easier to view these in context when considering a broad range of evidence.

– Conversations have reinforced the importance of responding to pupil needs within the lesson, including giving sufficient time, in the face of pressures teachers may feel to cover curriculum content at all costs.

I hope to return to this topic when it has been possible to assess the long-term impact of the changes in the way I and my colleagues give feedback.
April 2016 Update

My opening paragraph reads like a piece of history now! No-grade observations are now the norm at my school and, I think, most others. The benefits I listed originally still hold true and I think conversations around teaching really have shifted to being developmental and much more productive. There is now an appreciation among SLT and subject leaders that reliable judgments about the quality of teaching and learning should be drawn from a wide range of evidence. Observations are an important element, along with work scrutiny, learning walks, analysis of progress data and student voice.  We have worked harder to tie our focus for evidence gathering more tightly into our school improvement priorities with a specific focus each term. Recently these have been the quality of feedback to students & opportunities for them to act on it to improve, and meeting the needs of disadvantaged students.  We are now working to improve the quality of feedback that we give colleagues following learning walks.

I welcome comments and it would also be good to hear about how lesson observation feedback is used in other schools.