The end of progress (measures)

After nearly four years as a school governor, this is a (quite long) attempt to challenge a few established beliefs which I’m not entirely sure hold up. My thinking and practice around these is still forming, so grateful for any rebuttals or clarifications, but this comes from a sense of a) not knowing quite why we do governing in a particular way and b) a feeling that with some notable exceptions, governors remain fairly invisible in the fascinating debates about how children learn, and therefore how teachers should teach. The latter seems to me to have significant consequences for governors which we may not have started to fully grasp.

Sporting metaphors

After an almost blank day – there were 17 balls before the rain, enough for Henry Nicholls to register his half-century – there remained a minimum of 198 overs in this match. 

I have no idea what the sentence above means, because I’ve never been interested in cricket. I know what each word means by itself (day, ball, minimum, match as in “sporting event” rather than “the stick that generates fire”), and I’ve enough cultural knowledge to recognise the sport it refers to. But any deeper analysis of the whole is totally beyond me. Why was it a blank day if someone scored their half-century? Is it a good or bad thing that 198 overs remained? What’s an over? 

In the words of Ultravox, this means nothing to me. This does, though:

England’s only noteworthy chance of the first half had come just after the half-hour mark when Jordan Henderson, probably England’s best player on the night, headed Trippier’s free-kick wide.

I still understand the individual words and phrases (wide, the half-hour mark as a synonym for “thirty minutes”), but I get the inferences (wide of the goal) and context too. It may be an issue that with a couple of friendly matches left before England go to the World Cup, they’re reliant on one player to achieve their only attempt to score a goal in 45 minutes. I don’t need any of this spelled out, because I’ve learnt enough about football to interpret the words myself. 

The problem with exams

Both of these are excerpts from match reports in a recent Guardian. They are aimed at the same audience and written in similar styles, authored by the paper’s chief cricket and football journalists respectively, presumably not positions you reach without the ability to write. 

But if the first was chosen over the other as the basis for an exam I was sitting, it’s easy to see how it would likely impact my performance. If the exam setter was a cricket fan, my ignorance would be baffling: of course the sentence makes complete sense! And whilst exam boards will try to moderate for the effect of these factors, the flaws of an education system arranged around summative assessments are becoming better known – and better discussed. 

Daisy Christodoulou raises two key issues with them:

  • the extent to which uneven student knowledge can affect their performance. She gives the great example of a text, set in a post-apocalyptic London, in which a group of survivors hear the sound of an approaching glacier. The problem was that too many children didn’t know what a glacier was, and therefore couldn’t analyse the passage correctly.
  • How do you uniformly mark exams in which there isn’t a set answer? You can use rubrics to set a required understanding, but these can be too vague. Even in maths, “Find 90% of 10” and “Find 37% of 2943” would both be acceptable ways to question “the ability to calculate percentages”.

There will always be a role for exams in education, both to provide a standardised national assessment and because sometimes in life, a lot does count on a single moment in time: a job interview, or a driving test. Nonetheless, it increasingly feels like exams in English education can’t bear the accountability weight that’s being loaded upon them. (Ofsted judgements too, which is another story, but a road I think we’re further along than with exams.)

School governors have become reliant on exams as foundation stones for our understanding of a school’s direction. An understandable desire to emphasise and enforce the line between “strategic” (the realm of governors) and “operational” (here be teachers) has left long-term pupil progress as the holy grail, beyond which governors shouldn’t venture. A tweet from Ofsted’s Sean Harford is a good summary of this view:

The specific data that governors should be concerned about is that for the end of key stages for which there are government published, standardised, national tests/exams. Getting into other information that the school uses to track pupils is really operational, so not for govs.

How we learn

Why does the football paragraph above make so much sense to me than the one about cricket? In a nutshell: because over the years, I’ve 1) learnt to understand and use the words involved, but also 2) understand enough about the context in which they’re used. Used to describe a subject I understand, the words themselves make more sense. 

In her book “Seven Myths about Education”, Daisy Christodoulou gives another fascinating example of how learning is accomplished by slowly building up a long-term memory bank of knowledge, achieved through repetition and practice of a specific subject. A chess grandmaster, shown a board on which is replicated another master’s winning game, will be far more likely to remember that particular board from memory compared to an average, non-chess-playing person. But if the chess pieces are scattered across the squares at random, the grandmaster will be no more likely to remember the sequence than anyone else. It’s not that the chess player has a better memory, but the format of a winning game is easier for them to remember with their frequent practice and experience of so many games themselves.

Or my own slightly less intellectual example. The quiz show “Only Connect” has a round in which contestants have to identify the fourth item in a sequence. I got this one instantly:

1) Monday: met

…and I’m willing to bet that most people around my age can too. It’s from Craig David’s “Seven Days” (the answer is of course “4) Thursday: made love”, but you knew that already), a song repeated – revisited – ad infinitum everywhere in about 2002. It’s broken up into logical chunks, which fit together into a sensible whole, practiced (through listening) until it became stuck in my mind to this day. Don’t @ me.

I haven’t gone into this theory in much detail. There are a myriad of excellent blogs by teachers; one of my favourites is Clare Sealy’s. But it’s worth understanding.

Truth and consequences 

So I think many governing bodies and SLTs have become strategically stuck. This has given rise to two entrenched beliefs, which need revisiting:

We can measure progress

A whole cottage industry appears to have sprung up, trying to measure progress for governing bodies. The nationwide valued added measures from the DfE (explained clearly by James Pembroke) are a useful tool for providing a high level overview of how children are progressing through the years – although remember the issues with exams discussed above. But too often governing bodies seem to insist on countless sheets of figures which purport to show a satisfying strategic picture of where the school’s children are marching towards. I’ve not yet read a good argument about how the signal can be separated from the static noise when it comes to measuring progress on a child-by-child basis.

Data are only figures which can be collected and interpreted for whatever purpose you want them to provide. Just as scaffolding on a building is not intended to become the wall, but to help in its restoration, the very clear risk is that progress data become the wall and not the scaffolding. Data on a national might for example tell us that primary age children born in August need help to catch up with those in their year who have the headstart of being born in September. The only useful data for governors here would be knowing how many children are born in that month (see below for why), but how many efforts have been made to measure progress in children divided into these useful cohorts? We’ve all probably seen something similar.

The explosion in knowledge about how we learn should be the death knell for this idea that progress is a linear measure which can be summed up in a handy graph. Learning is not a line of stepping stones across a river, some children tiptoeing across and others leaping, but more like a city centre in which there are plenty of sensible ways to get from A to B – with a teacher showing them how to use a map, and to stop them accidentally running across a motorway.

Governors must never be operational

When I did the NHS graduate management scheme, we were encouraged to spend time shadowing clinical and nursing staff to understand their roles. At Moorfields eye hospital, I watched a respected surgeon and his juniors perform cataract surgery: once I’d seen a couple, he jokingly offered me the seat and told me to get on with them. How we all laughed!…the patient a bit more nervously than the rest of us. Another doctor at the Royal Marsden thought I’d got a strong grip on how to diagnose cancer from blood cells, and spent the next year trying to convince me to become a pathologist. But, of course, he didn’t actually rely on me to diagnose a real patient’s illness, and I didn’t try. 

The point here is of course that sensible people know their boundaries, and governing bodies should be recruiting these people. The line between teachers and governors is ferociously guarded, a professional Hadrian’s Wall, and yet I sometimes wonder why; it’s odd for those trying to guide a school to be kept so far away from the school’s daily business. And it’s inconsistent: I know how many children in the school are on an EHC plan, and how many probably should be (because of the impact on staff and potentially finances). It’s hard to untangle this divide from the belief that strategic measurement of progress – which doesn’t mean much – is the governors’ responsibility. 

What should governors do? 

In conclusion, my core argument is that the hierarchical image of governors being at the top of a pyramid, as with many forms of leadership, is probably slightly redundant. 

I recently read a great book by the foreign policy expert Anne-Marie Slaughter, “The Chessboard and the Web”, which makes a compelling argument for complex networks of cooperation rather than engagement between set “levels” of a hierarchy (in her examples, relationships between countries being encouraged at many equally vital levels, rather than just leader – leader or ambassador – ambassador).

I thought her five key actions were a good summary of how governors could fit into their schools whilst still setting the strategic direction:

  • Clarify: refine what the common goal is.
  • Curate: decide who should be part of the network (staff, children, parents, community?): all will have valuable ideas.
  •  Connect: bring people together to share expertise. Are coffee mornings too much one-way? 
  • Cultivate: keep those relationships and networks going!
  • Catalyse: make sure that new ideas take their rightful place and prompt the above.

The Financial Times columnist Gillian Tett has also written an interesting book about the “Silo Effect”, in which artificial boundaries – and the different, incompatible ways of thinking and working that emerge within those boundaries – prevent genuinely joined-up and efficient ways of working. I wonder if the above means this is increasingly applicable to schools and their governing bodies. 
So without the comfort blanket of progress measures, and with the increasing importance of ensuring children learn through repeating and revisiting specific subject knowledge until they understand, here are some possible changes in the way governors carry out their role:

  • If progress measurement is removed, is there data your school should be collecting instead? And if Ofsted came tomorrow, what can you tell the inspector about the data you’ve decided to collect without referring to progress? 
  • What’s your balance between formal meetings and visits? If data no longer show meaningful patterns of progress (if they ever did), what should the meetings involve? Discussions about particular strategies around a certain subject? 
  • What does the school’s teaching staff want to see of their governors? Ours has directly asked us to sit in on classes and understand how they do their job. I’m not sure a belief that governors should stay “operational” should overrule that. 
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