The more things change…

… The more they stay the same.

It’s as true now as it was in the mid 1800s.

I’m in the middle of a three-week assignment, on an interim maternity cover (baby arrived unexpectedly 3 weeks early and the maternity cover teacher couldn’t start earlier than his agreed date), so I’m in the rather odd situation of being a short-term long-term cover teacher.

Unfortunately, the school has taken this to mean that I will do all the things a salaried position teacher would do, despite the fact that there is little real benefit in my doing them. In general, of course, I don’t have a problem with this – I have to adhere to the same standards as everyone else, and rightly so.

But I see little real benefit in attending staff meetings which discuss strategies that will be implemented in the Summer Term.

So it was with a degree of reticence that I attended Monday’s staff meeting.

The school (small primary) has previously been rated as either ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ in its last four Ofsted reports. The Head, naturally, is keen to maintain this as it has resulted in a demand for places, which, in turn, has brought more money into the school. In the last six years the school population has nearly doubled, and a major building project has only just finished. Good Ofsted judgements have had measurable impacts on the school in the past, and this is something that, understandably, the Head and SMT wish to continue.

So Monday’s staff meeting was titled ‘Instigating the New Curriculum – Achieving Outstanding’.

I felt trepidation from the outset. Sadly, my worst fears were confirmed.

The school have bought into a curriculum scheme that stresses ‘independent learning’ as one of the main methods of progress for children. It also demands ‘Wow’ lessons at the start of each new topic in order to ‘hook the children in’.

We were given handouts detailing the structure of this scheme, and just how important it is. The main points, we were informed, of the general ethos are:

  • Learners at the centre
  • Enquiry based learning
  • Outcomes of high quality and valued
  • Embedding application of basic skills
  • Writing for a purpose
  • Research about learning & neurology
  • Matching to the context
  • Cross-curricular

In many ways I can’t argue with some of the points. If we don’t equip pupils with the basic skills they need to function in a school, we’ve lost our way. It was the part that came next that began to concern me.

The Head and Deputy then proceeded to give a demonstration lesson, in which they looked at the topic of , well, see if you can guess. We, the staff in the meeting, stood in for the children as they ‘taught us’. We were put into groups.

The Head handed out beautifully wrapped shoe boxes, which we were instructed to open carefully as they contained something precious. This turned out to be a washing-up glove filled with ice. We were asked what we thought when we were given the box, what we thought when we picked it up and began to unwrap it, and what we thought when we discovered the contents. At each stage we had to draw a mind map of our thoughts. We were then given a sheet where we had to describe the appearance of our box and its contents.

We were then handed another box, again wrapped beautifully and tied with green ribbon, and instructed to draw another mind map about this – what did we think was in it etc. – before opening that too, and repeating the whole mind-mapping process. This one contained models of trees, flowers, various animals (mammals and birds) and, rather bizarrely, dinosaurs. Again, we had to mind-map what we thought the lesson was about based on the items we had been given. This was followed by filling in the description sheet for the second box.

We were then shown various slides on the whiteboard, varying from busy cities to mountains and beaches. This was followed by yet more mind-mapping.

We were assured that the clues would build up and that we would understand everything clearly. Most people still looked baffled, those that weren’t, were bored.

The next ten minutes were given over to discussions and slides about holidays in warm places and how people fly by plane to such destinations. At this point, a number of staff thought that the topic was geography and travel, but apparently this wasn’t the case.

The next activity was a game whereby we took it in turns to describe an organism that had been written on a card, without actually using the organism’s name. Not too difficult when it was ‘dog’, rather harder when it was ‘fly’!

We were then asked to return to our boxes, and to complete the description sheets with updates for our two boxes. We also had to complete a third column on the sheets, which detailed all of the international places we had visited, along with our method of travel to get there.

Finally, we were told to link together all of the information we had been provided with, and steered to consideration of the ice-filled rubber glove. By now, much of this had melted, and a few people did manage to make a link between the items and the topic that we had been ‘studying’. It was revealed that this was an exemplar lesson for introducing the topic of Global Warming. We should, apparently, have been able to discover that easily as the clues were revealed. In fairness, most of the staff did just that.

But we’re adults, and our target audience for this are children – I wonder if they would be able to make the same deductions?

At this point I looked at the clock. It had taken 35 minutes to reveal the topic for study, which is apparently a better use of time than simply telling the children what they will be studying and then studying it.

The Head and Deputy were at pains to point out that the topic may not be one that would be taught to primary pupils, but that the principle remained the same. Further, and crucially, we were told that this was the method of teaching that must be applied from the Summer Term in order to prepare for the new curriculum in the Autumn. We should, we were informed, make sure that at the end of that session, once guesses had been taken as to the topic, send the children off to explore ‘global warming’ on the internet, encouraging them to make notes. This was to be an entirely independent task, and we should not direct their learning, as that contradicted the ethos of the creative curriculum.

At the end of the session, the Head took questions from the assembled staff. Most asked about preparation time and the number of resources required, but one Year 6 teacher asked about the need to teach in this manner. The Head’s reply was terse:

“On the new Ofsted criteria, “Independent Learning” is needed to gain an outstanding, it’s one of the features of an outstanding teacher. In fact, it’s essential under the new Ofsted criteria.

A teacher should lead less – focus on the children doing the work and research instead.”

This happened on Monday. Unless Michael Wilshaw and  Ofsted have suddenly altered their position with regards to particular teaching styles, I cannot find any reference to this on the Ofsted website. In fact, quite the contrary. Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted’s chief inspector, has said on a number of occasions that he favours no particular teaching style over another.

It must be noted though, that there have been a number of instances where individual inspectors and teams of inspectors have disregarded Wilshaw’s stance, and have criticised schools for not promoting independent learning. Old Andrew has given a good analysis of this on his blog Scenes from the Battleground.

So should I really be surprised that the Head is telling staff that Ofsted insist on a particular teaching style? Is she being deliberately misleading in order to promote her own preferred teaching style, or is it simply ignorance of the current stated position? But then again, the Head is married to a current Ofsted inspector.

Perhaps she knows something that Michael Wilshaw doesn’t?

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3 Responses to The more things change…

  1. fairgroundtown says:

    Sounds like every day of my PGCE at Warwick 20 Yeats ago – the most boring, useless waste of a year of my entire life.

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