Ofsted preparation and workload: can teachers working in an RI school have a manageable workload with a school inspection looming?

16 Mar

Since we returned to work after the February half term, I have spent about 50% of my time preparing for an Ofsted visit. It will be nearly two years since we received our ‘requires improvement’ judgement so we know we are due a visit imminently. Coupled with this, a few schools in our borough have been inspected recently so there are the usual predictions about when we’ll be next.

I am absolutely swamped with work in a way that I haven’t ever experienced in the past 10 years. It is relentless. Every day, there is something new I have been asked to do in the name of Ofsted preparation. This is on top of the usual SLT paperwork that I would be doing. I understand that there is going to be a fair bit of paperwork associated with this job but if I printed out every piece of paper I’ve been given or have produced myself into my special ‘Ofsted’ folder, we’d have no trees left in our borough (which is known as ‘Queen of the Suburbs’ because of its abundance of parks and greenery!)

Every week for the past two months of weekly SLT meetings, we have had an agenda item called ‘Ofsted Preparation’. We have produced documents, questioned each other on our areas, gone over the findings of student interviews, carried out huge work scrutinies, examined new guidance from Ofsted, shared our ‘Ofsted’ folders with each other with myriad data and case studies – these are just the things I can think of off the top of my head. Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that all of this is worthless but it is certainly overwhelming. Sometimes I ask myself ‘Is it all worth it? Aren’t we scaring ourselves by going overboard like this?’ Yet when I tentatively (well, perhaps not tentatively) voice this opinion, the response is like something from the most zealous boy scout. I think many of our fears stem from the fact that we were, in hindsight, underprepared to face the previous Ofsted inspection. We had lots of data but we didn’t have enough prepared on our gaps and what we were doing about them. This time round, we have so much evidence coming out of our ears that I don’t know when the inspectors are going to get a chance to leave the room and escape our folders!

Ofsted prep

This week I’ve been thinking about the rest of our staff. If I’m feeling like this, then how on earth is everyone else feeling? At the start of September, we devoted a fair chunk of time to try and reduce teacher workload before it became the buzz phrase of Nicky Morgan a month later. We pinned up countless bits of paper on the head’s board in his office and tried to work out what we could scrap. The horrible truth was that we scrapped very little because nearly every time we tried to scrap something, different people would say ‘But won’t we need to show this for Ofsted?’ And so the little piece of paper stays on the board accompanied with a plaintive murmur ‘It’ll be ok once Ofsted have gone’.

But we’ve been saying that everything will be alright once Ofsted go for far too long; in fact, we’ve said it every week since the start of September and it’s now nearly bloody Easter. How long can we keep saying this? It will come as no surprise to teachers that our biggest workload issue stems from marking and the collection of marking evidence. We were slammed in our last inspection for patchy and ineffective marking. It was a fair cop. Our actual marking policy isn’t too onerous in my opinion. Teachers are asked to identify in advance which pieces of work will be ‘major assessed pieces’. These pieces are assessed, with a WWW comment, subject-specific action and a literacy action. Any other non-assessment pieces of work are either self or peer critiqued, or acknowledged by the teacher but in far less detail. But it’s all the other bits of the marking policy that adds up. Students need time to act upon feedback (fair enough; otherwise, what’s the point?) so teachers need to build in time for student to do this. Yet it’s a blooming miracle if everyone in the class was present the day the assessment was done – don’t even get me started on how many students forget to bring their book so they are clinging onto some crummy piece of paper. Then, when the students have acted upon feedback, which can take anywhere between 15 minutes to 15 hours (or that’s what it can feel like once I’ve found enough green pens) I need to make sure all the key targets and grades are inputted onto these blue assessment tracker sheets so I can see how much wonderful progress my students have made throughout the year.

Minimal marking

And who is to blame for this? Well, I am partially culpable. Two years ago, I thought this sounded like a great way of showing Ofsted how well we mark and how we are all so on-track with how students are progressing. Yet assessing students and giving meaningful feedback doesn’t always fit into nice, neat block of times. Departments need some leeway to set their own agenda. If you think your students aren’t ready to sit that test but feel constrained because you need to enter a mark onto the tracker sheet, then something is going terribly wrong. In all the rush to create a perfect, infallible system, we’ve lost what’s at the heart of it all: students learning well. But learning is really messy and messy doesn’t look good if you’re in an RI school and Ofsted knocking on the door. I really believe we need to move away from this one size fits all marking policy and move towards departmental marking policies, acknowledging what subject professionals are telling us will and will not work for them in their areas. However, if we make another change before Ofsted come along, we are worried we will be seen as endlessly changing our minds and never letting initiatives and policies embed properly…

How many book looks will be enough? You see, with all this extra marking and trackers to fill in, there’s a lot more stuff to monitor. And monitoring things and filling out more bits of paper to monitor the monitoring eats up a lot of time – not just for SLT but all of the heads of department too. My sincere wish is we had the courage to say ‘No! Forget this! How is this helping the students?’ Although this will be my fourth Ofsted, it’s my first with us going into it with a ‘require improvement’ judgement so I feel on shakier ground. I hope that we all learn from this experience and have much more confidence the next time around to say no to paper for paper’s sake.

We have made huge strides with our staff learning culture: teachers are engaging with and participating in research; more and more teachers are taking opportunities to develop their pedagogy; teachers are confirming that the developmental coaching approach is working better than the punitive Ofsted-style lesson observations. Yet the question remains for me: how much more could we achieve if we freed up all of our time to set our own agenda?

Last October at TLT14 in Southampton, Tom Sherrington was the opening speaker and he showed his now well-known tweet.

Tom Sherrington

I’m annoyed at myself for forgetting this message. I need to rectify this asap.

Getting better but are we good enough?

26 Jan

Last week my school underwent a two day review by our local authority with the remit of finding any last minute issues as we await our imminent Ofsted inspection. Part of me felt a tad sceptical about undergoing a review; essentially, my thoughts were ‘Is it worth getting people stressed out to tell us what we already know?’ On the other hand, we have been on a remarkable path since we were inspected at the end of July 2013 and there is so much to celebrate. My head decided the extra stress was worth it but made it clear that SLT were to shoulder most of the stress and to make sure teachers were not affected too badly by our visitors. In reality though, some teachers did begin to stress about their classes, their books, if they were doing the right thing, if they were going to be graded. It’s moments like these where I begin to feel the pressure because I’ve spent so long trying to change the staff culture at my school where staff feel comfortable being observed and recognising that we are all part of a bigger picture when we all want to improve our practice. There has been an exceptional shift in how we do things at school. When Ofsted last visited us, there was no staff Book Club, no coaching, no action research, no Open Classroom fortnight to name but a few of the initiatives we have committed to being part of as a school. Yet all it takes is for a formal, two day visit from external professionals to set the school on edge again. I suppose it’s because we all want to prove so badly that we are better than the ‘requires improvement’ badge we were given last time around. That day hurt us. We were left reeling. Everything we thought we were good at seemed to count for little and everything we thought we had issues with were magnified and exposed left, right and centre. So why put staff through another gruelling test?

Ofsted satisfactory

The local authority review turned out to be an excellent two days for different reasons. First, the three professionals who arrived for the two days were courteous around site and considered in their questions. Don’t get me wrong: it was a tough two days but at no point did I feel that there was an agenda or the concerns that they raised were unwarranted. They seemed to genuinely be interested in what we’d been doing as a school to improve outcomes for all students and didn’t twist our words. All we can do is hope for a fair shot when the real inspection takes place – fingers crossed!

So what were our takeaways from the review?

Data is important but you need to tell the story.

"Get all the information you can, we'll think of a use for it later."

I found this message really comforting. Although I’ve worked hard over the past year to get better at using data, I still think it is only a snapshot of what’s really going on in a school. Of equal importance is to know what it’s like to be a student at our school – is it a place where teachers want the best for the students and are prepared to put in the hard work to support all of the students to make good progress? In the morning session, our head and deputies went into the Achievement meeting weighed down by enough realms of data to make our large army of photocopiers cry! As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my head is a Maths whizz so loves data: in his own words ‘Debbie: data is my life’! This time round, we have a lot more greens to point out on Raise Online and internal data also shows we are closing gaps between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students. The school achieved its best results ever last summer, despite the stresses of the English GCSE changes. All of this data had become a comforting blanket which we as an SLT have been wrapping ourselves in: surely we must be better now because the data says so. Yet, it wasn’t enough for these professional reviewing us. They wanted to know the story behind the data and – most importantly – what decisions had leaders made to ensure that our approach was accelerating student outcomes as quickly as possible.  And were we confident that this year’s results would be as good or better than what we achieved last summer.

What did we learn from this meeting? You can’t just present the data and keep your fingers crossed. You have to have a story to sell and make sure it’s a convincing one.

It’s not just about SLT; it’s about your middle leaders too.

Leadership decisions

‘Leadership and management’ isn’t just the bods that sit around the SLT table every Tuesday night; it’s the engine room of the school – the middle leaders. In fact – and I hope my head doesn’t see this! – our middle leaders are more important than us. Why? Because they are the ones who make the change happen. It doesn’t matter how great an idea is, if middle leaders don’t buy into it, then the idea is doomed. In the last inspection, we were heavily criticised for a lack of consistency amongst middle leaders in quality assurance procedures and implementing school policies. Now it would be easy to say ‘bloody middle leaders not doing the right thing’ but that would be missing the point. It’s not that middle leaders don’t want to do a good job – it’s that we as an SLT were not helping them to do so. Too many mixed messages; too many ideas too quickly; too many competing priorities; too many impossible deadlines. Something has to give: and so it did. Consistency. Since the Ofsted inspection, we have worked hard to ensure that our messages are clear so that they can be supported by the middle leaders. We can’t do everything so we have to put our necks out and make a choice about what matters most. In our case, what matters most is how we mark and assess students, how we monitor and intervene with Pupil Premium students (more on this later) and how we challenge all of our students in a mixed ability setting.

What did we learn from the middle leaders meeting? Anything SLT says is happening will be checked in other meetings to see if it is really happening. If what SLT say is mirrored in the middle leaders meeting and then students recognise it is happening in their classes, you’re onto a winner.

Pupil Premium students are not a homogeneous group.

Inclusion

During the two days, I observed lessons with one of the visitors who is an ex-head, had my own A Level lesson observed, and was interviewed on teaching and learning as well as Pupil Premium. In 10 years of teaching, nothing has come close to the pressure I felt in the Pupil Premium interview. It is our worst performing area as a school and there’s no point trying to hide it. We have a history of these students not doing as well as they should. This year, at my request, I have taken over Pupil Premium and nothing has given me more sleepless nights. It is such a huge area and there are no easy answers. Previously, we have been guilty of focusing too much of our attention and funding on pastoral initiatives which have had limited impact on the outcomes of Pupil Premium students. I knew we needed to focus more on curriculum and what we can do in the classroom but where to start?! The first step was to employ a Pupil Premium coordinator to work alongside me in getting into classrooms and see what is going on for these students. Why are they not making the same progress as their peers despite sitting in the same classrooms? Yes, there are environmental and social factors to take into consideration but we can’t do much about that so we can only focus on things we have the capacity to change.

After appointing a Pupil Premium coordinator, both of us spent a long time getting our heads around current research and the EEF toolkit to decide what we should do as a school. Now, everything we do for Pupil Premium students are based upon our four key drivers: improving literacy; increasing resilience; developing metacognition and increasing cultural capital. By the end of the first month back after the summer holidays, we decided on a few important changes. First of all, we needed a system that would enable us to easily track all of the interventions that were taking place for Pupil Premium students. So much was going on but did we have any idea if they were having an impact? Secondly, we needed to create time for Year Leaders to speak to heads of departments about the lack of progress some of our Pupil Premium students were making and work together and use everyone’s expertise to decide the best way forward. So was born our Progress Review Meetings. Thirdly, we needed to look at crossovers with Pupil Premium; who is PP and SEND or PP and an accelerated learner (our version of G&T)? Data shows students who are Pupil Premium and enter our school at a level 4c have the least chance of making good progress – why is that? Well, this is the crossroads point for many students. If they were a level 3, they would have a different pathway to access but at 4c, you might just miss out. You’ve got your level 4 so you’re fine but, in truth, many of these students learnt how to get a 4c in a particular format in a narrow range of core subjects but that doesn’t mean they’re accessing the content of History and Geography lessons without it being a real struggle for them. Finally, we introduced a combination of learning walks and academic mentoring for all PP students who are at risk of underachieving to get to know these students and begin to form a relationship with parents.

What did we learn from the Pupil Premium interview? If you’re in an interview about a weak are of your school, get your key headlines out nice and early into the meeting and always keep referring back to the impact of everything you do. Even if some initiatives haven’t worked, own up to it and discuss why they didn’t work and what you’ve done to put it right.

Your ethos and beliefs about teaching are highlighted by how you run your CPD programme.

"I'm desperate to hold on to our good teachers."

One of the best moments of the two days was hearing that our approach to CPD is having an impact on teacher quality. I thought this was the case but it’s good to hear that view echoed by external visitors. Our professional development package of coaching, joining NTEN and carrying out Lesson Study, introducing departmental Lead Learners and running a staff Book Club demonstrated clearly our intentions towards developing every single member of our teaching and non-teaching staff. The visitors were impressed by our commitment to research and using internal expertise to improve teaching standards. In addition to this, we have an ‘Elthorne Way’ of teaching; this is not a strait-jacket or a step by step guide of how to teach –far from it! Plus, we’d never get away with it on a school where nearly 2/3 of our teachers are on the upper pay scale! Rather, it is a series of statements about what Elthorne teachers agree constitutes great teaching and the impact this has on the experience students have in the classroom. This ‘Elthorne Way’, combined with our use of The Teachers’ Standards, are what we use to evaluate teacher quality. There is not an Ofsted framework in sight – a bold step for a school that ‘Requires Improvement’.

What did we learn from the teaching and learning interview? Forget about Ofsted documentation and decide amongst yourselves what you want to see and hear happening in your classrooms. Once you’ve decided on this, spend as much time supporting teachers to collaborate with each other to develop their practice.

So what was the verdict? Our review believes that we are in a strong position to move from Requires Improvement to Good at our next inspection as long as we continue to work towards the goals and milestones we’ve set ourselves. After a year and a half working in the shadow of a brutal inspection, their visit can’t come soon enough.

#Nurture1415 & #teacher5aday

29 Dec

I cannot believe that a year has gone by since I wrote my #Nurture1314 post. A lot has gone on at work this year and being one member of SLT down means that I haven’t had much time to reflect on the highs and lows so this is a good opportunity to do just that. I’m also going to use Martyn Reah’s #teacher5aday as a focus for my goals for this forthcoming year; the reason for this is because this year I’ve realised that I have very little work-life balance and this has got to change pronto!

So what were last year’s wishes?

1. To become more confident dealing with the more challenging students at school.

This has been a really steep learning curve for me. I am not naturally ‘strict’ and I don’t have a good shouty voice – so I have to play to my strengths, which are (I think) that I grew up in the area, I was a naughty student and it takes a lot to shock me! What I have been working on in the past year is to set aside time to actively seek out those challenging students and find out what makes them tick. Sadly, many of them share a depressing family narrative. I think it would be easy for me to give in and allow these students to play up because of their difficult circumstances. Without doubt, it would make my life easier: but it’s not the right thing to do. Instead, I try to treat them fairly, listen to them and explain that every action – good or bad – has a consequence. We all have choices and for some of our students it takes a concerted effort to make the right choices. There have been a couple of times this year when I’ve had a private little cry when some of them have made some wrong choices with big consequences but I believe it’s our duty as teachers to support them in becoming good human beings as well as academically capable students.

2. To understand more fully the complexities of working with outside agencies.

As I said in last year’s Nurture post, I had very limited experience of pastoral and all these crazy acronyms meant very little to me. CAMHS? EOTAS? Now, I have a much clearer understanding of how much important work external agencies do. I have nothing but complete respect and admiration for two of my colleagues who I work with closely – Aimee our head of year 7 (the year group I line manage) and Katy our SENCO. These two are formidable when it comes to pastoral work! They ensure that our youngest students who have some very tricky set of circumstances to navigate get the best shot at having a successful school experience.

3. To observe every member of staff again during the year to get a sense of how we’re developing as a staff.

I haven’t managed to achieve this one but I’m not too annoyed about this one because our new way of talking about the quality of teaching, with a scope far beyond the snapshot of a lesson observation, means I’m focusing much more on working out better ways of evaluating teaching. This year has been a really exciting step forward as we abandoned lesson gradings and work towards a professional development audit which focuses much more on our strengths as well as identifying our next steps.

4. To work more closely with reluctant members of staff.

Last year’s accusation by a very experienced member of staff that I had only connected with young females still makes me wince but this year I’ve realised two things: everyone is carrying their own private worries about their teaching and you can’t win them all. I thought my stunning personality and abundance of wit and charm would make teachers knock down my office door to get on board. Unfortunately, this didn’t quite happen – unbelievable, I know! – but what did happen was that as every month went by, someone new would open up and be willing to contribute in a small way to changing our school culture. I also think that me going to the pub a couple of times each half term made me a bit more approachable. This month, I went to the staff Christmas party, had one too many sherries, cut some appalling shapes on the dance floor and started some impromptu karaoke. Now I’m not advocating this as a winning leadership style but the the only negative consequence was I looked like a total prat. I’ve certainly had some longer conversations with some staff members than I’d had in the past!

5. To develop the Leverage Leadership coaching model to replace our traditional lesson observations.

This year, I finally convinced the head to give it a go; all I needed to do was get enough teachers to give up an hour a fortnight to coach two teachers. I was blown away that we had 22 coaches by the first week in September. They gave up their time for nothing in return except a belief that there was a better way to develop teaching. I’m really proud of this change and so thankful to these teachers. We’ve got some good coaching relationships set up; coaches are also coached and we’ve got coaches with two years of experience and twenty years of experience. A truly bottom up approach!

6. To write more frequent blog posts.

Hmm… I’m disappointed with myself on this one. I’ve written fewer posts this year than last year. Slap on the wrist for me! The only thing I can say in my defence is that Mel and I have been writing a book on lesson planning for two years and it’s finally going to be published in a few months. We’re soooooooooo excited and keep pinching ourselves to make sure it’s really happening. However, I still love the buzz of posting on our blog so I need to ensure I set aside enough time to post more frequently.

7. To meet fab Twitter peeps @Gwenelope, @TStarkey1212 and @LeadingLearner in the flesh.

We met Gwen at Pedagoo London and Mr Suave Starkey at the launch of Don’t Change The Lightbulbs. They are awesome people. Fact! Unfortunately, Stephen still alludes us but we hope to pin him down at #NRocks15. If not, then we’re going to have to decamp oop North and wait patiently outside his schools!

8. To become more involved in organising a TeachMeet.

Well, I organised a borough TeachMeet for Ealing so that sort of counts but I’d like to do more this year.

So what next for 2015?

This is where Martyn Reah’s #teacher5aday comes in. I’m proud of what has happened at school but this has been an annus horribilis for my personal life this year. Now there’s no need to get the violins out, but to cut a long story short, my first year of married life, with its usual trials and tribulations, has been played out in my parents’ two bed flat as me and my husband found ourselves without a home in June. To say that this living situation has proven difficult is an understatement. It’s taught me a lot about myself and my flaws have been magnified in the last six months. What I have learnt is that I take my loved ones for granted because I get consumed by work. I love my job but there are times this year when it has become my life – and this is not healthy. My husband is a police officer so it’s easy to just work, work, work when he’s doing late shifts. My mum and dad have noticed this and have basically told me to sort myself out because I’m going to burn out. And if there’s one thing I know, it’s this: Mum always knows best!

Here’s my #teacher5aday to help me become happy at home as well as at work.

#connect My family deserve the best of me just as much as my students do. I tell new teachers that the to-do-list will never be completely ticked off but I do not follow my own advice. This year, I am going to go home at 6 rather than check my emails for the hundredth time, which often means I’m at work for another 45 minutes. They can wait till the morning.

#exercise When I was a student, I was really sporty but since being at my school, I have stopped going to gym class and I don’t play tennis anymore. It’s time to find the time to work up a sweat for a couple of hours a week. No excuses!

#notice I need to notice when I have disconnected from my family because I’m engrossed with whatever is on my iPad screen. Me and my husband are guilty of this but I don’t think we realised how bad we were until we moved in with my parents. I find it rude to play on my phone when my mum might be sitting next to me. My mum loves our chats and it’s reminded me to look up from the screen more often.

#learn I love studying. I am an official learning geek and I don’t care who knows it! This year, I am going to continue reading lots of education books and boring everyone senseless with what I’ve learnt.

#volunteer Fingers crossed, I should be moving into my new place in the next few weeks – I’m so excited if not a little nervous! As a born and bred Ealing girl (I love Ealing so much that my friends joke I could work for the Ealing tourist board if teaching doesn’t work out), I am moving a massive two miles down the road to Brentford. It’s a new area for me and I’m looking forward to us putting down some roots and learning about a new community. I hope to find out what opportunities there are to get involved with some community projects.

Wishing you all a happy and healthy 2015!

Debbie XxX

#TLT14: Another amazing day in Southampton

29 Oct

It was about this time last year, still buzzing after the first ever Teaching and Learning Takeover (#TLT13) that we found ourselves asking whether Jen and David would really be prepared to go through it all again. It is a massive undertaking to organise an event of this scale and was so well organised, we were absolutely stoked to have the opportunity to present and really hoped that TLT would happen again in 2014.

When David got in contact and asked us to present again, we jumped at the chance and decided to go for ‘Differentiation/Challenge’ as it was an area we were considering in our own practice. The months passed; we wrote a very sketchy outline for the TLT14 website and then put it out of our minds. Suddenly we found ourselves getting ready for a new school year and closer to the big day. We looked at what the other presenters had put in their blurb and realised we needed to get thinking! This is an audience of motivated professional people who were willing to give up a Saturday in October after all!

We’ve considered stretch and challenge before – as a result of seeing other presentations, reading blogs and reviewing our lesson planning strategies, so what were we doing that was different from a year ago? How had we moved on? Fortunately, Debbie had a light bulb moment (not a reference to her surname or to the brilliant book curated by the delightful Rachel Jones @rlj1981) when she realised that the big difference for us both is the reading we’ve done in the last year.

reflect

The research-based books are a big step forward for two teachers who had read little more than the odd DfE(S) update since finishing our PGCEs.

Four books that changed the way we teach

If you don’t have time to read lots of books, we hope our summary of the key findings from this selection will give you something to think about and discuss with colleagues. You may be inspired to go out and read them all, (especially when you see that the longest by far is less than 350 pages) in which case we hope you find them as thought-provoking and interesting as we did. We’ve spent a lot of time both consciously and unconsciously digesting and reflecting on the findings of these books. In some cases we’ve completely changed how we think/plan/teach/explain but in many cases it’s just a tweak to how we go about our teaching and conversations with learners.

Book 1: Mindset by Carol Dweck

mindset

The key point from this book are as follows:

  • Ability is not fixed and students will achieve more if they have a growth mindset, making the connection between effort and outcome.
  • If you believe you can improve through sustained effort, you will be more open to engaging in deliberate practice and will place great value on feedback.
  • Students should be taught to embrace challenging work and persist when they find it tough because only doing work that they find easy means they will not become better learners.

Mindset has become a hot topic in education, so predictably it has also gained critics. It is always a danger that this sort of concept becomes a gimmick whereby people decide to ‘do a bit of Mindset’ but as John Tomsett (see his blog here: http://johntomsett.com/2013/10/20/this-much-i-know-about-developing-a-dweck-inspired-growth-mindset-culture/) rightly said in his TLT presentation this year ‘You can’t just do Mindset, it’s a culture.’ The big changes we’ve made based on this book are in the way we speak to and about students. We share the importance of always trying to be better and respond to a student saying ‘I can’t do this’ with ‘YET!’, to a learner saying ‘I’m no good at….’ with ‘You’re finding this a challenge at the moment, but this is an opportunity to work hard and get better’ and to change our language from praising an outcome to praising effort. As well as trying to tweak the mindset in our students, we have found ourselves applying this to teachers as learners. Indeed, when I shared the mindset-inspired image below on Twitter as ‘Something for my classroom’ the overwhelming response seemed to be ‘I’m putting this up in the staffroom!’

If-you-dont-Take-some Box 1

Book Two: An Ethic of Excellence by Ron Berger

berger

Key messages from Berger:

  • Producing a piece of excellent work changes the way students feel about what they can do.
  • Having a detailed understanding of what constitutes an excellent piece of work helps students to do it themselves.
  • Creating a culture of critique where students actively seek out kind, specific and helpful feedback from their peers increases students’ chances of producing excellent work.
  • Raising expectations of what students are able to achieve enables students to develop an internal model of quality that they carry around with them around school.

Another very inspirational read that has inspired whole schools to change their culture (for some examples, see http://belmontteach.wordpress.com/2014/06/01/an-ethic-of-excellence/ and http://deeplearning.edublogs.org/). Another culture shift, not just in raising expectations but also very importantly to develop a desire in learners to seek out feedback (one that I still struggle with myself as a learner).

So in the classroom, we apply this by showing our students examples of excellent work and annotating what makes them excellent (Debbie uses ‘Air drop’ on the iPad to ‘ping’ a student’s work onto the interactive whiteboard screen, I’m a bit behind the curve and still just use a webcam). These exemplar pieces of work can be looked at against the success criteria, another factor that it is important in developing a culture of excellence based on critique – students need to really understand what they key features are that they are striving to achieve. We have also been developing our use of teacher modelling and find that students respond well to seeing us working through an example and sharing our thought processes (and particularly our errors!)

In order to help students along the way to producing an excellent piece of work, we may make use of different types of scaffolding resources. These may depend on the stage you are at in a learning cycle (see David Didau’s post on this here: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/featured/great-teaching-happens-in-cycles/), the level of challenge that you want your students to work at and the focus for this particular piece of work. You can find some examples of scaffold that we have used in our TLT14 presentation here: http://slidesha.re/1E0Yil6.

I’d also recommend watching ‘Austin’s butterfly’ once you have an outline of the ideas in the book. It seemed I was the only person at John Tomsett’s TLT presentation this year who hadn’t seen it and I was so glad I remembered to look it up when I got home:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JFHf7jAfJlg

Book Three: The Hidden lives of Learners by Graham Nuthall

nuthall

  • The underlying process of learning is essentially the same for all students, meaning low ability students can learn in the same way as high ability students; the differences creep in because of students’ prior knowledge, motivation and individual experiences.
  • Learning is multilayered; a student experiences new learning through the public world where tasks are managed by the teacher, the semi-private interactions between peers and the private world of the individual student. How they make sense of these three worlds impacts on how much they learn. Low ability students are just as capable of learning new ideas/concepts.
  • Students need to experience at least three different sets of complete information about a new idea/concept before it becomes embedded in their memory so we need to give them opportunities to revisit these ideas/concepts.
  • Students remember how they learnt something just as much as the content of what they learnt so task design is crucial and should encourage students to think about what helps them learn.

This, just like the other three books is by no means a weighty tome but some of the findings of Nuthall’s research are so mind-blowing that they make well need a second read. Perhaps the most interesting point for us is the idea that lower and higher ability students don’t learn in a different way; it is just the fact that lower attaining students have less prior knowledge to form connections with their new learning and this limits how much they can make sense of the new things they are learning. We have used SOLO taxonomy to help students of all levels to make connections between new and previous learning (for more on this, see http://slidesha.re/1E0Yil6).

Other key finding from Nuthall’s research are that a learner needs to experience a new concept at least three times in order to remember it and also that students’ learning is influenced much more significantly by their interactions with peers than with the teacher. This means that we think even more deeply about learning sequences to revisit new concepts multiple times and about seating plans to ensure the maximise the effectiveness of learning interactions between peers.

Book Four: Make it Stick by Peter Brown, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel

stick

  • Learning that is difficult and requires more effort will last longer than learning that is easy and quick to grasp because our memories are having to work harder in the former.
  • Repeated retrieval practice (through quizzes and testing) is a better strategy than rereading or cramming because it strengthens students’ ability to retrieve what is in our stored memory.
  • Trying to solve a problem before being taught properly how to do it leads to better learning, even when mistakes are made in the attempt (as long as they are corrected).
  • The more a student can explain in detail what they have learnt and how this connects to what they already know, the better chance they have of remembering it much later on.

As the authors note ‘You learn better when you wrestle with new problems before being shown the solution, rather than the other way around.’ This means we often provide a problem to attempt or consider before teaching the necessary information or techniques that a student needs to be able to reach the solution. This means a student is more receptive to learn what is required to complete the problem but also can show us when students already have the knowledge to be able to tackle the task that we thought was new learning.

tough box 2

The book stresses the importance of repeated retrieval practice: the process of trying to recall information strengthens the learning of that information. It is not important for a student to get the answer correct, rather to put in the effort to retrieve it and subsequently for the teacher to identify any incorrect or missing answers and correct them. We are trying to achieve this in the classroom through regular testing that assesses new learning as well as regularly revisiting previous concepts. Progress and misconceptions are picked up through marking or checking these short tests but we intend to try out a spreadsheet tracking system that helps the teacher to track the learning of a range of concepts for a particular class. We then use written feedback for individuals or adaptation of our planning to ensure that incorrect information or misconceptions are revisited.

The other key finding in ‘Make it stick’ that we have applied to our teaching is that of ‘generation’. This relates very well to Nuthall’s findings and is what a plenary should be about: engaging the mind in trying to make sense of new learning by making the effort to explain in your own words and relating it to what you already know. Our plenary or reflection activities didn’t always achieve this, so now tasks such as ‘Summary tweets’ and ‘reflection pyramids’ are designed with this in mind.

pyramid tweets

This year’s TLT was even better than last year.The day started with an inspiring start from Tom Sherrington @headguruteacher reminding us of THAT tweet of his and being frank about some of his recent challenges with a lively Year 9 class.

besttweet

He then set us up for the day perfectly to break down barriers to potential with a ‘fleas in a jar video’ (worth a look if you’ve never seen it but the geeky scientist in me unfortunately has to question its authenticity). After our presentation we split up as always to cover more ground (but still didn’t get to see everyone we wanted to) and the presentations were interesting and gave us ideas to share and discuss in our school.

Last year we left with the inspirational message from @dockers_hoops to go forth and ‘Make the Sea Roar’; this year the fabulous @kevbartle reminded us that teaching was a superpower with an audience participation dance to 80’s classic ‘Superman’. This brought a beautiful symmetry to the day, to end as it started with another super headteacher who is so honest and personable whilst also being insightful, reflective and inspirational. These guys epitomise what TLT is all about for us: Regardless of your role in school, everyone there believes they can be better and make a difference.

Thanks to Jen Ludgate, David Fawcett and Southampton University for another fantastic day.

Why I wanted to be responsible for Pupil Premium at my school

20 Aug

Apologies in advance. The post that I’m writing is close to my heart and too much emotion might creep in but I think that this is a post worth writing…

“Girls, I’ve got the end of year photo to give to you all. If your parents have paid for a copy, please raise your hand and I’ll give you your copy.”

I raise my hand. I’m excited to get my first ever class photo. I’m nearly 13 and I remember brushing my hair and putting on a coat of Heather Shimmer Rimmel lipstick before they took the photo.

My tutor begins handing out the photos: she arrives at me.

“Look at you! Look how different you look to everyone. The blonde bombshell. You look like you belong to a comprehensive school.”

I could’ve died that day; I was mortified. When my tutor said that, other girls in my class laughed.

I was a scholarship girl.

My mum is Catholic and she wanted me to go to a Catholic school. I didn’t really know much about it; I turned up, answered some questions, and I passed.

It only became apparent as I became older that I was different. First of all, my family didn’t have any money for me to go on any trips. Most of the time, I hid from my mum and dad that there was a trip. I didn’t want them to know because I knew they didn’t have the money to send me on a trip to France or a skiing trip to Switzerland.

So I didn’t go. I made up some excuse that I was already going away: but I wasn’t.

I went through school in a permanent state of alert. Every week I was in trouble. I had after school detentions, Saturday detentions, holiday detentions… Looking back, I feel so gutted for my mum who was on the receiving end of these notifications. She wanted the best for me but I was messing it up… Nearly every detention I received was for defiance. The problem was, I didn’t know I was being defiant – I was just being me…

“Deborah Light! Where are you going? I’ve been at this stall for three hours and you haven’t come to see me.”

These words seem pretty innocuous but they changed my life. My English teacher, Ms Long (now Dr Harper) stopped a stroppy, boisterous 16 year old down a corridor and had a go at her for not coming to the A level English stall to find out about the course.

“Sorry Ms Long – I didn’t come because English is the only subject I want to take. I don’t need to come because I already want to take it.”

“Ah, well, that’s alright then. See you in September.”

That was the first time someone had ever took a chance on me: stroppy Debbie, you can’t rely on her, she’s too unpredictable, you never know what she’ll do.

My mum thought she was doing the right thing by getting me into a private school. But it was the worst thing she ever did (I’ll never tell her this). I spent my whole time at school feeling like an outsider. I remember my head walking round the playground with me after she’d moved me into another tutor group saying “This is your last chance, Debbie. If this doesn’t work out, I don’t know what we can do.”

Thank God for Ms Long. Thank God for English. No one in my family has ever been to university so I didn’t really think about applying…

“Where is your personal statement?” demanded Ms Long.

“Er, I don’t really know what I’m doing.”

“Do you love English?”

“Yeah, of course I do!”

“Then that is what you will read at university.”

If it wasn’t for Ms Long, I would never have gone to university. I had a job in Next and I was earning £5 an hour. I was also a really good tennis player and could earn extra money as a tennis coach’s assistant.

So why am I writing about this?

Well, I work at a school where if you are Pupil Premium, you might not do very well. In fact, your friends who are non-Pupil Premium might achieve considerably better than you.

And that makes me angry.

Every day, I come across kids like me who don’t know what opportunities are available to them. They aren’t embarrassed that they haven’t done their homework. They are happy to get a 5c when they could get a 5a because “that’s what my best mate got”. They end up in the bottom sets because they’re gobby and push the boundaries and seem (to those who don’t care to find out) a bit slow.

Two examples recently have stayed with me and made me realise the difference school can make to students’ life chances.

First, there’s Laura*. She is a Pupil Premium student – she’s spent nearly every Friday this year in senior leadership detention for truancy, failure to attend a previous detention or refusal to follow a senior member of staff’s instruction. But this is the same girl who comes to class having read the extract from Much Ado About Nothing and will argue to the death that Hero is a product of a misogynistic society. This is the girl who I texted her mother to tell her that her daughter had made fantastic progress in English this year. Her mum never told her. This is the girl who cried when she found out she would have a new teacher in year 10. “But it’s you, Miss, that makes me good.” No, Laura, you make yourself good.

And then there’s Abdul*, who works so hard but isn’t quite there yet… Who is so upset to get a 5a when he’s promised his mum he’ll get a level 6. His mum, who phones me up to tell me her son hasn’t read a book since year 6 because he’d rather play basketball. So I take Abdul* to the library at lunchtime to find a book he might like and we settle on ‘Pigeon English’. And he tells me three weeks later ‘Miss, don’t worry, I’m not gonna end up like Harri.”

These are my kids and I love them. I know that’s not what I’m supposed to say – not very professional – but I do. They are the ones that make me come to work. But I’m also sad that they’re statistically doomed. I want them to rise above their backgrounds and become successes.

During the summer term, I fought really hard to take responsibility for Pupil Premium at my school. When I spoke with friends in other schools, most responses were something like ‘Are you crazy? You’re going to be inspected again next year and it’ll be your head on the block.” But I don’t care. I want to make a difference to those students who might not have anyone fighting their corner, who don’t yet believe they are capable of great things.

Growing up, I had one teacher who saw past my bolshiness and took a chance on me. That’s a lovely story but there are too many in my school to just keep our fingers crossed and hope one teacher takes a chance on them.

We’ve got to get it right. I asked for this responsibility. I will be judged by the successes and failures of our Pupil Premium students. But I will not stop working until I teach in a school where everyone can succeed, regardless of their starting point.

*Names changed.

Time to decide on my own professional development: how do I need to develop as an assistant head?

10 Aug

In the summer term, my head informed me that an ex-headteacher who he used to work with is going to work with our SLT with the remit of developing our own leadership competencies. The reason for this is partly because we have restructured some of our roles and responsibilities for the upcoming year. The head believes – quite rightly – that the way SLT has been structured is very much based upon procedures and tasks rather than clear outcomes. As an example, one of our assistant heads is responsible for trips and visits but this is mostly an admin role; time he spends on this is time spent away from his other major responsibility which is developing and evaluating our assessment and feedback processes.

To be honest, when the head came to my office to say that someone from the outside was going to come in and work with us to become better senior leaders, my initial reaction (in my head!) was ‘Is this his way of telling me that I need to up my game?’ I am very critical of myself so for those who know me, this wouldn’t come as any great surprise. But then, I told myself to not be so ridiculous and respond in a manner that I would expect from my students and colleagues: to welcome any opportunities to learn and improve.

My head has told us to have a think over the summer holidays about our strengths and weaknesses and tell him how we would like to work with our ‘critical friend’ over the next year. Up until today, I’ve spend all of thirty seconds pondering this question because I’ve been far too busy putting all of my efforts into maximising my tan and drinking cocktails in the beautiful island of Kefalonia, but since there’s a storm outside, I thought it might be a good time to have a think about what I need to do to become a better leader.

I’ve been in the role of assistant head for just over a year and a half and it has been a very, very steep learning curve! In that time, the only CPD I’ve had relating to school leadership was a one-day course for new assistant heads. There was some useful information about using the GROW model for coaching and using the Leadership Framework to judge ourselves against as we develop as leaders; however, as with most external courses, it didn’t have a great impact on what I actually do day in and day out. It would be fair to say that most of my leadership CPD has come from watching other members of the SLT and seeing how they do things and deciding whether I think I would approach people and tasks in the same way.

 

Leadership experience

So, getting my head back into school-mode, I’ve done what most English teachers do for inspiration which is return to some books that I’ve been reading recently to get the brain going once again – Alistair Smith’s High Performers: The Secret of Successful Schools and Oliver Knight and David Benson’s Creating Outstanding Classrooms: a whole-school approach. I’ll be commenting on a couple of their points later on in this post because they made me sit up and think about how I am lacking as a leader.  As well as this, I’ve been lucky enough to have some great conversations with a friend and colleague of mine who is part-way through her Teaching Leaders course. She has been sharing the fantastic resources she has been given and the access to brilliant professionals. Just before we broke up for the holidays, we were discussing how she completed a personality test at her most recent Teaching Leaders seminar; the purpose was to consider how different personality types could influence the relationship between coach and coachee. This coaching model is something we are starting in September to replace the formal lesson observation and I was keen to exchange ideas with her – I took the personality test and laughed when I discovered that we both came out the same. At the time, I didn’t think much more about it but when I spoke to the other members of SLT about it and then they started doing the test, we realised how different we all were and this was highlighted by our different four letter combinations. This leads me to my first area for development next year…

Development priority number one: stop being so emotional when it comes to making decisions

ENFJ personality

The personality test revealed that my most significant personality trait is that I am ruled by my emotions and make judgements based on gut instinct rather than detailed, methodical thought. The rest of SLT laughed when I told them – as in ‘Really? This is such a shock, Debbie!’ I’ve never really cared much about this in the past; in fact, shamefully, I’ve been rather ignorant and arrogant about my inability to ‘do data’ and that ‘I’m an English teacher and more of a people person’. Working for a head whose discipline is Mathematics and who believes data is king, I can’t help but cringe at my ineptitude in meetings. What’s worse is that if I struggle to use data effectively then that is affecting my ability to challenge and hold the people I line manage to account. Don’t get me wrong – I can do basic data analysis and I have made limited improvements in this area but, depending on the format it is presented in, I can have an internal meltdown and start to feel a rising sense of panic. I’m hoping that I can be supported to get a better balance between using data to improve the quality of teaching and maximise student outcomes but also retain some of my gut instinct about what’s the right thing to do. (As I write that sentence, I’m reminded of David Didau, a.k.a @LearningSpy, talking at this year’s Pedagoo London that trusting your gut instinct can be decidedly dodgy…)

Development priority number two: recognise when to be informal and formal

I am a very informal person and struggle to come across as formal. When the occasion demands me to be formal, I feel like I am being really fake and trying to be something that I’m not. I am a sociable person and for me, getting to know the people I line manage, is important. I strongly believe that when a person’s individual qualities are recognised beyond what they are able to achieve in the classroom leads to a better working environment. I have been extremely lucky in that I line manage a range of truly fantastic people; as a result, being informal with them hasn’t been too much of an issue because they are exceptional at their jobs and are really dedicated to helping the school move forward.

Recently, I read the following from Alistair Smith in his book I mentioned earlier.

Put people before policies. Coercive, policy-driven leadership gets you compliance whilst supportive, policy-aware leadership gets you loyalty.

Alistair Smith (2011) High Performers: The Secrets of Successful Schools, p.50

In fact, I’ve always prided myself on putting people first. When I first began working as an AST with Mel, I was line managed by the deputy head (who is now a head in a school in South London) and he respected me as an individual, even when my ideas and beliefs didn’t quite match school policy. Accordingly, I try hard to treat everyone I line manage with respect and recognise that we’re all human and can make mistakes. I will protect the people I line manage as much as I can because effort has been put in to build a positive working relationship. If someone tells me they are not going to make a deadline or that they’ve cocked up in some way, then my first thought is not to grass them up to the head; I’ll try and find out a way to sort it out.

Yet something happened in the summer term where I discovered that a person I have line managed hid something important from me and I had to find out from others about the problem. I was really angry and shocked – I couldn’t believe they felt they couldn’t tell me they’d made an error. And it got me thinking about my behaviour and whether I had in any way contributed to this problem. I’m not 100% sure but I have this uncomfortable feeling that my informal nature meant that this person felt that it would be ok to not tell me, that they would get away with it because I’m pretty laid back. When I think about other members of our SLT, I feel like this person wouldn’t have risked it with them. So I’ve had to reflect on my informal nature and think about whether it is always appropriate to be like that with everyone. Some people may misinterpret my informality; consequently, I need to adapt and think more carefully about how I address different people in different circumstances – even if that means sounding like some policy robot at times…

Development priority number three: stop thinking I can be involved in everything

'We just finished our meeting on raising educational standards. Please call maintenance. Please call maintenance and have them vacuum up all the educational buzzwords left on the carpeting.'

One of the reasons I became an AST – apart from the opportunity to work with Mel – was because I love getting stuck in and being part of a team trying things out. What I’ve discovered is I can’t do everything: and I can’t expect middle leaders to want to do everything I think is a great idea. My reaction to a keen teacher coming to me with an idea is most often ‘Yeah, that sounds great – let’s give that a go!’ The problem is that I think I can make everything happen at once and keep all of the initiative plates spinning – and I can’t. But  I hate saying ‘No’ because when I say ‘No’ I feel like I’m not being supportive of that person’s talent and desire to come on board and make our school better.

This snippet below from Oliver Knight and David Benson’s book made me realise how annoying I must be to some middle leaders who have probably switched off the lights and hid under the desk because they’ve heard I’ve got another great idea about what we can do next year!!!

You cannot have an outstanding school without outstanding Middle Leaders – they are the engine room of the school and need clear lines of accountability as well as the freedom to take control. What they do not need is lots of initiatives to run; what they do need is a clear view of the strategic vision and direction of the school.

Oliver Knight and David Benson (2014) Creating Outstanding Classrooms: a whole-school approach, p.359

This year, I fought hard to be given line management responsibility for Pupil Premium from September. I am really excited about this because I think this area of responsibility is so vitally important. Our school has a pretty mediocre track record when it comes to securing the best outcomes for Pupil Premium students and our head has made it clear that it would be morally corrupt of us to not make this our number one whole school priority. Who cares if our GCSE results look great if they mask the fact that many Pupil Premium students just aren’t getting what they should? It’s just not acceptable.

We have appointed a new Pupil Premium Achievement coordinator and I am looking forward to working with her to make sure all of these children are on teachers’ radars. I will also be line managing the Literacy, Numeracy, Transition and Accelerated Learners coordinators. My role has been developed so that I line manage all of the whole school roles rather than concentrate on individual subjects. My wish is that I will get some expert input from our ‘critical friend’ on how I can make best use of all of these coordinators’ time and expertise and work in a more joined-up way. There are so many crossovers between these roles and I would like to have as many group meetings as possible rather than have one to one meetings so we can all benefit from listening to each other and cut down on the number of different initiatives that they will all undoubtedly have ready to share in September!

So there are my three leadership development priorities for the next academic year. I think there could be some difficult moments being put under the spotlight by a stranger but I’m not going to get any better unless I’m challenged by someone who is an extremely experienced leader. Oh, and did I mention that we’re due another Ofsted inspection anytime this year as we strive to move away from ‘Requires Improvement’?

Every year brings new challenges and I look forward to what the new year will bring – but first, I’ll enjoy the remaining weeks left before the madness of September begins!

Teacher on holiday

Can we level the playing field? (Part Five)

29 Jun

Last year I wrote a series of posts about a ‘Critical Thinking’ programme I set up with Debbie for Year 12 students. This post revisits the progress of this programme but also, following some recent conversations with students, asks some broader questions about the quality of education that universities provide.

The aim of the programme was to prepare students for Oxbridge interviews by encouraging them to think in different ways and be better equipped to articulate their opinions. I didn’t revisit these posts, partly because I was a bit reluctant to share the success figures as I was hoping that I could bask in the glory of ‘ten out of eleven of the students being given offers’ or something similar.

Image

So, I need to be honest on numbers. Three from our group of eleven ‘made it’ by getting their Oxbridge offers. One of those, ‘The Scientist’ as I referred to him in my posts was always a dead cert. He is one of the brightest students I have ever encountered, as well as being a very deep thinker and dedicated learner. He would’ve made it through without the programme because it was easy to see how much he needs to be amongst others of a similar calibre. He didn’t need the programme necessarily and sometimes I even think it worried him a little bit as to how exactly he could use what we’d been learning. I’m still so glad he did participate though, because I’d like to think he gained all sorts of other things from it. From the very start of the programme, when he had just ten minutes to prepare a verbal answer to the question ‘Can there ever be nothing?’ to the end, when he led a seminar, the challenge for this young man was being prepared for the unexpected. I felt absolute joy at watching the discussion between him and the one other person in the group (who absolutely was not me) who could get their head around the subject matter in his seminar and at him giggling when I told him I was completely lost.

The second ‘success story’ is another one who was already very well equipped to apply for Oxbridge. She was the other one in the room who got what The Scientist was talking about but as well as the intellect, she had a passion for questioning beliefs and arguing points that was inspirational. Maybe the sessions gave her a bit more, maybe she would have made it without them but I am so glad she was in the sessions, particularly The Scientist’s seminar!

The third ‘success story’ was a young lady who was always extremely hard working, mature and driven. She has an offer from Cambridge and I was delighted when I found out. The bit that delighted me the most though was when she said ‘It was the critical thinking programme that made me apply; I’d never even considered it before that but it made me feel like I could do it.’ That is all I need from this experience. My reason for doing this (I now realise) was to ensure that students feel entitled to apply for these places. It may be controversial that it isn’t actually important to me where they end up for university, all I need to know is that they feel they can apply to the top universities, that they have absolutely the same right as any other student in the country to do so and that they are good enough to go there.

Image

What is it about those three students that makes them different? Well, for two of them I’d have to say they are simply the brightest. They have done all the other things we want students to do: seeking feedback and really listening to it and responding; asking deep, probing questions, reading around and beyond their subjects etc, but on top of that they are just that bit better than the rest. The third, yes is also a top-end student but might not quite be up there with the other two. Maybe I’m being unfair in this assessment (as I wasn’t a subject teacher to any of these students this year) but I think the third successful student is at a similar level as at least one of those who had an interview and didn’t make it. Maybe there is an element of chance to the process – applying for the right course, at the right college, being at the right point on a particular day and making a good connection with your particular interviewer. There are so many factors I doubt we’ll ever know for sure.

So what about the others? Some didn’t want to apply, or didn’t have predicted grades high enough. A couple of others had an interview and didn’t get the offer and it’s one of these students that led me to write this post. I had the privilege of teaching her both GCSE and A Level Biology and I believe that she would have been a fantastic student at Oxford. It was in the thank-you card that her class made me that she wrote a message that touched a nerve: ‘Thanks for critical thinking, sorry we let you down and didn’t get in.’ I took her aside and told her she hadn’t let me down in any way and that all that was important to me was that she ends up at the right university for her. I’m all for challenge and aiming as high as you can but this was a difficult outcome from the programme for me to deal with.

At the end of the first cycle of this programme (it ran for one cohort of Year 12 students who have just completed their A2 exams), would I run it again? Well, probably. I think the ideal situation would be for us to develop these important dispositions in all students across the curriculum but this is a big undertaking. Realistically, I’ll try more of it in my practice and then take it from there. If we do run the programme again, I’d push to start it much earlier – perhaps Year 9, with a short ‘refresher’ in Year 12.

Image

The other comment that led me to write came from a student who popped in to school this week for a visit. He had applied to Cambridge last year and wasn’t offered a place despite his teachers feeling he was a strong potential Oxbridge candidate. I asked him how he was getting on at his university and he said it was great, he got a first at the end of his first year but it had been pretty easy really. This reminded me that many students come back after their first year at university and say something similar. Now I know university is about a lot more than just learning. For me it was also about finding out just how many clothes it was possible to fit into one washing machine load, how much lager I could drink and still be able to walk home and how surprisingly, it was actually harder to live with some ‘friends’ than it had been to live with my own brother and sister. However, my point is are universities actually providing appropriate value for money with the education they offer? Are universities differentiating in any way so that those students who know all this first year stuff already don’t completely switch off? Why is it that only a few universities are seen to be providing a suitably challenging environment for those ‘Gifted’ students? Do the other universities need to raise their game (particularly in the first year) so that we don’t waste a valuable (and increasingly expensive) year’s education? Is it really that much more challenging at Oxford or Cambridge? Even in the first year?

Please respond: tell me I’m wrong and students need a year to relax and learn other important lessons or that there are plenty of other universities that provide sufficient challenge right from the start. Maybe it’s just the brightest students that come back and say it was easy or maybe they’re mistaken or misguided. Opinions and experiences appreciated, so please share.

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