The Education Roundabout #PledgeForChange20

 by Nicola Mooney @nicksnook

When I entered teaching I was told that there is never anything new in education, that on a cyclical basis everything goes round again. I have now done a complete cycle.

I’ve read a lot of educational opinions, research and assumptions over the years, but never been brave enough to have a voice on this wider platform to express my own, or to explain the basis from which my views have developed. This blog is based on the progression of my experience and the factors that I (rightly or wrongly) believe have influenced and shaped my views and practice. My suggestions at the end are informed by my limited and narrow experience of comprehensive education, and you may need to bear this in mind when you read my final points. 

I did my PGCE in 2001. My lessons were probably boring, but my plans consisted of: starter – elicitation from students about prior knowledge, teach new stuff (using a rolling white board or overhead projector), apply the new learning using a text book for questions and then check understanding at the end. Every so often there would be a practical where relevant (as I am a Science teacher). I remember as I went through my scrolls of acetate on my OHP that if I wrote them in permanent OHP pen then I would have my lessons forever. That and the collection of worksheets and information that been photocopied onto acetate, formed the extent of my planning. As I put them in plastic wallets and placed them in folders I believed I was future proofing my planning so that all that was left to do was my tick and flick marking and dealing with behaviour, homework and pastoral issues. Simple?? On a side note, marking took me ages. I read every word that the students wrote and this took all of the time. My feedback was then the odd tick, sp circled, then an effort grade and attainment grade (A*-G made up and not criteria based). This was a waste of time.

I was doing my NQT year in a very challenging school and following up behaviour incidents took considerable time. I would never have chosen to work in a school like this as a first post had it not been for my subject mentor on my second PGCE placement telling me that I was going to struggle to get a job because I hadn’t been to a Russel Group University. She was a hardened, opinionated lady in her 50’s and I didn’t ever see any joy she got from her role. I didn’t enjoy the placement after her comment, and it knocked my confidence even before I had got started. I applied for my first job in January not really knowing anything about the school, but I was desperate to get a job after this fairly damning comment. I not only got the job, but I also was given an extra £2000 in recruitment and retention points. It didn’t click why this was offered until I started.

I was 22, I remember on the inset day being challenged going into the Science department because the person thought I was a student. Behaviour at the school was appalling. I remember walking passed groups of students smoking openly on the playground. The Head told staff that there were other more important things to tackle than students smoking. I remember the days that I had regretted entering the profession but I knew it was probably the school that was the issue. There was no clear behaviour policy and I remember taking a Y11 student to my Head of Department after he had been seriously disruptive. She turned to me and her words were ‘what do you want me to do about it?’. The walk back to the class with this 6ft boy, who smugly knew where the power balance lay after I was undermined in front of him, was soul destroying. In my second year one of the nice girls in my form petrol bombed the maths block and I decided I had had enough. I got a job at my school that had been my PGCE first placement. I probably would have left teaching at that point but then had a catastrophic road accident, and any other option outside of education at that point became a no go. I had realised, however, that if I ever became a leader, then I would not be like these two women. 

I moved schools and loved my job. I flew. I was valued and was given fantastic opportunities. It was 2004, this was a time when the National Strategies provided us with lots of files of, what I believed to be (and probably still do), useful information and resources. The Science curriculum was mainly knowledge based at KS3, in response to how it was assessed, and while the SC1 aspect (investigation skills) was later assessed using questions in the SATs exam, skills were not the primary focus. I actually quite liked Y9 SATs. I don’t believe that they stressed the students out too much and they provided us a useful reference point with students as they moved into their GCSEs and they were good practice for the real exams. I believe that you don’t necessarily reduce the stress of exams by doing fewer of them. Key Stage 3 was more meaningful in these days, and by this I mean that it was its own entity, not an extension of the GCSE curriculum. The KS3 Science curriculum was taught to all students in all schools across the country and all 14 year olds would have covered the same content in terms of knowledge by the time they started GCSEs, irrespective of their primary school experience. 

Education started a seismic shift. I’m not even going to discuss the emergence of Academies, but the for teachers; the pay freezes, performance management that potentially see you moving down the scale, budget cuts etc made education a less appealing option than ever before.

In 2009 Ed Balls scrapped SATs. At the time I was a Second in Science and I led on Key Stage 3. I understood the reasons behind abolishing SATs, and despite the time it would save me on marking mock SATs papers in February, felt it was a bit of a shame. I totally understand that this is only my personal opinion and that others with justifiable reasons felt strongly that it was the right thing to do. The knowledge / skills pendulum was shifting. APP (assessing pupil progress) was brought in. I loved my job and was enthusiastic about school improvement. I worked with the LA on their APP working party alongside my teaching role. I believed that the development of skills had been overlooked by the previous KS3 curriculum so I wanted APP to be useful in filling this partial void. As I worked with teachers from other schools on this, it occurred to me that APP was only about skills. There was no AF (assessment foci) for knowledge. Fortunately, APP went from the intention of being compulsory, to being optional, but I had developed a range of very good Science resources that did develop this range of skills. These helped plug the holes in skills.

In this time my teaching started to change. I was lucky enough to have a projector and whiteboard. It was a revelation. I could save power points – forever. This was going to future proof my planning and cut down on my time spent redoing things I had previously done. My original plan with the acetates hadn’t worked out because every 2 years we either had major changes to KS3 or KS4. With power points I could edit my lessons. Editing my permanent pen on acetate required a bottle of ethanol or acetone and a piece of cotton wool!! Editing and adapting power points was considerably easier.

Teachers were in a constant state of flux, adapting to or planning for curriculum changes. It was/is ridiculous. The impact of any change wasn’t even measured before the next change hit us. 

I had taught in a fairly traditional way up to this point. People get very hot under the collar about traditional verses progressive teaching approaches and I understand why. I have been both, I have wholeheartedly advocated both at different points and at different points been very successful with then both. The key to the success of either approach is:

  • being in a school that also advocates that approach (unless you like swimming against the tide)
  • having high expectations.

The combination of the focus on developing skills, and a perception of what Ofsted were looking for changed my teaching. I became that facilitator of knowledge. I was praised by senior leadership for my questioning technique and as well as promotion to acting Head of Science, became extended SLT with a literacy focus. Our APP tasks were literacy based and all involved development of writing. The GCSEs by this point required 6 mark questions in Science and we produced resources to support writing skills. Students liked the progressive lessons. They were more interactive, developed skills, had a hook, allowed extended thinking around rich questioning and creativity and from 2010-2013 it worked superbly because the students we were teaching had a fairly solid knowledge base from their previous Science learning in more traditional lessons. 

I moved school in 2013 to a permanent Head of Science post. From 2011-2014 I was involved in 7 Ofsted inspections. My original school had gone into special measures and my new school was also in a category. I got very good at producing Ofsted lessons and talking the talk with inspectors.

Levels were removed from KS3 in 2014 and nothing was given to us in place of them. Schools put in inordinate time and energy trying to work out their own solutions. Removing Levels may have been good idea, and, again, I know the arguments for their removal, but I’m inclined to think the stress and chaos it left in schools was counterproductive. Particularly because there was such a huge emphasis in lessons on targets, where students are at, where they need to be, measurable progress, progress over time blah blah blah.

Micheal Gove was making changes to GCSE to increase the rigour at GCSE. Skills were on the way out and a knowledge rich curriculum was in development. GCSEs had already changed and resit options reduced as courses became linear. The government stuck in, with no notice, a change in September 2013 to the first sitting of any exams being the one that counted for the school in their performance tables but subsequent sittings could count for the students.

A divide between the moral dilemma of doing what was best for the student and doing what was best for the school ensued.

If doing what was best for the school wasn’t taken into consideration then the long term impact (with the potential of getting below a 2 with Ofsted) would be detrimental to a far wider number of people in the school community. Then in 2016 the use of coursework and controlled assessments in courses diminished or disappeared. Vocational courses in subjects like BTEC Science became obsolete basically because they didn’t count in performance measures in the Ebacc bucket.

In this period between 2010 – 2016 I taught in a way that, in hindsight, may not have led to deep learning. Planning for what I perceived to be effective teaching and marking that required an ongoing dialogue with the student, meant that I ended up putting in more and more hours until I could put in no more. I was a workaholic but I work best under pressure so I just got on with it without question. It distracted me from my reality in my private life that was a journey through fertility treatment.

The recruitment crisis with Science teachers hit hard at this time. Schools struggled to appoint. School budgets were so tight that doing more with less was impossible. The interventions required to fill the holes in student knowledge just led to the need for more work. 

I started to notice how differentiation impacted on students. Giving 3 different ability sheets to the class according to their ability capped their progress and their confidence. Students in my lessons did not necessarily push themselves to do beyond what I expected and my expectations were probably too low. Teaching at a fast pace, with lessons differentiated like this did not allow the learning to stick. We had a different cohort by this point. We had students who had only ever been taught with an emphasis on skills and who are the ‘smart phone’ generation. A generation of disadvantaged children who know very little about the world. I’m not even shocked anymore when I have conversations with my middle ability Y11’s who think that wind comes from trees waving their branches and that waves come from sharks and whales swimming in the sea. It’s not that they aren’t bright, they just don’t know much. Students, particularly disadvantaged students, know so little about the world or our language that frankly it’s terrifying. We don’t have the time to make up this deficit in Y11. It needs to come by teaching knowledge properly from the beginning (and more involved parenting).

I recognised that if I were to raise expectations in my teaching, that teaching A level would be useful, so I moved schools to a Head of Science in an 11-18 school. I taught a top class prog style lesson in my interview lesson. The panel loved it. I wasn’t even aware of the trad v prog debate at this point. If I had, then in hindsight things would have been different. I would have known I was going to a school that did well with largely traditional teaching methods. I should have noticed the desks in rows. I spent the first month wondering why students didn’t enjoy my methods of drawing information out of them and then giving them information in a variety of different ways to distill and reformulate into their own words. They just wanted to know ‘the stuff’ and I took it very personally that they didn’t like my lessons. Planning the prog style lessons that I taught was incredibly time consuming.

My idea of my future proofed power points had not foreseen the need for all of the elements that made my good progressive teaching in my previous schools.

Make no mistake, prog style teaching was not perfect, but it worked very well in the more challenging schools I had worked in. The students who had little interest in Science could be made interested by entertaining lessons that allowed them opportunities to think and question and develop ideas. At that point in time I don’t think one teacher teaching in a trad way would have yielded the progress in these schools that we got from the prog methods we used. Students just struggled with developing any deeper understanding and with retaining the information. On the whole they behaved well because the lessons were engaging and they could participate. 

So I was on my own in a new school and was unable to reflect on and evaluate in time to adapt to teaching in a didactic way. It seem totally absurd that they would want me to teach like that. I didn’t have the perspective that I have now. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t in any trouble, my capability was not in question, I just didn’t like the fact that students didn’t like how I taught and I took it incredibly personally. If I knew then what I know now, that aspect of the role would have been fine. A couple of family life related things lead me to return to my previous school. I had lost a family member and needed to be around people who believed what I believe.

Returning to a full teaching timetable for the first time since 2006 was really tough.

If any leadership staff wonder why staff roll their eyes at new things that require time, then please go and teach an 85-90% teaching timetable for a few weeks and I’m sure you will develop a new found sense of empathy.

Teaching is a hard job. I know leadership is also hard, my husband is a deputy head so I’m not entirely ignorant of the other side of the coin. It’s not a game of oneupmanship either. We need to be mindful of everyone’s pressures in education.

Over the last 3 years I have had to adapt my teaching, in the first instance driven because the content did not fit into the time given in the new GCSE Science. It is more challenging, more content driven and in order to teach effectively and make the learning stick, I have become more trad in my lesson delivery. If you told me this in 2016 I would have laughed at you. I have become more research informed and in 2017, whilst on maternity leave, I was paid to do research on raising attainment in HPA students. I surveyed nationwide through Twitter and in addition to a small school based research project, found that in some situations teaching in a more traditional way raises student attainment more than prog teaching. This wasn’t even what I wanted to find (given my time in 2016), but I’m a scientist and what I found was what I found and that was what I needed to report upon. I have since spent a lot of time reading, reflecting on best practice and observing what is happening in the schools around me.

Changing back from prog to trad has been gradual for me, it wasn’t entirely intentional, but has been developed around Rosenshine’s principles. I just started to focus on routines I knew were beneficial. There are still good prog style lessons that I use and will continue to do. I am probably a ‘neotrad’ (this isn’t a thing, and when I googled it to see if it was, I just found pictures of tattoos). I am possibly a ‘recovering progressive’ (again not a thing apart from on google where it’s apparently a religious thing).

Or perhaps I could step away from the labels and just be a teacher who wants to provide the best opportunities for the students she teaches, in the most effective way that fits the curriculum as it is today.

warning labels

If/when (?) it slips back towards skills, then I will probably go more prog, advocate mixed ability groups, encourage creativity and sit students in groups. One thing that I won’t do is differentiate by task the way I used to, and one thing I will do, is maintain my high expectations. Having spent some time a couple of years ago looking at KS2 when helping local feeder schools alongside my stint teaching A level, I know where KS3 begins and where KS5 starts in my subject, and this is so helpful.

High expectations need to be a cultural shift across the school. It needs to be led by SLT and not passed off as a variety of ‘poundland pedagogy’ (I read this term in a blog written by Ruth Walker the other day and have stolen it because I love it!) techniques that puts the responsibility on the heads of teachers. It needs to be modelled by everyone at every level. It’s about consistency of high expectations, not intensity. How many strategies are started in schools and 5 minutes later abandoned, for whatever reason? Implementation has to be as good as the intent – and some of that is to do with endurance. 

So just to finish off I’m going to offer some advice that I think is useful when reflecting on my 18 year journey in Education:

  • Nothing ever stays the same. Get good at adapting to change. Some of it will be good, some of it won’t, but change is inevitable. Until it is truly understood that skills and knowledge are both important, we will continue to swing between the two.
  • Read about Micheal Young’s Future 3 curriculum model. Ruth Walker blogged about this, explaining in straightforward steps as to how to make the powerful knowledge model work in schools. She explains that it has to start with getting student behaviour right. However, disruption free learning should be a reality for all, irrespective of your pedagogical preferences. Look at the success of Michaela School. Having watched a few interviews with Katherine Birbalsingh, I find myself further convinced that this is a necessity. I have two secondary school aged sons. I want them to be able to learn without others spoiling it for them. I’m certain that most other people would want this for their children too.
  • Lead well, support and grow those around you. Don’t be the two ladies I mentioned- even if your time is tight and you are stressed. New teachers leave the profession in droves. Don’t be the reason for that.
  • The prog / trad debate is highly charged because we invest so much energy into our teaching that we take any criticism of it incredibly personally. Context is key. If you are a very strong prog, don’t get a job at a school that is very trad and vice versa. Most schools sit as a mix between the two and so do most teachers. Be a professional, respect the opinions of others. Their path is different to yours and they might just be on a different part of the path. Our goal is for our students to achieve the very best they can. Nobody came in to teaching to not give a damn. In a system that only measures the success of schools against the failure of others (and not by some criterion based model), there will always be some at the top, lots in the middle and some at the bottom. Despite the governments efforts, 50% of schools will always be below average. Remember this.
  • A generation of students with poor vocabulary are coming through schools now. Parenting has changed. Pressures at home mean that fewer students develop good vocabulary through conversations and reading outside of school. Make provision for this to be addressed. Read Alex Quigley’s brilliant book on the vocabulary gap and address this in every lesson, every day.
  • Game theory: Challenges within society that we have no control over will be a constant but we must keep working to reduce any negative impact they have. Concerns about parenting, work life balance, mobile phones and the impact of digital devices on families will sadly continue. I strongly suggest that people in education start to work out which game they are playing. I suggest that we start to view education as an ‘infinite game’ and not a ‘finite game’ in which the schools P8 is the judgement of being a winner or a loser. Please watch this (in fact watch anything by Simon Sinek, it’s fantastic). The finite players are the schools whose main focus is next year's results, the infinite players are those committed to raising the quality of education. Become an infinite organisation based on a commitment to your values. 

I pledge to:

  • communicate my experience of education/ parenthood / leading for a moral purpose
  • build my confidence to progress my career forward
  • challenge myself (I am self funding to do the NASENCO)

And a final thought. I have, at times, questioned whether education is something that can be fixed to give equality of opportunities for all students, and whether it is possible to achieve an acceptable work life balance in teaching. I have done a complete cycle on the knowledge/skills education roundabout. It has taken nearly 20 years to go around. I suppose we all question ourselves, but I have come to the conclusion that I haven’t come this far, to only come this far. I suspect my views will continue to change and develop as my experience leads me in different directions, but I am ready for it, and I am happy to change to meet the needs of my students whilst delivering the ever changing curriculum in the future.


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