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Teaching (and assessing) fast and slow : Ofsted, Ofqual and the coming transformation

Who recently wrote the following?

“Without a curriculum, a building full of teachers, leaders and pupils is not a school. Without receiving knowledge, pupils have learned nothing and no progress has been made – whatever the [performance] measures might indicate.”

“…good examination results in and of themselves don’t always mean that the pupil received rich and full knowledge from the curriculum. In the worst cases, teaching to the test, rather than teaching the full curriculum, leaves a pupil with a hollowed out and flimsy understanding.”

“…the regular taking of test papers does little to increase a child’s ability to comprehend. A much better use of time is to teach and help children to read and read more.”

“We see Mocksteds as a complete waste of time, money and effort.”

Mary Bousted? A leftish commentator like Fiona Millar? The Chair of NATE? In fact, it was Amanda Spielman, HM Chief Inspector, in her commentary on the first phase of Ofsted’s review of the school curriculum following reform of the National Curriculum – https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/hmcis-commentary-october-2017 – and a subsequent speech to the Ark Conference.

What she writes is very different from any previous HMCI since the creation of Ofsted in 1992. She repeatedly asserts the importance of teaching and learning rather than testing and accountability, drawing on Ofsted evidence of lack of discussion of the curriculum in schools. In her view this leads to three serious weaknesses: a narrowing of the primary curriculum, a weakening of the KS3 curriculum as schools start GCSE earlier (she is particularly critical of schools assessing KS3 students’ work against GCSE assessment criteria) and continuing impoverishment of the curriculum for the least able.

This is a remarkable change of direction – and Ms Spielman is aware that Ofsted bears a good deal of responsibility for schools’ focus on tests and accountability. Ofsted is carrying out further research and a full report will appear in late Spring.

Will this matter? I think it will because prioritising teaching and learning over test scores and exam grades fits with two other pieces of evidence. These relate to improving England’s productivity and social mobility and to Ofqual’s policy on raising the demand of GCSE. Individually each would be interesting but unpersuasive. Taking all three together, a transformation in the relationship between teaching, learning and assessment is evidently coming. I’ll outline them with their political background.

Ofsted and improving England’s productivity/social mobility

Since at least 2010 Governments have been increasingly worried about England’s productivity – the amount produced per hour of work. This is lower than most other OECD countries and is stubbornly refusing to rise, a fact headlined in the recent Budget as a major cause of the UK economy’s current difficulties – see Office of Budgetary Responsibility Economic Forecast 2017, Executive Summary page 9 – http://cdn.budgetresponsibility.org.uk/Nov17ExecSum.pdf. Governments have accepted that this has largely been initiated by poor education of the moderately and less able with only GCSE grades A* to C counting and continued by the virtual demise of good quality vocational training. As a result, social mobility has actually declined.

The Coalition Government made a start, declaring in its 2010 White Paper the priorities of raising attainment in England’s schools towards that of the highest-attaining education systems and improving the education of those who leave school with poor qualifications or none – https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-importance-of-teaching-the-schools-white-paper-2010. This was supported by four practical policies: the pupil premium; investing £125 million on research on improving teaching through the Education Endowment Foundation; requiring Ofsted to report on how schools are ‘closing the gap’; and establishing a secondary school accountability system in which all GCSE grades count (Progress 8).

There is cross-party support for these policies which is why they were unmentioned in the 2015 and 2017 General Election campaigns.

Changes have been introduced at Ofsted to make it more effective in promoting these developments. As a first stage, Sir Michael Wilshaw was brought in to deal with the pernicious problem of inconsistent inspection standards which was undermining Government and professional confidence in inspections. Wilshaw removed the private inspection providers and brought inspection back into HMI’s control. At the same time inspections were slimmed down and Ofsted made sustained efforts to dispel the beliefs about irrelevant requirements, long discontinued, that some SLTs still use to frighten their staff – see Ofsted School Inspection Handbook, paragraph 29 – https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/school-inspection-handbook-from-september-2015. The first stage was therefore to professionalise Ofsted’s inspection processes; the second is to enable it to refocus teaching and learning to support raising attainment, especially of the moderately and less able.

Amanda Spielman’s background is in corporate finance and management consultancy, but she has been closely associated with Ark Schools as a member of their management board from 2005. Ark was founded by a group of very wealthy people for, it seems, wholly philanthropic reasons. Its prime mover and continuing Chair is Paul Marshall, a long-term Liberal Democrat who co-edited The Orange Book with David Laws in 2004. Laws was subsequently Coalition Schools Minister 2012–15 and, having previously promoted the pupil premium, initiated Progress 8. Marshall subsequently founded and chairs the Education Policy Institute, an independent education research institute of which Laws is Executive Chair.

Ark originally adopted KIPP, the Knowledge is Power Program used in many USA charter schools. KIPP’s main features are an extended school day, week, and year; an intensive focus on literacy and numeracy often at the expense of other areas of the curriculum; a standardised teaching method based on direct instruction and drilling rather than interaction between students; a highly standardised curriculum with ‘scripted’ lessons that are tightly focused on specific test and exam content; and micromanagement of students’ behaviour, using rigidly-applied systems of positive and negative reinforcement.  Overall KIPP is geared towards a single aim – maximizing test scores while controlling costs – but there have been persistent doubts whether this approach actually raises attainment. 

Amanda Spielman’s Ofsted commentary has a wholly different emphasis, away from a focus on test results towards depth and richness of curriculum. It isn’t clear whether she was opposed to KIPP from the start or has gradually seen its limitations, but in a sense this doesn’t matter as she is strongly opposed now. There may have been a power struggle at Ark in which Spielman and those who think like her have won, though it will take time for the KIPP mindset to be phased out entirely in Ark schools.

Ark’s rejection of the KIPP approach is shown most clearly by Lessons Learned: putting experience to workhttp://arkonline.org/sites/default/files/Ark_lessons_learned.pdf – the report Ark developed with King’s College London and published in 2015. The King’s team was led by Becky Francis, now Director of the Institute of Education and a long-term advocate of mixed-ability grouping as a way of raising attainment by all pupils. The report consists of a series of thoughtful essays on teaching and learning which are strongly opposed to the KIPP approach. Amanda Spielman was a member of the editorial board that commissioned, oversaw and published the report.

From 2011 to 2016 Spielman was Chair of Ofqual as it established itself and implemented the GCSE reforms. This will have given her first-hand experience of the complexities of implementing the most far-reaching reform of school public examinations ever undertaken. She will know both the importance and the limitations of assessment in detail.

Spielman therefore comes to Ofsted in a very strong position to achieve her aims. She has greater relevant management experience than Wilshaw or any of his predecessors: of initiating change and refocussing policy within a large organisation and implementing major changes in assessment policy. She is likely to understand the role of education in improving the nation’s productivity and social mobility very clearly and to have the ear of ministers at the Treasury and Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy as well as the DfE. From a Conservative perspective she has an unimpeachable business and academy background.

Additionally her long-term Deputy Chair at Ofqual, Julius Weinberg, has recently been appointed Chair of Ofsted and is no doubt a close ally. She is also unassailable constitutionally: HMCIs are independent of Government being appointed by the Queen by Order-in-Council and removable only by a vote of Parliament. Perhaps most important, through her work at Ark Spielman has herself been through the process of moving from KIPP (quick fix) to effective teaching and learning (slow transformation) and this informs the passion, unusual in an HMCI, with which she writes.

Ofqual and raising GCSE standards

This shows a similar approach of slow change based on evidence. 2017’s results in the new GCSEs were similar overall to those in 2016 owing to Ofqual’s policy of “comparable outcomes”. This is to ensure equity and prevent parents complaining about their children being used as guinea-pigs. However, there are rumours that, when the new specs have bedded in, Ofqual intends to increase the difficulty of GCSE incrementally year by year until attainment in England matches that of the highest performing countries. 

We have consulted Ofqual about this and have had a detailed response that this is NOT their intention.  Standards of GCSE will be changed only when there is independent evidence that attainment is rising as shown by the new National Reference Tests (NRTs) and this will take several years. Ofqual writes:

“There are no plans to raise the level of demand [i.e. make GCSEs harder] year by year. Government does indeed wish GCSE to raise attainment (increase the proportion of students attaining higher grades), but Ofqual’s primary function is to secure standards over time. Simply allowing more students to attain higher grades would not have any impact on England’s position in international rankings unless they were actually performing better (showing better knowledge, skills and understanding). In any case, raising grade boundaries would not raise attainment unless assessments were made easier – there would simply be fewer higher grades. On the other hand, allowing Exam Boards to lower their grade boundaries would cause grade inflation.”

Ofqual states that it will not raise the demands of GCSE until there is sufficient objective evidence that students’ performance is rising. This is the purpose of the National Reference Tests (NRTs) in English and Maths which began in 2017. These are:

  • taken by a statistical sample of 10 per cent of Year 11 students in the Spring Term, usually 30 students in each school chosen
  • consist of one-hour papers in Reading/Writing and Maths modelled on the new GCSEs
  • are the same or very similar each year
  • students take only 25 per cent of the whole test; schools don’t see whole test which is administered by NFER and can’t copy any papers
  • after marking, the marks are aggregated nationally; no school receives any results.

Unlike GCSEs, the NRTs are ‘low stakes’ tests because no student’s future depends on them and they are unrelated to the school’s accountability. Ofqual sees this as a positive – students cannot be coached for the NRTs so they will give a more accurate indication of national standards over time. GCSE standards will only be raised when there is clear evidence from the NRTs that national standards are rising.

This is a rational position. Instead of trying to change GCSE standards or grade boundaries as a ‘quick fix’, Ofqual has persuaded Government (with Spielman as Chair) that they can only reasonably be changed when there is sufficient independent evidence. This means the standards (demand in relation to grades) of GCSE will remain unchanged for several years and schools will be notified when, and if, standards are to be raised. It also means that specifications will remain unchanged for the foreseeable future to allow comparability over time because to alter the specs would disrupt comparison with the NRTs.

The NRTs and Ofqual’s policy on GCSE show that Government accepts that significant improvements in education can only be achieved gradually and on the basis of clear evidence – the same policy that the Government-funded Education Endowment Foundation is pursuing with its promotion of evidence-based research into ways of raising attainment. It seems that, here too, the consistent evidence of all the international education surveys (PIRLS, TIMSS and PISA) that educational standards in England haven’t risen for 20+ years has persuaded Ofqual and the DfE that tinkering with assessment won’t raise standards any more than past teaching approaches, like the National Strategies, that were introduced without evidence of success. Again, there are no quick fixes.

So what next?

It would be sensible to assume that Amanda Spielman means what she says in her commentary on the curriculum and that she has been appointed to lead Ofsted in influencing schools to achieve it. There is a cross-party political imperative to raise attainment in England’s schools and, with her direct knowledge of curriculum development and assessment, she evidently understands that this is to be achieved by improving teaching and learning rather than by performance in tests. With her professional experience in management, she knows this will take time – “this is a long-term investigation for us” as she puts it.

Ofsted can’t direct teaching and learning, of course, but it can influence it by inspection and reporting. The next major revision of the Ofsted School Inspection Handbook is due in 2019, a long lead-time which fits Spielman’s view that worthwhile change takes time. However, if Spielman, the Ofsted Board and their political backers are serious, we can expect significant changes in the interpretations of the current descriptors of effectiveness of leadership and management and quality of teaching, learning and assessment in the School Inspection Handbook before 2019. There will be less reliance on data and more on evidence that schools are providing breadth and depth of learning experience.

The logical consequence will be that schools that persist with a KIPP-type approach to teaching and learning – test-driven, with narrowed curriculum, teaching based on direct instruction and micromanagement of pupil behaviour – will be downgraded from Outstanding or Good to Requires Improvement. No doubt there will be howls of protest from the relevant schools and their MATs, some of which have been backed by Conservative thinktanks and social media, but with Spielman in her first year of a 5-year term as HMCI, the educational landscape is likely to be very different by 2021.

Beyond this, Ofsted’s change of approach will at last require schools to rethink discredited teaching and learning policies such as the National Strategies lesson model and Ofsted’s earlier requirements of progress by every learner in every lesson and frequent assessment of learners’ work to track progress against target levels and grades. These were discredited and withdrawn in 2008 when international surveys showed attainment in England’s schools as flatlining since the mid-1990s, but Governments have never publicly admitted that these policies had failed to raise attainment so that many SLTs have required their staff to continue them, causing unnecessary workload and adding to problems of teacher recruitment and retention.

Ofsted also envisages a change in how schools are led, away from improvement being driven by a dynamic headteacher towards a more collegiate approach. At the recent Ark conference Amanda Spielman said “transforming a school – or, come to that, a MAT – involves more than just one individual. It needs the work of a whole team. Schools are transformed when teams work together and make use of everyone’s time well” – https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/amanda-spielmans-speech-at-arks-teach-2017-conference.

Again, this is promising as there are schools and MATs with a business-oriented managerial top-down approach which leads to demoralisation, burn-out and high rates of staff turnover. We may in due course see Ofsted including staff turnover in its reports.

There are two more formal indications of what’s coming. The first is Ofsted’s Corporate Plan 2017 – 22 which includes more inspections of outstanding schools which have now been exempt from inspection for years; inspections of MATs; a greater focus on how schools promote social mobility; and steps to combat inspectors’ bias which may lead them to undervalue schools in disadvantaged areas (and, by implication, overvalue those which are orderly at the expense of effective teaching and learning) – https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/ofsted-a-rethink-lesson-observations-and-eight-other-plans-revealed. Schools with a KIPP approach (and MATs which espouse it) are evidently over-represented in the Outstanding and Good categories and this seems set to change.

What happens when and if a school like Michaela Community School in London is re-inspected will be indicative. This school adopts the KIPP approach more outspokenly than most and was graded Outstanding by Ofsted in May 2017.

The second indication is Lessons Learned: putting experience to work (2015). As mentioned, this is the report on teaching and learning that Ark developed with King’s College London with Amanda Spielman’s support during her time at Ark – http://arkonline.org/sites/default/files/Ark_lessons_learned.pdf. It consists of six essays, three each by academy and King’s staff, each with a vignette of how the recommended policies are being implemented by Ark. Each essay argues for policies which actively promote social mobility, such as Alison Wolf on the relative poverty (in all senses) of vocational education in England and its disastrous effects, and Becky Francis on the need for better targeting of pupil premium especially to engage disadvantaged pupils in high-quality learning. She rejects “an unhelpful binary, with ‘standards;’, knowledge and attainment positioned on one side and inclusion, skills and engagement on the other” (page 64).

The essay 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).

It seems 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 are the kinds of programmes they will expect to see.

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If your GCSE English results are good, congratulations!

But if they could be improved or raised further, you may want to review some aspects of teaching and learning in the light of recent research. The immediate need, of course, is to raise students’ attainment to the next grade above expectation, particularly by achieving more grade 8s and 9s but also by raising attainment by less able students whose grades count equally towards Progress 8. Behind this is the Government’s long-term policy of raising GCSEs’ demand to match the standards of higher-achieving educational systems, see The Importance of Teaching White Paper (2010) [PDF document]. This means that, when the new GCSEs have settled in uncontroversially through Ofqual’s policy of ‘comparable outcomes’, their demand will gradually be raised further, monitored by the new National Reference Tests in English and Maths.

Ofqual’s ‘comparable outcomes’ policy prevents students from being disadvantaged by the introduction of more demanding examinations by awarding similar proportions of grades as previously. But this policy reflects previous standards – it doesn’t raise them. The Coalition Government’s commitment to raising standards in England to those of the highest-attaining educational systems remains current Government policy and is tacitly supported by Labour. It can’t be achieved by continuing current standards as is shown by a recent paper by the Education Policy Institute – English Education: World Class? [PDF document]. This shows that half of pupils in England should be scoring 50 points or higher across their Attainment 8 subjects to match the most successful countries, but only 40 per cent are doing so at present. And there are huge variations: in London 45 per cent of pupils achieve the world class benchmark while fewer than a third achieve it in other parts of the country.

There is also a risk that attainment will appear to rise owing to teachers’ and students’ greater familiarity with the new exams – the well-established ‘sawtooth effect’ [PDF document]. Again, the new National Reference Tests will ensure the necessary allowance is made for this.

Forward-looking schools will need to be aware that Governments of whatever political party will continue to require GCSE standards to be raised and require schools to do better with their moderately and less able students. UK workers’ relatively low productivity will continue to make this necessary. We hope the following will help schools to prepare for what is coming.

Where to start

If you don’t know it, a good place to start is Professor Robert Coe’s clear and helpful paper Improving Education: A triumph of hope over experience [PDF document]. He shows how standards in England’s schools haven’t risen for 25 years and how this has been hidden by GCSE grade inflation which has led to Ofqual taking control of the Exam Boards’ marking and awarding. But more important he shows why standards haven’t risen. Basically it’s because SLTs have often required teachers to focus on aspects of teaching that don’t raise attainment and assessed teaching on surface features, not quality of learning. This isn’t their fault, of course – everyone wants their students to do better. But why has this happened? Coe is too polite to say, but it’s the result of poor political decisions over many years.

Robert Coe is a leading member of a group of researchers promoting evidence-based education. In what follows, the illustrations are from his paper.

Failed policies on teaching and learning

The Labour Government elected in 1997 was committed to raising educational standards (”Education, education, education”) and set about this by creating the National Strategies, initially in English and Maths. Advised by consultants employed by the DoE, a formulaic teacher-led model of lesson delivery was developed with learning objectives, a starter activity, episodes often evidenced immediately with some writing, and a plenary. In English, simplistic techniques like Point-Evidence-Explanation were encouraged. This model was rolled out nationally by a private company, Capita, which employed consultants in every local authority. The aim was to bypass local authorities and HMI to create a national model of lesson delivery.

At the same time Ofsted pressured schools to assess students more and more frequently to track their progress against predicted National Curriculum levels and, in secondary schools, predicted GCSE grades. This was to fulfil the expectation that every student should make progress in every lesson. In some schools this led to every piece of students’ work being assessed against National Curriculum sublevels or, from 2002, the assessment focusses underpinning the National Curriculum tests or, from 2008, Assessing Pupil Progress (APP) criteria, with inevitable pressure on teachers to teach-to-the-criteria or, at worst, inflate outcomes to show ‘progress’.

The problem was that neither of these policies was based on any research, as the outcomes of international education surveys eventually showed.

Performance of England in international surveys

The consultants employed by the DoE and HMI assumed these policies would raise attainment because they looked sensible. But they didn’t. The three international surveys of educational attainment – PISA, PIRLS and TIMSS – showed England’s attainment as flatlining year after year.

However, this lack of improvement was disguised by GCSE results which showed a year by year increase of A – C grades (subsequently A* – C) from 29.9 per cent in 1988 when GCSE began to 81.1 per cent in 2012, a rise not remotely paralleled anywhere else in the world.

Changes in proportion gaining five A*-Cs at GCSE

By 2008 the Government accepted that the mismatch between the international surveys and the GCSE results was unsustainable. In April 2008 it created Ofqual to commission research on the reliability of the Key Stage 2 tests, GCSE and A Level. This was eventually published in 2012 as a 903 page book, Ofqual’s Reliability Compendium. The evidence of grade inflation by the Exam Boards to maintain their market share was clear and Ofqual was given statutory powers to monitor and control the awarding of GCSE and A Level grades, beginning in April 2010.

In 2008 the Government also announced the immediate end of the Key Stage 3 National Curriculum tests and the end of the National Strategies when
Capita’s contract expired in March 2011. Ofsted quietly withdrew its expectation that every student should be seen to make progress in every lesson, but little else happened until the Coalition initiated a review of the National Curriculum in November 2010. This found over-assessment of pupils’ work against National Curriculum sub-levels so widespread, frequent and pointless that it recommended a new National Curriculum without levels – The Framework for the National Curriculum [PDF document]. This was implemented, but many schools have found ways of continuing frequent assessment of students’ work against the new National Curriculum though there is no evidence it raises attainment.

Government silence and its consequences

The problem for schools is that Government has never informed them that the two failed policies – the National Strategies and frequent assessment of progress towards target grades – are discredited because they failed to raise attainment and should be discontinued. For Labour, the reason was evidently embarrassment at admitting that the millions spent on the National Strategies were wasted. For the Coalition and Conservative Governments, giving schools guidance on teaching, learning and assessment conflicts with the policy of devolving these wholly to schools – schools are to manage these matters themselves with final assessments as national tests in Year 6 or GCSE and A Level monitored by Ofqual to ensure reliability and consistency.

Unfortunately for secondary schools, this silence about teaching and learning has accompanied the most radical set of reforms in the history of school examinations in Britain. These implement the cross-party policy of raising attainment in England’s schools to that of more successful countries and, in particular, raising the attainment of moderately and less able students who currently leave school with poor qualifications or none – see The Importance of Teaching White Paper (2010) [PDF document].

All aspects of GCSE have been reformed so that they are now:

  • more demanding in examination (end-of-course only), content and assessment (more challenging questions)
  • graded differently with 9 grades (9 – 1) instead of 8 (A* – G)
  • consistent in standard between Exam Boards (Ofqual)
  • referenced to national standards over time by national reference tests in English and Mathematics
  • equitable so that all grades count towards Attainment 8 and Progress 8
  • the lead measure of school accountability through Progress 8
  • focussed on effective teaching e.g. by requiring Ofsted to report on how schools are closing the gap for disadvantaged pupils and by funding research into effective teaching methods, chiefly through the Education Endowment Foundation.

The changes are well-intentioned, but schools have been left to work out the best way of responding to these unprecedented demands by themselves – it’s hard to imagine any other country treating its schools in this way. The last advice on teaching and learning from Government was in the 2000s – through the National Strategies and a more assertive Ofsted inspection model expecting every student to show progress in every lesson and frequent assessment against target grades, both now discontinued as ineffective. But, as mentioned, Government has never informed schools that these policies are discredited and withdrawn, so many SLTs understandably require their staff to continue with them, assuming they are still valid. This has two consequences which reduce effective teaching and learning in many schools.

First, teachers are required to spend time on teaching approaches and assessments which don’t increase good quality learning and distract them from approaches that do. This contributes to excessive workload, tiredness and high staff turnover. The DfE recognised this in February 2015 with its Workload Challenge and by March 2016 commissioned three reports on reducing the demands of marking, planning and data management – https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/reducing-teachers-workload/reducing-teachers-workload. Surprisingly the DfE hasn’t taken the opportunity to state clearly and repeatedly that the National Strategies teaching model and frequent assessment against target grades should be discontinued as ineffective. Unsurprisingly most schools have ignored the workload recommendations – https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/dfe-plans-reduce-teacher-workload-ignored-80-cent-schools.

Second, unless they are in a local authority or MAT with a good adviser on teaching and learning, schools may turn to bodies like PiXL and Thinking Schools International which promote a ‘tips and tricks’ approach to raising attainment, recommending approaches which look attractive but for which there is no research evidence that they significantly improve learning. Others obtain advice informally (and more cheaply) through TeachMeets, online forums and the latter pages of the TES. None of this works except at the margins.

So how do we raise attainment?

The vital importance of research is shown by the Education Endowment Foundation which is funded by Government to commission research on raising attainment in schools. The research is rigorous, with random controlled trials and results evaluated independently of the researchers. Most projects show little or no impact, with a few showing sufficient promise to warrant further research. But the EEF has also commissioned researchers at the University of Durham, including Robert Coe, 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.

Here is Robert Coe’s visual summary of the Toolkit.

Impact vs cost

It will be seen that the most effective approaches all relate to practical aspects of teaching: feedback, metacognition, peer-tutoring, collaboration (i.e. groupwork) and, in secondary schools, well-designed homework. These approaches also feature high in John Hattie’s work on Visible Learning for Teachers (2012). There is strong overlap with Dialogic Teaching developed by Robin Alexander and Neil Mercer which the EEF has recently confirmed as a potentially powerful way of improving learning at Key Stage 2 – Dialogic Teaching – and with the promotion of Carol Dweck’s growth mindset. There have also been effective adaptations of the CA model. One of the most remarkable related to teaching a large-enrolment freshman Physics course at the University of British Columbia which achieved an effect size of 2.5, one of the largest increases ever recorded in a standardised trial – see The University of British Columbia experiment [PDF document]. Taken together, the research evidence is robust, repeated and incontrovertible.

What makes great GCSE English teaching?

It is worth recalling that the new GCSE specs explicitly require the teaching of reasoning skills applied to texts. In English Language, most marks for Reading are awarded for analysis, evaluation and comparison of unseen texts. In English Literature marks are awarded for analysis of studied texts and development of informed personal responses to aspects of them as required by the examination questions and for comparison of unseen poems. These reasoning skills operate on the basis of texts, studied and unseen, so that students require a rich cultural awareness of how English has been used for various purposes, chiefly in the 19th to 21st centuries but also by Shakespeare. These changes have been introduced because such demands are common in other more educationally successful countries.

The new demands are considerable. For success, students must be able to respond swiftly, confidently and in depth, in timed examinations, to a range of unseen texts and searching questions about studied texts. And, for Progress 8, these skills must be taught across the whole ability range. Clearly they can’t be taught quickly – they need to be built up over time with regular practice.

How can these skills be taught most successfully? As Coe points out, the first stage is to focus teaching on requiring students to think: “Learning happens when people have to think hard.” But this may not be students’ top priority. There is research evidence that some prefer to finish quickly or get an answer with the least effort or avoid the teacher making demands on them. Every teacher is aware of students who engage with learning as little as possible or don’t work to their full ability much of the time. How can a teacher ensure that all the students in the class are thinking hard at several points, perhaps many points, in the lesson so that they will definitely be learning?

Second, how can the teacher be sure to incorporate the features that the EEF Toolkit show raise attainment most: effective feedback, metacognition, peer-tutoring and collaboration leading to well-designed homework? (Incidentally this is why most textbooks are of limited value except for providing useful texts. They are designed to be used by students working alone as well as in schools and so provide little opportunity for feedback, metacognition, etc. These have to be led by a teacher in conversation with the class.)

Third, lessons that encourage thinking and provide a structure for effective feedback, metacognition, etc, also need to use a range of rich authentic texts using fiction, non-fiction and poetry from appropriate periods.

Finally, designing lessons which engage students in thinking hard about
demanding texts and provide effective feedback, metacognition, etc, is difficult and takes some expertise. Teachers can’t learn this from a single input. There needs to be a CPD programme which provides modelling of lessons over several sessions with observations and support until teachers are confident in the new approach. This is also recommended by the DFE’s Standard for teachers’ professional development (June 2016) [PDF document].

Cognitive acceleration

The programme which best fulfils all these requirements is Adey and Shayer’s Cognitive Acceleration (CA), devised at King’s College London for Science in the 70s and 80s and for English since 2009. Based on work by Vygotsky and Piaget, the programme provides structured challenge by which students develop their capacity for thinking by working out the best solution to problems through group discussion, facilitated by the teacher with effective feedback and a clear focus on metacognition.

There are similarities with Philosophy for Children and Feuerstein’s Instrumental Enrichment, but CA is distinctive in providing a suite of lessons explicitly designed to develop higher-order thinking in relation to school subjects. The lessons are designed to be used fortnightly, 15 per year, over two years in KS3 and in Year 10. (There are also separate suites of lessons for primary schools.)

Formal trials of CA in Science Education (CASE) were conducted throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In every case the average gain compared with matched non-CASE students was between 1 and 2 National Curriculum levels and between 1 and 2 GCSE grades. There were significant long-term effects, up to three years after a two-year intervention, and transfer effects into Mathematics and English from an intervention in Science, suggesting that CASE increased general reasoning powers, not only those relating to Science – see Adey and Shayer The Effects of Cognitive Acceleration – and speculation about causes of these effects [PDF document].

A central feature of this success was that Adey, Shayer and their co-workers ensured that the teachers understood the CA pedagogy and supported them until they delivered it effectively. This influenced the teachers’ approach to teaching so that they adapted their teaching in CA-related ways, further raising students’ attainment. (With Let’s Think in English we find teachers soon start developing their own LTE-style lessons.)

A particularly important feature of CA is its ability to raise the attainment of lower ability and EAL students – see e.g. Really raising standards in GCSE English, Appendix 5 [PDF document]. This is why many schools are using pupil premium money to fund CA/Let’s Think in English, though it helps all students.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, CASE was highly successful in English schools and CA programmes were developed in Mathematics (CAME), Technology and the Arts (Drama, Music and Visual Art) and in Science and Mathematics for primary schools, all with similar effect sizes. However, from 2000 CA was gradually squeezed out of schools’ teaching programmes by pressures of the National Strategies and Ofsted’s requirement of frequent assessment for tracking purposes. Interest in CASE has gradually revived in recent years and a CA programme for English has been developed on exactly the same principles since 2009. This is now used by some 350 schools in England and in Jersey, Switzerland, Hong Kong and Vietnam.

Interest in CASE has also developed abroad, with formal trials in ten countries see McCormack 2013 [PDF document]. It has become particularly well-established in Australia where there is continuing and growing interest – see Oliver and Grenville (2016) Bringing CASE in from the cold: the teaching and learning of thinking.

Against this background, the Let’s Think in English programme provides:

  • 30 fully trialled, high interest KS3 lessons and 20 KS4 lessons, using high-quality authentic texts, with more being added termly
  • a year’s in-school training and support
  • particularly effective support for lower ability and EAL students
  • a structured basis for teaching the reasoning skills and confidence required for success in the new GCSE English specifications
  • a basis, where necessary, for persuading SLTs to allow English Departments to move on from National Strategies-based pedagogy and unnecessary repeated assessments to a structured programme of proven effectiveness in raising attainment
  • a total package costing less than three pupil premiums.

For further information, see www.letsthinkinenglish.org For other CA and CA-related programmes, see www.letsthink.org.uk (Science and Maths) and http://iccams-maths.org/ (Maths).

4th September 2017

Any comments or enquiries to laurie.smith@kcl.ac.uk.

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