Is ITT sitting comfortably?

The NCTL have just published a breakdown of Initial Teacher Training allocations for 2014-15 (at 4.44pm on Friday – someone must have been keen to get this out before home time). I’ve had a quick glance. In general, allocations for 2014-15 are higher than 2013-14. I’m guessing this reflects a national problem with recruitment to School Direct last year when plenty of SD providers ended up short of their allocations. A lot of my colleagues were involved in supporting lead schools in their interviewing last year and, if reflected nationally, the issue is at least partly that schools are used to recruiting NQTs but trainees are a step further back and schools sometimes struggled to see their potential. The other problem of course is that SD providers are much smaller than HEIs so there is a much greater chance that some SD places will be turning down good applicants whilst others won’t get any.

There is some evidence that the NCTL have taken this on board; the SCITTs got everything they applied for but SD allocations are way down compared to places applied for. For example, there were 1818 English SD places applied for and only 676 allocated, whereas HEIs asked for 1396 and got 836. Overall, HEIs got 0.74 of what they applied for and SD got 0.79. Given the DfE policy of favouring SD (and bearing in mind the protection of Outstanding HEI allocations) maybe the NCTL have taken a reasonably sensible view and learned from the mistake last year of assuming that SD would recruit as successfully as HEIs have generally done. The size of the allocations certainly looks as though an attempt has been made to increase the provision to compensate for last year’s shortfall. Whether the NCTL pared down the right SD applications though, is a different question. There is certainly at least one Outstanding lead school in my neck of the woods that has invested significantly in preparing to expand their SD provision, now spitting feathers over their allocation. It may be that schools need to take a glance at the discomfort in HEIs before making any assumptions about security of funding for teacher training.

Tops and Bottoms

A fair bit of my career has been spent in sixth form colleges, and I started out in selective schools. In both cases, once the kids were in, even where there was setting, I never felt that the students were defined by their current level of performance. By contrast, I spent a few days recently in a well-regarded local comprehensive school and was a little shocked by just how ingrained notions of fixed ability seemed to be to the culture of the school. “These are the top set that aren’t doing triple science so they’re not  a bad class, really” was the low-down on one class I observed – it wasn’t just a rather sloppy objective assessment of their current academic level: it was a value judgement.

Now, I’m not going to get on my high-horse here because if you’ve already done a significant amount of filtering on GCSE grades, 11+, or – in my present incarnation – the acquisition of a degree, then you’ve no right to lecture those who haven’t on a crudeness you might perceive in their approach to differentiation. On the other hand, this is a school that my own son might attend one day, and I would be horrified if I heard him consigned to a particular caste in this way. I’m not against setting; my impression is that there is a fair accumulation of evidence that setting confers some benefits on those in the top sets to the mild detriment of everyone else but the onus is on anyone promoting a fully mixed-ability approach to show how ordinary teachers, with an ordinary cohort, can make this work for all pupils, without a significant increase in workload – I just don’t think we’ve got that good at differentiation, yet. Meanwhile, as I hear my trainees only a few weeks into their first placement referring to their classes in the same way, my question is, “accepting that classes are differentiated on academic performance, how do I work with my trainees to ensure that they don’t fall into this labelling trap?”

I think my own answer to this is the same as the approach I took with my A-Level students – a bit of neuroscience, a bit of Dweck, a bit of Pygmalion in the Classroom (yes, I’m aware of the short-comings of the original research), a few examples of students that transformed their academic performance, and a relentless effort to focus feedback on the work and not on the person. Next year, I think this needs to be given higher priority, appear earlier in the PGCE course, and I need to be quicker to question anyone I hear labelling in this way.

Beyond 2013?

Last week the Association for Science Education (ASE) ran a New Curriculum Question Time event with a panel of moderate-to-big hitters including Brian Cartwright (Ofsted’s National Adviser for Science) and Paul Black. I wasn’t there but there are some notes on the ASE website and a little bit on Twitter. It’s not entirely clear to me whether there is still (or ever was) an opportunity to influence either the KS4 NC or the next generation of GCSEs in science subjects but I suppose, if not, it could be seen as the first step towards influencing some future review. I think I’m correct in suggesting that the Beyond 2000 report was published in 1998 and informed the 2004 NC review and the 2006 GCSEs. To me, the notes from the ASE are addressing some of the same issues as Beyond 2000; could this be the start of “Beyond 2013”? and might we see this come to fruition not in 2016 but around 2021?

Anyway, so much for the crystal ball gazing; what about the issues discussed? Well, it’s hard to make out any kind of cohesive theme from what’s on the web but there seems to have been discussion of future science citizens versus future scientists, skills versus knowledge, and the future for assessment of practical skills and the soft skills that go with them. I find myself drawing parallels with Beyond 2000, which defined the problem with great clarity but, to my mind, was short of a convincing proposal. Or rather, the proposal was convincing but, seen from the sixth form perspective from which I was viewing it, the outcome was unsatisfactory.

As things stand there is very little disagreement amongst sixth form teachers about which is the better preparation for A-Level. I don’t know if the data supports this view but if it is true that students do better at A-Level off the back of triple (and there is a good, quantitative research question for someone if it’s not been done already) then that suggests triple isn’t a “non-essential extra” and the old dichotomy between “scientists and … future science citizens” resolves into triple for one and double for the other, with career decisions made at 13 or 14 (which they often are anyway). What happens a lot at the moment is that the ‘top’ sets cram triple into the time others have for double, and then pupils from both routes go on to A-Level with the ones that were already behind in y10 starting at a disadvantage because they know less science. That doesn’t seem like a very good system to me. If that’s not going to continue to happen then someone needs to make an outstanding job of the next generation of Additional GCSEs (at least they’ve got plenty of time…) so that, given equal teaching time, the double provides the same foundation for A-Level as the triple. I guess that if the double were very carefully matched to the skills and content needed for Y12, with the triple covering other content of interest (for physics maybe some more depth in astronomy and cosmology; electronics; nanotechnology; new materials; medical physics…) then maybe they would be seen to be equal preparation for future scientists but then this can’t give equal recognition to the needs of the future science citizens because this solution packs the double with the content needed by future scientists. It could go the other way with the double filled with all the more broadly-appealing, qualitative topics, (and particularly the topical questions about climate change, magnetic fields near power lines, nuclear power…) and triple powering through forces and motion and circuits, but then the gap from double to A-Level would be almost unbridgeable.

Ever since I read the Beyond 2000 report, I have found myself thinking that you either have one qualification route that does its best to cater for both groups (neither very satisfactorily), or two routes with one completely focused on training scientists and burying misconceptions that matter later, and the other focused on HSW for controversial topics and popular science. The idea of a common qualification with a bolt-on for future scientists seems like genius but it doesn’t work because of the way pupils and/or schools have to make decisions and fit everything in. I know it’s controversial but I would go for two completely separate routes with every school offering both, and then focus on making KS3 science a great experience, making the “future science citizens” GCSE course engaging and, very importantly, as rigorous as the “future scientists” course, and do everything possible to ensure that schools are not allowed to decide that keen scientists are going to be “citizens” on the basis of relatively poor performance at KS3, whilst also allowing potential A* pupils that want to focus on arts and humanities to do so. If the two routes are genuinely of equal difficulty, and equal size (if the future scientists route content is right then it won’t matter that it’s only a double GCSE) that should sort itself out. Combine that with really good careers advice in Y9 and I reckon that at 14, kids can be trusted to make good decisions. There is even some evidence (Bennett et al. 2013) that having a choice at GCSE, with good advice, helps increase take-up at A-Level. But maybe this isn’t any better than what we’ve got, and maybe it would end up with two unequal courses – science, and basket-weaving – which would be a disaster. Worth a thought, though.

in some lessons…

You know what really bothers me when I read Ofsted reports. Think about just how critical a tiny number of lesson observations are to an inspection, to the extent that it’s considered legitimate to refer to parts of single lessons in justifying judgements on teaching and learning. Put this in the context of what Robert Coe said at ResearchEd 2013 about the number of lesson observations required to approach a reliable judgement and I think, even if Ofsted were to significantly raise their game on the quality assurance of observations (and observers), the quality of teaching and learning judgement is always going to be influenced by a few teachers having particularly good or bad days, or even a few inspectors having ‘outlier’ days, and that just can’t be right. I imagine this is obvious to everyone, except that if it was obvious to Ofsted, they surely would see that quoting single instances of perceived good or poor practice emphasises the tendency to extrapolate a small amount of observation across an entire school. If I were writing a report I would be trying to give the impression that the judgement emphatically was not swayed by a few particularly great or grotty lessons, not trumpeting them as some kind of deal clencher.

You have to start somewhere…

…and this is as good a place as any.

Have a look at Tom Bennett’s presentation at Research Ed 2013 because it nicely brings together three ideas that are important to me – not intentionally on his part but then we do tend to see what we are looking for, don’t we?

  • his anger that what he was told would work in the classroom, didn’t;
  • that teachers are very busy and this makes it hard to engage with the research
  • that there is good research out there – it’s nowhere near perfect but there is some evidence about “what works”

To me, that places a big responsibility on the shoulders of anyone working on Initial Teacher Training courses, like me. If anyone should be separating the wheat from the chaff, it’s us. And who are we? Well, most of us are teachers. And what we bring with us to the job of training the next generation is not much more than a knowledge of what we think worked for us. I make no claim to have been anything more than a competent science teacher who has been through the process of significantly improving my own teaching through reflective practice. No problem though, I just need to read all the research literature, “work out what works”, and make sure that’s what my trainees get.

And there’s the rub. Firstly, whilst there’s no doubt working in ITT is less pressurised than teaching in schools and colleges, I’m certainly not going to be sitting around all day digesting research; and even if I was, I couldn’t expect to match the scale of the work by Hattie, Marzano, EEF and whatever other massive syntheses have already been done. And even if I could, or just read these, I might not be all that much the wiser as David Weston pointed out in his Research Ed 2013 presentation.

So here is my declaration: I will do my best (and that will have to be good enough), to teach my trainees only things that might work, based on good research, or personal experience. I will engage with both the research and the teachers that seem to be most effective in the classroom to try to make the training I deliver even better. And I will help my trainees to learn how to make good judgements about what works for them, in their classrooms.

This blog will document the process (or possibly I’ll get lazy about posting and it will peter out – we’ll see).