It’s just not fair

“It’s not fair. I know.”

These are the words I used time and again today as I listened to intelligent and hard-working pupils tell me they knew they would have done so much better in an exam. At least I could provide some consolation: their teachers agreed.  

Earlier this summer our teachers spent hours scrutinising a broad range of evidence to reach estimated grades for every pupil.  They painstakingly analysed prelims, assessments, homework, check tests, class work, essays, reports and projects.  They spent time with subject colleagues discussing and comparing views, cross-checking and moderating estimate decisions to ensure they were being as fair as possible to every single candidate.  If Mrs White thought Jonny deserved an A1 then she’d better be able to prove it to Mr Green and Mrs Mustard.  If we had no evidence whatsoever suggesting that Danny would pass then we recommended that he didn’t.  We worked rapidly and intensely, day and night, at the same time we were moving our entire school online and teaching in completely new and challenging ways.  We were honest.  We acted with the integrity the public should expect from our profession.     

We might as well have not bothered. Teacher estimates have been adjusted – the overwhelming majority in a downward direction – to suit the average attainment profiles of schools and subjects over the last three years. This is the travesty. No matter how hard a pupil worked, no matter the strength of evidence available, no matter how diligently your teacher considered it or how robust the moderation process in your school: if the kids a few years older than you didn’t do well, then you didn’t either. The SQA might have posted results to individual young people today, but they awarded results to schools and communities to suit historical patterns.

Stronger cohort this year?  Doesn’t matter.  More settled staffing in a particular subject?  Who cares.  All that work you’ve been doing on raising attainment?  Oh well, it wouldn’t really have made a difference.  The SQA’s refusal to engage in any dialogue whatsoever with centres meant there was no opportunity for schools to provide commentary or explanation about potential changes in attainment patterns or discuss reasons why achievement in a particular subject may have gone up or down this year.  

Scotland has enjoyed immense political and professional consensus around education for the last decade. Everyone – politicians, school leaders, local authorities, teachers, our unions, civil servants, parents, pupils and partners – everyone is committed to the shared goal of raising attainment.  It is astonishing that our qualifications body would implement such a contrived and artificial process to limit it.    

That 25% of professional judgments were ignored should be a cause for alarm.  I cannot imagine this ever being the case with any other profession.  What would happen if a publicly funded national body issued a press release saying that 25% of doctors in Scotland routinely get it wrong?  Can we imagine a quarter of court convictions being overturned because a statistical model suggested they should be?  

It has been impossible to analyse the SQA’s approach to grade adjustment because it was kept secret until today but it is already becoming clear that the down-grading will have a disproportionate effect in a number of circumstances. If you go to school in a leafy suburb there is more chance that your teacher’s judgment was respected than if you go to a more comprehensive one. If your teacher thought you deserved a C or D-level pass there is a greater chance that the SQA thought they were wrong than if they had said you were heading for a B. I have avoided specific examples to protect confidentiality but know of several cases where every child entered for a C was downgraded to D.

It is entirely appropriate that some form of moderation or checking should be applied but this is not it.  For me, the worst thing is that there appears to have been no consideration of the impact of this approach on individual pupils.  I spoke to several pupils today whose results had been downgraded from their teachers’ estimates in as many as three or four subjects.  It is simply not the case that all of these teachers got it wrong.  

But today’s ‘results’ – I am going to stop calling them results – today’s figures were never about individual pupils; they are self-serving.  These engineered figures can be used to present an increase in the pass rate that is of just the right order to be media-friendly.  They can be used to demonstrate that the attainment gap is closing.  Ultimately, they can be used at future Holyrood committees to demonstrate that we really do need to give kids three years of stressful exams in a row and that our 19th century certification process actually is in fact the perfect culmination to our 21st century curriculum.  See? We need exams.  SQA, good. Teachers, bad.

Our pupils return to school next week and, like all of my colleagues, I can’t wait to see them. But instead of focussing completely on welcoming them back and making up for lost time, a disproportionate amount of teacher effort will now be spent preparing appeals and compiling folders of evidence to support these. These will be uplifted by the SQA who will engage short-term contracts with a special group of people who are qualified to assess this evidence and decide whether appeals should be awarded. But who are this elite group? Teachers, of course! The same people whose judgment was ignored today.

There is a moral imperative on schools to ensure that every single result that was adjusted is considered for an appeal. It is highly likely that the SQA will receive an unmanageable number of appeals and perhaps even a small number of legal challenges from those parents who can afford to pursue this route.

There is still time for the SQA to correct this injustice. I look forward to seeing the statement tomorrow that we trust teachers and updated certificates are in the post.

I’m still relatively new to blogging and was really unsure whether to post this.  But, on reflection, it is my job to post this.  I owe it to my pupils to demand that their efforts are recognised, to my colleagues to demand that their professional judgment is respected, and to myself to call out an injustice when I see it.   

At the outset of this process Scotland’s young people were promised they would not be disadvantaged.  The reality is that several thousand of them have been.  

Quite simply, it’s not fair. 

7 Myths About Education Recovery

Some schools in England re-opened this week, shining a spotlight on the questions and anxieties that surround the mammoth task of recovering education. In Scotland, the national Education Recovery Group was established very early so all relevant voices, including those of teachers, employers and parents, could be heard. This has meant that planning has progressed quickly and with less confusion and fewer problems than has been the case south of the border. I’ve still read and heard some strange things though, and am trying to process some of them here.

1. Schools are dangerous.
Guidance was issued last week detailing the understanding amongst the Chief Medical Officer’s Advisory Group on the risks of returning to school and, commendably, where these were majority or minority views . Whilst this doesn’t cover every scenario, at least schools have something to work with. We can continue planning for a phased return to school, knowing what to do to minimise the risk. Teachers won’t need to wear hazmat suits but careful thought will be needed around the surfaces and furnishings in classrooms and on the groupings coming into school and how to minimise interactions. Everyone will need to stay 2 metres apart. All local authorities have logistics gurus (shadowy figures, rarely seen during daylight) who are working hard on plans for additional hand-washing facilities, safe school transport and other nightmarishly complex tasks . This can only happen because of the sensible decision to work collaboratively towards an August return at the earliest. Any earlier would have been unfeasible for the significant changes that need to be made to make things safe. Parents and pupils should be reassured that a lot of thought is going into this and that schools will be as safe as possible.

2. Schools are safe.
Ok, they are; I’ve just written that above. The point I’m making is that schools are not naturally environments that are “Covid-19 secure”: it is only by making massive changes in how we access, use and run schools that we can make them safe. Every teacher, pupil and parent needs to understand that, if schools are to re-open, they must be vastly different from before. We can have far fewer pupils in at any one time and time will be needed in between different groups to clean surfaces properly. Classrooms, groupings and timetables will be very different. Serving school lunches, in any averagely-sized secondary school, is likely to be impossible. To stagger lunch service for even a few hundred pupils would take so long, and be so disruptive to the school day and teaching capacity, it is genuinely not worth bothering about. There is a big question here for schools to consider bravely: far better a highly productive morning than a full day with lunch staggered disruptively over a three hour window.

Some subjects will need a complete re-think. Take PE for example. In most school changing rooms physical distancing will be impractical and contact sports or even passing the ball will be off-limits. At the same time, we know that getting meaningful physical education is hugely important for our young people’s physical and mental wellbeing. PE teachers will rise to the challenge of transforming what they do (and most all PE teachers could beat me up if I suggested otherwise).

3. Remote learning is bad.
Teaching is highly interactive and intuitive. It relies on a series of millions of rich interactions in the context of a safe classroom environment and trusting relationships. This can never be replicated online. But just because traditional teaching cannot take place doesn’t mean that learning isn’t happening. Across the world teachers have worked incredibly hard to learn a whole new range of skills and not just about digital platforms. Teachers are thinking deeply about the pedagogy they need to set up learning and to make it accessible and engaging for pupils. I found Cassie Buchanan’s webinar really helpful in informing my thinking about how we could keep a sense of flow in learning from week to week. Our school adopted a weekly Content > Task > Hand-in > Follow up model to structure our asynchronous approach. We quickly agreed we all needed to use the same platform and the same weekly structure to make it as easy as possible for pupils to ‘get to’ and access the learning. Our teachers spent the recent in-service days sharing their experiences, both in terms of digital tips, but also the strategies they had begun to use to build and maintain pupil engagement. We used the EFF videos on self-regulated learning to stimulate discussion and ask ourselves deep questions about how we can cultivate these dispositions in our learners both now (entirely remotely) and next term when we will have a blend of in-school and remote learning.

Is it perfect? No. Is every teacher a digital guru? No. Is every pupil 100% engaged? No. (Spoiler alert: they weren’t always 100% engaged before either!) However, amazingly, we have achieved a transformation in a whole school approach to learning in a matter of weeks. There has been a complete shift from, in the frantic few days before schools closed, hastily curating resources on a myriad of platforms “just in case we shut”, to a coherent and consistent online learning approach that the Open University would be proud of. It has been the school improvement equivalent of implementing 3 years’ worth of change in 3 months.

It was refreshing to read Neil Oliver’s piece celebrating the impact of hard-working teachers across the country and to see the early shoots of Scottish pupils developing the skills they will need to thrive in the future world of working remotely and independently. Our own workforce is now actively preparing to enhance our strong remote offer by blending it with some face-to-face teaching next term. Teachers across Scotland, and the world, should be incredibly proud of what has been achieved in such a short space of time and without access to buildings.

4. Pupils will just jump straight back in.
Of course, many pupils (and adults) are struggling without the structures of the school day, the support of teachers and the social development and wellbeing that come from being part of a school community. They are desperate to get back and we are desperate to bring them back, safely. But I suspect most parents and pupils – and many staff, myself included – have not yet got our heads around how different things will be and how the ‘normal’ that we crave to get back simply won’t exist for a while. Schools will be almost unrecognisable.

Last week we removed all of the furniture from a classroom and set it up as a Covid safe learning space: minimising surfaces and furnishings, spreading out the desks and ensuring that all humans would be positioned 2 metres apart. It is grim. I remember as a primary pupil going to visit (with a frequency I now consider inexplicable) the mock Victorian Classroom that was set up in the old Ancrum Road Primary School in Dundee: our experiment immediately reminded me of that room. School is going to look and feel vastly different but – parents and pupils – don’t worry. Teachers across Scotland are already thinking of how we can prepare and support you with this. In actual fact, the phased return that will be necessary as part of the staggered approach to education recovery will be helpful for many young people.

5. More pupils in school means better learning.
Wrong. The Scottish Government has asked schools to ensure that as many pupils as can safely return come back to school at any one time. We need to approach this ambitiously, but with a focus on learning, not numbers. One approach could be to divide every possible space into 2 metre chunks and add up the number, giving the optimum number of pupils who can attend on any given day. This would do our pupils a great disservice and lead to real inequity across the country. Different year groups need different things and all schools will still have staff (and pupils) in the shielding category who will not be available. In a secondary, the most sensible way to run S1 and S2 is to offer a Japanese style ‘home room’ set up where a small group of pupils stay in the same room and teachers move to them (but not as often as they would normally change over). Older pupils have chosen different combinations of subjects, including those delivered by colleges and other partners, so need a very different set up. In both cases, with only one or two year groups in school, crafty timetabling can ensure that pupils still access a broad curriculum. However, if Scotland starts a space race to jam the highest possible % of pupils into a building, then we swap craftiness for cack-handedness and will have to reduce the range of subjects for everyone. What’s best for pupils? Fewer days in school accessing a broad curriculum, or more time in school following a narrower set of subjects?

Importantly, keeping a smaller number of students in schools will still allow them to access – at staggered times, and in Covid safe ways we will help them to learn – the social spaces in schools. Pasi Sahlberg and others have already made the case for the importance of having self-directed social times when we return to school and this will be crucial to achieve the positive impact on students’ wellbeing that we are all so desperate to see. If we pack the school with as many pupils as possible then break times will need to be in the same classrooms pupils are working in and we will lose an opportunity for the social and unsupervised interaction that our young people have been denied during lockdown.

6. Children have fallen behind. They should just repeat last year.
Behind who? Every school in the world has been closed. Of course, pupils will have forgotten things and got out of habits; some will have regressed significantly in some areas and others will have switched off from learning completely. We know some groups of learners will have been disadvantaged by lockdown more than others and that the attainment gap will have widened. But they are returning to buildings full of professionals who will support them. This is actually the real, meaty part of education ‘recovery’ that we are going to wrestle with over the next few years. It will require the utmost creativity and resilience. But nobody needs to repeat a year; all schools are moving forwards.

7. Next year’s exams should go ahead as normal.
Bonkers! Despite all my positive arguments about remote learning, Senior Phase pupils are following courses that were designed to have far more contact time with teachers than they are ever going to experience. Pupils, parents and teachers need a clear message reassuring them that the pressure to get through the same amount of content is off and that a blended approach (to use an ‘on trend’ expression) of coursework, teacher judgement and perhaps some form of shortened exam will be applied for certification next year. I happen to think the SQA have responded reasonably well to the situation they were placed in (albeit we will find out in August what “data validation” really means) but the Scottish education community must use the exit from this crisis as an opportunity to consider whether we want the Senior Phase to continue being, for many learners, three years of high stakes all-or-nothing tests.

Now, more than ever, is the time for teachers to take the lead and ensure that decisions about education recovery are taken on exactly that basis: what will maximise learning?

Notes:

  1. I do hope Daisy Christodoulou doesn’t come after me for plagiarising her title. It just seemed like a good idea and I’m sure she doesn’t have copyright on the word ‘myth’.
  2. Who am I kidding? As if Daisy Christodoulou would ever read my blog. She doesn’t even know who I am.

It’s time to talk about the new normal for schools

The class of 2020 will never forget their summer without exams. But what seemed unusual last term will pale in comparison with the seismic changes Scottish education is about to witness.

The First Minister has announced that physical distancing must remain in place until a vaccine is available. We must re-think – radically, deeply and creatively – how we “do” school in line with our new way of living.

For much of the coming session, schools cannot have all of their pupils in the building on the same day. Who should be prioritised? Senior pupils working towards qualifications and transitions, or younger year groups with perhaps greater wellbeing needs? Should secondaries alternate between dedicated days for BGE pupils and days for Senior Phase (S4-6)? Would alternate weeks be better? Safer? Just what is the maximum number of pupils you can fit into a Covid-safe classroom (a question considered brilliantly by Blair Minchin). Perhaps English and Maths teachers will finally discover the benefits of practical-sized classes, de-bunking the myth that children need greater supervision with the Bunsen burner than with the gerund (despite all our disagreeing). (Sorry).

Spring time is when many of us cover topics that simply must be taught outside. Where else can you teach Housman properly but under the shade of a cherry tree? Danish schools returned this week, taking as much learning as possible outdoors and Scottish teachers will exploit this opportunity to the full. As we head into autumn though, I’d guess this will become a less attractive option for all 5 periods of Higher Physics. Perhaps schools will follow the example of supermarkets and have clear lines at 2 metre intervals throughout social spaces. But what should we do if (when?) young people, deprived of peer contact for so long, decide to cross them? What happens for the young child who is stuck with their shoe laces, can’t wipe their nose, or just needs a hug from a friend?

In larger schools, having even two year groups in a building means 400-500 youngsters. Will it actually be possible for them to move through corridors every 50 minutes and observe distancing rules, or do we need something different? How will our transport (and teaching!) contracts cope with flexible school days? It is the time in the academic year when timetablers, having elegantly re-arranged the last few periods of S3 French, step-back with a hubristic grin and gaze at their gleaming matrices, desperate to explain their marvellous creations – slowly – to colleagues unfamiliar with the dark arts. Should they rip them up? Will these timetables ever be fully realised if the new normal needs new structures? We need to adapt the school day and week to minimise risk and maximise learning.

Across the country schools set up, seemingly overnight, new ways of teaching remotely and providing childcare for key workers; these will still be needed. Every pupil will need access to an engaging, user-friendly digital platform for the days it’s not their turn to be in school. Every single classroom in Scotland just got flipped. Royally. We must think deeply about how this changes our pedagogy for the coming session.

How employers and unions advise on PPE will be a crucial factor in the big question of “when?” we return. And, as advice on shielding becomes more detailed, we will learn which of our colleagues and pupils will stay at home indefinitely and consider how to support them.

But all of this is merely the starter task. Highly complex challenges lie ahead. How do schools continue to deliver their role in identifying and responding to wellbeing needs, GIRFEC and child protection concerns? How can we best support pupils with complex needs over the next year? The world of work changed unrecognisably overnight and, if economic predictions are even half true, the labour market for future school leavers will be even more complex and challenging than it was 5 weeks ago. Preparing young people to navigate this has never been more important but business and industry will have less capacity to support our DYW activity.

With the current focus on estimates for this year’s SQA candidates, it seems a tad gauche to pose a question about the 2021 exam diet. But it needs to be asked. By August, an entire cohort of Scottish children will have had their learning certified, and been awarded qualifications, without ever knowing the chill of an exam hall, the sound of 200 pens scribbling in synergy or the smell of a fusty invigilator. They have learned deep knowledge, skills and concepts. They will go on to wonderful things and they will cope with them. The next destination in their learner journey will welcome them with open arms (and will probably never make them sit an exam either). It turns out that we can trust teachers after all. We will have evidence that we do not need exams.

If we know now that the 2021 qualification cohort will have significantly less direct teaching than their predecessors, is it fair to assess them using the papers that are already written and locked in a Dalkeith vault? No. They too will need something different.

The rationale for Scotland’s Curriculum and the indispensability of the 4 capacities have been reinforced by the Covid-19 crisis. That same crisis has exposed the irrelevance of exams to real-life challenges. We have made commendable progress over the past decade in our approaches to teaching, learning and curriculum. I am not arguing we abolish our national exam system overnight (thought about it!) but it is time for certification to catch up. It is time for Scotland to stop being the country that assesses practical woodwork and hospitality with unseen written tests.

The Scottish education community has risen admirably to the challenges of the last few weeks. It will embrace the coming session with the same courage and creativity. Let’s take our inspirationally resilient First Minister at her word and engage in a grown-up conversation about how we do school for the new normal. Let’s be optimistic: from crisis comes progress.

Caveat 1: In the unlikely event anyone (I know) reads this, I am not saying any of this will happen in the school I am privileged to call my workplace. It is merely an attempt to un-burst my head! (“I write to know what I think”, Joan Didion)

Caveat 2: Timetablers are good people, especially our timetabler.

Caveat 3: Invigilators are really good people. You all smell lovely and I’m sorry.