ResearchEd Rugby, my takeaways (part 1)

I was undecided at first whether or not to go to ResearchEd, which took place today in Rugby. It meant an early start on a Saturday morning for one thing, but I’m temporarily a lady of leisure so I can take the hit and catch up with my sleep later on in the week. I also managed to make a family affair out of it, as husband and son came along too and indulged in their love of all things train related by exploring the disused railway lines and viaducts of Rugby. But mainly, I’m glad I went because I got to hear some of the best thinkers in education today. Thanks again to Jude Hunton and his team at Ashlawn school for being terrific hosts.

The day started with a keynote speech from Nicky Morgan, who I think many secretly wish were still Secretary of State for education (I could be wrong). Her talk was brief and focused on her interest in character, something she feels is as important as academic achievement. I was reminded of my brief spell working at a prep school last year, where there was a real focus on building character in the form of 8 values: humility, honesty, love, justice, service, self-discipline, courage and gratitude. Each week they focused on one of these values, approaching it from a different perspective. In assembly, the head would speak to the pupils about something topical which demonstrated that value, his speech often sounding like a sermon (in a good way). I still remember the rousing talk he gave us in the week that Muhammad Ali died, it felt inspirational. I have often thought of these assemblies in my subsequent job working in a secondary academy, where I didn’t feel there was much attention paid to culture or ethos. So yes, I think I agree with Nicky Morgan about the importance of building character in schools.

Then it was off to session 1 and the easy choice for me was Ben Newmark’s talk on target grades. Seems like I wasn’t the only one interested to hear what Ben had to say as the room was packed – understandably so as Ben is one of the most interesting and thoughtful voices in education today. He talked us through the genesis of target grades and how these well meaning measures have mutated over time and had negative consequences both on teachers and pupils. He described the current measures in terms of a car crash (love the board work) and how he would scrap target grades today if it were up to him.

There is a problem inherent in predicting a child’s performance across different subjects based solely on English and Maths results at the end of year 6. Just because someone can write well in English doesn’t necessarily translate into them being good at the discipline of history for example. Moreover, the idea that children progress in a constant linear way has been disproved (I believe). Learning often happens in spurts, so predicting that children will go up two grades from a start point in year 6 and working out the target grade that way, seems preposterous, and lazy thinking to me.

Personally, I don’t think it’s productive to look backwards at the past because all that does is condemn the ones who, for one reason or another, have not performed well in their base line tests. I don’t like the idea of progress scores or measuring value added because the message it sends out is that it’s ok if a child doesn’t do that well, as long as we can demonstrate significant progress along the way. So if a child starts off say 3 years behind her age, but manages to end up just 1 year behind, we can pat ourselves on the back and say didn’t we do well, look at the fabulous progress she’s made. Surely that’s not good enough. So looking backwards doesn’t work. What is a better prospect is, in my view, to work out particular thresholds for what we consider is the minimum a pupil should know by the time they reach the age of 16, through developing curriculum standards. The influence of Michael Fordham is at work here, and I suspect also Daisy Christodoulou, though I haven’t as yet got round to reading her latest book. Lots of food for thought there. One interesting titbit let out during the panel discussion later in the day is that Ofsted inspectors are now being made to read Michael Fordham’s blogs on curriculum and assessment, so it looks like this is the direction of travel at HMI.

I’ll discuss my other takeaways from the conference in the next few blogs. For now, hasta luego.

Part 2 of my notes on ResearchEd Rugby

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