Pisa, Timss and Pirls of Wisdom

Much is made of international comparison and the government seems to be obsessed with England’s relative performance on a world stage. However, just what do these international comparisons show?  Here is a little information:-


The latest edition of the programme for international student achievement (Pisa) from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), published 2015 shows that

  • The UK is still lagging behind leading countries and has made little progress in international rankings since results three years ago.
  • When we focus upon the top 10% of pupils in science, England is among the world’s leading countries. In only three countries (Singapore, Taiwan and Japan) are the top 10% of pupils more than a school term ahead of the top 10% of pupils in England in science.
  • In maths, the UK is ranked 27th, slipping down a place from three years ago, the lowest since it began participating in the Pisa tests in 2000
  • In reading, the UK is ranked 22nd, up from 23rd, having fallen out of the top 20 in 2006
  • The UK’s most successful subject is science, up from 21st to 15th place– the highest placing since 2006, although the test score has declined


The four-yearly Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), published 2015 shows that:

  • England is above average in maths – and ahead of many European countries – but it has not made any significant progress in rankings, despite the ambitions of ministers that overhauling the school system would tackle “stagnating” performance.
  • In these latest international TIMSS tests, England has fallen down in maths by one place at both primary, from ninth to 10th, and secondary level, 10th to 11th.
  • In science, England’s primary pupils remain in 15th place, but have risen from ninth to eighth place at secondary level.


The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), undertaken every five years, involved children aged about 10 in 40 countries, indicated in 2011 that:

The reading performance of children in England has fallen from third to 19th in the world.

A randomised sample of 170 schools from across England were selected to take part in PIRLS 2016. The results will be published this year


The knowledge question

The recent post by teachingbattleground, centred on the arguments around a knowledge-based curriculum reminded me that, while nobody – surely – is arguing that we should not teach children knowledge, it might be timely to explore what we mean by teacher knowledge.

There has always been a narrative around the skills (knowledge? art? craft?) of teaching and, since I frequently get invited to provide CPD in this sphere, I find it helpful to link thinking to the Teachers’ Standards. As a teacher trainer, I often refer trainees to the old QCDA fourfold explanation of teacher knowledge because it sits quite well with aspects of the 2012 standards.

Teachers’ Standard 3 has three key elements: secure subject knowledge, critical understanding of developments in the subject and the personally correct use of English. The two other aspects relate to knowledge of phonics and early maths teaching. Add to this the expectation, in Standard 2, that teachers should know how children learn and we can now see that the QCDA fourfold explanation is a helpful model. This states explains teacher knowledge as:

  • Subject knowledge per se;
  • Pedagogical theory and practice;
  • Understanding how children learn; and
  • The teacher’s own attitudes to learning.

So, this means that teachers and trainee teachers, must pay particular attention to:

  • Their own subject knowledge and its application so that they teach accurately and in sufficient depth.
  • The way that children learn in order to present material that can be quickly assimilated.
  • The effectiveness of the pedagogies they employ so that material can be effectively deconstructed and presented conceptually.
  • Their own openness to key ideas about teaching and learning so that they do not limit their teaching by what is familiar to them.

If the re-think of the national curriculum and its assessment did anything, it moved the focus away from what the outgoing HMCI once called, ‘a stultifying methodology’ towards a more simple view of ‘what works’ and, as Sir Michael pointed out, ‘what’s good is what works’.  We are still waiting for many headteachers to catch up with this and move away from the straitjacket of WALT, WILF, or whatever set methodology they expect. Improve teachers’ fourfold subject knowledge and we should not need the straitjacket.






Marking Time

Right now, we might just be seeing a hint of the tide turning against the mad workload with which teachers are burdened. Some more enlightened headteachers – usually those with the confidence of great pupil attainment and progress as a foundation – are beginning to expect less of their staff rather than more.  However, many school leaders are still – understandably – pinned down by the fear of an Ofsted judgement that might be less than good and these folk are finding it hard to release the pressure.  So this blog is about facing reality when it comes to marking.

Much good work has been done around effective feedback. By and large teachers really understand the principle of showing pupils what they have done successfully, what might be their next steps and how to achieve them. But this can become intolerably burdensome. We ned to be confident enough to strike a balance between effective feedback and ponderous detailed marking where the teacher has sometime written more than the pupil. Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you know what I mean.

I recently led a review of a vulnerable secondary school. Clearly, leadership were very concerned that marking/feedback was diagnostic, interactive and effective. And there was a real appreciation that leaders should lessen the teacher’s load wherever possible. In practice this meant that English work was marked every three weeks. Good for the teacher, but when we spoke to students they told us, ‘we don’t get our work back quickly enough and, when we do get feedback, it’s sometime too late for us to remember what we had been doing.’ Contrast this with the Science department. On the surface, marking looked a bit haphazard and superficial but what was really happening was that the teacher had a pink and a green marker, students knew that green was good and pink needed attention. As the lesson progressed, the teacher whizzed round the class, looked at developing work in books, and quickly highlighted what needed to be drawn to students’ attention. The result was that everyone knew how well they were doing and what needed attention. because this was while the lesson was in progress, students who needed help could ask for it and get it instantly. Intervention at the point of learning. Which lot of students had the best feedback?  And which took the least time?

This is a message for teachers fighting with a marking load.  We need to be clear who is the audience for our marking.  Is it for Ofsted?  Is it for SLT monitors, or is it for the pupils? The right answer is the last one but how many teachers mark for the first two constituencies? A starting point might be to have a professional discussion with colleagues and leaders around this point.  Look, if the expectation is that you provide detailed, forensic feedback which is accompanied by a follow-up task that you then need to mark. How much work is this?  And how much of it is really effective. A primary teacher taking home 30 books and expecting to mark 30 pieces of pupil response may as well be taking home 60 books. Spare a thought for the secondary English teacher taking home 200 books!

The most effective feedback is always with the child present – it’s a conversation. Or hold the diagnostic discussion with a group. Your task is not to set the child a follow-on task, so much as to find out what they are thinking, why they don’t get it, what is it they don’t understand. Far more powerful than writing a long screed they don’t really understand and setting an activity that they will complete in the way they think YOU want, rather than applying deep understanding. As Doug Lemov (http://teachlikeachampion.com/) points out in Teach Like a Champion 2.0, we should never accept kids’ self-reporting. Don’t assume they know just because they say so. Ask a deep question to check it out.

I saw some great feedback recently. The teacher had written, ‘six of these sums are wrong. Which one are they?’  Great marking – it makes the pupil think.

Ross McGill (Teacher Toolkit) has sensible things to say about marking and feedback. Check out his ten marking tips at http://bit.ly/1NvVKi8. Also, check out his Five Minute Marking plan at http://bit.ly/1VbuD44

We’ll come back to this issue of marking quite soon.



Managing behaviour – or running the room?

Sir Michael Wilshaw has always been concerned about the behaviour in the nation’s classrooms. It was way back in his 2012/13 Annual Report that the Chief Inspector referred to ‘The Unlucky Child’ taught in a school where weak classroom management led to poor behaviour which impeded the learning of those who wanted to learn.   This heralded the arrival of the unannounced Ofsted inspection of behaviour and safety.

When I once took over a school that was in special measures I inherited a school where it was fairly frequent for pupils to be seen standing on desks, throwing chairs and inviting their teachers to f**k off.  What is worse was that many of the staff had more or less given up – ‘what do you expect with these kinds of children? They would ask.  The fact of the matter is that what school leaders have to expect is for teachers to do their job. Years ago, Frank Knowles HMI, then responsible for IQD at Ofsted, told me, ‘behaviour you can sort out quite quickly; standards take longer to follow.’  This is true – unless we sort of the behaviour, kids can’t learn.

So, how do we sort out the behaviour? Oddly enough, its more about the classroom management stuff that comes before the behaviour management stuff.  Get the climate for learning right and keep the kids engaged and we’re more than half way there. It’s what behaviour ‘guru’ Tom Bennet calls, ‘running the room’.  No more than that. Indeed, we may cite Teachers’ Standard 7 in performance management, knowing that it’s about managing behaviour, but is it?

Here’s the first part of the standard:-

  • Have clear rules and routines for behaviour in classrooms.

Not much here about managing behaviour – this is about what Robin Alexander in ‘Culture and Pedagogy’ calls ‘rules, routines and rituals’. This starts in the early years classroom and should continue throughout a student’s school career. Who owns the room?

Here’s the second part:-

  • Have high expectations of behaviour, and establish a framework for discipline.

This is about the teacher, not the kids. Expect little and that’s what you’ll get. The greater your expectations, the clearer your rules, the consistency of your approach and the kids know how to behave. When they don’t, well, that’s when you need that clear framework. The students must be aware of the choices they face, the sanctions, consequences and rewards.

Part 3 of Standard 7 says:-

  • Manage classes effectively, using approaches which are appropriate to pupils’ needs.

No more, no less – manage the class. Teachers need to learn the approaches that are appropriate to their students’ needs. It is rare that this comes intuitively but fail to bother about learning strategies and you’ll soon be in trouble.

Finally, here’s part 4:-

  • Maintain good relationships with pupils, exercise appropriate authority, and act decisively.

To some extent, it will always come down to relationships. Wrecking a relationship with a student takes minutes, rebuilding it may take years. The business of authority is important too, and this is partly about relationships and respect. You may be AN authority since you’re the teacher but being IN authority is earned. And acting decisively…well most teachers will agree that this is important. Even if you’re wrong!

We will revisit aspects of managing behaviour in the next few blogs. This is just the preamble. Establish good relationships, lay down the absolutes and be consistent. Even if you struggle with managing behaviour, this is a start.

Some more thoughts about pedagogy

It was way back in 2012 when the Chief Inspector, speaking at the RSA, referred to the ‘stultifying’ effect of formulaic lesson planning. I agreed then and I agree now. And we’ve moved on a bit from 2012; since then we’ve had the Mike Cladingbowl missive on why Ofsted will no longer be grading teachers or lessons, we had the Ofsted  document about what they don’t expect schools to do and we’ve had it all bolted together in the Common Inspection Framework giving a clear lead to inspectors NOT to expect any particular pedagogy or assessment system, or frequency of lesson observations.

This is very reassuring, so why is it the schools and school leaders still get nervous about requiring a particular approach?  I don’t want to get political here – that’s the OTHER Education Monkey on blogger – so, having spent much time in advising teachers on how to plan lessons, I thought it worth a few minutes on questioning the whole thing.  In the first instance I’ll stick to the learning objective.  This is nothing new, I’ve said all this before, but I’m repeating it because if continues to be a source of stress to teachers and leaders.

Let’s not get hung up on what it’s called; lesson objective, learning objective, learning outcome… who really cares?  And if you think the kids do, then you’re wrong.  Sure, kids like to know what the lesson is about and teachers MUST understand the specifics of what they expect pupils to learn but, you know, these two things do no necessarily join up!  This is heresy to some school leaders, so I’ll whisper it – you really don’t have to display the learning objective at all. Some of the best lessons I’ve seen have not involved WALT, or WILF, or TIB, or any other members of this menagerie of characters that populate the world of lesson planning. Sometimes kids like to work to what the focus of the lesson has been for themselves. This way, you can be sure that they will let you know if YOU weren’t clear about it. Quite often they like the challenge in the form of a question. And, as soon as you make it a question, you shift the focus onto learning. So, rather than the tedious ‘We are Learning To…’ or “I can…” both of which are too frequently followed by an activity and not the learning (we are learning to write an autumn poem, I can name the parts of a plant…) why not try a question?  Ask yourself, how exciting is it to a ten-year-old to copy down ‘We are learning to understand the key features of a play script’ (yawn)?  So, why not ask simply, ‘how can actors remember all those words? With the supplementary question, ‘…and how do they know what to do?’  I guarantee you spark kids’ interest more keenly, you’ve saved all that copying out of a convoluted objective, and you’ve immediately given yourself the beginnings of an assessment protocol.  Dylan William, making a similar point, asks, ‘why can’t we just ask students, “why is it colder on top of a mountain when it’s nearer the sun?’

And don’t give me that nonsense about writing down the LO as the title because then you can assess if it was met or not!  If you are clear about the intended learning then surely, both you and the pupil can remember that a lesson entitled ‘How can ice and steam be the same?’ was about solids, liquids and gases.

It takes a bit of getting used to, this use of learning questions, but it’s fun. It’s a lot more fun than some of the stultifying lesson aims I’ve seen. You need to practice. Have a go, now.  I won’t tell anyone,

Some ideas about teaching well

I’m currently on a short MOOC run by IoE. This week focuses on intelligence and is based around the recent work of Prof Gordon Stobart. I initially drafted this thinking paper for teachers at the school where I am Chair of Governors but I think it’s worth sharing.

Stop thinking about pupils in terms of ‘ability’. This is a false construct that lacks reliability and drives us towards thinking about fixed intelligence, which is, of course, nonsense. It depends so much on the environment in which learning is taking place. Those pupils we think of as ‘more able’ have simply often learnt to be better learners through the attitudes and language they have developed over time.  Research indicates that 80% of those pupils identified as ‘low ability’ at age 5 are still in bottom groups at age 16.

Professor Gordon Stobart from IoE talks about ‘small multipliers’ so a small advantage leads to a greater advantage because pupils get more chances to develop their learning. Stobart suggests that we abandon ‘ability’ in favour of thinking about pupils in terms of their acquisition of skills and concepts:-

  • Novice
  • Apprentice
  • Expert
  • Master

This might help us to see what ‘mastery’ really is. The expert teacher acts as a coach, rather akin to a sports coach. A sports coach has a clear understanding of each player’s strengths and what they need to do to improve and they target their work to hone those skills.

Expert teachers:

  • Find out what children actually know and understand. This aligns with what Doug Lemov says in Teach Like a Champion 2.0, when he tells us to be wary of ‘self-reporting’. Ask questions to explore understanding. EG a pupils may know about the planets but asking ‘so, what causes an eclipse?’ will check if they can turn knowledge into understanding.
  • If a child comes up with a wacky answer they don’t just give them the right answer; find out the thinking behind the wrong answer. Give then a bigger picture. Tune kids in, model it. Help them to make sense of it
  • Use diagnostic questioning and carefully structured feedback. This is what Dylan Wiliam says about feedback – it needs to be task-related and not eg0-related. It is specific and focused.


Stobart notes that, by the time you have taught for 14 years, you will have asked a million questions. However, research indicates that 60% of these questions are simply recall questions. And a further 20% will be process (eg have you got a pencil?) The art of questioning, suggests Stobart, has not changed much in 100 years.

John Hattie points out that pupils take an average of five seconds to answer a question and, typically, they use up to three words. So, how are we going to develop our questions to deepen kids’ understanding?

Hattie says that the biggest difference between an experienced teacher and an expert one is the level of cognitive demands of the work they set their kids. Expert teachers expect more from their pupils. This is what was also found by the Cambridge project, ‘Learning without Limits’.

Further reading

Gordon Stobart – The Expert Learner; challenging the myth of ability.

John Hattie – Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning

Doug Lemov – Teach Like a Champion 2.0

Susan Hart – Learning without Limits

ordon Stobart – The Expert Learner; challenging the myth of ability.

John Hattie – Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning

Doug Lemov – Teach Like a Champion 2.0

Susan Hart – Learning without Limits

Progress in Year 6 from 2015

One thing that Year 6 teachers will need to assimilate is that they will no longer be chasing Level 6, or even Level 5. However, the need to demonstrate progress has not gone away and, it could be argued, has never been stronger.

One of the difficulties even the most up-to-date and enlightened Y6 teacher may encounter is a school leadership team that does not quite get the change in what progress might look like and so want to express starting points and progress in levels, or points, or some old familiar measure. And some LAs are still undergoing this transitional thinking. Take Hertfordshire, for instance, where we may no longer speak of Level 3A, 3B and 3C but we do speak of C1, C2 and C3! Senior colleagues cannot be blamed for feeling nervous about this – it’s the climate we work in where jobs are on the line if progress is below it.

The key message – for all teachers, not just those in Year 6 – is that the principle on which the new approach is predicated is that of consolidation before progression. In other words, a focus on the secure acquisition of concepts so that they can be applied with increasing confidence. In the National Curriculum for mathematics it clearly states that, ‘the majority of pupils should move through the programmes of study at broadly the same pace.’ Now, that may change thinking about setting and differentiation. It is, in maths, the development of fluency through problem-solving, of which the product is reasoning. And this curriculum is all about developing pupils’ reasoning. If this works in maths then it will work in other subjects. We develop pupils’ fluency in English through reading and grammar, we set them problems – we might call it writing – and the result is reasoning. Or in PE, we teach ball skills, we set problems such as organising a game and the result is, again, developed thinking.

If we apply this model to looking at progress we might think that, rather than the old model of teaching a concept, setting some differentiated tasks that enable pupils to practice applying the concept and then moving them on, we use a modified approach. This might be similar at the outset; we still need to know pupils’ starting points before we teach them the new concepts. We still need to set up activities that enable them to apply the concepts but now things change. Rather than saying, ’okay you’ve got that, let’s move on’, we are now looking for ways to deepen the understanding of the concept. This idea of deep learning – long a phrase associated with Leuven and the early years – is key. If we see differentiation as deepening conceptualisation and not broadening it then we begin to get the idea. When the concept has been acquired, applied, tested and deepened, then we can move the pupils onto new learning.

That is how we need to see the new understanding of progress. How we capture it is another thing. But it’s a starting point.