Tag Archives: Tests

Colour-blindness, cats and cucumbers, and cycling

Image result for Unconscious bias
From Margie Warell

Why is my curriculum white vs. why, is my curriculum white?

I was telling a friend of mine about the BAMEed Network and was surprised by her reaction when we started talking about a podcast I had listened to called ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ She suddenly sounded really annoyed as she said, “you know, we don’t need this pitying, dumbing down of the world on our behalf, thank you. Of course the curriculum is white, this is England. I don’t mind adding a black or Asian philosopher into the mix but it’s not representative and it is artificial if there’s more than one or two isn’t it?”

I wasn’t sure how to react. She said, “All you are doing with this BAME thing is segregating and categorising people – I don’t want to be seen as a brown woman when I walk into a room or representing brown people or women when I am on the school governing body. I just want to be me”. I love my friend, we often holiday together as families, we feel so at home together but we are completely opposed in terms of politics and many aspects of our world views. But we can talk about things and trust each other completely. We also don’t try and change each other’s minds about things. We find the middle ground. Still, I said to her, “colour-blindness, that’s not actually real you know?” She was resolute. It would be for her.

Test yourself if you dare

It gave me pause for thought though. I am not trying to segregate the world, I am trying hard to be aware of my unconscious bias. I start from the standpoint that we are so culturally socialised by certain viewpoints that it is unrealistic to pretend to be colour-blind or neutral. I have been challenging myself recently by trying out some of the Harvard University unconscious bias tests available online. If you are brave you will give them a go too. It makes me squirm but it reminds me that this difficulty exists and the key is to be aware and to not deny or enact the consequence of your initial unconscious bias.

My husband and I keep comparing our results with great curiosity and some mirth. We are such opposites in some ways too. His experience starts as an Israeli-Iraqi Jew brought up in Jerusalem, where he is seen as mixed race and a second class citizen alongside the Ashkenazic, European Jews. He is an immigrant to this country since the early 2000s and that makes him feel an affinity with certain populations more than others. He sees how ethnic minority students, and staff members, are treated differently in his workplace, a university setting, and it makes him incredibly frustrated. Having spent over a decade living in Israel myself, being constantly reminded that I am a foreigner, I know how he feels to some extent. Back in England now, in my relative position of white privilege, but still sometimes finding it hard to assimilate back in, my experience sometimes feels so extreme that it feels disingenuous to do anything but recognise that the way we see the world and are seen by it differs depending on many factors.

Three popular internet things that make you wonder

Every day, things I see online make me think more about this. Three very different ones have made me think. The first is the story of a five year old white American boy who wanted to get his hair shaved short like his black American best friend so that their teacher “wouldn’t be able to tell them apart”. This is a stark reminder of the fact that we don’t seem to be born looking for differences and aware of skin colour that much. It is culturally constructed over time and is a part of our education. You can’t culturally un-construct it just by declaring yourself colour blind. All culturally constructed notions are deeply engrained.

Secondly, the news interview where a white man is speaking to the camera and in marches his small daughter, shortly followed by his other child in a baby walker. They are pursued by a woman who rushes in on all fours grabs them both and hustles them out of the room, returning briefly, still on her knees to shut the door. The assumption online was that this was his wife. Others speculated that it could be the childminder. There was backlash against presumed racially charged assumptions that the woman was a childminder and not the children’s mother and the white man’s wife – she was Korean. She was his wife.

Thirdly, isn’t it human, – and animal – ancient, learned behaviour to break the world up into categories of like me, not like me, threat and non-threat. You only have to see what happens to a cat when someone puts a cucumber behind it. Why would a domestic cat that has never seen a snake, have it so engrained in their ancient cat-bias, so as to be afraid of a vegetable that has only a vaguely snake-like appearance, is completely inanimate but seems to have sneaked up on them? Could this be true also for us human folk? Does it go that far back?

Cycling and gender-biased aggression

On a personal note, as a cyclist in London, I am now clocking up 45 minutes each way on my commute to and from work. I have always been bothered by the amount of abuse I get, although my cycling style is pretty mellow and non-confrontational. I have cycled for years and a while back now, I complained to my husband that as a woman, I get called all sorts of vile names and people can be unduly aggressive towards me. He said he never got any abuse and put it down to the fact that I can be bloody-minded and belligerent with my opinions so I am probably the same on the roads. One evening, we went out together locally and I suggested we cycle there together. On the way, I asked him if he would be willing to do an experiment with me, and to cycle some distance behind me and watch what happened. Sure enough, he was shocked by the different treatment I got compared to what he has been accustomed to. I had the usual array of cars beeping, or deliberately overtaking dangerously close and shouting as they passed, making me jump. There was also unwanted interaction with swearing pedestrians, heads down in their phones while they were weaving between the cars pausing for a moment in traffic, and from other (male) cyclists even.

Due to the air quality of central London, I have taken to wearing a pollution filter mask while cycling in recent months. It has been quite cold so with the mask, gloves, helmet and all my waterproof gear on, you can’t tell if I am a woman or a man or even what colour I am. It’s amazing. It’s as if I have been granted a completely new status. No-one bothers me at all. Bingo.  I can see why it would be amazing to reach a place where we don’t automatically treat people in certain ways based on deep seated and learned bias.

Dare you consider, how might unconscious bias affect your relationships at school?

Let’s assume then that unconscious bias does exist. How might this affect your relationship with your students and other staff members? Here are some all-you-can-eat, food for thought observations I have heard played back to me by school staff I have spoken to:

Have you noticed that BAME staff members tend to be in charge of certain subjects and the further up the hierarchy you go, the whiter it gets? Any BAME senior leaders that do make it in schools tend to be in charge of discipline or PE. What’s that about?

Why is it, in some schools, that the majority of kids that are in detention at the end of the day are black? Why do teachers of all races treat black children’s misdemeanours differently?

Why is it that schools which serve predominantly BAME areas, in parts of London for example, often deploy a military style discipline regime and refer to this as being appropriate for “these kinds” of students? The claim is that they are entrenching bias towards certain groups being subordinate to the ruling middle classes rather than promoting a socially mobile, lifelong learner expectation for children of ethnic minority backgrounds.

What about the teachers who are surprised when their Chinese heritage students educated in this country are not maths whizzes, when the black kid can’t run and their white working class boys love to read?

What of the Asian British pupil who wrote that he lived in a terrorist (terraced) house, and then ended up facing an investigation by police?

Why is it that more ethnic minority people get university degrees than white people in Britain and yet in the workplace they will be still more likely to be unemployed and paid less?

What about assessment, what elements of that is geared towards certain socio-economic and ethnic biases? What about the recent Year 6 SATs test and the dodo question for example?

Can you join me in learning more?

Please ask yourself these questions, try the Harvard online tests and let’s start to discuss what this makes us feel, what we could do differently and where the issues might lie. We will be holding a BAMEed Network conference on all aspects of unconscious bias on June 3rd. If you have ideas for what other issues should be covered, let us know and make sure you are there on the day!

SATs – what raising the bar means for a summer-born child

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Image courtesy of Chris O’Brian – The Roanoke Times

So, it’s SATs week soon. We went away on holiday over the Easter break and when we got back, I heard my youngest daughter utter the horrific words I never thought I would hear from a child of mine: “Mummy,  I can’t sleep. I’m scared of SATs. I think I am going to fail at everything”.

I can’t imagine where this has come from. Certainly not from us at home. I find it hard to believe it is coming from the school either. Their attitude seems to be that the bar has been set so ridiculously high that everyone is just committed to muddling through, trying their best, teachers and pupils alike. The Year 6 teachers at her school remind me of myself faced with an IKEA three-door wardrobe to assemble – just working their way through the vague outline of what needs to be done, trying to make sure they have all of the components accounted for and hoping that what takes shape is going to work.

Perhaps it has come from other children’s families, putting pressure on them. That’s always a possibility. I wrote in a previous post about choosing a secondary school that parental anxiety around their children’s schooling sometimes reaches unnecessary life and death proportions.

It was clear to me what to say to my child. “These tests are the only time in your schooling where the results have absolutely no meaning for your life. They do not define you. They do not give you access to the next level of schooling”. (It’s true to say that most secondary schools don’t even use SATs as a baseline but prefer to spend the first few weeks of Year 7 testing their new cohort themselves. If anything they are a test for the school, and are designed to monitor their teachers). I continued, “SATs are your gift to the school, do your best and you will be able to show some of what you have learned and how well you are able to pass a test”.

I was delighted when Sparky Teaching produced this nice letter and poster to send to Year 6 children and their families. It does feel a little hypocritical though that schools might circulate them as I am not convinced I understand to what extent schools are in fact producing this level of anxiety and passing it on through their students.

But I am aware that there are many factors that statistically might have an impact on my own child. Of course, she has professional dad and mum who have a PhD and an M.Ed respectively and I can be pushy when I need to. We have books and go to museums and are lucky to live in a city with easy access to all sorts of cultural experiences. But also, she immigrated at the age of two with no spoken English (so officially should have been classed as EAL and bi-lingual although she never was given any special support for this). She was premature, summer-born and has dyslexia – only becoming a fluent reader at the end of Year 5 and still struggling with writing.

Compared with my oldest child who was born at the end of September, it seems that the biggest impact of all of this list is the fact that my youngest is summer-born. She was in such a rush to be born, that she is now a whole school year younger than most of her classmates. She is three years younger than her sister and yet only two school years behind her. And I’m pretty sure that the ‘dyslexia’ is probably more visible because she is essentially bravely tackling things that others have had more time to grasp. We had to send her to Reception at the age of 4 and because our local school had a January intake, she had 6 months of Reception before she started Year 1. That’s quite a rush-job. And now, the goalposts have shifted drastically and where a couple of years ago my oldest was in Year 6 and was seen as rather special with her SATs results, what was then way above average is now pretty much the baseline expectation from all children. So much more of it relies on their memories for facts too.

I can’t help agreeing with Michael Rosen when he says “…the test system is narrowing education. Children are spending far too much time just doing tests and rehearsals for the tests. And we should remember that the tests can only test the testable. Whole areas of experience and learning are not included in what an ‘education for the test’ covers. Think of investigation, invention (creativity), interpretation (coming up with various conclusions for things), discussion, co-operation, compassion. These vital ways of learning are getting squeezed out of the curriculum.
And remember – at the end of the day, the tests are not there to help our children. They are there to test whether the teachers have taught the stuff that’s in the test – some of which is useless anyway.”

We will keep reinforcing the messages of encouragement and try to play down the importance of these tests. I do feel for my youngest daughter though, that on top of everything that she has been grappling with, the bar has been raised during her SATs year and this isn’t really helpful at all for a child who has been fighting hard to keep up from the first day of school. When the school year ends, she will be happy to celebrate her birthday, the last of her peers to turn 11 before we send her off to secondary school.

 

 

 

 

Life Without Levels: a parent’s perspective

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Spending life on the peripheries of the education system has been my lot since returning to the UK and quitting the classroom. Since leaving teaching nearly 9 years ago, I have worked in organisations that support schools and I have done a couple of stints as a school governor. I could get my head around the data as a governor and in my professional life – but the way children are monitored and levels are set on an individual level has always baffled me as a parent.

My first experience of how children’s progress is measured was at my first primary school parents’ evening where the teacher reported in on my oldest child’s progress midway through the year. My daughter was in Reception class, had only been in the country for 6 months and was learning English quickly, her thick Israeli accent gradually disappearing. (We still fondly remember a rowdy boy she was playing with who shoved her, and her saying sternly: “You want I will do dis to you? So don’t you do dis to me!”)

That evening, the Reception class teacher sat opposite me, gave me a nonplussed look, turning the corners of her mouth down and shrugging said, “Yeah, she’s alright really, no complaints”. I must have given away my bafflement at this statement and after a pause where she seemed to be thinking of something else to say, she added, “Yeah, no complaints at all.” I think she expected me to be pleased. Having been a teacher myself, and being naturally empathetic, I imagined that she had had a really stressful few months, settling in these small creatures, many of whom had never been in a nursery setting or school before. I knew my daughter was polite, well-behaved and wanted to do well at school. But my jaw dropped and I asked if she could give me some more detail on what she was doing well at, where she might need some more support and so on. Nothing. Trying to help, I asked where she was as compared with her peers. “Oh no, we don’t really do that. Compared to the start of the year, she has made progress and is reaching the expected milestones”. Apparently, what these milestones were, belonged strictly to the professionals and were not something parents needed to know. Unless there was a problem I guess and then perhaps there would be…complaints.

Weirdly, the next parents’ evening that same year was a complete contrast and we were handed a booklet with descriptors and little blobs against different levels of achievement for various milestones of development. It made me want to go back to the other suddenly more sensible continuum of ‘complete pain in the arse’ to ‘no complaints really’. Again, on trying to make sense of it all, we were told these were the new national curriculum levels and this was really only useful to the teacher, however, the Early Years department thought it would be good to share them with parents. I must say, at this point I did make an appointment to talk it through with the headteacher. She thanked me for letting her know that I was confused and agreed that the teacher had some work to do on her communication skills. But I shouldn’t really bother myself with detail. They will inform me if there’s a problem.

Meanwhile, in the world of the Children’s Centre, my youngest was having a wonderful time and the staff seemed engrossed in gathering tons of paperwork on every child’s progress on about 10 different aspects of their development. Every week we had a report on what our youngest daughter did, said, ate, how long she napped, things she liked and didn’t like. It definitely helped ease my guilt at being a full-time working mum, knowing all that had been going on at nursery. Once a term we had an amazing array of descriptions, documentation, photographs and observations sent home to us in a personal folder. We didn’t even have that much depth of evidence for our own understanding of the kids as their parents. It was phenomenal and probably a bit much. I wondered if they spent more time with their noses in their clipboards than they did establishing eye contact with the kids. The staff agreed it was all a bit knackering but that they were obliged by government to keep to this level of detail.

Later on in primary school, we started to hear about national curriculum (NC) levels and each child was ranked against these for every subject – either below, at or above expected NC levels. I once questioned one teacher, who was super-pleased (relieved even) that the kids in his class had reached the expected NC level across the board, if that was a high enough standard considering how bright they all seemed to be.

My youngest, since discovered to be dyslexic, was having trouble with reading and the little writing she did was backwards and with no vowels. I spoke with the teacher about it, and she said she had never seen anything like it before. I reminded her that my children are Israeli. They write backwards and with no vowels in Israel and at Hebrew school at the weekend. I asked if there was any special support she might receive since she was both EAL and apparently dyslexic. I was told no, as she was functioning just below NC levels and they reckoned they could just about get her to expected NC levels by the end of the year. We waited and did our best to support her. She is a bright kid and loved listening to us reading to her and to audio books so her spoken language was extremely advanced and rich for her age.

The following year, we were told she was still nearly at NC levels and so no extra help was offered. She still couldn’t read or write and by Year 4 was actually sobbing at night about being thick and not being able to keep up with her clever peers. And yet, the reports came home, the parents’ evenings were spent having the teacher say that she was at NC levels so there was nothing really to worry about. Just a bit more practice at home.

The most deflating parents’ evening was the one where the teacher proudly said to me about my oldest, “She’s a level 4” to which I found myself wide-eyed saying: “No, sorry, her name is N___ and she has reached a level 4”. And all the time, throughout their time at primary school, the message was that they were to achieve such and such levels of progress but at least now, it was also against their own expected levels of achievement and not just against the national average, which for many, was still pretty low in terms of expectations.

Fast forward to parents’ evenings for daughters now in Year 8 and Year 6. The teachers are floundering. They are obviously lost between levels as they were and so-called life without levels, which, as far as I can tell is life with different names for the same thing. Year 8 parents evening: “She’s a level 6 in old money but now she is a…. which would be now classed as….well it’s all a bit complicated because they made us change the system, we’re not allowed to use levels any more. But we sort of are, we’re just calling it by another name really…” My eyes glaze over.

Because we moved to a different area, the younger child is at a different primary school that has recognised that she is dyslexic and is giving her plenty of support. It was going well at the termly meeting this week when they were discussing what she can do, and what progress she has made. Then I sit blinking at the teacher and the SENCO as they discuss between them “She’s a W3a I think” says the teacher. “Oh hang on, which is a…what? What a level 4 would have been?” asks the SENCO, taking notes. She turns to me “there’s a new system you see, have you heard about life without levels?” The teacher adds, “We’re all just finding our way with it and actually, what would have been a really high standard, a level 5, for the end of year 6 in previous years, is now the basic standard expected for all, so they’ve raised the bar and it’s pretty impossible to get there”.

And all the while, I just want to shriek: are the children in your class making progress? Are they being challenged? Do they tell you when they don’t understand and need some help? Would what is happening in your class be good enough if they were your child? And most of all, are they HAPPY?!

Four things for schools to consider when thinking about social mobility

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Beware the American Dream
Many organisations working with young people seem to sell students something similar to The American Dream – all you need to do is work hard and want it badly enough, and you too can reach the highest heights. This is reinforced by media depictions of ordinary people’s quick ascent to fame and fortune. TV channels are flooded with shows pitting people against each other, the promise of celebrity and copious wealth within pirouetting distance. Many a student buys into these myths (and a surprising number of intelligent adults too). The American Dream crumbles before their very eyes when you start to unpack the odds for them. I can’t tell you how many times we have helped our participants understand that becoming a premier league footballer – even if it’s your biggest dream – might not be a viable option especially considering you aren’t even in the first team at school and aren’t training more than a couple of times a month. But it goes beyond explaining the odds. Knowledge is power and there are things young people need from their education that isn’t covered by the American Dream. (A few TV channels might also like to take on the challenge of educating the masses on this too). My vision would be to ensure that no child leaves school without a clear understanding of themselves as a member of and a product of society, and without questioning what they want to be going forward – and how they might make that happen. We should want our young to be aspirational and reach for the sky and I don’t believe debunking the American Dream will demotivate them, but will rather empower them.

When grades aren’t enough
Social mobility pundits are seemingly preoccupied with making everyone middle class. To achieve this aim schools, and a plethora of education charities aimed at improving students’ university applications, can be seen to push some students to get into a top university and seemingly to urge them to denounce their background and become a banker or lawyer. It might be controversial to say this but attending an elite university without adequate support is tantamount to sponsoring a life of feeling inadequate, developing imposter syndrome and being left caught between a rock and a hard place. I know this all too well, being the only one in my single-parent, free-school-meals-eligible family with a degree. There is also the danger of giving young people messages that their often aspirational and supportive family are inadequate losers. You can see where this leads – you don’t fit in anywhere in the end. ‘Posh kids’ have social and cultural capital that comes with rubbing shoulders with an array of professional people. Schools do their utmost to try to address this with high expectations for all, free music tuition, debating, rowing, fencing and more. But what of the fact that middle class students will have access to culture, professional contacts and support throughout their journey in life? Again, packing off a young person to an elite university having helped them gain great grades at GCSE and A level, taught them violin and rowing is a start but it doesn’t plug the gap of social and cultural capital. Whose connections do students tap into for job opportunities and to fund an internship? What more can we do to narrow the gap on these life-long inequalities of opportunity?

Metacognition, political and social awareness and self-knowledge in bucket loads
It’s troubling that there isn’t the space and time in schools to ask the question not of ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’ but ‘who are you, what are your interests and skills, where are you willing to invest your effort? What kind of lifestyle are you after? Do you know anything about the people that have that lifestyle? Are your preconceptions even close to the truth?’ My husband always wanted to be an academic. He has worked hard and now he is one It’s a far cry from his 1980s style dream. In fact, he says he has read that there is a direct parallel between academia and drugs cartels. Apparently even the salary is about the same too. And you might be surprised that in neither profession is it very high for anyone but the very top dogs.

In the 1990s, a teacher studying for my Masters in education, I took my whole class on a journey of exploration into the (now discredited) world of Learning Styles. This year-long action research project culminated in my class substantially improving their achievement across the board. The take-away lesson for me, regardless of whether or not there is any substance to Learning Styles, was that my students became engaged in understanding for themselves how they learn (metacognition). Each developed techniques to concentrate, engage, relate to and retain what they learned, giving them ownership of their learning and making them masters of their own choices. They could harness this and use it wherever and however they chose, not just in my English class. The results were stunning.

We should be similarly committed to fearlessly educate our young about social mobility itself and how inequality is intricately woven into the tapestry of everyday life. Just as young men and women need to know about homophobia, racism and feminism, so too do we need to help young people to understand the simple facts about class differences in society.

And as mentioned above, there needs to be space and time for young people to unearth their own personal story, their roots, feelings, and assumptions about themselves not just within a classroom and a school, but as a family member and as a member of wider society and even the global community. This intertwined story of ourselves as both social and personal beings, and as products of and actors in society is one that is not easy to unpick but unlocking it as a concept can be the key to achieving real, enduring success.

Sustainable solutions should be the only solutions
We’ve all heard about schools kettling groups of borderline students into the A*- C safety zone or punting the pupil premium on interventions that make low-level disruption, serial absenteeism and exclusion rates disappear in a puff of lavender-scented smoke for the prized Ofsted outstanding. We assume that means that students are getting a high quality education and gaining the grades they need to go on to the next stage of their journey in life. But how many school leaders have the longitudinal vision to say, hand on heart, that they are pledging public funds to kick-starting their most disadvantaged students’ journey on the path towards being socially mobile and successful no matter their backgrounds? When our education system is so dominated by politicians whose concerns are short-term and, well, political, are school leaders really able to see beyond their place on the league tables? Some believe schools and universities should be held accountable for what happens to their students once they have graduated and entered the world of work as a way to enforce a longer-term vision. But I like to think that some school leaders, regardless of the ever-changing trends and official requirements, are keenly committed to making sure that as many of the young people in their care as possible get everything they need to be successful in life, whether that be as a core part of the curriculum, an extra level of support from public services or bought-in opportunities that otherwise would never come their way.

There is a glut of organisations operating under the banner of social mobility. My visits to nearly 40 London schools recently has got me thinking about services schools buy in and about charities, social enterprises and businesses. I have spent some time over the summer reviewing the services available and there is a veritable mosaic of ideas, methods, outcomes and claims – not to mention groovy branded jackets, highly designed logos and flashy websites. I have heard from many school leaders that they are suffering from ‘interventionitis’ and are unsure of how the many external services actually integrate, duplicate or make sense in their own school. The collapse of Kids Company has made this all the more relevant. There have been some insightful pieces on this issue highlighting that a ‘good idea’ will result in a charity in response. I am the last to advocate for privatisation of the education sector, but I do believe that unlike a business model, charities often don’t check if their offer is commercially viable, responds to a market-tested need, or is duplicates something existing. Charities aren’t even really required to guarantee their offer is high quality, particularly in their experimental start-up stage. They need to identify potential donors, compete for funds and persuade schools to take them on. And schools will be interested because they are already working their socks off for their students, every little helps, and the charity offers services for free – surely there is nothing to lose. And yet, there is so much to lose. Some of the charities working to help deprived young people, work with only a handful at a time and are not necessarily going to survive if their funding dries up. And most worrying is that they may see that demand exceeds capacity and they could end up in hot water, unable to sustain their activity or scale up according to demand. What happens then?

I personally like the social enterprise model – it has to be self-sustaining as a business but has social responsibility firmly at its heart rather than the often distasteful for-profit mantra of ‘return for share-holders’. To know they are spending public money wisely, schools will want to see regular impact reports, a contract and to hold the organisation to account for the quality and completion of the work as described.

I would appeal to all schools to think carefully about what they can do to help guarantee success, for life, for their students. Schools should do their due diligence and be certain that whatever they choose for their students, whether it be paid for or free, that it really delivers the outcomes it says it does, that it puts the schools’ and the students’ long-term interests at its core and that it has a solid past and an equally promising future.

This post is the longer version of the article I wrote for Schools Week http://schoolsweek.co.uk/put-the-students-interests-at-your-schools-core/