ECDL: I’ve got a bad feeling about this

I’ve watched the stories emerging around Bradley Wiggins’ use of TUEs with interest. It might be within the rules, but it feels like gaming. It might be right according to the rules, but it feels wrong. I was reminded of that feeling on reading Richard Adams’ tweet.

Passes in the European Computer Driving Licence qualification increased by 346% last year. The European Computer Driving Licence counts as a subject in Bucket 3 of Attainment and Progress 8, giving it the same weight as a French GCSE or History AS level. The qualification covers content like “Sending an email” and “Printing a Word document”. Proponents will no doubt argue it gets trickier than this. They’re right: some of the content, like Mail Merge, might require a cursory Google, or using Microsoft’s Office Wizards. Both of those skills are evident in abundance in teenagers across the ability range as far as I’ve seen; it doesn’t seem worthy of teaching time.

Proponents will argue the ECDL covers skills that are crucial in today’s working world. Let’s be clear here: we’re not talking the coding skills that’d get you a job at Facebook here. We’re talking the basic use of a computer. Programmes are designed to be easy to pick up, learn, and use. We are, on the other hand, not able to redesign the history of the UK, or geographical processes, or English literature, so that they are user friendly. If we want a pupil to be able to navigate and understand the world, they’ll need expert help in building up schemas for this stuff. They need our help in untying the knotty, complex, accumulation of stuff that’s happened so far. Let’s not waste our time on telling them all the menu functions in Excel.

Still, proponents will say that for some pupils, the ECDL is appropriate. Instinctively, I bristle at this: it’s easy to get sucked into a vortex of low expectations. Very few pupils genuinely need something other than a solid academic curriculum. Still, there are some. If the ECDL is truly the best qualification for them, why weren’t schools using it at the same rate in 2015, 2014, 2001? “What’s best for the pupils” seems suspiciously well aligned with “what counts on progress measures”. It reminds me of 2013, when Gove announced in the Sunday Times that a pupils’ first result would count in the league tables. Schools pulled children out of early entry overnight. The rhetoric also changed overnight, from “early entry gives our students the best chance” to “waiting until summer gives our students the best chance”. We’re at war with Eurasia. We’ve always been at war with Eurasia. The ECDL is what’s best for our pupils. It’s always been what’s best for our pupils.

Like Bradley Wiggins, the ECDL might be within the rules, but it feels like gaming. It feels wrong. It feels wrong to send pupils out into the world with the ECDL instead of more of the subjects like History, Geography and languages – subjects which need to be studied hard, for an extended period, with expert guidance, so pupils can develop schemas that help them understand the world. It feels wrong pupils will be pushed to do fewer of the subjects that can open doors at A level and university. You’re not just gaming the league table, you’re gaming kids’ lives.

More than that, though, it feels wrong because of what it does to leadership in schools. It feels wrong that schools pay thousands to organisations that disseminate this information and are rewarded for doing so in the progress measures. It feels wrong that you can send two Deputy Heads to a conference to learn this stuff, when they should be on the corridors and on the phone to parents. It feels wrong that Senior Leadership Teams can get a bigger uplift in accountability measures by sifting through paperwork to look for loopholes, than by getting out there and doing the hard work of improving learning in their school.


2 for the price of 1 learning

What’s wrong with an activity like writing a newspaper article about Pokemon GO? Doing such an activity will give pupils a chance to practise spelling and grammar; practise certain conventions and styles of writing; and practise structuring work.

All this is true. My objection is that, if the task were about a topic of cultural or literary significance, pupils could be doing all of the above and practising applying newfound, important knowledge.

Two for the price of one, as it were: we don’t lose any of the benefits of practising writing, but now we’ve got the added bonus of knowledge acquisition.


Leave those kids alone

Wouldn’t it be convenient if all the groups society agonised about were compulsorily cattled together for 35 hours a week?

Obese patients. The Biggest Loser could become a national programme. The depressed and the anxious. Dose them up with an SSRI, a meditation course, and silent reading sessions of a book on cognitive behavioural therapy. The unemployed. 9 am to 10 am: Guardian jobs. 10 am to 11 am: CV formatting. People having unsafe sex. Show them pictures of gonorrhoea on gonads, and load them up with condoms on their way out.

It would be so easy. We could solve all of society’s ills. (Apart from when they went home of course. But that’s OK. At that point we could blame the people they live with.)

The structure of school – where the vast majority of the population of a particular age are put together for 7 hours a day – means it is dangerously susceptible to this form of thinking. Something wrong with the under-16 population? Schools seem like the perfect arena for an intervention.

There’s just one problem: what this intervention takes the place of. School pupils are little people; they broadly have the same range of problems as big people. They get fat; they get ill; they get sad; they make bad decisions. And even where they don’t, they’re future big people. They might not have a gambling problem now, but let’s get in the PSHE sessions when they’re 13 to save them in a decade’s time. Soon we end up with a school curriculum like the TES’ media crowd-sourced timetable.

school tt

Schools become the place where we fight terrorism, tackle obesity, address mental illness, perform social work… the list goes on

School is not a holding pen for children to test out policy initiatives en masse. We must not be shamed by arguments about caring, or blinded by the novelty of intriguing initiatives. An aim can be worthy, and teachers can care about it, but it doesn’t follow that school time and teachers’ energy should be used on it.

School is for making people smarter. We must preserve that. Anything that doesn’t serve that purpose must be batted away at the school gates.

Why year 7 resits might be a good thing

Nothing says cross-spectrum support in education like Jonathan Simons agreeing with Sue Cowley. Year 7 resits: not many people are fans. My initial reaction, too, was negative. Just leave us alone to teach them, I thought. Every drop of juice has been squeezed out of the testing and accountability fruit. But might year 7 resits be a juicier proposition than we’ve thought?

Schools are given a sizeable chunk of money to help level 3 kids catch up. It’s reasonable for government to want to check that money is being used well. Currently, schools put together some paperwork “evidence” which sits in a box file getting dusty until Ofsted arrive: not the most robust form of accountability. An assessment is more reliable and valid than bureaucratic bum-covering.

Myopia and wishful thinking makes it easy for us to see progress where it may not really exist. An external examination encourages us to look at the interventions we choose with a more sceptical eye. Is this really evidence-informed? What can we learn from other departments and schools? Too often I’ve seen year 7 catch up spending be left up to a keen but inexperienced Key Stage 3 co-ordinator, whose focus is engagement through a creative, innovative solution, rather than something solid but effective like Fresh Start or Connecting Math Concepts.

A common argument against high-stakes assessment is that it distorts incentives. High stakes will certainly affect incentives, but it need only distort them if the stakes don’t match the stakeholders’ desired outcomes. We’ve seen the impact of an unbalanced accountability system, which had an undue emphasis C-D borderline and a dubious definition of “equivalent” qualifications. The move towards progress 8 and the EBacc is improving this. But one thing that is tougher to change is the emphasis on year 11.

People (rightly) say it makes sense to teach children properly in Key Stage 3 so there’s no mad rush in GCSE year, but it’s rare to see a head follow through on that idea. The strongest teachers, the most intervention, the priciest resources are thrown at this year group. It’s hard to blame headteachers for this. The argument goes, every year, why should it be this year 11 cohort that miss out in favour of year 7? This argument is even easier to make when a drop in results could have catastrophic results for the school, not to mention the head themselves.

The one thing that might finally tear attention away from year 11 is inescapable accountability in other years. The progress of the weakest in year 7 seems a good place to start. With an assessment on the way, sorting out year 7 takes on a new urgency; it’s not so easily pushed to the bottom of the SLT agenda. Staffing year 7 bottom set with the best teacher might take on renewed importance.

There’s no doubt the assessment would have to be very carefully designed. It should focus on a limited range of knowledge, such that it is feasible for secondary schools to teach it in a few months to children who may have failed to learn for years. It must also be genuinely useful knowledge that opens up doors to access the rest of the secondary school curriculum. The phonetic code; broad background knowledge and cultural literacy; times tables; fraction-decimal conversions; units of measurement. Knowing these things gives pupils the foundation they need to succeed at secondary.

Finally, the assessment should test as much of the domain as possible. The beauty of a times table check is that the sample in the test is identical to the domain. Teaching to the test isn’t an issue: the test is just as broad as what was to be taught. A resit test can be aimed squarely at the weakest pupils. Unlike SATS, we don’t have to worry about creating a bell curve that covers the whole population. There is potential to make this a test worth teaching to.

For once, a vulnerable, easily ignored group could be made the priority. Year 7 retakes, done properly, could be a real opportunity.

Nature abhors a vacuum

Nature abhors a vacuum. Human nature abhors a power vacuum.

Idealistic teachers often propose a classroom set up where co-operation reigns over command and control. Whilst lovely in theory, in practice we end up with more of a dystopia than utopia.

A teacher’s decision not to assert their authority won’t result in a classroom of equals. There will be a leader. It just won’t be the adult.

Instead, it will be your most bolshy pupil.

It’s true of adults, too. Think of any group you’ve worked in. Everyone hates being over-managed. But a vacuum of leadership is worse. It sounds seductive, not being told what to do. But even in a group of well-intentioned, motivated adults, the frustrations of decision making by committee soon lead to collapse – unless, of course, a natural, unofficial leader emerges. Lack of certainty is uncomfortable, unsafe and unenjoyable.

So it’s no wonder it’s a calamity when applied to a group of children with less maturity, more competing motivations, and a more acute sense of peer approval.

Humans intrinsically seek belonging and will impress whomever necessary to make that a reality. Make that the most fearsome member of year 9 set 3, and the results are predictable.

Being a leader, telling children what to do, and keeping clear, tight boundaries is the kindest thing to do. It keeps our children safe and allows them to learn. Us teachers should never feel we have to apologise for being the one calling the shots. Anything else is an abdication of our responsibility to keep our children safe, happy, and learning.

Going postal about posters

Posters lessons. We’ve all done them. Maybe we were naive NQTs, who believed it really would be a great way for 7 set 4 to synthesise their understanding of the formation of ox-bow lakes. Maybe we were exhausted, the week before Christmas, sleep-deprived to the point of torture, and thought it would tide us over. Maybe it was coming up to the summer holidays, and all the key stage co-ordinator had written on the departmental Schemes of Work was “group work on fireworks”. Maybe Open Evening was coming up, and the yellowing displays needed replacing. Maybe we were taking our tricky year 9 form for PSHE, on a topic we knew little about and felt uncomfortable with; when we’d raised it with the Head of Year, all she’d said was that the other forms were availing themselves of the sugar paper.

Fine. I’ve been there. You’ve been there. But let’s be honest: a poster lesson is a desperate measure, not a rigorous first-class education.

There’s been quite the kerfuffle over Tom Bennett’s reasoned, measured comments about the value of certain lesson activities. Tom was very diplomatic, caveating his assertions carefully with the word “some”. I think he doesn’t go far enough. I don’t think posters are ever an effective use of lesson time. The exception, perhaps, would be graphic design, where the poster can be the point. As IndieP tweeted, “If you want to teach ‘making a poster’, teach it. If you want to teach ‘history’, teach that instead.”

The additional fripperies of poster making merely distract from a learning objective to acquire, practice or memorise knowledge. Thinking about layout and visual appeal takes up precious mental space that should be wholly focused on the subject matter.

A poster on the causes of World War I cannot possibly induce more learning than the same content written in an exercise book. The difference is that the poster will inevitably take much longer; it is much less time efficient. Wasting our pupils’ time is an insult to their futures, their intellect and their dreams.

And that’s assuming the poster is taken as seriously by pupil and by teacher – which, let’s be honest – it rarely is. Often, the less conscientious pupils won’t take the task seriously; the more conscientious will take it seriously, but entirely the wrong things. The bubble writing of the title will be immaculate; the speech bubbles coming from the cartoon Napolean’s mouth perfectly formed; Homebase could turn the border design into a wallpaper pattern. Work is rarely assessed beyond a tick and “2 house points” for the neatest girls’ work. After all, if it’s for display, you can’t sully it with ugly red pen. And if it’s the end of term, marking is as likely as eating your 12 boxes of Ferrero Roche in moderation.

Teaching is a noble, honourable profession… when we’re actually teaching. We are so much better than sugar paper and felt tips.

Don’t mind the gap

How many digits of pi can you remember, Layla?

Only twenty, Miss.

Layla sees nothing extraordinary about the fact she remembers four times more digits of pi than her maths teacher. Not when her classmates can remember 40, 50, 60… hundreds digits of pi*. Not that she’s upset about it, mind. She knows that a fortnight ago, the most anyone in her class knew was three digits. She knows that the reason for the difference now is sheer hard work.

How is it possible for a 12-year-old child in an inner-city comprehensive to see knowing 20 digits of pi as unremarkable? By not minding the gap. In fact, we encouraged the gap through competition. Two weeks ago, the gap between the best and worst in the school at reciting pi was three: between those who had no clue, and those who knew 3.14. Now, the gap is in the hundreds.

In absolute terms, the achievement and progress has been excellent. Pupils, including the weakest, reel off scores of digits. In relative terms, it’s a disaster. Layla can say twenty, but Aliyah can recite 160: an eight-fold difference. In relative terms, we were better off a fortnight ago, when the difference was a mere handful of digits.

“Closing the gap”: a well intentioned policy, but one that worries me. I worry about its effect on our Aliyahs; that it encourages us to rein in their potential artificially. But I also worry about our Laylas.

When we focus on closing the gap, our implicit messages are toxic. We imply that there’s only so much we can expect; that there’s a cap on what’s reasonable to achieve. Our monitoring and scrutiny doesn’t leave room for pupils to go off and propel themselves, independently, beyond what our limited imaginations can fathom for them. Round-the-clock interventions for those struggling, while the top end go off and revise on their own, induces a learned helplessness; a sense that work can’t be done without a teacher holding their hand. The intensity of the teachers’ attention implies to the children that their teachers are responsible for their grades, not them. Pupils may even come to recognise that the less they do, the more the teachers worry, and the more the teachers do for them. Pupils are not allowed to fail, and thus gain no experience of the link between laziness and failure; the link between hard work and success.

In fact, I’d posit that if your gap is narrowing, you’re doing something wrong. The Matthew effect states that with the same inputs, the knowledge-rich will get richer more quickly. My experience is that the top end will accumulate knowledge more quickly even if given a fraction of the input of the bottom end.

We should not be concentrating on “closing the gap”. An obsession with relative under-performance doesn’t just harm the top, but also the weakest we are trying to help.

Encourage competition. Encourage every pupil to do their best. It won’t close the gap. It will widen it. In relative terms, it will be a disaster. In absolute terms, it will be a triumph.


*A note on pi: this was an optional competition, a bit of fun for pi day; pupils learnt pi of their own accord outside of maths lessons. I don’t think learning pi is maths, but it was great at creating a buzz!