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Spielman confirms the need for understanding and skills

In 2012 Michael Gove accepted E D Hirsch’s view that knowledge is the most important part of learning and made it central to the new National Curriculum. Since then there has been a huge and largely welcome growth of interest in teaching knowledge. The place of direct instruction in teaching a knowledge-rich curriculum has been vigorously debated. Cognitive Load Theory has been summoned as underpinning. Tweets and blogs are full of discussion of recall, retrieval, low-stakes quizzes, interleaving, knowledge-organisers, etc.

For the first time, Ofsted is turning its attention to schools’ curriculum and it seemed for a time that Ofsted would prioritise the teaching of knowledge in its new school inspection framework. However, it seems not. Amanda Spielman has declared that there won’t be “an Ofsted-approved curriculum” and in her recent HMCI commentary she says:

“There are some who have suggested that because I have spoken about knowledge in the curriculum, I am advocating a pub-quiz approach to education, perhaps at the expense of developing skills or deeper understanding. This is just not true… Knowledge and the capacity it provides to apply skills and deepen understanding are, therefore, essential ingredients of successful curriculum design.”
HMCI commentary: curriculum and the new education inspection framework, page 7.

She is actually restating long-standing Government policy. Ever since the National Curriculum was introduced in the early 1990s, statutory guidance has included a requirement for schools to teach knowledge, understanding and skills equally. The current statement is:

“The national curriculum provides an outline of core knowledge around which teachers can develop exciting and stimulating lessons to promote the development of pupils’ knowledge, understanding and skills as part of the wider school curriculum.” (emphasis added)
National Curriculum statutory guidance, paragraph 3.2.

Ofsted’s view

This requirement has always informed Ofsted’s judgements. In the current School Inspection Handbook, the descriptors for Outstanding include:

Teaching, learning and assessment (bullets 3, 5 and 9)

  • Teachers provide adequate time for practice to embed the pupils’ knowledge, understanding and skills securely.
  • Teachers provide pupils with incisive feedback … about what pupils can do to improve their knowledge, understanding and skills.
  • Pupils … are curious, interested learners who seek out and use new information to develop, consolidate and deepen their knowledge, understanding and skills.

Effectiveness of leadership and management (bullet 8)

  • The broad and balanced curriculum inspires pupils to learn. The range of subjects and courses helps pupils acquire knowledge, understanding and skills in all aspects of their education…

There are similar descriptors for Good.

This isn’t surprising when you think about it as education requires all three elements: knowledge (information), understanding (‘placing’ information in relation to other information) and skills (using knowledge and understanding to solve problems). And they can only be acquired in this order. Knowledge comes first; hopefully it is retained and related to other knowledge in the schemas of long-term memory; and both knowledge and relationships between knowledge (understanding) are drawn on when making judgements and decisions.

It would be very strange if Ofsted were to omit any of these three elements from its new School Inspection Handbook and Amanda Spielman has confirmed that they won’t.

Ofsted has begun retraining its inspectors to engage SLTs in detailed discussion of the effectiveness of the teaching and learning they provide, rather than relying on data spreadsheets. (It’s possible that, now the old National Curriculum sublevels have gone and schools create or buy in their own data packages, inspectors may not understand their fine detail and will turn with relief to discussing the reality of what students experience. Spielman has referred to “byzantine number systems which can often be meaningless”.)

In the first week of September, all Ofsted inspectors received a day’s training on the new approach to be implemented in September 2019. This focussed largely on knowledge as a necessary first stage. It will be interesting to see how understanding and skills appear in later training.

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No progress tracking, no PiXL, no Mocksteds, no gaming: Ofsted’s plans for transforming how schools work

It’s becoming clear that, under Amanda Spielman, Ofsted is planning to bring about major changes in the ways schools work. Rather surprisingly they all seem sensible and evidence-based, and look as if they will make teachers’ work more manageable and (who knows?) more enjoyable.

There will be a new School Inspection Handbook from September 2019 and, unlike previous revisions, it is apparently being developed methodically over two years, with consultation from January 2019. This is very different from previous HMCIs’ approaches; for example, Wilshaw’s decision to replace ‘Satisfactory’ with ‘Requires improvement’ was implemented by diktat after consultation only with Ministers.

So what is happening? The new approach seems slow, steady and strategic. At bottom there is obviously a concern about England’s very high dropout rate from teaching. Spielman has announced that the four categories (Outstanding Good, etc) will remain and this isn’t surprising when the Government remains committed to competition between schools. Similarly the idea of Ofsted somehow being abolished and returning to HMIs in the Matthew Arnold mould is wishful thinking in the current political climate. Against this background, Ofsted seems to be developing a ‘cunning plan’.

The outline strategy

Last October Amanda Spielman wrote that, for the first time, Ofsted will be making recommendations about the curriculum for discussion before the new School Inspection Framework is introduced in September 2019 – https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/hmcis-commentary-october-2017. This is a new development because, since its creation, Ofsted has steered clear of commenting on the content of the curriculum. It has taken schools’ interpretations of the National Curriculum as it found them and commented only on effectiveness of delivery.

Spielman sees this as an unacceptable limitation and has signalled four initial concerns:

  • a narrowing of the primary and sometimes secondary curriculum
  • excessive routine assessment which distracts from quality of teaching and learning
  • reduction of KS3 to two years to allow more preparation time for GCSE
  • continuing poor provision for the least able.

She writes eloquently about the need for depth and quality of learning, and it seems that Ofsted intends to concern itself at last with the actual quality of teaching and learning, not just the appearance of it.

Since October Ofsted has apparently done a good deal of background work, including using focus groups of leaders, classroom teachers and parents; re-stablishing a research programme under Professor Daniel Mujis; convening an international conference on observing and assessing teaching; and training inspectors for particular purposes, e.g. inspecting MATs. This is in addition to Sean Harford’s active commitment to defending Ofsted on social media.

In June this year Amanda Spielman made two major speeches which outlined what Ofsted has in mind in some detail: at Bryanston School – https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/amanda-spielman-at-the-bryanston-education-summit and at Wellington School – https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/amanda-spielmans-speech-at-the-wellington-festival-of-education. A third at the Education Policy Institute chiefly concerned the inspection of MATs – https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/amanda-spielman-at-the-education-policy-institute-conference.

Ofsted’s plans for schools

Continued light-touch inspections – conversations with SLTs but increasingly with classroom teachers. One- or two-day inspections will continue, focussing chiefly on conversation with leaders and occasional classroom observations to verify what leaders say, but Ofsted intends to create “more space for engagement and interaction with classroom teachers in inspections” (Wellington, page 4). One of the focuses of Ofsted’s research programme over the next two years is teacher wellbeing and workload (Wellington, page 3) and it seems likely that inspectors will talk to staff privately and confidentially about these matters, especially at schools with high teacher turnover. If this begins to address excessive workload and indeed the bullying culture of some schools, Ofsted will at last be seen to be working for teachers rather than against them.

Reduced routine assessment and data collection. The current School Inspection Handbook has made a start on this with its list of ‘mythbusting’ clarifications of what Ofsted does not require at pages 12-14, but Spielman goes further:

“Let me be clear again, we do not expect to see 6 week tracking of pupil progress and vast elaborate spreadsheets. What I want school leaders to discuss with our inspectors is what they expect pupils to know by certain points in their life, and how they know they know it. And crucially, what the school does when it finds out they don’t! These conversations are much more constructive than inventing byzantine number systems which, let’s be honest, can often be meaningless …

Nor do I believe there is merit in trying to look at every individual sub-group of pupils at the school level. It is very important that we monitor the progress of under-performing pupil groups. But often this is best done at a national level, or possibly even a MAT or local authority level, where meaningful trends may be identifiable, rather than at school level where apparent differences are often likely to be statistical noise.”
(Bryanston, page 6)

The problem, of course, is that Ofsted has expected evidence of detailed progress tracking in the past and schools have responded to this, but Ofsted is clearly accepting the evidence of Professor Becky Allen – https://rebeccaallen.co.uk/2018/05/23/what-if-we-cannot-measure-pupil-progress/ – and others that pupil progress can’t be measured accurately. As a result, large amounts of time and energy spent on assessing students’ work and inputting data do not raise attainment. If anything, they lower it by distracting teachers from creating inspiring lessons.

It seems that SLTs that cling to detailed spreadsheets will be increasingly criticised for adding unnecessarily to teacher workload and distracting from better teaching and learning. The issue of “how they know what students know” will need to be addressed in more focussed and productive ways – see below.

No PiXL, no Mocksteds, no gaming. Spielman is caustic about PiXL and the use of consultants to lead practice Ofsted inspections:

“I also believe that a focus on curriculum will help to tackle excessive and unsustainable workload. For me, a curricular focus moves inspection more towards being a conversation about what actually happens in the day-to-day life of schools, as opposed to school leaders feeling that they must justify their actions with endless progress and performance metrics. To that end, inspecting the curriculum will help to undo the ‘PiXLification’ of education in recent years, and make irrelevant the dreaded Mocksted consultants.
(Wellington, page 8)

PiXL and Mocksteds are perhaps easy targets, created by the anxiety that Ofsted and high-stakes examinations with league tables have caused in the past, but Ofsted’s aim now is to make PiXL and Mocksteds unnecessary. On the other hand, Spielman says Ofsted won’t seek to impose a curriculum:

“I want to reassure you that there will not be an Ofsted-approved curriculum. Instead, we are interested in why you make the decisions, whether your decisions are translating into practice, and how you know they are having the intended effect. The starting point for many schools is the National Curriculum. For those using academy freedoms to go beyond it, we’ll want to talk about what that looks like.
There will be practices we will want you to justify in that conversation. We will want, for example, to know why you’ve shortened Key Stage 3, what has been lost as well as what has been gained, and whether that trade-off is really justified for all children. We will want you to tell us why you’re entering so many pupils for ECDL, or whatever new qualification has risen from the grave to replace it. Where there is settled evidence that a practice is bad, we won’t hesitate to point that out, but none of this is the same as an ideological preference. I cannot stress enough, what we want is a dialogue to understand your thinking and how you’re making sure that the curriculum gives every child a full, deep, rich education.
(Wellington, page 8)

Incidentally the reference to ECDL (the European Computer Driving Licence) seems to be another reference to PiXL relating to Tom Sherrington’s famous 2016 blog – https://teacherhead.com/2016/03/20/an-up-and-down-day-at-the-pixl-club/. This recounted a PiXL conference at which various subterfuges for improving schools’ exam results, including ECDL, were shared by SLT members from around the country. Evidently this blog seriously damaged PiXL’s reputation and hasn’t been forgotten.

This ties in with a more active approach to gaming:

“Those who are bold and ambitious for their pupils will be rewarded as a result and hopefully the shift will act as a disincentive for some of the more dubious gaming activities we hear too much about. And as the recent interest in our research into off-rolling shows, there is a great appetite in the system to expose inequity and where schools are losing sight of the purpose of education. And we all know that if Ofsted is clearly focusing on these practices, those tempted to succumb will reconsider.”
(EPI, page 7)

Evidently Ofsted will investigate and report on dubious practices in a way it has generally failed to do in the past.

Other changes. Spielman says Ofsted is in discussion with the DfE about the policy of not inspecting Outstanding schools, many of which haven’t been re-inspected for many years. Parents complain about this and, for this reason if no other, re-inspections are likely to start soon. Ofsted will also start inspecting the effect that more integrated MATs are having on the curriculum and governance of their constituent schools (EPI speech).

How should schools respond?

Spielman’s central message, which she repeats in each speech, focusses on better awareness of the needs of each child:

“Let me be clear again, we do not expect to see 6 week tracking of pupil progress and vast elaborate spreadsheets. What I want school leaders to discuss with our inspectors is what they expect pupils to know by certain points in their life, and how they know they know it. And crucially, what the school does when it finds out they don’t! These conversations are much more constructive than inventing byzantine number systems which, let’s be honest, can often be meaningless … (emphasis added)

The central issue for SLTs and classroom teachers is “how they know they (the pupils) know it … and what the school does when it finds out they don’t” – actually to know rather than to rely on test scores on a spreadsheet.

Tim Oates, Cambridge Assessment’s Director of Assessment Research, has memorably said that “Accurate assessment gives an insight into the mental life of the child” and, of course, this was the central purpose of Black and Wiliam’s work on assessment for learning in the 2000s. But before looking at the practical implications of this, we need to deal with a current distraction.

Knowledge-rich or skills-based: a false dichotomy

Currently there is a good deal of controversy on social media and elsewhere between those who promote a knowledge-rich curriculum and those who want to see a more skills-based curriculum. I hope we can agree this is a false dichotomy.

The DfE’s statutory guidance on the National Curriculum includes the following at 3.2:

“The national curriculum provides an outline of core knowledge around which teachers can develop exciting and stimulating lessons to promote the development of pupils’ knowledge, understanding and skills as part of the wider school curriculum.”

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-framework-for-key-stages-1-to-4

The three elements – knowledge, understanding and skills – have appeared equally and inseparably in the Government’s statutory guidance ever since the National Curriculum was created. The reason is straightforward: students need knowledge (information) as the basis of all education; they need to ‘place’ items of knowledge in relation to other information (understanding); and they need to use their knowledge and understanding to solve problems (skills). I’m not aware of any education system in the world that doesn’t require, and has always required, the three elements equally.

So how has the current controversy arisen? Eagerness for a knowledge-rich curriculum is an understandable reaction against at least 30 years of poor teacher education and inadequate inspections. Between 1970 and 2000 at least four well-researched cognitive enhancement programmes were developed: Lipman’s Philosophy for Children, Feuerstein’s Instrumental Enrichment, Alexander’s and Mercer’s Dialogic Teaching and Adey and Shayer’s Cognitive Acceleration. But none of them was supported by the government and a vague, ‘child-centred’ approach to teaching and learning developed in England as well as the USA. An unfocussed belief that children would naturally acquire knowledge, understanding and skills largely through discovery and project work became the norm.

There was no justification for this view and it is at last being rejected in favour of a more evidence-based approach. But the swing away from vagueness and lack of rigour is leading in some cases to excessive valuation of what can be controlled and measured. The anger of teachers who went into teaching to make a difference to students’ lives and found themselves teaching vague unfocussed projects and ‘skills’ is very clear from books like Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths About Education and Katharine Birbalsingh’s Battle Cry of the Tiger Teachers as well as numerous blogs in which teachers recount how they were misled in the past and have now seen the light. Some schools, like Michaela, have turned to the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) developed in the USA by writers like Doug Lemov. Others like the Inspiration Trust have strongly promoted a more traditional knowledge-rich curriculum and other MATs are following suit.

EEF. On the other hand, Government funding of research has a very different outcome. The Government is funding the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) to the tune of £115 million over 10 years to commission research into ways of improving attainment by disadvantaged students.

In particular, the EEF has commissioned researchers at the University of Durham to summarise the international research on 34 possible ways of raising attainment in schools, relating their effectiveness to their cost. This is published as a Teaching and Learning Toolkit to encourage an evidence-based approach to raising attainment – https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/resources/teaching-learning-toolkit. According to the TES (6th July 2018) the Toolkit now summarises 13,000 international studies and the National Audit Office reports that two-thirds of headteachers consult it for guidance. Here is Robert Coe’s visual summary of the Toolkit – http://www.cem.org/attachments/publications/ImprovingEducation2013.pdf

Impact Vs Cost

It will be seen that 4 of the 5 most effective approaches relating to secondary schools are all developed most effectively through conversation with and between students: feedback, metacognition, peer-tutoring and collaboration (i.e. pair- or groupwork). These approaches also feature high in the meta-analyses in John Hattie’s book Visible Learning for Teachers (2012).

This is supported by the fact that 5 of the 16 projects identified by EEF as promising – that is, almost all of them that are whole-class and don’t rely on special technology – develop cognitive skills through talk: Dialogic Teaching, Grammar for Writing, Self-Regulation to Improve Writing (IPEEL), Philosophy for Children and Thinking, Talking, Doing Science.

It is also interesting that the Teaching and Learning Toolkit doesn’t include Direct Instruction, either in Siegfried Englemann’s traditionalist formulation or Barack Rosenshine’s more nuanced one. It appears that there is insufficient clear evidence that Direct Instruction significantly raises attainment. Interestingly John Hattie has withdrawn his support for Englemann’s Direct Instruction between Visible Learning : A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-analyses Relating to Achievement (2009) where it is praised and Visible Learning for Teachers : Maximizing Impact on Learning (2012) where it is recommended only as an aspect of CPD, not as a method of classroom instruction (page 65).

So how should schools prepare for the new Ofsted Framework?

For secondary teachers teaching 150 or more students per week, the implications of Ofsted’s planned new approach may seem daunting: how can the teacher know what each student knows and understands, and how can they use this knowledge to best effect? Tests, even low-stakes multiple-choice ones, need marking and interpretation and may encourage SLTs still to require inputting of marks on spreadsheets. A better way is regularly to use lessons structured to provide collaborative learning, verbal feedback and metacognitive strategies.

Amanda Spielman was previously Chair of Ofqual which has supervised the introduction of new GCSEs with questions requiring greater cognitive skills – analysis, evaluation and comparison – as well as a greater range of knowledge. She was also on the Board of Ark Schools for many years and, during her time there, Ark collaborated with King’s College London on a report on teaching and learning, Lessons Learned: putting experience to work (2015) – http://arkonline.org/sites/default/files/Ark_lessons_learned.pdf.

The report has a strong focus on the need for education to promote social mobility and the chapter most directly about the curriculum is Jeremy Hodgen’s on mastery learning. He points out the problems of trying to cherry-pick an approach from very different cultures like China or Singapore and other uncertainties, concluding that the most promising initiatives in the UK “combine mastery approaches with other promising approaches including collaborative learning and the use of meta-cognitive strategies”. He singles out Ark’s Mathematics Mastery, ICCAMS (also for Maths) and, more widely, the Let’s Think programmes in English, Maths and Science which aim “to accelerate students’ cognitive development by teaching all students to be smart or ‘clever’. To do this, lessons involve low floor, high ceiling tasks that are designed to provide challenge for students at all levels of attainment” (page 39).

This approach seems to be echoed by all Amanda Spielman’s comments on the curriculum since October last year. It seems likely Ofsted will soon be looking for active engagement by students of all abilities in learning that will raise their genuine attainment and their social mobility, and so these may be the kinds of programmes they will expect to see.

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For the next introductory day on Let’s Think in English, please go to Really raising standards in GCSE English.

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