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This Little Earth

So the results are in: data from the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN) shows a decline in literacy standards amongst pupils in Scotland. Cue the usual hand-wringing, vague promises and political point scoring that we should all have come to expect by now.

Nevermind the fact that a 2% drop in a new assessment could easily be explained by assessment judgements settling (as those involved become more comfortable with the standards), or that a single change in any set of statistics does not represent a pattern – no, these results show that our education system is on the brink of collapse, with our children being failed on a daily basis.

All of this must be very persuasive to journalists and politicians, neither of whom – as a rule – have any actual experience or knowledge of the education system beyond their own (distant) school days.The problem is that…

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This Little Earth

The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) have, unsurprisingly, declared the new approach to exam appeals a success: the number of appeals has plummeted from 66’000 in 2013 to 8500 this year; successful appeals have dropped to just 2000 from 32’000 last year; and the costs to the (taxpayer funded) SQA have been slashed (having reached an eye-watering £750’000 in 2013).

On the face of it this all sounds fantastic for Scottish education – there has clearly been a massive reduction in what some term ‘speculative appeals’, ensuring a much more rigorous examination system and, if you choose to spin it this way, representing very high confidence levels within the teaching profession. What’s not to like?

Quite a lot, as it happens, because the reality is quite different. Despite the understated descriptions of this change, the new system marks a radical and retrograde step from an organisation still struggling with the implementation…

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Last week I had the pleasure of assessing 17 genuinely excellent solo talks from my S1 class – every pupil worked extremely hard and delivered an engaging, confident talk on the topic of ‘My Favourite Place’. At the start of the process we all agreed on appropriate success criteria and, remarkably, every pupil met each specific target. How is it that I managed to achieve a 100% success rate? By being incredibly blunt about the quality of earlier presentations.

In Arran High School we are currently experimenting with an embedded IDL course for first year pupils – since August S1 timetables have featured one period a week dedicated to interdisciplinary, cross-curricular learning delivered by a small team of teachers from several different subjects (you can read more about it here).

A few months ago one of the two classes were studying The Slave Trade, and were tasked with preparing and delivering group presentations on a range of aspects of the topic.  As an English teacher it fell to me to provide feedback on the presentation skills (as opposed to the content) of each group. Put simply, the presentations were terrible – every group simply typed everything they wanted to say into a Powerpoint, projected it on the Promethean board, and then read it out to the class (without even looking at the rest of the class). All of this was made even more frustrating by the fact that explicit instructions had been given throughout the preparation progress to encourage them to avoid such mistakes! I am of course well aware of the prevailing opinion which dictates that feedback should always focus on the positive, but to be honest I think that there are time when anything but complete honest simply doesn’t cut it.

So, I told them the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth:

“Your presentations, to be entirely honest, were awful, and I expect much better from each and every one of you.”

OK, so this approach is admittedly rather full on, and isn’t something I would do with someone else’s class (the pupils in front of my were the same class that come to me for English and we have an excellent relationship); however, this was a problem that I had seen time and again. We increasingly – and correctly – expect our pupils to be extremely accomplished speakers, yet so much of the time we accept a level of mediocrity which would – or at least should – never be tolerated in their writing. I decided to address this problem once and for all (with this group at least) and the blunt feedback was a big part of the process. The next stage involved detailed teaching of the important aspects of good public speaking (including a demonstration from me about my own ‘Favourite Place‘) followed by an extended period of planning and preparation.

And the end result? As I said at the start of this post every single pupil delivered a superb solo talk which met every single one of the agreed success criteria (as well as eight of the Level 3 E&Os). I also heard from a colleague that a couple of the pupils in question had asked prior to a recent presentation in their class whether they had to “do it the easy way, or the Mr McEnaney way?” I am confident that these pupils will never again thing that the sort of presentation they delivered in that IDL class is acceptable in any situation, which is exactly the outcome that I was aiming for.

Of course, I’m not arguing that every piece of feedback that students receive should be blisteringly critical, but sometimes – in the right situation – there is a lot to be gained from simply being blunt with our pupils. Sometimes we need to focus on the positive to drive progress, but there are also times when honesty is the best driver of success.

There is little doubt that this post is likely to prove somewhat controversial, dealing as it does with one of the most consistently contested areas of education policy: setting by ability.

Before I begin I should make clear that what follows is a reflection of my experiences and those of the teachers with whom I work every day – I am well area of the range of evidence against setting, as well as the opposing views of educators for whom I have a huge amount of respect (such as Kenny Pieper). Despite this, however, my own experiences of setting by ability have been positive, for reasons that I shall now attempt to explain.

When I first arrived at Arran High School in August last year two of my classes were ‘bottom’ sets – one in S4 and the other in S5/6. As a consequence of the small school roll and the approach of my PT, these were also the smallest classes in each year group (with 8 and 16 pupils respectively).

The S4 class were the classic ‘bottom class’ – comparatively low ability and generally uninterested. The previous teacher (a phenomenally outstanding teacher who was retiring) sat down with me and gave me an insight into each pupil – during this discussion she suggested that two of the class be considered for Access 3 rather than Standard Grade and also demonstrated the level that they were currently working at, with only two achieving at General level (in understanding this it is important to point out that last year’s 4th year achieved the worse Standard Grade results that the school had ever seen across the board).

Over the course of the year, however, massive progress was achieved and, when the results came through, it appeared that a minor miracle had occurred – not only did every pupil pass a Standard Grade, but the entire class actually achieved 3s and 4s. Whilst every pupil performed above expectations, it is one of the two potential Access candidates who – in my opinion – makes the best argument for setting. Throughout S1, S2 and S3 he had never written more than 100 words for any assignment, regardless of the efforts of a range of teachers – being in mixed classes in S1 and S2 hadn’t helped (indeed, he told me himself that being so clearly the weakest member of the class had simply continually reinforced the belief that he couldn’t do well) and by the time I met him there was a very real risk that he would not pass his Standard Grade. To be honest, I did briefly consider the Access route, but in the end decided that there was simply no excuse for this approach in such a small class with a very limited spread of ability – I’m glad I did. Being in such a small class with a very limited spread of ability allowed me to focus a great deal of time on each pupil, eking out progress one small step at a time, and in the end he achieved something that just a few months earlier had looked utterly impossible.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that several of that class would not have performed so well in a class where they were not set by ability – I have had some great success with mixed ability teaching where the stronger pupils help the weaker ones, but for these pupils in this instance being able to focus solely in their level led to improvements that could not otherwise have been achieved. Despite being the weakest year group since the introduction of Standard Grade not a single pupil in the school achieved less than a 4 in English.

So what about the S5/6 class? Well, when I took them on they were an Intermediate 1 class with some pupils thought of as potentially being able to pass an Intermediate 2 – I told them from day one that they were simply my Intermediate class, and that if they worked hard I would get the very best out of them. Much like with the S4 some of the progress made was quite remarkable, and once again several of the pupils confirmed that they much preferred being in a class where the range of abilities was comparatively small as it helped them to develop the confidence they needed to enhance their own abilities. One girl in particular told me just before her final exam that being in classes with pupils that she knew were much more able then her had destroyed her confidence, and thanked me for my approach over the previous 9 months.

The results achieved by the class further enhanced my view that, done properly, setting by ability can be beneficial – in the end only 2 pupils sat the Int 1 (both passed) while the rest sat Int 2 (all but one passed) and, as a result, 6 of this ‘bottom’ class are now sitting a Higher English that seemed  utterly out of reach only 18 months ago.

In my experience so far, then, setting by ability can be a part of the overall solution for some pupils – there are, however, two more philosophical points that I would like to raise.

The first is that, if done carefully, for the right reasons, and with a genuinely deep knowledge of each individual pupil, setting can function as an extension of the sort of differentiation that we all know is absolutely crucial. I would not wish to teach Int1, Int2, Higher and Advanced Higher in one class just because they all happen to be the same age – by separating the pupils in relation to their ability I can focus on the needs of each group and differentiate within each group far more effectively.

The second is perhaps more controversial and concerns the idea of the ‘sink class’ – the collection of low ability, disengaged pupils of whom very little is ever expected. OK, if they were not set by ability then this sort of class would not exist, but given that setting can help pupils through providing more focused teaching is it possible that the ‘sink class’ mentality is an indictment not of setting, but of the attitudes of teachers? In my opinion it is our professional responsibility to have sky-high expectations of all pupils, not just the ones at the top. Neither of my ‘bottom’ classes last year were ‘sink classes’ because I simply would not allow them to become so, and there is a part of me that feels as though the whole idea is in fact just a self-fulfilling prophecy that has more to do with the teachers in charge of the class than the pupils in it.

This year at Arran we have continued to set by ability in S3 on the basis that we envisage three common ‘learner journeys’ for students in the new Nat4/5 system: some will sit a Nat5 in S4 and go on to sit a higher in S5; some will progress through Nat4 in S4 before moving into the Nat5 in S5; and others will achieve a Nat4 but will not progress into a Nat5. So far, the decision seems to be paying off – my ‘top’ S3 are producing superb work which regularly rivals (and sometimes even surpasses) that produced by my Intermediate 2 students; the ‘middle’ class are securing their abilities in preparation for a Nat4; and the ‘bottom’ class (which is once again extremely small) have been making hugely success use of the project-based approach to education to prepare them for their Nat4 as well. Crucially, the classes in which the pupils have been placed at this stage are by no means set in stone (if you’ll pardon the pun) – indeed, a number of pupils will potentially be moving based upon their progress, work ethic and overall potential.

Of course, none of this means that setting by ability is effective or appropriate across the board – there are many schools, classes and teachers for whom it does not work and it is important that schools (or even departments within schools) are able to decide on the approach that is right for them.

Taking the reins off

Posted: January 21, 2013 in Uncategorized

OK, cards on the table: I had every intention of writing this post at the start of December, but a series of unfortunate events conspired to get in my way. Now I’ve found a little time to write up one of my most recent projects and share what my S3 class were getting up to at the end of last term.

Having completed the study (including an Int2 level critical essay) of ‘Assisi’ and a discursive essay with my S3 at the start of the year I decided to move on to ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. This decision involved breaking a personal rule of mine, which is to avoid teaching my own personal favourite novels, but I have a huge amount of faith in my third years and thought that they would be able to do justice to a text that I consider to be one of the most important pieces of literature ever published.

From the outset, however, I was determined to do something a little different with the novel; inspired by Neil Winton’s “What is Beauty?” idea, I decided to set my pupils a seemingly simple task: submit something on the subject of prejudice and/or discrimination. I made it clear to the class that they could submit just about anything so long as it was something that they were proud of and that they had clearly worked hard on; I also explicitly stated right from the start that I did not want to see drafts of their projects and that, while I would help people if they asked, they were not required to even tell me what they intended to hand in. Teaching English often means marking a couple of dozen essays that are all essentially the same, so I was desperate for as much variety as possible.

To be honest, I expected to encounter quite a bit of resistance – not to the task itself, but to the sheer amount of freedom and control being handed over. Pupils are so used to the idea of submitting drafts and receiving corrections that I thought they might feel a bit over-whelmed by the prospect of being expected to complete an entire project without any of that support – I was wrong! The vast majority of the class took to the task incredibly well and, having been given a specific time-frame (7 weeks) every pupil handed in their project on time (mostly via Edmodo). What really struck me was the remarkable enthusiasm amongst the students – in my opinion, this was a direct result of them feeling both trusted and respected.

On hand-in date (which, entirely coincidentally, happened to be on the same day as S3 Parents’ Night) I received Powerpoints, Prezis, Thinglinks, Youtube videos, posters, a model, some creative writing (one of these pieces is more than 7000 words long) and a model.

If you would like to see what a really good S3 class can produce when given the freedom to just get on with it you can visit:

So where do I go from here? Well I’ve decided to push the concept even further, making use of the central idea as part of a poetry analysis and production project. This experience has strengthened my belief that you only really know what a student (or class) is capable of when you take the reins off and let them use all of their knowledge and skills independently. Within the next month or so I should have a range of submissions which explore a selection of poetry choices (again, the students will have a free choice as to what form their submission actually takes), as well as a collection of poetry produced by the pupils (all of which will be added to the blog linked to above) – I’ll let you know how it goes.