But before I get stuck into some suggestions for you, give yourself five minutes to think about next July. Think what the children you have spent the year with will think about their time with you. For some of these children, you will be the teacher they remember for the rest of their lives. That’s a powerful thought, and it’s worth holding on to. But first, some nitty gritty.
Get to know your age data
Come September, teachers are often exhorted to gen up on data. Whilst most of this is fairly pointless, since you’ll soon know an awful lot about your class simply by spending time with them, there is one particular dataset teachers can access which may not be immediately obvious and is exceptionally useful. That dataset is the children’s ages. Given all the non-data schools collect and distribute, it’s surprising that one thing we do know for certain about children - how old they are – is not used effectively by many schools. I strongly suggest that you get hold of the dates of birth of the children you are going to be teaching and use it to help you really get to know your classes.
I’ve written about the importance of a child’s age position within a cohort before, and I recommend you read this piece in which I explained why birth date information is so important. I’ve now added a spreadsheet to the article, which will help you to explore the distribution of your classes around the pivotal date of March 2nd.
I recommend that you seat children in date order for the first few weeks or lessons, and, initially at least, completely ignore any data you have been given tracking children’s progress. If anyone seems much older or younger than the people they’re with in this seating arrangement, find out why. Ask other staff in school, and ask parents or carers either in person or on the phone.
You’re likely to have to move children into ability groups or disruption-minimisation groups fairly soon, so use the first few weeks to get a good sense of the ages of the children in your class and how it affects their response to school. Keep monitoring ability groups and age, and try to ensure you know which children are at the extremes of the age range.
Assessment With Out Levels, recently given the hashtag #AWOL by a group of twitter types worth following (@jpembroke, @DavidPott, @Yorkshire_Steve), is part of the brave new world unleashed by the DfE’s latest revisions of the national curriculum. Levels, introduced as part of the original National Curriculum in the early 90s, had been beaten, whisked, sliced, diced and transformed into a whole World of Weird never envisioned or planned by anyone who unleashed them on an unsuspecting education community. So the DfE has removed them. Except they haven’t, as anyone who has seen a recent RAISEonline report or Ofsted Inspector will know. Still, they are being removed and they are not being replaced by any specific method of tracking.
This gives teachers a huge opportunity to shape what happens in their school. Staff meetings across the land will soon find new tracking systems being discussed, probably at some length. If you are lucky, you might even be consulted about the replacement system your school is going to use instead of simply being told what you are going to have to do. It would be foolish to ignore this opportunity to question something which will have huge impact on your time.
I strongly recommend you read this blog post by Michael Tidd: Tracking ≠ Assessment. It articulates the base issue with tracking, whereby a complicated, complex world of knowledge, skills and understanding is reduced to a number. If you haven’t fully grasped the madness of, for example, Level 3b equalling 21, now’s the time to reflect on it. It’s still remarkable that moving from 15 to 27 was seen as the mark of a typical child’s journey through Primary School, and that ‘bright’ children went from, typically, 21 to 35 and ‘less able’ went from 13 to 25 (if you were lucky/a great teacher). Have another look at the level chart below and hang your head in shame if you ever thought this actually meant something.
So how can you set targets without levels?
Teachers will soon be asked to sit down in a dark room and guess how much progress they think children they’ve taught for a few weeks will make over the course of the next year. Now that levels have gone, you don’t simply have to accept, as in the past, ‘two sublevels for every child’ (or “Four!” as I said in my head whenever I was asked to accept this in the past, imagining a golf ball flying off into the far distance). Now you can talk about the progress you’d like to see using words, not numbers.
This is, of course, very subjective, so I’d point this out as soon as you can. Good managers know that discussing progress has to be subjective, and should welcome your honesty. Just don’t sign up to anything which someone could use to subjectively criticise you come July. If you are unlucky, and your manger wants a numerical target, refer them to the discussions about AWOL.
This relates to performance management too, as teachers have to submit themselves to this charade by October half term. Whatever you think performance management should be about, in the current climate it’s worth being fairly hard-nosed about it. Teachers are being denied pay progression because performance management targets are often highly subjective and tied to factors beyond their control. So don’t let this happen. No levels mean no numerical targets. We are not making widgets, after all, or bringing in money to the company. We’re changing lives, people!
Secondly, agree on targets which will make you a better teacher. Ask for time to pursue a particular interest, whether that be a collaborative project or a piece of research you might wish to do. If you want training in a particular area, make that your performance target. Avoid anything which could be subjective. Either you did a project or you didn’t, you undertook research or you didn’t, you got training or you didn’t. Aim for did/didn’t, and leave no room for opinion.
Get information which will be useful
Find out about your class. In primary, this is often much easier because the children are generally more open and you can speak to their parents and carers more easily. Some of the suggestions below can be a bit harder at secondary, but children will open up, and those at home appreciate you taking an interest and will often respond to phone calls very positively. So find out about:
- Premature births or complications in early childhood
- Extended periods of family illness
- Any issues affecting senses, particularly sight and hearing
- Any Private Tutoring a child is getting
- Family circumstances which might affect progress
Keep an eye on all the children in your class, particularly those who don’t demand immediate attention. Try to avoid attaching numbers to children. And use your observations to help you to help the children you are going to helping this coming year. Because for some of the children in your classes, you are going to be the teacher they remember for the rest of their lives. Be memorable. Be brilliant. Be inspiring. You don’t need to use numbers to track great teaching.