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The Implementation Trap

When Ofsted review schools under the new category of Quality of Education, the Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, says that they will be looking at three areas: intention, implementation and impact. While it’s almost impossible to find a school that doesn’t proclaim laudable intentions, implementing such intentions successfully is quite another matter.

Part of the difficulty is that many of our stated ambitions are aspirational: the intentions indicate a direction of travel, rather than a destination that all students will reach. One of the questions raised by the new approach to inspection is whether schools’ statements of intention are too lofty, and so the school can never meet the standards it has set itself.

A second problem is that statements of intention have often been generalisations that were never expected to apply to all students. School leaders may well find that they have to be much more precise in specifying the types of outcomes they are aiming for, especially with groups who were previously at the margins of the school’s results. And then they have the problem of justifying the exceptions they have made, when Oftsed asks why they didn’t adjust the provision for those students.

Let me explain. Within the bedrock of secondary education, there are layers of sub-strata that comprise deeply held, but barely perceived, beliefs about intelligence and student potential. These beliefs often result in actions that compromise students’ opportunities to grow. In some schools, for example, the response to pupil premium accountability has been to designate pupil premium teachers, segregate students into pupil premium form groups, and set up interventions specifically for pupil premium students. What pupil premium actually means is that students have met the criteria for poverty. In effect, some schools have actively singled out and in some cases, segregated poor students.

Under the new inspection regime, the Ofsted question: ‘what do you want for all your students?’ will require schools to explain their aims and ambitions –including for pupil premium students.  The conversation will then move on to how that vision is being made real. Schools that have toyed with changing structures, job titles and segregation will find that these have not resulted in meaningful outcomes. Why? Because what pupil premium students need, like every other student, is well-planned, well-executed teaching.

Let’s take the specific field of reading. Nationally, about 20% of students arrive at secondary school reading significantly behind. However, about 40% of pupil premium students have this level of difficulty – that is, they are twice as likely to fall into this category. When schools aim to take such students on trips to boost the students’ cultural capital, but don’t have the inclination – or, let’s face it, the expertise – to address the actual problem of not knowing how to read text at their age level, the reading achievement won’t change.  (In case you think I am exaggerating, I have seen schools where the strategy for those with a pupil premium form class was to ‘take them on a trip’.)  And if the reading achievement doesn’t change, it’s unrealistic to expect other areas of learning to advance. Reading is an academic bottleneck.

Equally, a school may wish to address the reading achievement of pupil premium students ambitiously. Unfortunately, ambition alone is no guarantee of success. The implementation of genuinely effective intervention at this late stage in students’ schooling is beset by the complexities of secondary school organisation, the complexities of students’ reading difficulties and the complexities of teaching a great deal in a short time. Without a clear strategy, and a day-to-day monitoring of its implementation, seemingly small decisions can completely derail the best of intentions.

Seemingly innocuous or minor decisions can make it very difficult for an intervention to succeed. Short of staff? Just redeploy the specially-trained TAs who are delivering that intervention until the crisis is over. Short of space? Move the reading intervention into someone’s office. Exam support for special considerations? Those TAs are only teaching a few kids to read – pull them out so we can get through this. Need help to run a special event? Just pull some students out of their reading lesson.

And thus, as Shakespeare noted, the whirligig of time brings in his revenges. Before we know it, the students have lost momentum, the staff have lost motivation and the results drop away. Then a member of SLT asks why we’re bothering with this initiative anyway, given the mediocre outcomes, and so the whirligig continues. We drop this intervention, pick that one up, and undermine our own efforts again and again.

Now, when Ofsted come calling, it may become a little awkward. After all, if our mission statement says that all our children will become caring, literate, global citizens, and Ofsted asks, ‘why are some of your students still not literate?’, we won’t be able to evade the question by pointing to the good progress of the top four sets. What is your ambition for those at the lower end? What was your plan? How did it work out? Why did it fail? What will you do now? These are the kinds of questions the new framework will lend itself to.

Unless we have a very clear plan and protect it fiercely, the likelihood is that intervention with the most challenging groups will fail. It will fail because there are dozens, if not hundreds, of ways to fail, and the job of SLT is to make sure that none of those ways to fail gets a look in. Senior leaders not only need to set noble aims, but to devise a coherent strategy, then ensure it is implemented with vigilance and discipline. If not, the ‘implementation’ question from Ofsted will become an albatross around our necks.

And no amount of good intentions is going to stop that.

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What Are Your Intentions?

Recently, the Chief Inspector of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, gave a speech in which she outlined Ofsted’s new approach to inspecting schools. One of the key changes is a new heading, ‘Quality of Education’, which will encompass teaching, learning, assessment and curriculum.

Her explanation of how these will be evaluated by Ofsted is worth quoting directly:

“Under quality of education, we intend to look at three distinct aspects. First the intent – what is it that schools want for all their children? Then the implementation – how is teaching and assessment fulfilling the intent? Finally, the impact – that is the results and wider outcomes that children achieve and the destinations that they go on to.”

Intent is a very interesting question, not least because what we say we will do, and what we actually do, are often quite different. Virtually every school has a mission statement that talks about equipping students to be academically successful and to make positive contributions to society. The reality is that in many schools, a section of the student population will be neither challenged nor equipped to become participating members of society. This doesn’t usually happen as a result of deliberate choices by school leaders, but rather, these children are caught between multiple competing agendas. (Ironically enough, some of these agendas are focused on how to surive an Ofsted inspection.) Unless our statement of mission is accompanied by a detailed, practical roadmap, the complexities of school life will almost certainly frustrate our efforts.

The question that Amanda Spielman asks resonates because of its scope. It is not asking about the school’s goals for some of its students, but for all of them. And this, I suspect, is not a question that all school leaders have faced in the past. For example, we know that a large proportion of students leave school with minimal literacy skills – see this DfE report from 2015 that admitted that 17% of 15-year-olds had skills below Level 1 of the OECD’s international literacy assessment. It’s the tendency for schools to see such failure levels as acceptable, even for a skill as fundamental as reading, that is challenged by the question of intent.

Our response to the question, “What is our intention for all our students?’ should, one would hope, include the notion that they should all be proficient in literacy and numeracy skills. Schools have not really had to answer such a question about all of their students before. As long as a reasonable proportion of students succeeded in final assessments, those who failed were simply accepted as a collateral damage: evidence that the exam system had rigour. But now that the focus is shifting away from exams alone, it is almost inevitable that schools will be scrutinised for how they have managed those students who were previously simply exam fodder.

Bill Rogers, the Australian author who has written so helpfully about behaviour management, posits that in classrooms there are ‘stated rules’ (the ones we have on a poster by the door) and the ‘real rules’ (what is actually noticed and enforced on a day-to-day basis). Students will very quickly adapt their behaviour to what they perceive as the ‘real rules’. For example, if I display rules saying that “At Hogwarts Academy we arrive on time to lessons”, and then take no action when students arrive late, students will quickly learn that the ‘real rules’ allow for a lack of punctuality. This is why behaviour standards can vary so widely from class to class, despite the best efforts of school leaders to devise homogeneous systems that apply across all parts of the school. The consistency has to happen with all staff in every lesson.

The same principle applies to schools whose stated mission is that all students will succeed academically, or leave school equipped with the skills for lifelong learning. Unless the school leaders and staff are equipped with the skills to recognise and solve reading problems, the ‘real rules’ of the organisation will prevail, namely, that some students are treated as if they are beyond help, and for whom, therefore, the school’s mission statement cannot apply.

This position may have been tenable in the past, but now, for two reasons, it is no longer so. The first reason is that Ofsted’s question about intent is followed by questions about implementation and impact. If our mission does not translate into commensurate outcomes, something is wrong with either our mission or our implementation. The second reason is that, for many years, assumptions (such as, for example, that some children are inherently unable to learn to read) have prevailed in the education community. Increasingly, the data is accumulating to demonstrate that this is simply not the case. If we change the way that we deal with these students, we can see remarkable gains.

All of which leaves us with some soul-searching to do. What do we really want for all our children? If schools spend more time pondering this question, and less time trying to elicit the data required to survive the next inspection hurdle, that can only be a good thing.

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Calling secondary English teachers – work with us to make a real difference!

We are looking for teachers who want to have impact – and flexibility

Looking for a change of direction? Or a change of pace?

It’s a time of year for looking ahead, for planning how to move forward, for finding new opportunities. For some, there is a sense that we need a change, but the nature and extent of that change are not always easy to define.

If you are in a position where you want more satisfaction, more flexibility and, for whatever reason, need to spend more time out of the classroom, then we have a proposal that may interest you.

We are building up a team to help us to reach more secondary schools and more students who need the right kind of instruction to catch up in their reading, quickly and completely. Our mission is to eradicate adolescent illiteracy completely.

We are particularly interested in developing a group of trainers who would work with secondary schools to equip them to deliver the Thinking Reading programme. These trainers would be licensed so that, if they wish, they can deliver Thinking Reading to individual students outside of schools.

We are looking for people with excellent interpersonal communication skills, academic aptitude, have an eye for detail and who are very well organised. Our trainers will need to have experience of middle or senior management in secondary school, and should also have experience in delivering English as a subject. You will also be able to travel within your region in order to deliver training (full days in two or three-day blocks during the week).

What you don’t need is experience in helping children with reading problems. We will give you that training, and show you how to deliver the Thinking Reading lesson, which results in average gains of two months in student reading per half hour lesson. We will also give you training in theory and research around the teaching of reading. To qualify for licensing, you would need to be clear on the relevant theory and research, and serve a short internship in a school to demonstrate proficiency in programme delivery.

The training you receive will benefit you in a number of ways:

  1. It will help you to support students with reading problems in your own school more effectively.
  2. It will enable you to tutor individual students who are not yet getting the help that they need at school.
  3. It will provide you with excellent experience in delivering high quality CPD.
  4. It will provide an additional source of income as you will be able to tutor your own students as well as deliver training to staff in secondary schools.

We know that people have different circumstances and priorities. For that reason, we would like to form a focus group to help us work out the details of the package and how it can best meet the needs of trainers and our needs as an organisation.

On our part, we know that it’s important to get the very best people in order to ensure the very best outcomes for students. If you’d like to know more, and perhaps be part of our focus group conversation, please complete this short expression of interest.

Visit our website

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Reading is Knowledge

7 ways to help the bottom third

It’s the time of year when we farewell Year 11 students, with a mixture of relief, anticipation, and sometimes a tinge of regret. For some, the promise of what they will do with their lives is so beautiful it almost intoxicating. For others, not so much: those students who strove, who struggled, who despaired, and sometimes gave up; the ones whom we instinctively feel should have done better, but we know are likely to end up with grades at 3 or even below. And it‘s at this time that we most wonder – could we have done something different?

There are many potential reasons why students struggle. The learning that is being assessed at GCSE has accumulated over the years of the education, both inside and outside school walls. Skills that bear a single name – like ‘essay writing’ – are in fact are a composite of many different skills, which are themselves likewise a combination of more basic skills. Achievement comes from acquiring knowledge, then practising its application to mastery, then combining it with other knowledge, ad infinitum.

Often the reasons for failure or slow progress are hidden below the surface. It is not the presenting weakness that is the problem, but fractures in the layers of learning that lie beneath – layers that we assume students have, but in reality are incomplete or even absent. And beneath all this lies the murky stratum of how well they can actually read.

Here are seven things that get in the way of effective help for students in the bottom third. Fortunately, they are all things that we can change:

1 Assumptions rather than objective data

We assume that the student has problems which will prevent them from learning. We sometimes call this making a professional judgement, but it is more accurately speaking pre-judgement.

2 Misattribution

We ‘diagnose’ students as having problems or disabilities which prevent them learning. We do this through the use of inadequate data, preconceptions about what low test scores actually mean, or a disability mindset where we are looking for a label to apply to the child.

3 Misunderstanding the role of motivation

We attempt to build motivation in order to promote achievement, instead of ensuring success in order to build motivation.

4 Ineffective intervention

The two main problems here are either weak programmes, whose design can only ever have limited impact, or weak execution. In both cases student achievement and motivation can actually decline rather than improve.

5 Over-intervention

Sometimes students deemed to be ‘at risk’ have their subject choices and/or time in class reduced so that they can attend more intervention. Although this might appeal to frustrated classroom teachers, heads of subject and the senior managers responsible for GCSE grades, it is rarely profitable – and the students themselves miss out on vital learning.

6 Low expectations

Students who arrived at secondary school with low baseline scores – for example, for KS2 SATS or CATS testing, are usually allocated a place in the ‘bottom sets’. Setting can have a major effect, not just on students’ self-perceptions, but on what their teachers expect of them, and therefore what they attempt to teach. Add to this the problems caused when poor behaviour is a criterion for allocation to the bottom set, and we have an invisible but very firm ceiling through which students are unlikely to rise.

7 Insufficiently detailed assessment.

Almost always overlooked, and yet it is the first step to actually solving students’ learning difficulties.

To see how these apply, let’s take an example. Suppose I note that a student only makes superficial references to a character. Inferences – even fairly obvious ones – are overlooked. The student may repeat some phrases we have discussed in class, either orally or in writing, but on probing they show little or no understanding. I might decide that the student has a disability that means that they cannot learn this material, but I choose to look instead at what they know and how I’m teaching it.

What to do? I could do some inference training, or work on comprehension strategies. But could the problem be deeper? What is the student’s vocabulary like? I may be explaining in terms that other students understand, but what if this student doesn’t know some of those terms? What if the student seemed to acquire them in class, but didn’t remember later? Was there enough practice for every student?

And of course limited comprehension could be related to gaps in background knowledge. This is often apparent in students who have arrived from a different culture, even if their language skills are good. But it can also be an issue for students who have not had the opportunities to develop such knowledge. One reason for this can be limited life experience. Another possibility is that they have limited reading experience: they simply haven’t encountered enough print to grow their repertoire of more formal, precise vocabulary.

So we need to drill deeper still into these layers of learning. Just how well can the student read? The school may have some reading data, but in many cases this data is only taken on arrival in Year 7 and not followed up thereafter. There may be other tracking data – most commonly, schools seem to rely on the STAR test associated with Accelerated Reader. While AR may provide pages of reports to show Ousted, practising teachers often find that the scores tend to bounce around and are unhelpful for analysing individual progress.

Even if we take a good standardised test, like the New Group Reading Test, this one score cannot be relied upon as definitive. Not only are there confidence intervals, but with low motivation it is possible for quite able students to appear as if they are in need of help. Running a second standardised test on students who score in the bottom third nearly always yields a number of students – sometimes up to half – whose scores significantly improve. Standardised tests can help to weed out those whose low performance is due to motivation, not a reading problem. (Which is still very useful information.)

While standardised tests may help us to sort students into groups, they do not tell us what we need to actually teach those students. Two students might get an identical score but have quite different gaps in vocabulary, background knowledge and decoding skills. To identify these gaps, we need to engage in ‘fine-grain’ assessment – a level of analysis that is not common in the secondary school curriculum.

For example, we might analyse their oral reading by tracking every error in a passage of reading; we might use word lists to look at their whole word decoding; or we might complete a detailed sound-spelling assessment that identifies exactly where their gaps in decoding are.

Once we have completed this fine-grain assessment, we are in a position to precisely identify the gaps in the student’s learning, which makes addressing them much more efficient. It’s only at this point that we can confidently begin to plan how we will help this student to catch up to where he or she should be.

This is one of the main barriers to changing the trajectories of students in the bottom third – we don’t assess them closely enough. And of course, the classroom teacher rarely has the time or opportunity for such a task – it is a role that requires training and comprehensive assessment tools. But it has to be done if we are serious about helping these students to make the progress that they should.

If you would like to read more about helping these students in lessons, see this post: Six ways to help struggling readers in the secondary classroom. For more detailed discussion on screening, assessment and intervention see our book (below).

If you’d like to talk about screening and assessment systems to help pinpoint why some students are having difficulty, we offer a one-day consultation with school leaders and a two-day workshop on fine-grain assessment of reading skills.

Visit our website.

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7 Steps to Improving Reading Comprehension

Anything but the teaching . . .

The latest issue of Best Evidence in Brief continues a long-standing trend in the business of teaching children to read: namely, to flail about looking for anything that might shore up student reading, without having to go to the bother of actually getting teachers to teach differently.

The bulletin describes an intervention in 12 US primary schools with economically disadvantaged students. All had their vision tested and were issued free spectacles if they were found to need them – one pair for school, one for home, with broken pairs replaced for free. I was surprised to read that 69% of students tested needed glasses, so it was well worth investing in the screening process.

Providing poor children with vision testing, and supplying glasses if indicated, is a good thing in and of itself, and to be applauded. It removes a key barrier that might otherwise impinge upon students’ ability to access reading texts. What is startling, though, is the Best Evidence in Brief claim that this approach ‘points to a new strategy for improving reading performance in high-poverty schools.’

I could accept this as a possibility if there had been a marked jump in test scores as a result of the programme. However, the bulletin reports that the effect size of the study was +0.16. In other words, not much. Add to this the reported pvalue of 0.3, well above the maximum .05 that is accepted as a reasonable indicator that the results did not occur by chance, and we have nothing to talk about when it comes to spectacles improving reading.

Children who have trouble seeing the text need glasses. But let’s not confuse the business of seeing the page with the business of learning to read the symbols on the page. Improving children’s vision removes a barrier, but it does not improve reading per se – nor is there any logical reason why we should expect it to do so. What is required is explicit, systematic, well-informed teaching. But in educational research, as elsewhere in education, it seems that we will grasp at anything rather than admit that it is our teaching that needs to improve.

And until we admit that, there is no possibility of improvement, and many disadvantaged children – with or without spectacles – will not learn to read as well as they should.

Visit our website.

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Does it matter if some can’t read?

Although nearly everyone would subscribe to the ideal of universal literacy, there are plenty of pragmatists in education who believe that in reality, we must accept that a certain proportion of students will leave school illiterate to some degree – that is, reading well behind the norm for their chronological age. This is the result of the bell curve, they say – and after all, the cost of addressing the problem in terms of time and money is too high. Some children just aren’t going to get there.

This certainly appears to be the way that the education system has worked to date. The National Literacy Trust estimates that there are six million functionally illiterate adults in the UK – that’s about ten per cent of the adult population. These people will have difficulty in understanding the instructions on a medicine bottle, have difficulty reading even a basic newspaper and struggle – usually unsuccessfully – to complete the theory test for a driver’s licence.

Within this group (about a third of them) there is a proportion who are completely illiterate – they cannot read signs, spell their own names, or fill in the most basic of forms. They cannot read a restaurant menu, and if the restaurant has used a quirky sign on the toilet doors, they may not be able to tell which one they should use. They rely on strangers to tell them where the next train is going, and friends or loved ones to read them letters from the council.

The experience of the child who is going through education without being able to read can be difficult to imagine for those of us who are good readers. The school day is premised on the assumption that students can already read: instructions on the whiteboard or slideshow; quotations; paragraphs in textbooks; teacher comments in books; emails from teachers; newsletters or permission slips – the list goes on and on. In this world, always stalked by the fear of humiliation or rejection, the struggling reader survives by camouflage – blending in, becoming invisible; or by distraction – through disruption, becoming the class clown, or even the class thug.

Roll down the years until this student has to sit their final exams. Here there is no hiding. Whether they have been awarded ‘special conditions’ or not, the years of being unable to access the same curriculum as everyone else have created a cumulative knowledge and vocabulary deficit that can never be overcome simply by someone else reading the words off the page. And once they leave that environment – what a blessed relief that must be – they find few places of succour in the world beyond. Although they no longer have to meet the teacher’s expectations, or appease their peers, they now have to develop a different set of survival strategies to cope with a society that is routinely, implacably, ubiquitously permeated by print. Employment forms, health and safety notices, insurance contracts, letting agreements, bank documents – the stream of print continues. Job options are limited, and when you can’t even get a driver’s licence, you are pushed more and more to the margins, towards the underworld.

Most prisoners in UK jails are functionally or completely illiterate. Most of them have poor employment prospects. People with low literacy are statistically more likely to have lower earnings, poorer health, worse housing, and shorter life expectancy. They also have less knowledge of the world, less access to different points of view, narrower vocabularies and less expressive language. When they become parents, they cannot read their children stories, nor do their children see them reading, nor can they help their children with reading when they bring books home from school. And so the problem passes down the generations, and well-meaning educators scratch their heads and wonder how to close the gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged.

Does it matter if some can’t read? It matters to the individuals, whose lives are enmeshed in a complicated web of compensating behaviours to disguise their problem. It matters to their children,  many of whose life chances are more fragile, and who go through school themselves lacking a degree of parental support that others take for granted. It matters to society, which is paying for additional places in prisons and hospitals at a social cost estimated at £23 billion per annum. It matters to the economy, which has been conservatively estimated to under-perform by over £40 billion per annum due to illiteracy.

Does it matter to you?

The research on which this post is based is discussed in our new book, Thinking Reading: What Every Secondary Teacher Needs To Know About Reading. If you want to know why so many children leave school unable to read, and what we can do about it, this book will show you.

Visit our website

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What Every Secondary Teacher Needs to Know About Reading

We haven’t posted much for the last few months because we’ve been putting our energies into a book that we hope will be helpful to secondary teachers in understanding why many of their students are struggling, and what can be done about it.

Our book is called Thinking Reading: What Every Secondary Teacher Needs to Know About Reading.

The first chapter deals with why secondary teachers need to know about reading. Although it is usually perceived as a ‘niche’ area in schools, reading actually pervades almost every area of academic learning, and indeed of life beyond school. Reading problems have downstream effects on students’ background knowledge, comprehension, vocabulary and writing. Most ‘low ability’ students are not lacking in intelligence, but in reading knowledge.

Chapter Two deals with where these problems arise. How is it that so many children can complete eleven years of compulsory education and leave school functionally illiterate? You may well find the statistics in this area surprising, if not shocking. We examine common mistakes and misconceptions, and delve into the educational processes which have resulted in 20% of children leaving primary school without the minimum levels of reading necessary to access the secondary curriculum.

The third chapter deals with the decades of research on how we learn to read – a process whose complexity has been frequently underestimated, in part because so many of us acquire reading so easily. Learning to read well requires a strong knowledge of phonics, but many other kinds of knowledge as well, especially at secondary school.

This leads on to the fourth chapter, which highlights how subject teachers can apply effective classroom strategies to support students who are struggling with reading. Some of these promote additional reading practice; others provide scaffolding to help students acquire background knowledge that they might otherwise miss out on because of difficulties with accessing texts.

While classroom teachers can support students to access their subjects, Chapter Five reminds school leaders of their challenge: ensuring that reading difficulties are eliminated by the time students leave school. Traditionally, there has been an acceptance that if students aren’t able to read this is because of a disability, and so little if any progress can be expected. Instead we argue that school leaders should put in place thorough screening systems so that the school has a detailed, accurate picture of the types of reading problems students have, and how far behind they may be. Once this information is available, appropriate interventions can be put in place to address the different types of need. We then discuss how school leaders can evaluate the effectiveness of reading interventions, and cut through common but banal explanations for lack of student progress.

The last chapter deals with the extensive research on reading interventions: why we have traditionally seen such limited results, and what it takes to create a high-impact programme. It is certainly possible for us to eliminate illiteracy amongst adolescents, but it does take rigorous study, determination, and hard work, along with wisely deployed resources.

We hope that this book achieves its primary purpose – to be a bridge between the extensive research on reading, and the way that schools support students. Because this research has shown us what can be done and how to do it, there is no longer any reason for us to tolerate illiteracy. Our message is a hopeful one: every child can learn to read, and enjoy all the benefits that follow.

Visit our website.

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Six Ways to Help Struggling Readers in Your Classroom

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